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Jesus. (Period) 7: The Christ-Formed Home

It’s not easy being a woman in a man’s world. In fact, there are only a few areas of our world where males do not dominate. Examples would be teaching, nursing and administrative work. This isn’t much different than it was 60 years ago. To illustrate how this is a man’s world, consider these statistics:

  • 100% of CEOs on Wall Street are … men.
  • 97% of heads of venture capital firms are … men.
  • 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs are . . . men.
  • 90% of tech jobs in Silicon Valley are held by … men.
  • 85% of corporate executive officers are … men.
  • 84% of mayors of the top 100 cities are … men.
  • More than 80% Congress are … men.
  • 78% of state political executives … men.
  • 75% of state legislators … men.
  • 73% of top media executives and managers are … men.
  • 73% of tenured professors are … men.[1]

Because other areas of our lives are favored towards men: women suffer in studies done for crash test safety standards, pay higher insurance premiums, medical research can be skewed to the male physiology, and even the law can assume male bodies and experiences. An example? Men who kill their spouses get on average 2-6 years’ prison sentence. A woman gets 15 years.

James Brown nailed it when he sang: “It’s a man’s man’s man’s world.”

It wasn’t always that way. In the beginning God created humankind in his image, “male and female he created them.” “They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth” (Genesis 1:26).

The ruling was to be done together, as equals, over the creation. Problem is, that did not last long. In Genesis 3 we find a serpent slithering his way into the story. The forbidden fruit was eaten. And consequences came.

To the woman God said, “Your desire will be for your husband…” (Genesis 3:16). The “desire” spoken of here is not a sexual desire or a passion for the husband. God looks favorably upon that. It is a “dominating” desire, the kind of desire spoken of a chapter later when sin’s “desire” is for Cain (4:7). Sin wanted to overtake him and dominate him. It’s the idea that the woman will want to dominate her husband. That’s not a good thing. It’s not the way it was supposed to be.

Another result is that the husband “… will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). This “rule” is not a caring, loving leadership that places her needs above his. It is just the opposite. It too is a dominating role that looks to his own self first. He will love himself more than his wife. That’s not a good thing. It’s not the way it was supposed to be.

But that’s how things were then when Genesis was written. And that’s how things were in Colossae when Paul wrote to the church. The Greco-Roman world was no different. It was a man’s world.

The Greeks believed the household was a sort of smaller version of the society as a whole. Aristotle taught that there were three relationships in the household that mattered. He said, “The smallest and primary parts of the household are master and slave, husband and wife, father and children.”[2] He said that free men were by nature superior to the others and that the husband was to rule over his wife, children and slaves.

Wives were often young teens—sometimes 12-13 years old—who married much older men. The marriage was to provide legitimate children and was not designed to marry people who were in love with each other. Demosthenes noted: “Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of the body, but wives to bear us legitimate children”[3] Women basically existed to please the men around them and husbands could do with their wives as they pleased.

Children did not have it any better. They existed to please the father. At birth, if there was something about the baby the father did not like, he could leave them outside the city to die. Even after they grew up and had families of their own, they still had to submit to his will. It was all about the father, not the children.

And slaves were viewed as being akin to animals and were created to serve. They were said to have no personality, no identity, other than what their master gave them. Slaves in the Greco-Roman world were often highly educated and many were doctors (Luke was one), teachers, professors, policemen and even public servants. But most of the elite assumed they were “con artists who acted nice while planning devious things.”[4]

Such was the situation the church in Colossae found themselves in. These were its people. And they were already at odds with their society due to their following the Way of Jesus. Jew, Gentile, slave, free, men and women were sharing common meals together. This was unheard of in a society where free men ate separately from all others in the social system of their day. Christian women were studying philosophy which Greeks thought was nonsense. And Romans passed laws forcing widows to remarry. They believed this kept things in order with the order found in the realms of the gods. But the church helped widows without insisting they remarry.

Rome looked with suspicion on the behaviors of the Christians, even calling them “haters of humanity.” When a man became a Christian they believed he and his family were a step away from becoming traitors to their country.

Paul is aware of the tension between following Jesus and the thinking of the world. And so he writes to these three relationships in a household: wives and husbands, fathers and children, and masters and slaves. In many cases, one man could serve all three roles of husband, father and master. He wants the new culture in Christ to take hold, but do it in a way to not upset the society around them before it had a chance to take hold and spread.

He tells wives: “Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” (Colossians 3:18). It’s unlikely that Paul wants the wives to live in the same way they had in the past since he has already told them not to conform their lives to the present world. And it certainly should not be used to justify power and status used against women, as it sometimes has been used.

The word “submit” is middle-passive which means he is telling them to “choose to order” themselves towards their husbands. But this is not about a wife grounding herself to some authority the husband has over her or into a creation order. Her grounding is instead “in the Lord.” “In the Lord” is a new way to live. From Paul’s writing to the household in Ephesians we understand there is mutual submission in this new way and the wives are to learn to live under this order, that is, under Christ. They learn how to be a wife as Christ would be a wife if he were in their shoes.

And they will have no problem doing so when husbands follow Paul’s instruction to “…love your wives and don’t be bitter toward them” (Colossians 3:19). If Paul were wanting the women to get in line with male authority or creation order or his role as a leader, the complimentary command to the husband would be about his leadership. Male leadership and power were assumed in that culture. But Paul talks about “love.” He is to love her, not lead her.

Passages such as this or Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5 have been used to support the man’s world. But in Paul’s writing he supports not a patriarchal form in the home or an inferiority-superiority status or some hierarchy. Instead Paul focuses on a Christ-Formed home. In this kind of home, the husband loves his wife as Jesus loved the church. And how did Jesus love the church? He died for the church. Husbands are called upon to learn to love in this way.

The same is true with fathers and their children. Children are to “obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord” (Colossians 3:20). The word “obey” carries with it a hearing with the implication that what is heard is followed. Obviously, a child does not obey anything that is against the will of God. The “everything” they are to obey should come from the goodness of the parent and their wisdom. But their motivation to obey is different. It is because that “pleases the Lord.”

Fathers, in turn, are not to “…exasperate your children, so that they won’t become discouraged …” (Colossians 3:21). The word “exasperate” has to do with picking fights with the child or provoking them. In the Greek world the father had authority in the home. Listen to some counsel given to fathers in the ancient world:

  • He who loves his son will whip him often.
  • Pamper a child, and he will terrorize you; play with him, and he will grieve you.
  • Give him no freedom in his youth, and do not ignore his errors.
  • Bow down his neck in his youth, and beat his sides while he is young.

Think those actions might exasperate a child? Instead, fathers were to learn to be different than the world around them. Their role model was Jesus. How he treated people a father is to treat his child. How he welcomed children a father was to welcome his own. Fathers are not to exercise their right as the parent in demanding things for themselves or in insisting on their own way. They are to consider the impact their actions will have on their children. Imagine that kind of home in Colossae! It would surely get the attention of the neighbors.

And masters mixing with slaves would blow up the gossip circles. Slaves took on the identity of their master, even their names would signify who they served. But once a slave came to Christ, he would then be foremost a slave of Christ. Paul reminds them, “You serve the Lord Christ” (v. 24). Because they do, they serve differently now:

Slaves, obey your human masters in everything. Don’t work only while being watched, as people-pleasers, but work wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people, 24 knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ. 25 For the wrongdoer will be paid back for whatever wrong he has done, and there is no favoritism. — Colossians 3:22-25 (CSB)

These are good instructions for any worker today. Do your work well, even when you aren’t being watched. Work with all your heart, give it your best. Work like you would for Jesus. And remember, your pay on earth is not your final goal. You want to receive the inheritance from the Lord.

But masters have to learn to view themselves differently too. “Masters, deal with your slaves justly and fairly, since you know that you too have a Master in heaven” (Colossians 4:1) Talk about a paradigm shift! The master is now a slave too, a slave to Christ. Whatever “rights” the master has in this world, he now has to behave not according to any rights the world says he has but by how Jesus would have him behave. Jesus is his Master too.

