Discernment

Paul’s Prayer for his Friends, Philippians 1:9-11

We are forced to make decisions every day. Have you tried to choose a bag of potato chips lately? There is a whole isle at the grocery store devoted to snack chips. Do I want pita chips, tortilla chips, potato chips, corn chips, rice cakes? Do I was dipping size, ruffles, kettle fried, baked or something else? Do I want salt, sea salt, kosher salt, salt substitute or no salt? Sometimes there are just too many choices!

Most of our decisions aren’t life shattering. The world won’t end if I bring home the wrong can of soda pop but there are choices that carry dire consequences. The most important choices seem to revolve around relationships. Should I trust him? Will you be my friend? I love you.

So how do we make decisions? We need the gift of “discernment.” That’s an essential spiritual quality. In the days of the New Testament, there was even a miraculous gift of discernment. The Holy Spirit gave people insight (1 Corinthians 12:10) and the Apostle Paul prays for his friends in Philippi, “that you may be able to discern what is best,” (Philippians 1:10) and tells their neighbors, the Thessalonians, to “Test everything. Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil,” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, 22).

One way to describe the goal of the Christian life is “Learning to Love.” Some people say “Love is blind” but Christian love is very wise. Do you remember the story of the Philippian Church? They were Paul’s very dear friends and we can learn about love by carefully examining Paul’s prayer for his friends, Philippians 1:9-11.

Philippians 1:9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Your Love

When we think about “love,” we are probably thinking about romantic love. It’s the kind of love that fills your stomach with butterflies when the object of your affections walks into the room. That kind of love is starry-eyed, floats on clouds and is very apt to be blind.

But here, Paul is talking about agape love – love with both eyes wide open. This kind of love, Paul explains to his friends in Philippi requires a special kind of knowledge and a depth of insight that will allow it to make decisions. I like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this passage, “Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush.”

Have you known wonderful loving people who make one relationship mistake after another? They keep falling in love with jerks and losers. They haven’t learned to be discerning.

Discernment

And so the Apostle Paul continues and explains the purpose of this educated love is discernment. The Christian Life is an examined life. It is important to go through life with both eyes open because sometimes it can be hard to judge whether something is good or evil. For example, is money good or evil? (The discerning answer is “yes.”)

Likewise we need discernment to make judgments about the different situations we find ourselves in and the people we meet. Nehemiah was a great leader and involved in a very important project. The Israelites had returned to their homeland after the Babylonian Captivity. The city of Jerusalem had no wall and was completely at the mercy of her enemies. Nehemiah was changing that. He inspired the people to rebuild the wall. Not everyone was happy. The enemies of Nehemiah and the Israelites tried to distract Nehemiah from his work by inviting him to a meeting. (That sounds very modern doesn’t it?) But Nehemiah saw through their ruse. He was discerning (see Nehemiah 6:12, 13) and didn’t allow himself to become distracted by their trickery.

King Solomon asked God for wisdom and used his powers of discernment to decide a case of mistaken mothership. Two women both claimed a certain baby was their child. Both women were mothers but one had accidently smothered her baby in the night. Shattered, she swapped her dead child with the other mother’s baby. Now both women stood before Solomon demanding the king decide who child this baby truly was. How could Solomon discover the truth in the days before DNA testing? The answer was by being discerning. “Divide the baby in half and give it to both women,” was his callous answer. It was a clever ruse. In horror, the truth mother cried out, “Let her keep the baby! Just don’t hurt it!” The true mother was willing to forfeit her motherhood rather than see her child die. Solomon smiled and gave the baby back to its mother. (See 1 Kings 3:24-28.) Discernment is a wonderful gift.

Time and space don’t permit us to look at the stories of how Peter used discernment when Ananias and Sapphira tried to deceive the Church (Acts 5:3) Later Peter was able to see into Simon the Sorcerer’s heart (Acts 8:23) and Paul discerned the true source of a girl’s fortune-telling ability (Acts 16:18).

Why aren’t we more discerning?

Doesn’t it seem like our world has shifted from black and white, right and wrong, into a world that’s been painted in shades of gray? Tolerance is stressed everywhere and that’s a good thing but it leads to something called “Moral Relativism.” No one wants to make a judgment. We all just have preferences. Nothing is absolute.

Closely related to relativism is the desire to be popular. This is even true in the church. We don’t talk about doctrine and it seems like we believe that if people like us they will like Jesus.

Third, there is a prevalent spiritual immaturity. The Hebrew writer warned, “11 We have much to say about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. 12 In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil,” (Hebrews 5:11-14).

