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Turning the Bible Into Behavior

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Christianity: Stupid Is As Stupid Does

stupid isEven people who have never seen Forrest Gump have heard the expression, “Stupid is as stupid does.” It’s the way Forrest’s momma teaches his that real stupidity is not in intellect or how others judge you. Stupid people are reveled through their stupid behavior. People who DO smart things ARE smart people. People who do stupid things…well, you get the idea. And that concept is not unique to stupidity. It’s a truism of many facets of life. If you want to know about the character of a person, look at his actions. His behavior will out the truth. Smart people are those who DO smart things. Careful people are those who practice safety and care. Friendly people are those who behave as friends. In his first letter, John says it’s no different with spirituality and righteousness.

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous.

Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3)

I think John would have us understand a few things here:

  • We ARE family!

It’s an amazing thing to think about. In a world where people are striving for connection, where we settle for the superficial “friends” of social media, we are invited into a community of faith that becomes our family. God welcomes us with open arms and says, “There is a place here for you.” But that means something more than just a place to belong.

  • Family begins to look and sound like each other.

One of the funniest parts about belonging to a community is that we take on the look and speech of that community. Each family will have its own peculiar lexicon that develops over the course of time and shared experiences. I remember one time my family went to Wendy’s for a meal. While my mom was in line, my younger brother (maybe 6 years old?), my dad, and I went to the corner table. My brother was climbing over and under the tables and came up suddenly and hit his head on the bottom of the table. Trying to communicate what happened, he cried, “I boomped my head!” Naturally we thought this slip was funny, and it became part of the family lexicon. 30 years later we will still say to each other, “I boomped my head (or arm, foot, etc.) when we get injured.

I read a fascinating article a while back (and if I ever find it again I’ll hyperlink it) that stated we sound like the 5 most important people in our social circles. That is to say, take the 5 people you spend the most time with, the people who have the most influence in your life, and you will find your dress and speech patterns are an amalgamation of those 5 people.

she's the devilThis is no different spiritually. Our spiritual family is supposed to change the way we look and sound. God’s family is supposed to do godly things. We turn our backs on ungodly behavior. To paraphrase Forrest Gump, righteous is as righteous does. We are called to turn our backs on ungodly behavior. We’re either part of God’s family or part of the devil’s family.

  • Finally, being part of God’s family is about MORE than personal righteousness – it includes taking care of each other.

The Bible is quite clear that we cannot be right with God if we are not actively loving and caring for humanity. If God is love, we cannot hate people and still maintain personal righteousness. There’s a unique spiritual blend – genuine righteousness means loving God AND loving each other. Any less is bogus spirituality. It’s a sham.

Think about your life. Have you actively been pursuing righteousness? Does your behavior identify you as part of God’s family? Do your actions towards others show that you are a child of God? If not, where do you need to change? How do your actions and speech need to change to reflect belonging to His family?

The Unbiblical Evil of the Alt-Right

White Supremacists March with Torches in CharlottesvilleFor nearly 24 hours now, Charlottesville, VA has been a hotbed of racial turmoil. Last night, white nationalists marched on the town’s campus of the University of Virginia. They chanted racist slogans and marched with burning torches.

If any part of that feels okay to you, you’re part of the problem. Yes, I understand that freedom of speech means that people are allowed to spew their garbage beliefs. I’m not talking about a legal perspective. I’m talking about a biblical perspective.

The Alt-Right, White Nationalists, Neo-Nazi, whatever-you-want-to-call-it movement is completely incompatible with biblical Christianity. In the second chapter of his first letter, John writes:

Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes.

Additionally, the entire theological notion of the Imago Dei (Image of God) in humanity means that ALL people are created in God’s image. There is no ethnic group that is better than any other. I don’t have time to or space to cover all of the places in the Bible that CLEARLY point to the sin of racism and white nationalism. Let’s just end with Jesus’s golden rule:

Treat people the way you want to be treated.

There is nothing of God in the Alt-Right movement.

Nothing.


For more of my views on racism, check out other articles I’ve written...

 

Strong Black Christian Women: A Brief Response to Kyle Howard

woman-590490_1920Last week I read an article from Kyle Howard, a fellow contributor at Theology Mix. His piece was titled: When Churches Colonize Femininity, and looked at how the Western church (read white Protestant church) views femininity and how women who do not fit that view are regarded as unfeminine.

Mr. Howard’s article resonated with me not just because I am married to a strong black woman (SBW), but because there is a biblical foundation for his position that femininity is culturally based rather than biblically based. He writes:

The paradigm for femininity in most (if not all) majority culture churches is the model of the “white soft-spoken woman.” She has with her certain traits that are referred to as marks of piety when in reality they are elements of white culture. It’s not that “soft-spokenness” is inherently “white,” but the version of it that is expected to be expressed is often an idealized version of a white woman, typically akin to a white southern woman from the antebellum era. Men of color are told that this is the kind of woman they are to pursue if they desire a godly woman and to be considered relationally wise. Women of color are told that this is what they must be and that they are godly to whatever degree they reflect this image and immature to whatever degree they don’t. If they are opinionated, they are considered ungodly. Expressive or “loud,” ungodly.