And he is ours. (rom. 6:22). How different would our homes look if each person in the family unit saw themselves as a slave to Christ first? Or what if we considered our actions in view of what our Master would want us to be? Our words would be kinder. Our actions softer. We’d listen quickly and answer slowly. Whoever thinks they have power because of their size or volume of voice would realize they cannot set the rules “according to their own whims and preferences.”[5] In fact, whoever has any power will use that power for the benefit of others in the household or in the workplace.

The reality is we who follow Christ live in two worlds at once. We live in the present world, mixing it up with people who have all kinds of ideas on how life should be lived, especially life in the home and workplace. But we also live in the world of the Kingdom of Christ, and that world determines how we live out our lives in this one.

When we do that, others may come to realize that it is not really a man’s world after all. It is Christ’s world. In it no one tries to dominate each other. There are no power plays. All are equal. There is neither male or female, slave or free. It is a world moving back towards God’s intention. And it is a world dominated by love.

[1] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/soraya-chemaly/what-exactly-does-its-a-mans-world-mean_b_7454660.html

[2] http://tcapologetics.org/pauls-household-codes-repressive-or-redemptive/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thompson, 96.

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Jesus. (Period) 6: Training for Transformation

The naked man didn’t have a great plan.[1] Eric Stagno entered a Planet Fitness in New Hampshire on a Sunday afternoon around 1:30 p.m., stripped at the front desk, and walked around the gym before deciding to hit the  yoga mats. One would certainly hope that he wiped down the machines liberally once he was finished. And you might be best off not trying to picture this scene too vividly.

Witnesses added that he would also inspect himself in front of the mirrors. One observer noted that people were running away from him like he had the plague. The story gets better. When the police arrived and asked him why he thought he could be working out naked in a public gym, Stagno replied that he thought he was in a Judgement Free Zone.

In case you don’t know Planet Fitness, this is their exact slogan to encourage people to come to their gyms to workout. Police Capt. Brett Morgan noted that: “It’s not a clothing-free zone.”[2]

In any fitness program you will find that you need two ingredients to get in your best shape: you need a Judgment Free group to work out with and you need a great plan for your diet and training. But you’d better have a better plan than Stagno had. And you need a better plan if you want to enter into spiritual training.

Paul gives us such a plan in Colossians 3. It’s a plan that not everyone wants to undertake. It’s a plan for how you and I can be transformed to be more like Jesus. After helping us see Jesus in chapters 1 and 2 he says:

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. 4 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. — Colossians 3:1-4 (CSB)

Four times in these verses he mentions Christ. And why not? That’s the place we have to start. We have to change our mind to be captivated by Christ. In chapters 1 and 2 he has helped us see how great Jesus is. Paul would wonder how anyone who really saw Jesus would not want to be like him.

Have you ever known someone you wanted to be like? I’ve had several. One was a preacher. One was a writer. One was a friend who was at ease with people. One was great at hosting people. I admired them as people and I admired them for what they were good at. And because I admired them, I picked up some of their traits along the way. I learned some preaching points from one. I gained some skill in writing from another. And if I’ve been any bit of a friend to anyone here, you can mostly thank my friend for that. And if you’ve felt welcomed at our house, then you can thank Karen for hosting lessons I’ve learned.

The same is true of Jesus. It is when we are captivated by him that we will become like him. When we see Jesus as Paul did we are more likely to be captivated. Remember what he has said? Jesus is God. He is the creator. He is all-powerful. He is over all, before all, and holds all things together. He is the head of the church, the firstborn from the dead. All the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in him. He has reconciled all things to God. In him is hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

When Paul says, “If you have been raised with Christ…” he isn’t wondering if they have or not. That “if” presumes an “and you are.” He says raised people “seek the things above.” The word “seek” is a reference to the orientation of a person’s will. The word is a present imperative. What that means first of all is that this is a command. It is not a suggestion. If you’ve been raised with Christ, you are his now and this is the new way your will is to operate. It is to be seeking things above. Another way to put that is to be so captivated with Christ you want to see things his way and do things his way. The present tense tells us that an ongoing effort is required. This is something that is not done naturally.

But when you are captivated by Christ, not only will you “seek things above” you will also “set your mind on things above.” The word there is also a present imperative. It’s a command. And it is ongoing.

“Why?” you ask, do we seek and set above? People who enter a gym tend to have seen someone that is in a shape or level of health they want to be like. They think: “Wow! This is what a human body could look like!” People who enter into training with Christ have been captivated by him. They think: “Wow! That’s what a human being can look like!”

But it is only a start to be captivated. The next thing Paul shows us is we have to change our motivation. We have to take an honest clear look at who we are now and get a picture of who we want to be. Here’s the way he wrote it:

Therefore, put to death what belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, God’s wrath is coming upon the disobedient, 7 and you once walked in these things when you were living in them. 8 But now, put away all the following: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and filthy language from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old self with its practices 10 and have put on the new self. You are being renewed in knowledge according to the image of your Creator. 11 In Christ there is not Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all. — Colossians 3:5-11 (CSB)

Change is not easy. For transformation to take place we have to see our current reality clearly. In the world of health, it may be that you discover your blood pressure is sky high. Your cholesterol level is scary. Your weight is causing issues. You have a shortness of breath when climbing the stairs. Something in your current reality has to be bad enough to urge you to action.

When it comes to spiritual transformation the same is true. Paul lists some sin issues that might be in our lives. His list is a good one, but it is not exhaustive. If you don’t see something there that needs to change in you, keep looking. Better yet, ask a few close friends to be painfully honest with you!

That pain will help you want to change. When you see the damage those things have done in your life and the lives of those around you, you will want to become healthier. That’s where a picture of your future comes in. Get a picture of who you want to be in Christ. Take the heart issues you are discovering about yourself and paint a picture of the opposite.

Recently I came across an interesting way of helping people see this. If you draw your current reality and then draw your preferred future, there is an 80% better chance you will take steps towards that preferred future.

Paul may have been on to that. We don’t have any artwork from him, but we do have word pictures. Paul wants us to change our mind, our motivation, and then he wants us to change our motions. He says:

12 Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. 14 Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 And let the peace of Christ, to which you were also called in one body, rule your hearts. And be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. — Colossians 3:12-17 (CSB)

The word for “put on” means to “clothe” yourself as in “sink into the clothing.” If we are raised with Christ and are his chosen ones—and we are—it is important for us to wear the right kind of clothing. We take off the old things that don’t fit who we are anymore and we put on the new clothing: compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. We bear with each other, forgive each other, we love each other, and we keep the unity of the body.

We have to picture the path. I recently checked out a physical transformation contest my son told me about. Why do you laugh? I checked it out but was not captivated by it. However, it did offer you a path to follow once you embarked upon the contest. You would have to enter into training to become something different by the end of the 8-week contest.

Spiritual transformation takes training too. Trying won’t get you there. If you try to lose weight it probably won’t happen. You will need to train in a specific way to lose the weight. In the same way, when it comes to our spiritual transformation we have to train. We have to give some effort.

This is news to many Christians. We are afraid that if we use the “e” word—effort—then we are talking about “works” and that we will be doing what the false teachers in Colossae were doing—getting people to work in addition to what Jesus has done.

But understand this: grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning. In this passage Paul clearly tells us to put effort towards becoming more like Christ: seek things above, set your mind, put to death, put on. Let me ask you, when you got up this morning and decided to get dressed for the day, did you just lay down on the floor and magically became dressed? If so, I want to come over and watch that. No, you had to put out some effort to put on your clothes.

We have to train for transformation. Here’s how it works. Let’s say you want to be kinder. You come to realize the main thing preventing you from being kind is you are too rushed trying to get things done. Worry, fear, and anger tend to tag along with hurry.

If that is the case, the training might be to spend a day in stillness. The Bible calls this Sabbath, which means to “stop.”  There you can discover that the world survived without your hurry. You will have time to see the damage done by your unkindness. You might see that nothing of value is gained by your hurry. And it could be that you learn that your hurry, at its root, has to do with your own need to feel important, your pride, or your lack of faith.

That’s just one example. Another might be to replace impure thoughts with meditation on scripture. You might replace the need for approval with solitude. The love of money with giving. The list can go on and on. But the effort needed in transformation has to do with changing our motions. We should not only want to be the kind of person Paul describes, we are also to make plans to become that kind of person. It doesn’t just happen by sitting in a church building. It happens through training, changing our motions.