How can I be spiritually discerning?

First, we’ve got to want it. To book of Proverbs (which was written to impart wisdom) begins by saying, “Make your ear attentive to wisdom, incline your heart to understanding; for if you cry for discernment, lift your voice for understanding; if you seek her as silver, and search for her as for hidden treasures; then you will discern the fear of the Lord, and discover the knowledge of God,” (Proverbs 2:2-5).

Second, pray for discernment. Do you remember the story of King Solomon? He had an amazing offer. When he began his reign, God was willing to grant a wish. What would you ask for? Solomon asked for wisdom, (1 Kings 3:9-12).

Third, learn from others. Find a mentor who models discernment and spend time with them.

Four, learn to listen to the Spirit. Get in touch with your feelings. Have you noticed there are two spirits surrounding your soul? What some Christians have called the “spirit of desolation” that leaves us feeling depressed, restless, uneasy; and a “spirit of consolation” where we feel comfortable, at peace, content. Now which one is from God and which one is from the enemy? The answer depends on our actions.

If we are living an immoral life apart from God, Satan’s voice will be the spirit of consolation and the Spirit of God will cause us to be uneasy. On the other hand, if we are walking with God, God’s Spirit gives us peace while Satan will be taunting us.

So learning the virtue of discernment begins with us judging our own life.

 

Bible Questions: Jude and the Apocrypha

Dear John,

My friends and I are studying the book of Jude and we just read verse 9 where Michael and the devil are fighting over the body of Moses. My buddy said that story comes from a book that’s not in the Bible. Does that mean we’re missing a book or does it mean Jude shouldn’t be in the Bible?

Thanks!

The youngest brother of Jesus, Jude, wrote one of the least studied books of the New Testament and that’s a shame. Like the book from his older brother, James, Jude is as intense as it is practical. Whereas the letters of Paul are full of theology and he often condemns false teachers, Jude is concerned with orthopraxy – “right living.”

That Jude quotes from at least two pseudepigraphal books (The Book of Enoch and The Assumption of Moses) has traditionally made many people view the whole book with a certain reservation. “Doesn’t he know these books aren’t inspired? Perhaps Jude’s letter isn’t inspired either?” This may be part of the reason Jude’s little letter was so long in becoming part of the Syrian Bible.

Of course, for years preachers and teachers have done the very same thing Jude does. A good communicator will often quote from popular literature to illustrate a point. The fact that the Apostle Paul quotes from two pagan poets (Epimenides of Crete and Aratus in Acts 17:28) doesn’t mean Paul believed those Greeks were inspired!

Let’s look at one of the stories Jude uses to illustrate his letter. It comes from a book called The Assumption of Moses. Jude says:

But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you,” (v. 9).

Unfortunately, only fragments exist of The Assumption of Moses and they do not contain the reference Jude cites.

Although the Assumption is fragmentary, we can piece together the story. The angel Michael is commissioned to bury Moses, but Satan opposes him on two grounds. First, Satan claims to be the Lord of Matter and so the body belongs to him. Second, Moses is a murderer. (He killed an Egyptian defending an Israelite slave, Exodus 1:12.) To these charges Michael rejoins, “The Lord rebuke you, for it was God’s Spirit that created the world and all mankind.” (Thus God, not Satan, is the Lord of matter.) The answer to Satan’s second charge is lost. Then Michael charges Satan with inspiring the serpent to tempt Adam and Eve. Finally, the Assumption occurs. The spirit of Moses is carried up into heaven and his body is buried in the mountains.[1]

The Assumption was edited together with The Testament of Moses at an early date. According to Charles, they were written by “a Pharisaic Quietist, and forms a noble but ineffectual protest against the growing Zelotic spirit of the part. Its author was a learned Jews, well versed in the Scriptures, and intimately aquainted with the history of his nation subsequent to the close of the canon. He was full of patriotism; thus he looks for the return of the ten tribes, the establishment of the theocratic kingdom, the triumph of Israel over its foes, and its final exaltation to heaven, which it should see its enemies weltering in the fires of gehenna. But though a patriot, he is not a Zealot; the duty of the faithful is not to resort to arms, but simply to keep the law and prepare, through repentance, for the personal intervention of God in their behalf.[2]

Jude can quote from this story to illustrate his point “Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones,” (v. 8) because his readers were already familiar with the story and sympathetic to the author’s point of view.

Thus, instead of focusing on whether the Assumption is a “lost book of the Bible,” or whether Jude’s quotations from the Assumption should disqualify Jude from a place in the canon, this illustration helps us understand who Jude was originally writing to.