Part of this problem is the continued misapplication of 1 Timothy 2, where tells Timothy that he does “not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet” (1 Tim. 2:12). While my piece is not going to be a deep dive into biblical egalitarianism, let’s just say that I believe Paul was not speaking for all women for all time and that the Bible is replete with examples of women in positions of authority and leadership (and many of the Evangelicals who hold tightly to Paul’s words about silent women ignore Paul completely about other issues that might affect them personally).

Still, this is the model that remains for much of the modern “majority church.” But it is culturally bound. Church across the world and throughout time have seen strong women step up to lead the church, the community, and the family. In black culture, it is not uncommon to find a female pastor leading a congregation. And she STILL preaches the gospel of Jesus. Imagine that!!!

I am married to a strong black woman who has multiple degrees in biblical studies, who has been a ministry leader, and who has preached gospel on the United States and abroad. The strength of her character or her willingness to voice her opinions DOES, in fact, intimidate people who are not accustomed to the SBW personality (when, in fact, my wife is quite tame compared to others). I’ve seen white women get teary admitting they are intimidated by my very kind and polite wife. Our majority culture embraces the idea that women ought to be passive. Any aggression or expressed opinion is seen as unseemly. A strong man is a leader. An equally strong woman is a…well, we have unkind words for her.

But biblically I think we are wrong to pigeon-hole women. Look at the ideal woman pictured in Proverbs 31:

An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from afar. She rises while it is yet  night and provides food for her household and portions for her maidens. She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. She dresses herself with strength and makes her arms strong. She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy. She is not afraid of snow for her household, for all her household are clothed in scarlet. She makes bed coverings for herself; her clothing is fine linen and purple. Her husband is known in the gates when he sits among the elders of the land.

She makes linen garments and sells them; she delivers sashes to the merchant. Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. She looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness. Her children rise up and call her blessed;  her husband also, and he praises her: “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.

This is not a passive woman. No! This is a hard-working caretaker and entrepreneur! The Proverbs 31 woman is one who gets things done. And since were looking at a passage that comes from the Middle East, we’re literally talking about a Strong Brown Woman (SBW).

So when it comes to women in the church, we ought to discard the idea that outspoken, type A women are less feminine and desirable than those who are quiet and submissive. Let us look beyond culture norms of femininity and recognize that God has gifted women of all personality types to be part of His kingdom.

Besides, who knows when you’ll need a Deborah to come rescue your butt from the enemy?  😉

Facepalm Jesus

Some people just don’t get it. They SHOULD get it but, for whatever reason, they simply don’t get it.

The disciples are those kinds of people. Even though these are the guys who follow Jesus around and are his closest companions, the Gospel stories show time and again that they just.don’t.get.it.

I can imagine Jesus dealing with them. They say or do something so ridiculous he can’t sokkahelp but facepalm. We see one of these instances in Mark 8,

In those days, when again a great crowd had gathered, and they had nothing to eat, he called his disciples to him and said to them, “I have compassion on the crowd, because they have been with me now three days and have nothing to eat. And if I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way. And some of them have come from far away.” And his disciples answered him, “How can one feed these people with bread here in this desolate place?”

Here we start the facepalm. The scenario is eerily similar to the earlier story where Jesus fed 5,000 people with loaves and fish. This has led some people to conclude that there were two versions of the story circulating in Mark’s time, and that Mark mistakenly included both. While this might be a viable possibility for some people, it fails to account for two things: 1) the standard Christian understanding of the inspiration of Scripture and 2) the differences between the stories actually set up different points/purposes of each narrative.

As to our understanding of inspiration, our belief that the Bible has Divine origin and spark within it means that there is a godly intentionality that underlies the text. Our concept of inspiration is not something that can be proven or disproven by science – it’s a statement of faith. If you don’t believe it, I can’t convince you otherwise.

As to the different points of each narrative, that is more easily demonstrable. The first story highlighted Jesus as a new Moses. The people sat in groups in the wilderness just as Moses and the Israelite nation split into various groups/camps in the book of Exodus. Jesus providing his crowds echoes God providing for Israel in the desert.

By the time we get to the second story here in Mark 8, the story is set against the first story, almost as a check on learning for the disciples. Picture Jesus saying, “You were with me the first time. What’s gonna happen here and now?”

But the disciples fail the quiz. “Where can we get enough bread?!?”jesus-facepalm

And he asked them, “How many loaves do you have?” They said, “Seven.” And he directed the crowd to sit down on the ground. And he took the seven loaves, and having given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and they set them before the crowd. And they had a few small fish. And having blessed them, he said that these also should be set before them. And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full. And there were about four thousand people. And he sent them away.

In addition to some of the numerical details being different in the stories (numbers of bread, fish, and people) Jesus is in a different location. While he spoke to Jewish people in the first narrative that had echoes of Moses and the Exodus, here Jesus is working in a Gentile area. Jesus’s ministry and blessing extends beyond the Jews and is for Gentiles as well. That Jesus extends his ministry to non-Jews is brought up previously when the Syrophoenician woman approaches him for help. Just as before, Jesus is able to abundantly bless and provide for those who follow him.