We are to be diligent in finding out what prevents us from being Christ like and “put to death” the things that are getting in the way of us becoming who it is we are in Christ. Then we replace those things with actions that help us become more like him. Dallas Willard has observed:

The single most obvious trait of those who profess Christ but do not grow into Christlikeness is their refusal to take the reasonable and time-tested measures for spiritual growth. I almost never meet someone in spiritual coldness, perplexity, and distress who is regular in the use of those spiritual exercises that will be obvious to anyone familiar with the contents of the New Testament.[3]

Change your mind. Change your motivation. Change your motions. But don’t do this alone. Get to the gym called the church. It helps to train with others. In fact, Paul says that we help each other by “teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Colossians 3:16).

It’s a place you can gather where there is a no judgment zone. But remember: it’s not a no-clothing zone. Come dressed, hopefully in love.[4]

[1] https://www.askmen.com/news/sports/man-gets-arrested-for-working-out-naked-at-planet-fitness.html?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_campaign=dailydispatch&utm_medium=Email

[2] https://people.com/crime/naked-man-arrested-at-planet-fitness/

[3] http://www.dwillard.org/articles/individual/looking-like-jesusdivine-resources-for-a-changed-life-are-always-available

[4] See also this link for more ideas on training: http://www.soulshepherding.org/wp-content/uploads/Colossians-3-1-17-a-Curriculum-for-Christlikness2.pdf

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Jesus. (Period) 5: Judgment Free Zone

Hi. My name is Rick. And I’m a recovering social anxiety-olic. (I just made up that name. It means a person who deals with social anxiety.)

A long time ago in a former life I was very anxious when I found myself in a new group. Instead of focusing on them, all I could think about is what they were thinking about me. “Do they think I’m smart? Do they think I’m stupid? Do they think I’m funny? Or just funny-looking?”

Can anyone relate? If you are anxious, nervous, or uncomfortable in social settings, you may be suffering from social anxiety. Guess what? You’ve got good company—I don’t mean to make you anxious because now you’re thinking about being in a company of people—but this is the third largest psychological disorder in America. Feel better now?

Social anxiety is defined as “the fear and anxiety of being judged and evaluated negatively by other people, leading to feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, humiliation, and depression.”[1] People can feel judged when they are in social settings.

Unfortunately, people can feel judged when they are in a church setting too. You’ve heard that Christians are viewed by many non-Christians as far too judgmental. Before you want to say they are wrong, consider this. A survey was given to self-identified Christians that measured their attitudes and actions and whether they lined up more with Jesus’ attitudes and actions or those of the self-righteous Pharisees. The result? “Just over half of the nation’s Christians—using the broadest definition of those who call themselves Christians—qualify for this category (51%). They tend to have attitudes and actions that are characterized by self-righteousness.”[2]

Christians who judge others even judged themselves as judgmental. Amazing! If you suffer from a social anxiety you tend to stay away from people. And if you’ve experienced judgment from the church that makes you feel as if you don’t measure up, you’ll stay away from the church too. Unless you find a Judgment Free Zone.

That’s what the Colossian church needed. They were being torn between grace and grit. On one hand they had heard about grace which says Jesus is enough and grit which says you’re not enough. Living judged by others is not a good way to live. So Paul starts where it all started: grace.

“So then, just as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him… (2:6). A good question for any believer to keep in mind is this: “How did you receive Christ?” If you were taught well, you know that there was nothing you did to secure your own salvation. He came to you as a gift of grace from God.

For Father’s Day this year my family had asked me what I’d like to do. I said it would be nice to just stay home, grill and play some board games. They ad-libbed and added to that a gift of an Apple Watch. Now, how do you think I received that watch? Imagine if I had grabbed the checkbook and written a check to them for it. Or what if I had asked, “Now, what can I do for you so we will be even?”

Of course that did not happen. I received their gift with thankfulness and put it to use every day. A gift is given with grace and is received that way. Paul says to continue to “live in him [Christ]” in the same way you received him. If you received him by grace, then you will live in that same grace.

The word he used for “live” is peripateo which literally is “walk.” It means to “walk around.” It conveys with it the way you walk around in life. For Paul, the way you live out the way you received Christ is to continue to live in him in grace. He depicts what that walk looks like by giving four mixed metaphors of various steps to walking in Christ:

  • You are rooted in him. Paul envisions us going deep in Christ’s grace.
  • You are built up. With strong roots or foundation, you build on that grace, like a building going up you are built up the more you lean on grace.
  • You are strengthened in the faith. The word for strengthen here comes from a judicial setting. He’s saying that like a signed legal document what has been done in Christ is settled. What is settled is the faith that comes from the gospel.
  • You are overflowing in thanks. Thanksgiving is the dominant word here as Paul uses it throughout this letter (1:3, 12; 2:7; 3:15, 16, 17; 4:2). When we are walking in thankfulness we are living or walking in Christ.

We receive Christ and then we live in him. There is a way to live and the Colossian Christians were “taught” these things: Grace. Growth. Strengthening. Thankfulness. That’s not a bad way to live, is it? The problem was that those ideas were getting smothered by some new ideas.

That’s where the grit came in. Paul warns against grit. “Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elements of the world…” (2:8). He says this teaching with these new ideas is based on the “elements of the world.”

The word he uses here for “elements” is the Greek word stoicheia. He uses it three times, twice with “of the world” or “of the universe.” Some understand this to mean that the stoicheia are spirits or astral deities that are thought to rule this world. Paul does mention “principalities and powers” (1:16; 2:15) and “angels” (2:18) in his letter.

Then others understand stoicheia to refer to the “basic principles or tenets that represent the world’s point of view and standards.”[3] “Stoicheia (elementary principles) refers primarily to the letters of the alphabet. It literally means “things in a row.”[4] Paul is saying that what is being taught—a boundary marker spirituality—is not deep. It is simplistic. It is immature.

All groups tend to have boundary markers. For instance, John Ortberg once gave the example of bikers. What is a biker’s favorite color? Black. Favorite fabric? Leather. Favorite mode of transportation? Harley. Favorite beverage? Beer. Favorite woman? Biker chic. (How did you know all those answers?)

The false teachers were erecting boundary markers to identify who was in and who was out. The Jewish law reveal three basic marker they had: the Sabbath, dietary laws, and circumcision. It may have been that the false teachers in Colossae were teaching circumcision, so Paul takes time here to reteach them that they do not have to be circumcised as the Jewish people were but rather they have been circumcised in Christ. When did that happen? When they were baptized in Christ. Some of the male believers sighed a deep sigh of relief when they heard this.

In other words, he is warning them to watch out for teachings that aren’t connected to what they have been taught in Christ. It’s a different point of view. They are being judged in these matters. And it’s no fun to be judged.

Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is Christ. Let no one condemn you by delighting in ascetic practices and the worship of angels, claiming access to a visionary realm. Such people are inflated by empty notions of their unspiritual mind. He doesn’t hold on to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and tendons, grows with growth from God. — Colossians 2:16-19

Judgment. Condemnation. Someone comes in with another idea that adds to Jesus and professes to have a superior way of walking in Christ. But it’s not walking in Christ. It’s a different idea, a different point of view.

It’s walking in the world. It’s elementary. “Food, drink, festival, new moon, Sabbaths” were part of the Jewish religion that were apparently being put on the Gentile converts to adopt. He summarizes the regulations being put on the church as “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch” (2:21) which were important identity markers in the Jewish religion.

Then he mentions “ascetic practices and worship of angels.” Whatever was being taught in particular, it was used to make the church members who were not pursuing these things feel as if they were second class. They did not match the boundary markers. Boundary marker spirituality does not lead to transformation. It is all about doing on the outside but not becoming on the inside. These teachers were leaving the church feeling they did not have enough.

But they did. They had all they needed in Christ. Paul says the false teachers were practicing false humility, worship of angels and going on in great detail about their visions and describes them as being “inflated by empty notions of their unspiritual mind” (2:18) and not “hold[ing] on to the head” (2:19).