Thanks for sending in such a great question!

[1] R.H. Charles, The Assumption of Moses: translated from the Latin sixth century Ms., the unemended text of which is published herewith, together with the text in its restored and critically emended form. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1897 (downloaded from books.logos.com June 14, 2017).

[2] Charles, p. xiv.

Count Down to Christmas — Part 3

Matthew 1:1-17

Sunrise in Jerusalem
Sunrise in Jerusalem

It would be easy to dismiss the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke as so much trivia. Why do we need to know who the great, great, great, great grandfather of Jesus was? Do we need to memorize those genealogies to get into heaven? (No!) So why are they important? By studying them, we can catch a glimpse of what the Holy Spirit was trying to teach us when he inspired Matthew and Luke to write the first and third gospels in our Bible. I believe the genealogies are more than just a documentary footnote to the gospels. A careful study of them will show us Matthew and Luke’s purpose.

We’ve already seen how Matthew used the genealogy of Jesus to emphasize that the Christ was the son of David (Count Down to Christmas – part 1), and we’ve discovered another rich lesson tucked away in Matthew’s account when we looked at the five women included in Matthew’s genealogy (Count Down to Christmas – part 2). In this final lesson in the series, let’s look closely at the differences between the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew (1:1-17) and the genealogy of Jesus in Luke (3:23-38). Some teachers have tried to legitimize the differences between Matthew and Luke’s accounts by linking Matthew’s genealogy to Joseph and Luke’s genealogy to Mary. That may be true and partially solve the mystery, but the primary point of recounting the lineage of Jesus is not to provide an accurate family record. The point is to prove the story of Jesus is Gospel: Good News.

Let’s begin by observing the differences between the two accounts. The first contrast is, Matthew begins with Abraham and moves forward to Joseph, while Luke begins with Joseph and moves all the way back to Adam. Thus to compare the two, we need to begin with the end of Luke’s account and work backwards so we can lay the records side by side. (Note: this part can become tedious, but we need to sift though the names and the differences to find the jewels.)

In the series from Abraham to David (Matthew’s first grouping of 14), both lists line up fairly well:

Matthew

Abraham

Isaac

Jacob

Judah

Perez

Hezron

Ram

 

Amminadab

Nahshon

Salmon

Boaz

Obed

Jesse

David

Luke

Abraham

Isaac

Jacob

Judah

Perez

Hezron

Arni[1]

Admin

Amminadab

Nahshon

Sala[2]

Boaz

Obed

Jesse

David

Notes

Ge 46:8 Now these are the names of the descendants of [Jacob], who came into Egypt, Jacob and his sons. … 12 The sons of Judah: Er, Onan, Shelah, Perez, and Zerah (but Er and Onan died in the land of Canaan); and the sons of Perez were Hezron and Hamul.

 

Ruth 4:18 Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron, 19 Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, 20 Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, 21 Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, 22 Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David.

Matthew lists “Ram” as the son of Hezron and Ram is the father of Amminadab. Ruth confirms this order, but Luke says Arni is the son of Hezron and Admin is the son of Arni. Neither Arni or Admin are mentioned elsewhere. The only other variation is between Nahshon and Boaz where Matthew reads “Salmon” and Luke reads “Sala.” Of course this could simply be a matter of spelling for the same man and should present no major problem.

The first major differences comes between David and Shealtiel. Matthew lists 14 individuals and Luke lists 20 and there are no matches between Matthew and Luke at this point. Note Matthew leaves out Joash, Amaziah and Azariah (see 1 Chronicles 3:11, 12). Matthew also leaves Jehoiakim off of the list and jumps to Jechoniah (a variation in spelling for Jehoiachin).

Matthew

David

Solomon

Rehoboam

Abijah

Asaph[3]

Jehoshaphat

Joran

Uzziah

[Joash[4]]

[Amaziah]

[Azariah]

Jotham

Ahaz

Hezekiah

Manasseh

Amos

Josiah

Jechoniah

 

 

 

Shealtiel

Zerubbabel

 

Luke

David

Nathan

Mattatha

Menna

Melea

Eliakim

Jonam

Joseph

Judah

Simeon

Levi

Matthat

Jorim

Eliezer

Josehua

Er

Elmadam

Cosam

Addi

Melchi

Neri

Shealtiel

Zerubbabel

 