And immediately he got into the boat with his disciples and went to the district of Dalmanutha. The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”

Cue the facepalm. Immediately after performing this incredible things, the religious leaders come and ask for a sign. When Jesus says that no sign will be given, part of me wonders if he’s really saying, “There’s not sign that you will recognize.” Jesus HAS been giving signs, but people are too blind to see what is right in front of their faces.

And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side. Now they had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. And he cautioned them, saying, “Watch out; beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” And they flatbreadbegan discussing with one another the fact that they had no bread. And Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” They said to him, “Twelve.” “And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?” And they said to him, “Seven.” And he said to them, “Do you not yet understand?”

And the disciples continue in their blindness. They have seen Jesus provide in times of need, and they continue to fret about their lack. So Jesus warns them about being like the Pharisees. “I’m giving you stuff, but are you going to stay blind, too?!?” So Mark gives us a miracle story that acts as a living parable, illustrating his whole point.

And they came to Bethsaida. And some people brought to him a blind man and begged him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he opened his eyes, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. And he sent him to his home, saying, “Do not even enter the village.”

After his initial encounter with Jesus this blind guy sees, but only in part. It’s kind of like the religious leaders and disciples. They should be able to see Jesus clearly, but clearly they can’t! Jesus might as well be a walking tree in front of them. So Jesus touches the guy again and he finally sees clearly. Cut to the disciples:

And Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.” And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Christ.” And he strictly charged them to tell no one about him.

FINALLY! Peter’s vision is clearing up and he sees Jesus for who he is.

He.Is.The.Christ.

This is the Gospel message for Jews and Gentiles alike. This Jesus is the one who came to provide abundant life, even when we’re in the wilderness. This Jesus is the one to lead the new exodus, taking these slaves into the spiritual promised land. Don’t miss the signs that are right in front of you. Don’t mistake the people for trees.

Here is our King.

Settle for More – a Christian perspective from the new @MegynKelly book

megyn-book-cover-529x800Friends who know me know that I’m not really a fan of FoxNews. While I am theologically conservative, I tend to lean more to the left than Fox does when it comes to social issues and politics. That being said, I have not spent a lot of time watching Megyn Kelly on Fox. But I saw that she had a book published, Settle for More, and saw an interview she did regarding the book. Then, by chance, our base library had a copy of it on display. That’s when I thought I’d pick it up and give it a read.

I will admit that it is not what I thought it would be. After all, Ms. Kelly is hardly older than I am. How could she possibly have a memoir? Additionally, I knew that a good portion of her book was dedicated to Donald Trump. A book on Trump doesn’t really seem like it’s memoir-worthy. But the book wasn’t just about Trump. It wasn’t just about Megyn Kelly. The book really was about the last year of Megyn Kelly’s life under fire from the Trump organization/followers, her response to it, and the life that brought her to the point where she responded the way she did. In short, it’s an apologetic

From her telling, Ms. Kelly has endured quite a bit from Trump and his followers. The book gets into a bit of the details. In fact, the last fourth of the book is all about her chaotic experiences with Trump. But the first three-fourths of the book set up the reader to understand the life that gave Ms. Kelly the convictions and determination that allowed her to deal with the hardships of her past year.

She had dealt with bullies as a child. She endured the sudden death of her father when she was a teen. She worked diligently in college and law school. She went through a divorce. All of the negative experiences in her life prepared her (ultimately) to deal with the Trump organization and the grief of her last year. She sums up her attitude in this paragraph:

Adversity is an opportunity, and one that has allowed me to flourish. It has made me stronger, my skin a little thicker. And as with any turmoil in your life, none of it is for nothing if you survive it and take stock.

And THAT is a principle that we would all do well to learn. It’s what the Bible is teaching believers when James writes:

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. (James 1:2-4)

There is more to our suffering than simply suffering. There is something that happens within us when we endure suffering – we grow. We learn. Get get better. We get stronger. Let’s not be naive, sometimes this world tears us down. Plenty of faithful believers have gone to their graves without ever seeing an end to their suffering. This is where our hope that comes from our faith plays a big role in enduring troubles.

One day the trouble will cease. One day the pain will end. Revelation 21:4 proclaims:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

When you go through difficult times, please know that you’re not the only one. Others have gone before you. Others walk with you. And people will endure hardships until this world passes away. But hold fast, knowing that God is working something within you. He may not remove the troubles, but you can be changed for the better because of them. And one day, God will ease all of your troubles.

Come, Lord Jesus.

If You Don’t Read the Bible You Don’t Have to Live By It.

Today I read an article titled, “Less Than Half of Christian Americans Read the Bible.” In fact, only 37% of self-proclaimed Christians pick it up on a regular basis. This is a real problem for Christian culture – a culture that is dependent upon sacred Scripture. More and more, our contemporary culture is turning away from the text as THE authority for a Christian’s life and thought.

american-football-referees-1476038_1280In his article, “Inerrantism as Narcissism: Biblical Authority as a Cultural Problem,” James Moseley points out that authority is a term of relationship and not of some special property. That is to say, whenever one claims authority, the people under that claim must agree, even if silently, that the claimant does indeed have authority! In a football game, if the players refuse to do what the referee says, does the referee have any actual authority? No – the players and coaches agree to the idea that the referees are in charge of enforcing the rules.