Instead of listening to their ideas, listen to gospel ideas. Mind the ideas that enter your mind. Here’s what Paul says to listen to:

For the entire fullness of God’s nature dwells bodily in Christ, 10 and you have been filled by him, who is the head over every ruler and authority. 11 You were also circumcised in him with a circumcision not done with hands, by putting off the body of flesh, in the circumcision of Christ, 12 when you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead. 13 And when you were dead in trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, he made you alive with him and forgave us all our trespasses. 14 He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it away by nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; he triumphed over them in him.  — Colossians 2:9-15 (CSB)

Paul’s reasoning is you died to that way of life so why would you still be living in it? He uses the words “full” and “fullness” again. What he said to them he says to us. We have been filled up by Christ. When something is filled up, there is no room for anything else.

No room for judgment.

No room for condemnation.

No room for inflated stories by others that make us feel left out of some experience.

No room for being made to feel less by people who have nothing more than you already have.

No room for boundary marker religion.

There is no room for a boundary marker spirituality. We like boundary markers. Are you studying this set of books, notebooks? Do you worship in this way? Do you do these things and not do those things? It’s an elementary religion based on what you do and don’t do and not based on Jesus.

The gospel is not against philosophy. Just philosophy that is not connected to Christ. The gospel is not against human traditions. Tradition can be stabilizing. Tradition can teach. But tradition not based on Christ will only make you a captive.

You’ve spent enough time feeling like you’re not enough. And you’ve spent enough time letting others make you feel you are judged.

It’s time to recover from being a social anxiety-olic, especially if you have been in a church that heightened your fear of judgment. Here’s what you do:

  • Find a judgment free zone church and go to regular meetings on Sundays to help you do that.
  • Plant yourself in environments that will help you grow: places of teaching and community.
  • Hold on tightly to the Jesus story. He is all you need.

The program should consist of walking in Christ the same way you received him. It’s a walk that will keep you healthy. With Christ you live in grace. And grace will make your social-anxiety-olicism disappear.

[1] http://anxietynetwork.com/content/least-understood-anxiety-disorder

[2] https://www.barna.com/research/christians-more-like-jesus-or-pharisees/

[3] Marianne Meye Thompson, 53.

[4] https://www.gty.org/library/bibleqnas-library/QA0262/traditions-of-men

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Jesus. (Period) 4: Church is Hard Work

Wouldn’t it be great if being a part of a church required little effort, like flying the friendly skies? Some prosperity gospel preachers seem to think so.

A recent headline told how one televangelist was “believing” God for a “Falcon 7X, a three-engine private jet capable of carrying 12 to 16 passengers at speeds up to 700 miles per hour. The Falcon 7X, which would be the fourth plane owned by [this] televangelist’s ministries, has a range of almost 6,000 miles and costs about $54 million new.”[1]

And why should he not have the Falcon 7X? After all, God told him he needed the plane in “one of the greatest statements the Lord ever told [him].” Jesus asked him, “… you wanna come up where I’m at?” When asked for an explanation of what he meant, Jesus then replied, “I want you to believe in me for a Falcon 7-X.”

With it he can get closer to Jesus, both literally and figuratively. To pay for it he is asking his ministry followers to “believe for” it, which means believe for it enough to give donations for it.

He said that if Jesus were to be on the earth today he would not be riding a donkey. So why shouldn’t he fly a private jet that doesn’t have to make any stops. That would be inconvenient.

We like convenience, don’t we? Let’s face it, if you had a choice of an easy path or a rocky one, which would you take? Many would choose the path of least resistance. Steady climb to the top in your work. Little if any conflicts along the way. It would be nice to arrange our lives in a way that our surroundings make our life more comfortable.

We might like that with church too. Don’t be asked for much. Drop in when it fits the schedule. Send in a few dollars and let God return the favor through increased convenience in life. Maybe even a Falcon 7-X.

Imagine the Apostle Paul’s reaction to this approach to ministry. Paul believed in spreading the gospel too, but for him it entailed hard work. In one word he would sum it up with “suffering.”

24 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and I am completing in my flesh what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for his body, that is, the church.

While others rejoice in their jets, Paul rejoices in his sufferings. At first his statement is perplexing. Is Paul saying that there was something “lacking” in what Christ has done for the church? Your gut feeling is right about that. Of course not. What Jesus has done for the church through his suffering on the cross is all that was needed (v. 22) for our reconciliation with God.

So how does he “complete” in his flesh what is “lacking in Christ’s afflictions for … the church”? First, let’s look at what Christ did. He suffered in his life: he went without, had no place to lay his head, was rejected and ridiculed, and died on the cross. But he also suffered for a purpose: to redeem the world.

In the same way Paul is suffering too. He is suffering in life: hard, dangerous travel, stonings, beatings, he has gone without, has been in and out of prison, and wrestles in prayer for the church. He also suffers for the same purpose as Jesus did: to bring others to salvation.

In Rome you can visit the Mamertime Prison where Paul and Peter are said to have been detained before their executions. It is dank, dark, and described by the ancient historian Sallust as: “disgusting and vile by reason of the filth, the darkness and the stench.”[2] There is a top level and a lower level that was 6.5 feet high, 30 feet long and 22 feet wide. Prisoners were lowered through a hole in the floor of the top level to the lower one.

Prisoners would not be kept here for a long time but would see it as a last stop on the way to execution. Paul was later beheaded and a church now sits on the location where his beheading took place.

Paul knew suffering as Jesus did. It came as no surprise to him. Jesus had told him he would suffer. When Paul was blinded on his way to Damascus, Jesus sent a man named Ananias to Paul. Jesus said, “…this man is my chosen instrument to take my name to Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name” (Acts 9:15-16).

Paul had a purpose as Jesus did. Jesus came to the Jews as their Messiah. Paul was sent to the Gentiles. It would take more suffering to take the gospel to the world. And so in that sense, Christ still had suffering yet to do through Paul and the church. Paul’s sufferings are the sufferings of Christ because he—Paul—has become a member of the body of Christ. Paul is joined with Christ and therefore Christ suffers in and through Paul.

Amazing, isn’t it? That somehow Paul would count suffering as something to rejoice in? I’ve often thought about the importance of his encounter with Christ. It had to have been very real. It had to have been very strong. I can imagine that after my first beating or stoning I might have started to doubt the experience.

But Paul did not. He was given an assignment by the risen Lord and he would fulfill it. He said:

25 I have become its [i.e. the church’s] servant, according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, 26 the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. 27 God wanted to make known among the Gentiles the glorious wealth of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. 28 We proclaim him, warning and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. 29 I labor for this, striving with his strength that works powerfully in me.

Paul mentions three things he was commissioned to accomplish. First, “to make the word of God fully known.” The false teachers who were not suffering for the gospel were telling the church there was more to know than what they had been taught. But Paul declares that he has made the word of God “fully” known. Make no mistake: Paul chose the word “fully” on purpose.

“Fully” is a Greek word that means…get ready for this… “full.” It means to “fill to the top.” When a waitress refills your glass at a restaurant and gets your water to the top, you get a little nervous because you want her to stop because if she doesn’t water will pour all over the table and into your lap and then that big wet spot will be embarrassing. The water would do that because when a glass is full there is no more room for more.

That’s what Paul is saying. When we have the word of God we have what we need. And so he “proclaims and warns and teaches” everyone with all wisdom. Not some wisdom. But “all” wisdom. He uses the word “all” to let them know that there is no wisdom that they’ve missed. They’ve been given it all in Christ. There are no more mysteries to discover and no more wisdom to search out, which is what they were being told.

That’s why Paul reminds them that he also made known to them the mystery that “Christ is in you, the hope of glory.” A mystery is something that is hidden. In this case it was the plan of God to reconcile all humankind to himself and to each other. When the gospel was taken to the Gentiles—which was a surprise for many Jews—the mystery was made known. No more mysteries.

Then we find what Paul is really after: that we may present everyone mature in Christ. Did you know that is the goal of the church’s ministry? That you and I become mature in Christ? The word “mature” is sometimes translated “complete” or “perfect.” But what it means is that we are transformed into the likeness of Jesus.

How much thought have you given to this idea? Did you know that the main work God wants to do in your life and mine is to transform us more into the likeness of his Son? Look back over the past five or ten years you’ve been a part of a church. Can you see a change taking place in your own life?

If not, it could be that there has been little struggle. Think about it. When have you learned the most in life? When have you had to grow—intellectually, physically, emotionally—or grow up? Usually when asked people will recall a time that was difficult. A time that was hard. A season where they struggled in some way.