Notes

1 Chr. 3:10 The son of Solomon was Rehoboam, Abijah his son, Asa his son, Jehoshaphat his son, 11 Joram his son, Ahaziah his son, Joash his son, 12 Amaziah his son, Azariah his son, Jotham his son, 13 Ahaz his son, Hezekiah his son, Manasseh his son, 14 Amon his son, Josiah his son. 15 The sons of Josiah: Johanan the firstborn, the second Jehoiakim, the third Zedekiah, the fourth Shallum. 16 The descendants of Jehoiakim: Jeconiah his son, Zedekiah his son; 17 and the sons of Jeconiah, the captive: Shealtiel his son, 18 Malchiram, Pedaiah, Shenazzar, Jekamiah, Hoshama and Nedabiah; 19 and the sons of Pedaiah: Zerubbabel and Shimei

Then there are matches between both gospels for the next two generations: Shealtiel and Zerubbabel, but then the lists divide again. Matthew lists nine individuals between Zerubbabel and Joseph the stepfather of Jesus, while Luke counts twice as many (18) and none of names are the same in either list.

Matthew

Shealtiel

Zerubbabel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abiud

Eliakim

Azor

Zadok

Achim

Eliud

Eleazar

Matthan

Jacob

Joseph

Luke

Shealtiel

Zerubbabel

Rhesa

Joanan

Joda

Josech

Semein

Mattathias

Maath

Naggai

Esli

Nahum

Amos

Mattathias

Joseph

Jannai

Melchi

Levi

Matthat

Heli

Joseph

As you can see, it all becomes very complicated very quickly. So is there a solution? Some people teach Matthew’s account lists the genealogy of Jesus’s stepfather, Joseph, while Luke’s account gives Jesus’s lineage through Mary his physical mother. That may very well be true, but I think a much more important question is to examine the purpose the genealogies serve in both gospels.

Why don’t Mark or John include a genealogy of Jesus in their books? Because it wasn’t necessary for their purposes. A genealogy wouldn’t have advanced their stories. They are included in Matthew and Luke because the genealogies do support the purposes of their gospels. What is their purpose?

The first purpose for both Gospels is obvious. It seems the critics of Christianity attacked the legitimacy of the faith by attacking the legitimacy of Jesus’s birth (see Origen, Against Celsus, 1.32). For example, the Jews taught Jesus was the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier named “Pandera” or “Panthera” (a pun on the Greek word for virgin, “Parthenos.” See b. Shabbat 104b).  Matthew’s solution is to associate Mary with the four other women who had “tainted” backgrounds (See Countdown to Christmas – part 2). Luke’s solution is to trace the actual lineage of Jesus back to Adam “the son of God.”

Secondly, Matthew wants his readers to see Jesus as the “son of David,” the legitimate heir to the throne and as the Messiah, the promised Christ. Luke is far more interested in showing Jesus as the savior of the world – of all nations and peoples – again by portraying Jesus as the son of Adam, the son of God.

Why is all of this so important? Because nothing in the Bible is trivial. By spending our time studying the genealogies of Jesus we learn three things. First, from Matthew’s “14 generations, 14 generations, 14 generations,” we learn Jesus is the promised son of David, the Messiah. Second from the inclusion of the women in Matthew’s family tree of Jesus, we learn God loves everyone no matter what their background or race or gender. Finally, from the inclusion of the genealogies in the gospels, we can trace God’s eternal plan through each generation, back to the beginning, to the very creation of his first children. God’s eternal desire has been to save us through the gift of his Son and our Savior.

 

 

[1] Arni and Admin are only mentioned in Luke

[2] Is it possible Sala and Salmon are the same man?

[3] Are Asaph (Mt.) and Asa (1 Chr.) the same?

[4] According to 1 Chronicles, Matthew skips Joash, Amaziah, and Azariah between Uzziah (or Ahaziah) and Jotham.

[5] Are Asaph (Mt.) and Asa (1 Chr.) the same?

[6] According to 1 Chronicles, Matthew skips Joash, Amaziah, and Azariah between Uzziah (or Ahaziah) and Jotham.

[7] Arni and Admin are only mentioned in Luke

[8] Is it possible Sala and Salmon are the same man?

Count Down to Christmas — part 2

Matthew 1:1-17

boatyardIt’s easy to let your eye slide right over the genealogy of Jesus — those names are unfamiliar and hard to pronounce – but if you do, you’ll miss some rare jewels! It is common in a patristic society to list only the names of the fathers in a genealogy, so when Matthew includes five women, we should take note.

The first thing we see is that these women are not the sterling mothers of the Bible. Where is Sarah or the great queens of the kingdom? Instead, it’s almost like Matthew has gone out of his way to list the “shady women in the tree.”