Authority, then, is the ability to influence the thought and actions of others when those particular others have agreed to submit to the influencing agent. This is especially true regarding matters of faith. The term Christian carries with it (or should carry with it?) the notion of one who lives under Scriptural authority.

The conservative and liberal camps often argue how the Christian Scripture is authoritative, but I would venture to say that the average Christian acknowledges some manner of Scriptural authority. Scripture does not contain any authority in and of itself. It is authoritative because of the authority which backs it up. That is to say, the authority of God is exercised through Scripture. Technically, then, God is ultimately authoritative Scripture possesses a secondary or delegated authority. Scripture, though, pushes that authority upon the believer. There is a relationship between text and disciple and authority is given and received when the believer confesses that Scripture is the Word of God. This is the crux of the matter for the Christian and Scriptural authority. Scripture is only authoritative through faith. One cannot prove Scripture’s authority to a non-believer using rational arguments.

Any confession of faith that results in authority yields both a sense of identity and a set of norms for faith and practice. It is the sense of identity that allows one to claim the title Christian, Muslim, or Jew. But with that confession (and thus the title) comes a set of norms for thought and action, i.e. any claim must be accompanied by life characterized by the claim. The confessing Christian acknowledges that the one true authority is God, yet the confession also acknowledges that God has revealed himself through human words. These human words form the norms and standards for that confession.

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Bible Study

But when people claim the title “Christian” and accept the sense of identity without accepting the set of norms we speak of them derogatorily as “nominal Christians.” This nominalism has led many biblical scholars, theologians, and pastors to proclaim a modern crisis of biblical authority. The expression “crisis of authority” assumes that Scripture should be normative for Christian thought and behavior. Indeed “Christian praxis” without the “Christian” is merely social action or moral behavior. “Christian praxis” without the “praxis” is merely mental assent to the possibility of the Christian God without allowing God to possess any practical power or authority to influence believers.

We know more about the Bible than ever before yet there is a disconcerting lack of use of the Bible in everyday life. Scripture holds a special place in the Christian heart but sees little real function in terms of influence. Lutheran theology in particular seems to emphasize the influential and functional use of Scripture a mainstay of their theology, thus combating this lack of regular use. Scripture is not simply a repository of past revelation but is a current Word of God for the church with immediate authority.

The application of this theology could be one of the most difficult aspects of Scriptural authority. While most Christians acknowledge the theoretical functionality of Scripture, allowing Scripture to be the major influencing force in life and thought is difficult. When we flat out refuse to allow our lives to be molded by the text, we have rejected the authority of the text.

Yes, Christianity exists beyond the text. People followed God before it was written. Cultures without a written language still follow Yahweh. But the Christian faith was born into a textual relationship, understanding that God revealed Himself through the Old Testament and continued to reveal Himself through the inspiration recorded in the New Testament. A Christianity devoid of Sacred Scripture is not an authentic Christianity at all, but a cheap replica that desires to hold to the “nice” elements of faith without being accountable to the Word of God.

And that’s not okay.

7 Qualities of Servant Leaders

This week is the one year anniversary of my arrival at my current duty station, Naval Air Station Meridian, and a guest preacher, an ordained retired Navy Chief, filled the pulpit for me. His text was Mark 10:44-45 ~

“Whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

So Chief’s sermon was about servant leadership, and the 7 qualities of a servant leader:

  1. A servant works to please God regardless of the consequences.

consequencesUltimately, our service is not about our own greatness. That’s the paradox of Jesus’s statement on greatness. The disciples desired greatness. Jesus said, “If you want greatness, humble yourself.” You see, servant leadership serves for a purpose outside of the self. The disciples approached life with a “What’s in it for me?” mentality. That kind of thinking limits our service because we have our eye on the end result. If negative consequences are in the future, we won’t serve. The authentic servant leader works to please God regardless of the outcome.

  1. A servant positions himself/herself daily to follow in the footsteps of Jesus.

Since pleasing God is the goal of the genuine servant leader, we must align ourselves with God on the regular. How can you know which way to walk if you’re walking your own path? When we position ourselves to follow Jesus, we don’t have to be concerned with developing the path – we walk His.

  1. A servant understands we may never see an earthly reward.

cups-1444419_1920Earthly rewards are nice, but if you’re in it for the reward you’re still in the “What’s in it for me?” mentality. When we serve for God’s sake, God’s glory is the ultimate goal. It doesn’t matter if we receive accolades or rewards. I’m reminded of every great preacher and theologian I’ve ever heard or read. My thought always comes back to, “Who was it that introduced this person to Jesus?” While the famous preacher/theologian gets the recognition, the person who started them on their spiritual path often gets none. But look at the fruit of their labor! Because of their service, unknown numbers hear the gospel. We serve for God’s glory, not our own.