The same is true in the spiritual life. Struggle and being stretched is the only way to grow more and more into a mature person in Christ. That is the aim. That is why Paul is struggling. It was not so that he would sell books or be on television or have a worldwide ministry and a jet. He is struggling to present everyone mature in Christ.

Church is hard work.

It’s like athletics. To be great in athletics is hard work. I’m a tennis fan and this year at Wimbledon 2018 we witnessed a marathon of a semi-final match. Five sets. 26 games to 24 in the final set. Kevin Anderson and John Isner were both “striving” to finish and win that match. It was a hard- fought battle.

Paul uses an athletic word to describe the effort he is putting in to present the church mature. It is a “striving” (1:29). Do you want to look like Jesus? It takes work. It takes effort. Paul in other writings uses the word “training” to describe what we go through to be more like Christ. You can’t just try. You have to train. And training takes striving.

Then he uses the word to describe and how he is “striving” for the Colossians (2:1). Why all the hard work? Others are trying to deceive them. It takes hard work to get a church to the point “… their hearts [are] encouraged and joined together in love, so that they may have all the riches of complete understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery ​— ​Christ.”

Church is hard work when the goal is presenting everyone mature in Christ. Sometimes it’s a battle. When Paul says he is rejoicing to see how “well ordered” they are and “the strength” of their faith in Christ, he uses military language. Church takes striving. Church can be a battle.

And church is hard work when we have a passion to get the gospel to people who have not yet been reconciled to Christ. 96% of all growth in established churches and church plants is from transfer growth. That’s not hard work. That is just setting up something that “sound reasonable” or offers a more “ecstatic or exciting worship” or another set of rules and regulations that make people feel as if they have found something that others have yet to get clued in on.

But getting the gospel to the 4% that few of us are getting to? That’s hard work. And like Paul, it will take some suffering to get it there.

  • We might have to change our schedules.
  • We might have to give up some evenings to spend with the unchurched.
  • We might have to rearrange our priorities so we can be taught and warned and hear the gospel proclaimed.
  • We might have to let ourselves be in situations that are uncomfortable for us. Peter McWilliams once said “Comfort zones are most often expanded through discomfort.”[3]
  • We might have to be willing to be ridiculed.
  • We might have to spend time with people who think differently about us and learn to listen well to them so they can tell their story. Research suggests engaging people who are different from yourself boosts empathy and builds bridges.[4]
  • We might have to give up the idea of church as an easy ride in a Falcon 7X and return to the idea that church is hard work. But you know what the return is? A “yoke” that is easy and a “burden” that is light.

When you and I give ourselves to this kind of hard work we will know the joy of seeing ourselves and others become mature in Christ. That’s something to believe for.

[1] https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/05/29/televangelist-wants-new-jet/653202002/

[2] https://www.ancient-origins.net/ancient-places-europe/infamous-mamertine-prison-and-supposed-incarceration-saint-peter-003447

[3] https://medium.com/the-mission/the-only-time-you-are-actually-growing-is-when-youre-uncomfortable-33198a619ab0

[4] http://www.upworthy.com/london-s-mayor-was-asked-where-he-d-take-trump-in-his-city-his-answer-nails-it?c=upw1

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Jesus. (Period) 3 It’s All About Jesus

Some things just divide people. In 2015 people found themselves divided into two groups. Nations into two camps. Married couples had disagreements over it. Friends took sides because of it. I hate to bring it back up because it will do the same with you. You will have to decide which side you will be on and I hate to be divisive. But I’m going to anyway.

Remember “the dress.” (to see click here) Along with the dress came the big divisive question: is it black and blue or white and gold? People fell on one side or the other. Some switched sides in the same day.

Taylor Swift Tweeted: “I don’t understand this odd dress debate and I feel like it’s a trick somehow. I’m confused and scared. PS it’s OBVIOUSLY BLUE AND BLACK.

Kim Kardashian West Tweeted: What color is that dress? I see white & gold. Kanye sees black & blue, who is color blind?

And the recently engaged Biebs Tweeted: and for everyone asking, I see blue & black.

But clearly the dress is white and gold.

Some things divide people that are not that important. Like the dress. And some things divide people that are really important. Like Jesus. He said:

Do you think that I came here to bring peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on, five in one household will be divided: three against two, and two against three. They will be divided, father against son, son against father, mother against daughter, daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. (Luke 12:51-53)

Jesus is the Prince of Peace, but brings division because not everyone believes he is the Christ, the Son of God. Just throw the topic of Jesus out at the next dinner party you are having in your eclectic neighborhood and see what happens.

Your Muslim friend says she believes Jesus is one of five great messengers. He is a prophet like Abraham and Moses but a lesser prophet than Muhammad.

Your Jehovah Witness neighbor believes that Jesus was Michael the archangel prior to his coming to earth. Jesus is God’s first creation and then everything else was created through Jesus. Jesus is separate from God and not a part of a Trinity.

Your Mormon friend says she believes that God is literally the father of Jesus Christ. Jesus had a mortal mother and an immortal father. Jesus is the literal offspring of God in the flesh.[1] Jesus is just one of many “sons of God” and is referred to specifically as “a son of God” in the Book of Mormon (Alma 36:17).

Still others will say he was merely a great teacher.

Jesus has always stirred up a lot of questions about who he is. When he asked his disciples who the people of his day said he was they answered, “John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, one of the prophets” (Mark 8:28). Divided ideas over Jesus’ identity is nothing new.

It even shook up the church at Colossae. When that church was being taught erroneous ideas about Jesus, Paul wanted to help them see him clearly so that they could stand firm in their faith. And he does so through a song. It’s a song about Jesus and tells of his relationship to God, creation and the church.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For everything was created by him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and by him all things hold together. He is also the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile everything to himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Paul tells us three things about Jesus in this hymn. First, he tells us that Jesus is God. He writes that he is “the image of the invisible God.” The Greek word for “image” is eikon from which we get our word icon. An icon is something that can be seen. God is the “invisible” God. But Jesus, as the image or icon, makes the God we cannot see seeable. (v. 15).

That’s important on many levels. For one, it echoes the teaching of Genesis 1:27 that God created humankind in his “image.” There is something about humans, made in the image of God, in which we were made to represent God. But we failed in the Garden and still do. But Jesus came as “the” image of God and represented him as he is. Perfectly.

Secondly, it’s important to know that when we see Jesus, we see God. We don’t see a prophet. We don’t see an angel. We don’t see a literal son. We see God. When we want to know what God, who we can’t see, is like, we look at Jesus. When we want to know what God, who we can’t see, thinks, we look at Jesus. When we want to know how God, who we can’t see, would receive us, we look at Jesus. Jesus is the eikon of God, making visible what is invisible.

But that’s not all.  Jesus does not just “represent” God in the sense that he stands in for God. He “is” God. For example, when I served on the City Council, one year I also served as Mayor Pro Tem. When the Mayor was out of town or unable to attend an event or make a presentation, I would go in her place. I represented the Mayor, but I was not the Mayor.

Jesus was not a “Pro Tem” type of representation for God. When Paul says Jesus is the image of God he adds that God “was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.” Not just some of God’s fullness. Not just some wisdom, some spirit, some of his word, some glory. All of God is in Jesus. All of his divine essence and power “became flesh” in Jesus.

When others teach that there is some other wisdom you can find in addition to Jesus, Colossians assures you that you need only Jesus. Period. There is no secret wisdom or special knowledge that you need to find. You just need Jesus. Jesus is God in all his fullness.

And Jesus is Creator, not Created. He is “…the firstborn over all creation. For everything was created by him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created through him and for him.” Paul is clear: Jesus is not a created being but himself created everything.

Some have taken the word “firstborn” to mean that Jesus was the first created being and once created, he then created everything else, which would make him equal to creation. But Paul does not allow that when he adds that “everything was created by him.” Simple reasoning tells us that if “everything” was created by him, Jesus is not creation but instead is the Creator of the created.

In addition to this line of reasoning, if Paul had wanted to say that Jesus was the first created being, he had another Greek word he could have chosen: proto-ktizo. But He did not use that word. He chose another word: proto-tokos or “firstborn.” Out of context you could take this to mean the first in a family of things. My brother was the firstborn of the two children my parents had. They knew they could do better so they decided to have another child. Me. Then they stopped with perfection.