The first, Tamar (v. 3), tricked her father-in-law, the patriarch Judah into fathering her son (Genesis 38). The second, Rahab (v. 5), had been a prostitute (Hebrews 11:31; James 2:25). The third, Ruth (v. 5) was a woman of great virtue, but the circumstances of her proposal to Boaz were prone to suspicion (Ruth 3). The fourth woman in the tree, Bathsheba, isn’t even named directly because of the shame of her adulterous affair with David (v. 6; cf. 2 Samuel 11). She is “referred to only as ‘Uriah’s wife,’ perhaps to remind the reader of David’s adulterous and murderous behavior.”[1]

Finally, the fifth woman in the genealogy is Mary the mother of Jesus (v. 16), but what links Mary with the previous four “shady” women in tree? It must have been known that Mary was pregnant when Joseph married her and it was scandalous to become pregnant out of wedlock (Matthew 1:17, 18).

God’s love is not reserved for “perfect people.” He loves even the broken – perhaps especially the broken. David was an adulterer, murderer and many other things besides, but still he was called a “man after God’s own heart.” Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba were hardly perfect, but the Gospel of Matthew links them with Mary the mother of Jesus. Perhaps there’s hope for us!

[1] Blomberg, C. (1992). Matthew (Vol. 22, p. 55). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.

Count Down to Christmas — part 1

Matthew 1:1-17

DSC_0086With Christmas so near, it is appropriate to re-tell the story again. In Matthew’s Gospel it begins with the genealogy of Jesus. The story fascinates me for three reasons: (1) the numbers don’t make sense to our Western minds, (2) five women are included in the genealogy – something that was very strange in a first century Jewish record, and (3) Matthew and Luke give two very different accounts of the lineage of Jesus. Over the next three articles, we’ll explore these three observations.

First, Matthew plays with the numbers to break the names down into three groups of 14 although the actual numbers he gives are 13, 14, and 13 – and Matthew actually leaves out several people to follow his scheme of 14-14-14. Our western, scientific minds balk at this. The Certified Public Accountant in our American hearts misses the point completely.

A common rabbinic method of interpreting the Bible[1], like numerology, uses the value of the letters of the alphabet to explain the meaning of the text. Each Hebrew letter also has a numeric value. It’s like counting in “Roman Numerals” in English. Don’t you remember doing this in elementary school? The letter “i” equals one. The letter “v” equals five. The letter “x” equals ten and so forth. The great gift of the Arabs were Arabic numerals: 1, 2, 3, 4 …. Before that people used their alphabets to count with. Conversely everyone’s name, when the value of the letters are added up, has a numeric value. In Hebrew (which has no vowels), King David’s name: DVD equals 4 + 6 + 4 which equals the number 14! Matthew goes out of his way to say Jesus is the “son of DaViD (14),” “son of DaViD (14),” “son of DaViD (14).”

In other words, God’s promise to King David is fulfilled in Jesus:

2 Samuel 7:11 the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’ ” 17 In accordance with all these words, and in accordance with all this vision, Nathan spoke to David.

 

 

[1] This method is called “Gematria.” “One of the rabbinic hermeneutic rules for interpreting the OT. It consisted of explaining a word or group of words according to the numerical value of the letters or by substituting and rearranging certain letters according to a set system. By that rule of interpretation, for example, some rabbis have argued that Eliezer (Gn 15:2) was worth all the servants of Abraham put together, for Abraham had 318 servants and Eliezer’s name equaled 318 (Gn 14:14).”

Elwell, W. A., & Comfort, P. W. (2001). In Tyndale Bible dictionary (p. 517). Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

Sacred Cows Make Good Hamburger

Moses' bronze serpent is still used as a symbol of healing today
Moses’ bronze serpent is still used as a symbol of healing today

Throughout the story of the Exodus, the Israelites were famous for complaining. “Why have you brought us out into the wilderness?” “We have no water.” “This food is terrible” and much worse. On one such occasion, as they set out from Mt. Hor skirting the land of Edom, and

Numbers 21:4 the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died.

That got their attention!

Numbers 21:7 And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.