  1. A servant understands that everything he/she is and has needs to be yielded to God.

Since we serve for God’s glory and at God’s pleasure, everything we have and are need to be surrendered to God. This isn’t about you! If you think it’s ever about you, you’re in the wrong line of work. Being a servant leader is never about the self. Since it’s ultimately about God, the servant leader surrenders everything to God. The right attitude says, “This is who I am and what I have – I give it back to you to use for your purposes.”

 

  1. A servant will be ready to walk alone.

sand-768783_1920When we follow a higher calling, we’re going to have people walk away from us. Some will fail to understand what it is we’re doing. Some will flat out reject what we’re doing. The servant role isn’t the popular role. It’s not the role that wins positions of power and the head seat at the table. While influence and power might be the result of authentic servant leadership, it’s never the goal. Genuine servant leadership is unattractive to many because it calls us to place others first. That’s hard to do, but it’s a path we need to be ready to take.

  1. A servant sacrifices for others.

The Bible has multiple examples about putting the needs and desires of others ahead of the self. The Apostle Paul said, “Consider others as MORE IMPORTANT than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3). And the ultimate example is that of Christ, who sacrificed EVERYTHING for the world. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. We didn’t earn his sacrifice – he offered it. Thus…

  1. A servant is never greater than the Master.

bible-1245795_1920It’s kind of hard to even contemplate the servant being greater than the Master when the Master gave everything in His service. In the military and law enforcement we see examples of men and women who will sacrifice themselves for the sake of their battle buddies – the Marine who jumps on a grenade, the cop who gets shot while dragging a partner out of harm’s way. We (rightly) hold such individuals in a place of honor – self-sacrifice like that is too rare. But Jesus died even for messed up people. Jesus died for his enemies. His sacrifice has no equal. And if Jesus was willing to sacrifice for everyone, are we too good to attempt the same?

As Christ-followers we’re called to be servant leaders to this world. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you came from, or where you’re going. This is a call upon all of our lives.

Are you willing to step up and answer the call?

From Bondservant to Bishop

Let me tell you about a great unknown. Not only do we not hear a lot about him from the pulpit, but we don’t know a whole lot about him in the first place. His name is Onesimus.

chains-19176_1920Onesimus is the slave of a wealthy man named Philemon. Almost everyone has heard the name of Philemon, even if you know nothing about him. It’s the title of one of the books in the Bible. But it’s not really a book. We can barely even call it a chapter. It’s a letter, and a very personal letter at that. As we look at Paul’s letter to Philemon we learn a little bit about the story of Onesimus, and a little bit about ourselves as well.

This is Onesimus’ story. This story has to do not so much with theology as it does with the application of Christian truth to life. That is to say, how does our Christian faith play out in reality? It’s one thing to say that you’re a believer in Jesus – it’s another thing to let your beliefs influence how you behave. It’s in this letter that Paul writes to his friend Philemon and shows him how a Christian ought to behave and what it looks like to practically love your neighbor as yourself.

One time Jesus was approached by a scholar of Torah and the scholar asked Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment?” Jesus replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” All of the law and prophets can be summed up in those two words about love. Love God with everything we are, and love others the way we love ourselves. In this great big world of ours people are always searching for meaning, for purpose. But everyone has a purpose – every church has a purpose.

If there is anything that is supposed to give us meaning, that is supposed to be part of our purpose, our very reason to exist, it’s these words of Jesus – Love God, and love others. This is one of the reasons the church exists. If the church is not doing this, if we are not loving God and loving on people, we are missing part of our God-given purpose!

As Paul is writing to Philemon, he’s telling Philemon part of God’s purpose for all believers – that we love people in a way that goes beyond what the world considers “normal.” Let me break it down for you. Paul is a traveling evangelist. He goes from town to town telling people about the good news of Jesus Christ. He’s had a good bit of success preaching to the Colossians, and he starts up a church in their town. The patron of the church, the man in whose house they meet and one of the chief benefactors of the young church, is Philemon. Paul says that he keeps “hearing about your love and the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints” (v.5) Paul goes on to say, “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective as you fully acknowledge every blessing that is ours in Christ.”

The term “fellowship” or “sharing” was often used for business partnerships or for sharing possessions. Philemon acts as a patron for the church. The sharing of the faith is a reference to the extending of material resources. Paul is talking about the generosity which springs from Philemon’s faith.

Often times when we become Christians we turn our hearts over to God but not our wallets and checkbooks! Even though all of us are not blessed to give support the way that Philemon was, or the way other wealthy Christians are, there is a reminder here that we recognize that we are stewards, not owners, of all God has given us. It is because of his faith that Philemon is able to be generous with the church and with other believers. Are our hearts generous, or are we bound up by material possessions?

But that isn’t Paul’s main concern. His main concern is about a slave named Onesimus. Onesimus has received a bad rap from a lot of people for a long time. He’s been accused of being a thief and a runaway slave. Have you ever been accused of something that you didn’t do but you couldn’t convince anyone that it wasn’t true? How does it make you feel to be unjustly blamed? Christian writers and preachers have accused Onesimus of being this scoundrel, a runaway slave who stole from Philemon before heading out. And while he was on his way he comes across Paul and Paul leads Onesimus to Jesus. Hallelujah, isn’t God good!? But that is just conjecture. We are not told anything about the circumstances that brought Paul and Onesimus together. There are clues, however, in Paul’s letter. These clues point us to see that Onesimus wasn’t a runaway, and he wasn’t a thief. And then Paul’s letter points us to the right way to live as Christians.