Firstborn here is not talking about birth order, however. Firstborn carries with it the sense of priority and status and rank. Jesus is supreme over all “thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities.” There are no other forces you and I have to be concerned about. Jesus is supreme over any that exist.

Learn the song and its verses and you will know who Jesus is—your Creator. And you will know who you are—a created being. Only then can we begin to understand our place in this world.

So Jesus is God. And Jesus is Creator. Then we learn that Jesus is the head of the church. Paul writes clearly: “He is also the head of the body, the church.”  In the Roman Empire, the state was at times envisioned as a body in which all of its parts worked together for the common good.[2] Paul takes this idea and adapts it to the church.

In doing so he reminds us that we are a body that does work together but we work under the head, that is Christ. It is Jesus who brought us together. He “reconciled everything to himself, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” “Reconcile” means to “bring back a former state of harmony.”

Jesus divides. But he also brings harmony and peace through his death on the cross. That’s how we have come to be the church. The language of reconciliation comes from the arena of political negotiation. Parties that are hostile to each other have been brought back together. Paul says this happened cosmically—“things in heaven”—and between us and God and each other—“things on earth.”

That’s important to remember when some teaching or someone tries to divide a church. In the case of the Colossians, it was the false teaching that there was more needed than Jesus. Whenever that happens, or whenever something comes between you and another person in the body, turn to Jesus. He’s the head. He is the one who “holds all things together.” When we sense the body coming apart, we need to bring ourselves together under his authority. When that happens, peace happens.

Peace is needed when divisiveness arises. Divisiveness can happen in churches when we want to have a special feeling, a new expression, or the next “wow” factor. We come by it honestly in a big flashy world. The “new and improved” gets all the attention. Something different gets noticed. The trendy becomes appealing to us.

Jesus can start to seem old and outdated.

But you don’t need anything new. You need Jesus. And you have to make up your mind about who he is. Paul says he is God, the Creator, and the head of the church. He either is or he is not. There is no other option.

Some create another option. A good teacher. A prophet. A literal son of God among many. Jesus doesn’t allow that. He is either God or a gimmick. He is either Creator or crazy. He is either head of the church of which we are a part or just hype and not worthy of our time.

Whatever you do, don’t put him in the same basket as Moses, Elijah, Muhammed, or Joseph Smith. Jesus did not leave that option. You have to decide who Jesus is.

It might help to ask someone like Paul who had inside information and take another look at Jesus.

That’s what people did with the dress. The dress is from the British retailer Roman Originals, and the photo on the store’s website makes it very obvious that the dress is, in fact, blue and black.[3] (to see click here)

If you’ve only thought of Jesus as something other than God and Creator and Head of the church, why not take another look at him. You may see what you did not see before.

[1]https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Jesus_Christ/Conception#Question:_Do_Mormons_believe_that_Mary_was_still_a_virgin_when_Jesus_was_born.3F

[2] Marianne Meye Thompson, Colossians & Philemon, p. 32.

[3] http://www.businessinsider.com/the-roman-originals-black-and-blue-dress-2015-2?r=UK&IR=T

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Jesus. (Period) 2: Hope- filled Prayer

Sometimes you think you’re set and then the bottom falls out. That’s what Terry and Donna McNally might say.[1] Terry lost his sales job in 2008, the year of the Great Recession. Within just a few months he had lost hope.

The condo they had bought 15 years earlier was suddenly worth less than their mortgage. 40% of his 401 (k) retirement savings was gone. Donna quickly became the main provider for the family through the daycare center she ran out of their home.

The hope of retirement went out the window too. Terry found work at a funeral home and at Starbucks making lattes. The co-workers there were young enough to be his grandchildren but they took him under their wing and helped him learn the ropes.

Donna said their hope was to “have a log cabin in northern Michigan and live a nice quiet life” in retirement. Now they can’t imagine that day. They thought they had enough in their savings. Suddenly they discovered they did not.

Their world quaked in 2008. Maybe yours has too. Is it your finances? Your family? Maybe your faith or your future? One minute you’re walking happily down the side-street; the next minute someone pulls the manhole cover out from underneath you.

Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh say that is what has happened in our post-modern world.[2] The modern world was built on what we thought was solid ground. The first floor, as they describe it, was built on science. Science, with its method of experiments and tests that could verify things as true or false, would give us the answers we need.

The second floor was technology which in turn would give us mastery over our environment. Technology would give us power to control the forces of nature around us and harness them for our purposes.

The third floor led to economic growth. Science and technology, when harnessed, would produce wealth, which in turn would raise the standard of living and better the human race.

These floors gave us hope. Hope that we could have a world in which “ignorance was overcome, disease was cured, poverty was eradicated, war was rendered obsolete, there were no material or social needs and which continually improved itself.”[3]

You know how that turned out, don’t you? With the onset of WWI, a new reality emerged. Science and technology did not always make our world better. The Great Depression showed us the economy could crash. Writers began articulating a profound loss of hope.

Welcome to the postmodern world where we once thought we had enough only to find out we did not. It’s a world not unlike the world of Colossae to which the Apostle Paul writes his letter. The Colossians had lost their economic standing when the trade route changed and bypassed them. They knew that an earthquake could level their progress at any moment.

And those that thought they had found what they needed spiritually were being told that it was not enough. Paul gets this report from Epaphrus and talks it out with his companions, Timothy being one of them. At some point he hires a secretary to write out his ideas. Then they sent the letter to the church through someone who would be coached on how to read it publicly to the gathered church.[4]

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, and Timothy our brother: To the saints in Christ at Colossae, who are faithful brothers and sisters. Grace to you and peace from God our Father” (Col. 1:1-2)

It’s important for the church to know that these words come from Paul, an apostle. He was one who had been an eyewitness of Jesus and was commissioned by him to take the gospel to the Gentiles. There was opposition in the church to what had been taught, and Paul in his greeting reminds them that he is the one called to oversee this church. Along with him is Timothy, his special co-worker who to him is like a brother.

Then Paul reminds the church of who they are: saints in Christ and faithful brothers and sisters. Living in Christ will make a person a “saint.” Most of us don’t look in the mirror in the morning and see a “saint,” but God does. We think it means someone who is a bit “holier than thou” when it really just means you are holy, holy in the sense that you are dedicated to God. Your life is moving in a direction toward God and away from the world. And “faithful” here means those who trust in God but also who trust not just once—like when you come to salvation—but trust him over time in all areas of your life.

These are the people in the church. They are “in Colossae”—a geographic location. And they are “in Christ”—a spiritual location. “in Christ” is a favorite term of Paul’s. He uses it eighty-three times. It is our identity and where we live our lives as believers: in Christ.

When Christ is your identity you have hope. That’s what the Colossian church heard next:

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints because of the hope reserved for you in heaven. You have already heard about this hope in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. It is bearing fruit and growing all over the world, just as it has among you since the day you heard it and came to truly appreciate God’s grace. You learned this from Epaphras, our dearly loved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, and he has told us about your love in the Spirit. (Col. 1:3-8)

Hope, to Paul, is something “reserved” for the believer in heaven. It is “laid away.” There was a time before credit cards where, if you didn’t have the money you needed in hand for Christmas gifts, you put the items on layaway. You would pay a down-payment of 10-20% and then make payments along the way until the items were paid off. The store kept your stuff safe for you until you came to take them.

It’s a different hope than we sometimes hear today. The hope Paul is talking about has to do with their eternal salvation. Because we have this hope we can live in this world faithfully and lovingly. The hope we often hear today, however, is very different. It’s a hope that if you are faithful, God will deal you a better hand than the one you have now. It’s typically a hope in a better life now, that any unfavorable circumstance in your life will change.

Paul isn’t talking about that kind of hope. He is saying that because the creator God is keeping your salvation stored in heaven for you, you can live faithfully now no matter what cards you have been dealt.

And they believe they can because they have “already heard about this hope in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you.” “Hearing” in the Bible has to do with obedience to the word of God. In this case, Paul is talking about the Gospel. Not just the idea of gospel many have that is only about the point of salvation. He’s talking about the gospel of what God is doing now in this world and how we are called to be a part of it. These people have heard that truth and are giving their lives to it. It is true, and because it is true and they believe it, they can live now in a way that is faithful to that gospel no matter what this life hits them with.