What I wonder about is what became of the bronze serpent after the snakes left? Apparently someone kept it for hundreds of years. Perhaps it was proudly displayed as we might do with something put in a museum. It might be that children took field trips to see this relic from the past. However, over time, something happened. The bronze serpent began to take on a legacy of its own. Hundreds of years later, it might be someone claimed they looked on the snake and were healed. From there it would be an easy step to ascribe healing power to the image. I can picture the light from an oil lamp dancing over the bronze image and frightening children. The snake was given the name “Nehustan” (which in Hebrew sounds like both the word “bronze” and “snake”). Before long, what had been a link to Moses and the Lord became an evil idol of itself for we read how good king Hezekiah:

2 Kings 18:4 [Hezekiah] removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan).

I wonder if we have any traditions that have outlived their usefulness? Is it possible that we do some things simply because we have always done it that way? I remember my grandfather telling me about the great “communion shroud” controversy. It seems in a little country church, it was their custom to put a white cloth over the bread and wine on the communion table to keep the flies away. Over time the ladies took great pride in starching and ironing that pure white cloth. It was an honor to be asked to prepare it. People began to think about the cloth as a funeral shroud and it added a new symbol to the communion celebration. Then, one day, someone brought in a new shiny communion set that held the cups and the bread protected by a tray with a fly proof lid. The cloth was no longer needed so someone served the communion without the “shroud.” A holy war broke out in the congregation. “We’ve always done it that way!” someone shouted. “The cloth is the shroud of Christ!” someone else explained quoting John’s Gospel (20:6, 7). My grandfather shook his head sadly and observed, “Johnny, that silly tradition nearly split the church.”

On occasion we need to think about the things we do and ask ourselves why we do them. It could be that sacred cows do make the best hamburger.

 

Leadership Communication

My grandmother who gave me such great advice
My grandmother who gave me such great advice

Communication and miscommunication seem to be universal issues among churches. People need to be informed, but the word often doesn’t get out. Leaders are misunderstood and members feel out of touch. How does this happen?

A common mistake is for leaders to believe that because they know, everyone else knows. At elders’ meeting issues are talked about over and over and over again. The shepherds know about issues and activities amongst themselves, but they fail to inform the congregation. An item might be put into the bulletin – but not everyone reads the weekly newsletter. Something might be announced, but announcements often fall short because people are thinking about what they are going to do after church rather than paying attention. What we need is what marketing people call “buzz.” A few people are excited and share the news repeatedly in every forum and in every format.

Unfortunately, most buzz is like a Twitter feed or a marketing pitch: it must be attention grabbing and especially short. Buzz doesn’t work well for complicated issues, issues that require education, or items that must be reviewed in depth. Here the “key man” concept may help.

In every church there are certain outspoken individuals that others listen to. If an idea can be effectively communicated to them, they will communicate it to the rest of the congregation. People naturally listen to what these people have to say and respect their conclusions. “If Brother Jones thinks it’s a good idea, I’m all for it.” Unfortunately, those key individuals, in my experience, are rarely the elders. Why?

It could be because elders only have a limited amount of time and that is generally spent with the other elders. The group becomes closed off from the rest of the congregation. This isn’t the case when the elders are leaders of smaller groups in the church like a Bible School class or a small group or they are diligent in exercising hospitality. But if the elders are only talking with other elders, a disconnect occurs.

Have you ever been to a store where the employees are all talking with each other and ignoring the customers? Do you feel like an outsider or like you are intruding if you try to interrupt them? Unfortunately, church leaders can be like that with their congregations. So how can we change that sad situation?

Paul says one of the qualifications for serving as an elder is “hospitality” (1 Timothy 3:2). That term includes being friendly and serving others, but it is much more familiar than that. When an elder and his wife open their home to others, it changes relationships from superficial social banter in the back of the church; it changes politeness into transparency, intimacy and love. No wonder the very first Christians met daily in the Temple and “in their homes” (Acts 2:46)!

However, whenever I have suggested this, the idea is met with a great deal of resistance. I think that’s because modern Americans have forgotten the difference between entertaining and hospitality. Entertaining mean setting out a formal dinner party that requires a great expenditure of effort and money. It means setting the table with the best china, polishing the silver, and arranging entertainment. Good old fashioned hospitality doesn’t care about clean houses and gourmet fare. TV trays and pizza are perfect! Laughing and telling stories is the stuff of intimacy and the foundation of hospitality. It also is the perfect setting for sharing dreams and visions and honest communication which raises another point.

Communication is a two-way process. Putting something in the bulletin or making an announcement involves only one direction and may or may not get the job done, but when you listen to what people think, it involves two directions and communication is much more likely to occur.

Maybe we should all listen to my grandmother’s advice: “God gave us two ears and one mouth Johnny so we need to listen twice as much as we speak.” The foundation of good leadership communication is listening as well as speaking.