8For this reason, although in Christ I have complete freedom to order you to do what is proper, 9I prefer to make my appeal on the basis of love. I, Paul, as an old man and now a prisoner of Christ Jesus, 10appeal to you on behalf of my child Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment.

First of all, Paul shows us that true Christian behavior is not about authority, who is right, or who has the best way to do something. #1: Christian behavior is motivated by love. Have you ever had a conflict with someone over something and you know they should be doing it your way? Even if you have the freedom to order that they do it your way, Paul would say, “make an appeal on the basis of love.” Look at how you act towards people. Is it loving? Look at how you talk to people. Is it loving? Look at how you talk ABOUT people. Is it loving? One of our purposes as Christians is to love people. Are we doing it?

Paul has been spending time with Onesimus, and now Onesimus has become a Christian. Paul led him to faith. That’s what he means when he writes, “Whose father I have become….” Paul is a spiritual parent and considers all of his converts his children in the faith. What a heart of a shepherd! He cares about the people with whom he comes into contact.

11Once he was useless to you, but now he is very useful both to you and to me. 12I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. 13I wanted to keep him with me so that he could serve me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel. 14Yet I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that your good deed might not be something forced, but voluntary.

It seems that Onesimus had been considered useless to his master. Perhaps that’s why Philemon sent Onesimus away ~ he would be better put to use serving Paul than working back home. It’s in this passage that we really see that Onesimus isn’t a scoundrel, but a servant. He has been sent by Philemon to take care of Paul while Paul is in prison. And now it is time for Onesimus to return, but he is returning a new man. Paul is making a play on words here. He writes, “Once he was achrestos, useless, but now he is euchrestos, useful. Now, does anyone else like word plays and puns? I love them. The words Paul is using to call Onesimus useless and useful sound like the words for “without Christ” and “good Christian.” Before, Onesimus was without Christ and useless. Now Paul is sending him back useful and as a good Christian.

Here’s point #2 – it is only in Christ that we find real fulfillment of purpose and become useful. My friends, God has a use and a purpose for every individual here. God has a use and purpose for this church. It is in Christ that we discover that purpose and find real meaning to life. Have you ever wondered about your God-given purpose? Christ told us part of what that purpose is. The greatest commandment is to…Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.”

15Perhaps this is why he was separated from you for a while, so that you could have him back forever, 16no longer as a slave but better than a slave-as a dear brother, especially to me, but even more so to you, both as a person and as a believer. 17So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.

Here we see a clear picture that Onesimus isn’t a runaway thief. Paul is using a passive voice, “he was separated from you” and is not saying that Onesimus separated himself, but that he was separated by someone else; that is, he did not run away but was sent away. Onesimus was acting as a direct agent for his master. And it is here we see the biggest theme of the letter ~ the insignificance of hierarchy within the Christian community. This request for a possibly wealthy slave owner to treat his slave as an equal would be not only uncustomary but also humbling. Think about Paul’s relationship to Philemon. Paul is the evangelist who brought the gospel message to Philemon’s city. Paul founded the church in Philemon’s home. Philemon could count Paul as a spiritual father. There was undoubtedly a bond of trust, of respect, of honor. And now Paul is saying, “Welcome Onesimus the same way you would welcome me.”

We’ve already seen how Philemon acts towards other Christians. The love which Philemon had for God was translated into loving actions toward others. Now Paul is asking Philemon to take that love to the next level. Here we see point #3: Love to the point of equality is necessary to the unity of the church. Social distinctions and past grievances should count for nothing. Does someone owe you anything? That shouldn’t affect how you treat him? Has someone wronged you in the past? That shouldn’t affect your Christian behavior. Does someone not show you proper respect? That shouldn’t change your own attitude or behavior. Jesus calls us to be better than that.

18If he has wronged you in any way or owes you anything, charge it to my account. 19I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. (I will not mention to you that you owe me your very life.) 20Yes, brother, I desire this favor from you in the Lord. Refresh my heart in Christ! 21Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you because I know that you will do even more than I ask.

This is a beautiful example of point #4: Christian love sacrifices self to serve others. When Jesus says that part of our purpose is to love people, he’s not talking about how we feel. He’s talking about how we minister to and how we serve other people. Paul takes Onesimus’ debt upon his own shoulders. That debt is probably why Onesimus was a slave in the first place – he was a debtor working off what he owed. Paul’s language is standard legal language for the ancient world, suggesting that when Paul says he will repay and notes that he is writing by his own hand, he seems to be accepting Onesimus’ debt as his own in a formal way.

The ultimate outcome would be Onesimus’ freedom from debt, therefore his freedom from slavery. It’s easy to say, “I love you.” But can you show it? Do your actions and your behavior confirm what you say? What Paul expects of Philemon actually undermined the dominant values upon which the whole structure of their ancient society was founded. Now, because of their religious convictions, masters were to treat their slaves like brothers or even as honored guests. In expecting a fundamental change in the relationship between Philemon and Onesimus, Paul was actually asking for something far more radical than setting slaves free.