You may wonder how in this world can that be? What would that kind of life look like? Paul gives us the answers in his prayer:

For this reason also, since the day we heard this, we haven’t stopped praying for you. We are asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, so that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, so that you may have great endurance and patience, joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light. He has rescued us from the domain of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of the Son he loves. In him we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Pay attention to Paul’s prayers. He prays and teaches at the same time. There are four phrases here that show how we can live now under any circumstances we are dealt. They follow his prayer that the believers “be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom.” We often look for some specific will of God in every aspect of our lives. Paul sees God’s will as more of knowing him, and because we know him our lives change to be more like his.

When he uses the words “knowledge” and “wisdom” he is countering what others are teaching, that there is some secret knowledge or wisdom that is more than what they have been taught. The only knowledge we need, according to Paul, is to know Christ. When we know Christ, we have wisdom, which biblically means to learn to live in God’s world in God’s way.

When we do, our lives are lived out with these characteristics:

  • We bear fruit in every good work. The gospel bears fruit (1:6) by growing “all over the world” and it grows in our lives by good deeds that are done publicly that brings glory to God.
  • We grow in the knowledge of God. We are people who dive into learning what the gospel is and into the Scriptures in order to know God.
  • We are strengthened with all power. Literally, the Greek says something more like “being empowered by the power of the might of God’s glory.”[5] The point is this power can only come from God. When you realize your external circumstances may not change, you need internal power to live this life.

It’s not the kind of power you can just muster up. I played tennis recently on an empty tank. Not enough sleep. Not enough breakfast. Aside from the fact that my friend was hitting really well, I just didn’t have the energy to run and perform as I would have liked. I tried to think positive thoughts: “You can run a little harder on the next point.” I gave myself encouragement: “He’ll probably start missing his shots soon.” It didn’t matter. I didn’t have the power I needed to play the game at a good level.

Paul is saying we need the kind of power that gives us endurance and patience to live in this life with trials, suffering, opposition, and just ordinary day-to-day living. And that power only comes from God.

  • We joyfully give thanks. We are people who give thanks, not complaints. And why not? God has given us a great inheritance! He has rescued us and redeemed us. He has done with us what he did with the Israelites trapped in Egypt and the Israelites in Babylonian captivity. We have forgiveness of sins. How can we not become thankful people?

It can happen. Thanklessness is a byproduct of prayerlessness.  Consequently, thankfulness is a byproduct of prayerfulness. Prayer reminds us of who God is and who we are. And it reminds us of who we are in this world. We are a people of hope living in a world where people are dying of hope. We are educated and entertained. We have unlimited recreation options. We have all the techy devices you could imagine. And yet, in this postmodern world people are dying of hope.

School shootings, racial tensions, rising depression, suicide rates increasing 24% in less than twenty years. These epidemics are robbing people of hope. When you think this world is as good as it gets, and you realize it’s not that good, you lose hope.

But when we know there is something else—a hope that is stored for us in heaven—then we can live in this world with faithfulness and love for God and others. And we can know him and be fruitful with good deeds that will show others there is something other than what they can see in the here and now.

Something better. Some of it can be experienced now. All of it can be experienced when heaven and earth come together. You can live knowing you have enough. When your world is shaking, put your hope in heaven. The bottom will never fall out.

[1] https://www.cbsnews.com/news/retirement-dreams-disappear-with-401ks/

[2] J. Richard Middleton & Brian J. Walsh, Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995) pp. 16-17.

[3] Ibid., 17.

[4] McKnight, Colossians, 2.

[5] Thompson, 25.

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Jesus. (Period) 1: When Your World Shakes

Karen and I were in Malibu attending some Bible lectures. Yes, I know the path to a woman’s heart, don’t I? But when the setting is Pepperdine University and you get to breath in the coastal air, it’s a good trade off.

We were in a meeting at night for one of the main lectures. Before the speaker would speak, the worship leader would lead worship. We were standing, singing with the crowd, when I suddenly felt like I was going to fall over.

“Too much California sun,” I thought. Then it happened again. I looked at Karen and she said, “Did you feel that?” At first I imagined it was the Spirit moving through the crowd. Then I remembered most of the people in the room were from the church of Christ and that probably wasn’t a possibility.

That’s when one of the event organizers took a microphone and told us there had been a mild earthquake. Apparently the Californians in our midst hardly noticed. The rest of us did. It was enough to shake us up for the evening.

Earthquakes have a way of doing that. One hits and everything is upended. The people of Haiti will never forget January 12, 2010 when a 7.0 magnitude earthquake turned their world upside down. Already the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, the quake left over 200,000 people dead and some 895,000 Haitians homeless.

It left Evans Monsignac buried for 27 days. A dirt-poor slum dweller—married with two children—Evans had gone to a market to sell rice that day and had just finished selling his last batch when it hit. Suddenly things were flying all around him and he found himself pinned underneath rubble. Unable to move to the left or right, he could only lay straight. He heard the screams of others but said those only lasted a day.

For 27 days he had no food. The only source of drink he had was by sipping sewage that trickled underneath the rubble where he was buried. He said that no one else was involved in his great struggle for survival; just himself and God.[1]

Maybe you have not experienced the kind of earthquake that Evans did. But you’ve had them.

  • You get a note in the mail that your doctor sent advising you to see an oncologist. One quake was what he told you. That one was followed by how he told you.
  • Another recession hits and your company decides it needs to trim its employee base. You’ve been with the company longer which means you have a higher salary which makes you a target for the trimming.
  • You come home one day to find that one who promised to love you forever has decided that forever is too long and is leaving you for someone else.

Sometimes the tectonic shifts come through the changes around us. Milton Jones categorizes four quakes that have brought us to a postmodern world.[2]

  • There was a time the western philosophy and way of life— “the pursuit of capitalism, urbanization, technology, telecommunications, and Western culture would continue indefinitely simply because it was said to be ‘better.’” Those days are gone. Not everyone thinks our Western culture is the best world and only option. And it may not last forever. Our way is not the best way.
  • Traditional standards have disappeared. Pluralism of values have surfaced. Social mores that once were a given are now up for grabs. There is an endless offering of what a person can believe and in a postmodern world one is as legitimate as another. Truth is relative.
  • Information is available at the click of a mouse. In the past, knowledge was held by a certain intellectual few. Now, everyone thinks they are an expert with information available to anyone who has access to the internet. Each person is an expert. Everyone is an expert.
  • The written word has lost its universal meaning.[3] In other words, a text can mean whatever the person reading it decides it means. Every person decides their own meaning.

These quakes are what have made our world a postmodern world. People felt the tremors shifting from the world of the 1950’s to the world of the 1960’s, from the 1970’s and on through 9-11 to where we find ourselves today. Maybe you’ve felt them. You feel the tremors of a world changing at a break-neck pace. When you pause your pace long enough, you feel some instability yourself. If so, you might find some solid ground in the ancient city of Colossae.

The people there were not immune to earthquakes. The city was originally built on a major trade route in the Roman province of Asia Minor (think southwest corner of modern day Turkey). They were known for manufacturing a beautiful, dark red wool cloth. In fact, they became famous for it.

Then in 100 BC an earthquake hit. At least a figurative one did. The trade route changed and left Colossae stranded. The city went from important to insignificant quickly.

Then in 17 CE a real earthquake hit and destroyed Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis. Colossae and the other cities were rebuilt but the damage lingered in their memories until another earthquake hit in 61 or 64 CE during the reign of Nero and destroyed the city. Colossae was rebuilt again, but it never regained its place of prominence. By 400 the city no longer existed.[4]

Paul understood how life can hit you like an earthquake. He had climbed the religious ladder of his day having studied under Gamaliel, one of the great rabbis. He was, as he would later say in his letter to the church in Philippi, a “Hebrew of Hebrews.” This could mean that he knew what tribe he was from – the tribe of Benjamin – in a day when many Jews could not name their ancestral tribe. He could also speak Hebrew at home where others did not. And there was no Gentile blood in his linage.[5]

He upheld his Jewish heritage with passion. So when Peter and John and Stephen started preaching about Jesus and his resurrection and causing a stir, Paul felt compelled to take action to preserve all things Hebrew. He started arresting these Jesus followers, throwing some in jail, and watching with consent as Stephen was stoned to death.