Authentic Friendship

Preaching
My dear friend, Gordon Gower, preaching in Colorado

Nothing hurts more than to have a “pretend friend.” Often we don’t know who our true friends are until trouble comes our way. My dear friend, Gordon Gower, recently reminded me, “Your REAL friends are coming in the door while the others are going out.”

Today let’s look at taking the 7th step up Peter’s Eight Rung Ladder:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love, (2 Peter 1:3-7).

In this passage of Scripture, Peter tells us to take the next step up from godliness to “brotherly affection.” Many English Bibles read “brotherly love” here. So what does “love” mean to you? I love apple pie. I love my grandmother. I make love to my wife and I love my Lord. Hopefully each of those loves has a different meaning, but they are actually related to each other. The love that we learn from our mother and father teaches us to love our friends and the love of our friends teaches us to love unselfishly. Here is another series of stepping stones!

I like to think about 2 Peter 1:3-7 as an eight rung ladder. Each step leads to the next. We began this series with the step of faith which led to excellence (virtue) and excellence led to understanding (knowledge) which led us to self-control and endurance (steadfastness), then godliness and now we begin to learn to love. Here Peter starts with friendship (brotherly love) which will teach us in our last lesson about the greatest love, agape.

As has been said many times, there are several Greek words that are translated “love” in English. There is a word for the love of possessions and there is a word for the love of family, but the two that are most often used in the New Testament can be translated “friendship” (“brotherly affection” in the English Standard Version) and a powerful, transcendent, godly love, Agape. In learning to love, we need to begin with friendship. From there we can climb the last step of our eight rung ladder and learn to love like God loves.

Paul told the Romans, “Love one another with brotherly affection,” (Romans 12:10). This too is an interesting progression for he begins with the word for “family love”* and then moves to “brotherly love.” Notice the Holman Christian Standard Version: “Show family affection to one another with brotherly love.” This is the only place in the New Testament where this word translated “family love/affection” is used. It is the kind of love we find mothers having for their children and then children having this love for their parents and siblings. In this sense, it is the most natural love. The ancients believed it was possessed even by animals. When family love is absent from a person, it is an anomaly – even a tragedy – but its presence is nothing extraordinary, so Paul moves on to describe a higher love that should be present in the Christian family: brotherly love.

One of the greatest losses of our modern age is the loss of friendship. Unfortunately, friendship is no longer necessary for survival. It is nice to have friends, but it is not necessary. C.S. Lewis once observed, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art… It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.”

Do you remember a time in your life when you had a buddy or a best friend? For most us of, we’ll need to go back to grade school or to our time in the military to remember when we had one. Paul said the Thessalonians were masters of the art of friendship: “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia,” (1 Thessalonians 4:9, 10). The Hebrew writer says brotherly love is a characteristic of all Christians (Hebrews 13:1), but it is in our current context of 1 Peter that we are given the key to learning this virtue:

Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart, (1 Peter 1:22).

Spend some time meditating on this text for a moment. Let the Holy Spirit instruct you. What do you see?

  1. Brotherly love must be “sincere.” Literally, it is not-hypocritical. Friendship can be faked. It happens all the time, but it must not be so with Christians! In Christ we become authentic – especially so in our friendships.
  2. The true source of brotherly love must be from a “purified” soul. In days gone by, that required cultic cleansing in the Temple (John 11:55; Acts 21:24, 26; 24:18). Today, figuratively we can cleanse our hearts (James 4:8) and our souls (1 Peter 1:22).
  3. Cleansing comes through “obedience to the truth.” That comes by drawing near to God (James 4:8).

Isn’t that interesting? We become genuine friends by becoming genuine Christians! As we learn to live under God’s rule, we become authentic Christians and thus we can become true friends. By cleansing our hearts and our hands, we rid ourselves of ulterior motives and so we elevate friendship through sincerity. Brotherly love means not seeking friends for what they can do for us, but simply because we sincerely want to be friends.

Christian friends are the best friends!

Godliness: Living in Awe of God

Climbing the Eight Rung Ladder, 2 Peter 1:5-7

2 Peter 1:3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.

In front of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem
In front of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

“Godliness” is a word we don’t hear much anymore, and that is a shame because godliness sets a standard of excellence for us. Like all good goals, this one will always be out of our reach, but rather than discouraging us, the standard of godliness should cause us to always keep stretching, keep growing, keep reaching.

In this series, I’ve pointed out that each virtue builds on the previous one. First comes faith, but faith requires action which leads us to excellence (virtue). Excellence in turn produces understanding (knowledge) and understanding results in self-control. The goal is always growth and that requires endurance (steadfastness), but how does endurance lead us to godliness?