The outcome of Paul’s request is unknown. However, THE CONSTITUTION OF THE HOLY APOSTLES, written around A.D. 340-60, contains a list of all the men who had been ordained as bishops during the apostles’ lifetime. Within the list it says, “Of Colossae, Philemon. Of Borea of Macedonia, Onesimus, once the servant of Philemon.” Onesimus not only had been forgiven and freed but also eventually became a bishop. Christian love can take a man bound in slavery and turn him into a bishop.

love-903178_1920So many people in life ask, “What am I supposed to be doing? What’s my purpose?” Just read the book. Jesus says, “Part of your purpose is this: love people.”

#1 ~ Christian behavior is motivated by love
#2 ~ It is only in Christ that we find real fulfillment of purpose and become useful
#3 ~ Love to the point of equality is necessary to the unity of the church
#4 ~ Christian love sacrifices self to serve others

How do you stack up?

Jesus Vs. The Python Spirit

chains-19176_1920Going through the motions leaves one dry and empty with a cold religion. There is no intimacy with God. Authentic faith is about experiencing the power of the presence of God and His Spirit. You see, when we encounter Jesus our lives are changed. When we are changed, we are no longer captive to the things that used to keep us in bondage. Our great unknown today is a slave. But not just any slave, every slave. See, we are all slaves. Did you know that you are a slave? The only question is, “Who is your master?” We do not have only one slave in the story. The story is really all about spiritual power, hardness of hearts, and the ability of the gospel to change lives. This story is set up like a western showdown. It’s a showdown between different sets of slaves to see whose master is more powerful. Luke tells us the story in Acts 16:16-22:

16 And it came to pass, as we went to prayer, a certain girl possessed with a python spirit met us, which gave her masters much business with her fortune telling:

snake-419043_1920The word python was originally used in Greek mythology for the snake that guarded the sacred place at Delphi, where divine prophecies were given. The python was killed by Apollo, the god of prophecy. The word was later used to describe fortune tellers who were thought to be inspired by the serpent called Python. Plutarch calls these people ventriloquists – their utterances are beyond their conscious control (they are only dummies, puppets). So she’s not really a fortune teller, so to speak. She’s a puppet through which a powerful demon speaks, telling people things about themselves that are true!

When you encounter someone like this you know that you’re dealing with one of three options: it’s God, a fraud, or a demon. There is no other way around it. The Bible warns believers to stay away from that kind of hooka-booka nonsense. At any rate, this girl brought in a lot of business with her fortune telling. And for some reason she attaches herself to the preachers. We don’t know exactly why. Perhaps in her possessed state she realized she needed some help. Perhaps the spirit in her was trying to antagonize Paul and Silas.

17 She followed Paul and us, and cried, saying, “These men are servants of the most high God, that are proclaiming to us a way of salvation.”

There is a possibility that the spirit in the girl is trying to create confusion and trouble for Paul and Silas. In Jewish and Christian circles, the expression “most high God” means the one true God, the Almighty. It’s the Greek expression for the Old Testament’s El Elyon. Genesis14:18 reads ~ “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of El Elyon, of God Most High.” But that’s not necessarily how pagans understood the expression. In Philippi the term ‘the Highest God’ could have been misleading. It was a pagan title for Zeus. Could it be that, as people are drawing in to hear about Paul’s God, this python spirit is trying to distract them and prevent people from hearing about Yahweh, about Jesus?

It makes me think of Oprah Winfrey and her spiritual guru, Eckhart Tolle. He tries to claim that the spirituality he promotes is compatible with the Christian faith. It is all under the same big spiritual umbrella. All he is really doing is confusing people from hearing the real truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Eckhart Tolle says there are multiple paths to “God.” The Bible says there is one path.

demon-1294136_1280There is also a power play going on here. In the ancient world, knowing someone’s name and knowing where they come from give you power over that person. Often times people would have a public name but keep their real name private among close friends and family. In standard exorcisms the exorcist has to identify and name the spirit being cast out. The act of naming gives you power over it. In the gospels we see Jesus run into several demons. The funny thing is that they try to exorcise Jesus! They use the standard exorcism language. They identify him by name and where he is from. “I know who you are, Jesus, Son of the most high God!” They knew his name, but they didn’t really know his true power or authority.

I get that same sort of feeling here in Acts 16. Here are Paul and Silas, out and about doing ministry, telling people about God and Jesus, and here comes this spirit who tries to exert authority over them. Remember, this passage is all about mastery and slavery. The spirit wants to show that he is in control. Thus we have a showdown. It’s a showdown between slaves. On one side, the girl, slave to the python spirit. On the other side, Paul and Silas, slaves to the most high God (even the spirit recognized this).

18 And she did this many days. But Paul, wearied, turned and said to the spirit, “I proclaim to you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her. And he went out the same hour.

But this showdown is short-lived. You see, there’s really no contest. The evil spirit even foreshadows his own demise! Look again at the end of verse 17: “they are proclaiming to us a way of salvation.” And then Paul whips around and says, “Hey bub, I proclaim to you, in Jesus name, come out of her!” And the demon leaves. In the Greek the word is literally “goes out.” And gives us a funny little play on words in verse 19:

19 And when her masters saw go out the hope of their business, they caught Paul and Silas, and dragged them into the marketplace to the rulers,

Luke makes a humorous play on words: the leaving of the spirit (the python spirit went out) is the same leaving of the masters’ hope for business (hope went out). When Paul exorcised the demon he exorcised their source of income as well. They don’t care about anything else, just their cash flow. Never mind the miraculous exorcism that just took place. Never mind the state and well-being of the young girl. They saw their profits dry up and they became livid! Something similar happens later on when Paul is preaching in Ephesus (Acts 19:23-29). The unbelievers react violently when the gospel threatens their income. What becomes of the girl, we are not informed. You see, the story takes a turn here.

Paul and Silas were in a confrontation with a slave to the python spirit. Now they are in a confrontation with men who are slaves to the world. Sometimes the gospel of Jesus and the people who believe it are going to come into conflict with powers and enemies. Sometimes those powers will be spiritual, demons and darkness. Sometimes those powers will be people in authority or in a position over us. You might not be struggling with an actual demonic presence, but there are other presences, other temptations, you might struggle with serving when you ought to be serving Jesus Christ.

20 and when they had brought them to the chief magistrates, they said, “These men are throwing our city into confusion, being Jews, 21 and are proclaiming customs which it is not lawful for us to accept or to observe, being Romans.

Romans were forbidden by law to convert to Judaism. Any evangelism would be seen as contrary to that law. Paul and Silas are in a bind. They know that they shouldn’t legally be telling people about Jesus and preaching the people need to change. But they know that people DO need to change, and that people will be incomplete without Jesus in their lives. Paul and Silas, they chose to serve God no matter what the cost. So when these angry merchants bring Paul and Silas before the magistrates they don’t stand alone as men. They stand as servants of the most high God.

22 The crowd rose up together against them, and the chief magistrates tore their robes off them and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods.

You may know how this story ends. Paul and Silas get thrown in prison. But not just the minimum security “D” block. No, they get put into the inner prison, the pit, maximum security. This is a time to get glum. This is a time to be negative. But not these guys. Tertullian was a church leader foundational in helping establish Christian theology. He introduced the word “Trinity” to Christian vocabulary. He once said, “The legs feel nothing in the stocks when the heart is in heaven.” Did they feel like worshiping? Probably not. They were likely tired, aching, and scared. Yet they worshiped anyway.

As they’re praying and singing to God through the night, a massive earthquake comes and the doors fall down and the chains fall off! There is no hint that Paul and Silas are praying for release, though the other prisoners might have felt the earthquake was an answer to prayer! What the slaves to the world tried to do to Paul and Silas God disarms in the blink of an eye.

When the jailer finds the doors and chains destroyed he’s about to kill himself. Better suicide than public humiliation, beating, or possible death at the hands of the Roman authorities. But Paul stops him saying, “Wait, we’re all here.” And the jailer calls for a light (this is the deep dungeon, remember?) and asks Paul and Silas, “What do I have to do to be saved?” What exactly the jailer meant by his question of salvation is difficult to say. He may have heard the possessed girl earlier in the week that these men had come to proclaim the way of salvation….

And Paul and Silas tell him the only thing that matters – salvation comes through Jesus Christ. In the power encounter with the girl, the slaves of God overcome the slave of evil spirits. In the power encounter with the merchants and magistrates, the slaves of God overcome the slaves of the world. And now, in the dark of the prison, the slave to the Roman authorities, the jailer, asks what it takes to switch sides and be a slave of the most high God.

Friends, if there is anything that God would have us understand through this story it’s this: slaves of the most high God are really free. The girl, slave to the python spirit, is finally set free after an encounter with the most high God. Paul and Silas are literally set free from their chains! Even the jailer, bound to the Roman authorities and about to take his own life, finds the freedom offered by being a slave to Jesus Christ. Slaves to evil spirits, the things of the world, or the people of this world are really in bondage. 1 Corinthians 7:22-23 says:

“For the slave who has been called in the Lord is the Lord’s free person. In the same way, the free person who has been called is Christ’s slave. You were bought for a price. [So] stop becoming slaves of people.”

I am sure that we all know people who are bound up, trapped in lives, behaviors, and attitudes that enslave them. Even people in the church are in bondage when we should be experiencing freedom as slaves of the most high God. What would our Master have us do as His slaves? If we walk in the power of the presence of God’s holy spirit, how does that change our everyday lives? When we have a power encounter with Jesus Christ, we will be changed.

You may be a slave to lust and pornography. You may be a slave to gossip and slander. You may be a slave to anger or mastered by your short temper. You may wrestle with the spirit of complacency. Or maybe you are a slave to a critical and judgmental spirit. How would our Master have us act and live? There is a reason why we aren’t experiencing the freedom that comes with being a slave to the most high God? Have you asked Him? Have you hit your knees, acknowledged your slavery, and said, “God, I want to switch sides. I want to be slave to you alone and nothing else”? It’s time to get serious about who you serve.

Make up your mind.

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