Our usual picture of godliness is a little cherub with folded hands looking towards heaven, but let me suggest this virtue is made of grittier stuff than that. It’s a manly quality. The Apostle Paul told Timothy to “train yourself for godliness,” (1 Timothy 4:7). He compares this spiritual discipline to working out in the gym: “for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”

So what is “godliness”? One lexicon describes it as the “awesome respect accorded to God.”[1]  Notice: this respect comes from the heart. It’s not just a matter of appearing to be pious. Again, Paul told Timothy there are people who have “the appearance of godliness, but deny its power. Avoid such people,” (2 Timothy 3:5). Did you catch that? Genuine godliness is a source of power. The early Christian Clement understood this when he admonished the Christians in Corinth: “Therefore let us unite with those who devoutly [our word] practice peace, and not with those who hypocritically wish for peace.”[2]

Many people think of godliness as synonymous with performing godly acts, but it is imperative we recognize godliness is more than that. In Peter’s last letter he asks, “what sort of people ought you to be as you live your lives of holiness and godliness?” [my translation] We shouldn’t think, “Today I’ll do something godly.” Rather, we must pray that we will be godly every day because a life colored with the awe of God is a life of focus and power.

What does godliness look like? Is a man wearing a cross and carrying a study Bible godly? Maybe, but to really see a godly person, we need to “look under the hood.” Godliness doesn’t consist of actions and deeds. It is something deep within the heart of the believer. Do you remember when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai after seeing God? (Exodus 34:29 ff.) He had the two tablets with the Ten Commandments in his arms and, although he didn’t realize it, “the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.” So it should be with people who have “awesome respect” for God. It comes shining through in their lives and their actions. There is something different about the people who know God. For Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, their godliness resulted in incredible boldness and courage when faced with the fiery furnace. For the quiet, little widow who gave the Lord everything she had, it was serene trust that God would provide. For Isaiah standing forgiven in the throne room of God (Isaiah 6), it was an eagerness to do (and be) anything God required. Like the blood that flows through our veins, godliness animates everything we do and everything we are.

So how can we become godly? W.D. Mounce observes:

The chief means of training oneself in godliness is sound instruction (1 Tim. 6:3) and knowledge of the truth (Tit 1:1), especially knowledge of God (2 Pet. 1:3). While eusebeia leads to a life of contentment and gain (1 Tim. 6:6), it is an end in itself, not a means.[3]

Finally, godliness is not a means to an end. It is an end in itself. We might practice the spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting to become more spiritual, but godliness is something we are not something we do. Thus, as we climb the eight rung ladder, faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control and endurance create godliness within us and the exciting part of this process is what comes next. Becoming godly allows us to love as God loves and learning to love describes the last two steps on Peter’s eight rung ladder.

 

[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 412). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] Holmes, M. W. (1999). The Apostolic Fathers: Greek texts and English translations (Updated ed., p. 45). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.

[3] Mounce, W. D. (2006). Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old & New Testament Words (p. 298). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Endurance

Climbing the Eight Rung Ladder, 2 Peter 1:5-7

2 Peter 1:3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere are two words often translated “patience” in the New Testament. The first is makrothumia – often translated “long-suffering” as in the classic King James Version. Sometimes all God expects us to do under trial is hang on. As Winston Churchill admonished, “Never, never, never, never, never, never, never give up!” Like sitting in the dentist’s chair, all we are expected to do is endure for the hour. But the word that is used in 2 Peter is different. Rather than just hanging on, hypomone, encourages us to thrive in the face of adversity. A sponge works best when it is squeezed and Christians are at their best when times are rough.

Think about it. When do we grow the most? It’s not when times are good. Where is the incentive to change? We grow when we are challenged; when times are tough! For a kite to fly the wind must blow. Paul, Peter and James all recognize this principle:

“suffering produces endurance [our word], and endurance produces character,” Paul, Romans 5:3, 4.

“the testing of your faith produces steadfastness [our word]. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing,” James, James 1:3, 4.

“make every effort to supplement … self-control with steadfastness [our word], and steadfastness with godliness … For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful,” Peter, 2 Peter 1:6, 8.

In fact, Jesus goes so far as to say, “by your endurance you will be saved,” Luke 21:19.

We all experience tough times. People may disappoint us. Circumstances may conspire to ruin us. Relationships sometimes fail despite our best efforts, but what counts for the Christian is how we deal with those tough times. Sometimes we can only hang on, but for those climbing the eight rung ladder, tough times are an opportunity to thrive and grow and follow in the footsteps of Jesus.