That’s when it hit. On his way to Damascus to arrest any in the synagogue there who were following the “Way,” he was blinded by a great light. The light was followed by a great voice, the voice of Jesus. During three days of blindness he came to see that Jesus was the Messiah he and his ancestors had looked and longed for.

That “quake” changed the course of his life. Before, it was all about stifling the story of Jesus. After, it was all about sharing the story of Jesus. For Paul, it was all Jesus. Period.

And so, when he received word that there were things being required in addition to what Jesus had accomplished on the cross through which people could be saved in the church at Colossae, he picked up his pen and started writing this letter we have in our New Testament.

Most likely he heard the report from Epaphras (1:7 and Phlm 23). Epaphras was probably a convert of Paul’s when he ministered in Ephesus (from 52 to 55) and had then gone home and founded the church in his home city: “Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, sends you greetings” (Col. 4:12). Now Paul wants to respond.

He’s heard that there is something being added to the teaching he traveled thousands of miles to spread that Jesus is sufficient for their salvation. It’s something he believes in so deeply he is now in prison again for teaching it.

What is being taught there that would get Paul’s attention? We get an idea when we read Colossians 2:8-23. It begins with this line: “Be careful that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit based on human tradition, based on the elements of the world, rather than Christ” (2:8).

“…rather than Christ.” Paul warns this church that teaching which adds anything to what Christ has done is teaching that will make you a “captive.” It’s a word that means “to carry someone off as a slave.” It becomes legalism. And legalism is never ending. Like being a slave.

As we read the passage we can infer some set of beliefs in Colossae being taught that places an emphasis on “following certain rules and regulations, apparently promising new and greater depths of spiritual experience and insight.”[6] Colossae was predominantly Gentile.[7] Because of that, other beliefs were present in the Gentile culture and could have been woven into the Christian beliefs on which the church had been established.

But it could be that the false teachers were Jewish. There is evidence that there was a presence of Jews in Colossae.[8] If so, they were the ones adding to Jesus’ sacrifice by incorporating Jewish ideas and practices.

And even so, Paul may be combating a combination of both Hellenistic thought and Jewish ideas and practices. The teaching is coming not from outside the church, but inside, possibly by Jewish Christians.

Whatever its origin, it had to do with a focus on human obedience rather than grace as a way to find freedom in this life. People in Colossae were wanting to find stability with their world, with their gods, and with each other. And they were trying to find it through Jesus Plus, not Jesus. Period.

Don’t we do the same? We trust in Jesus. But we don’t trust him period. We trust in Jesus Plus.

  • Jesus Plus Works. “I need to read my Bible more, need to witness more, need to fill in the blank more…” Anytime anyone makes you feel like that it’s Jesus Plus. Or,
  • Jesus Plus Mission. “How many people are you baptizing this year?” “How many churches have you planted?” “How many people have you discipled?” These questions may be meant to encourage, but at their root is Jesus Plus. Or,
  • Jesus Plus Giving. “Are you giving a tithe to the church?” “Have you given all you can to the church?” When we follow Jesus we give. But we give out of grace, not out of guilt. It’s Jesus Plus. Or,
  • Jesus Plus Gifts. “Do you speak in a tongue?” “Do you have the gift of prophecy?” “Do you have a prayer language?” Questions that hint that there is something else you need other than Jesus to be confident in your salvation that some people have that gets them closer to God. It may. But it’s Jesus Plus. Or,
  • Jesus Plus Subtraction. “Don’t drink this, don’t eat that, don’t do this.” Some things are harmful to the Christian life, but a focus on “not doing” does not lead to life. It’s Jesus Plus.

Jesus Plus is anytime anyone teaches there is “some gimmick, some experience, some secret that will unlock greater depths of insight.” And usually, when that happens, we feel the earth underneath our feet quake.

Paul’s letter to Colossians will help us find stable footing again. It may bring you to Jesus for the first time. It may bring you back to Jesus, period.

Earthquakes can do that. Underneath the rubble, Evans could not turn to his left or right. He could only turn to God. And when we are trapped underneath the postmodern rubble of a world that is collapsing around us—a culture that has crumbled, a world with diverse beliefs, relativistic morals, individualistic understandings—we may be in the best place we can be.

When we don’t know where to turn, we might turn to Jesus.

Period.

[1] Buried for 27 days: Haiti earthquake survivor’s amazing story by Jacqui Goddard in Tampa, Florida 8:00AM BST 28 Mar 2010, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/centralamericaandthecaribbean/haiti/7530686/Buried-for-27-days-Haiti-earthquake-survivors-amazing-story.html

[2] See Milton Jones, Christ—No More, No Less (New Leaf Books: Orange, CA, 2001), 17 for these changes.

[3] Ibid., 20.

[4] https://www.theologyofwork.org/new-testament/colossians-philemon

[5] https://readingacts.com/2011/09/06/paul-a-hebrew-of-the-hebrews/

[6] Marianne Meye Thompson, Colossians & Philemon (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 7.

[7] Scot McKnight, The Letter to the Colossians (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018), 20.

[8] Ibid.

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New Life Ways 11: Faith Multiplication

“How do you raise your kids to have faith?”

That was a huge question on our minds as young parents. Also on our minds was a chance to get away. With two boys under the age of 3 we were needing a few days away from the task of parenting. So we did what any other resourceful young parents would do: we enlisted my parents to come for a few days of bonding with these baby boys.

They came to Denver and we left for Malibu. As soon as we were out of the house Kristofer turned to his grandparents and said, “Now I’m the boss.” They did their best not to laugh in his face. When they called us to tell us about his desire to be the head of the household, our concern to pass on the faith increased.

We hoped Malibu could help. If you think we were shallow enough to be heading to the beach and to rub shoulders with the stars, think again. To be exact, we went to some Bible lectures at Pepperdine University. One class that caught our attention had to do with passing on your faith to your children. We had already attempted some family devotional times with our little ones and the results were nothing to write home about…which we would have had to do back then because we did not have texting or email.

We expected the class to tell us exactly how to conduct a family devotional at home. We envisioned a wonderfully choreographed mini-church service: Karen would lead some songs, I’d preach, the boys would repent. Then we’d all go out to eat somewhere.

What we expected and what we got were entirely different. The couple leading the class were both very educated and were working with Christian universities. The first thing they told us was that they had tried to hold family devotional times and had failed miserably. I felt some relief. “We’re in good company!” I thought.

Then they proceeded to picture for us another way of going about passing our faith on to our children. They took us back to a book in the Torah, which we call the books of the Law: Deuteronomy. Instead of Law these books might better be labeled “instruction” or “guidance.”  The Hebrew word for the noun Torah—which is often rendered “law” in our English—comes from the Hebrew verb yarahYarah means “to throw something, a javelin, say, so that it hits its mark. The word that hits its mark is torah.”[1]

That’s what we wanted: to find a way to let God’s word hit its mark, in this case, our children. Our teachers took us to the place the people in the first century church would have gone to when they placed their faith in Jesus as their Messiah after his resurrection. They did not have the New Testament writings that we have, at least not at first. What they had were the Jewish Scriptures, or our Old Testament.

They also had their way of life and teaching. It was different than our ways today. Today we tend to think we either attend church and hear a sermon or get involved in a class or maybe listen to a podcast online and that is the way we receive instruction. Formal education like that is needed and it is good.

But the Hebrew people practiced another dimension of “instruction” or “guidance.” Two related words to yarah are moreh and horeh. “A moreh is a teacher. Horeh is a very particular teacher—the male parent (horah is the female parent).”[2]

The father and mother in the home are the primary teachers of faith. And although they have information about God that comes from Scripture, more than anything they are to be people who embody those teachings. Abraham Heschel, the twentieth-century Jewish rabbi and theologian, said, “What we need more than anything else today is not textbooks, but text people.”[3]

This is the idea our Malibu mentors were sharing in that class. And their text was Deuteronomy 6:4-9:

Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them be a symbol on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your city gates.

Notice what the Torah taught. First, we listen. That was the primary way any instruction took place. The average person had no books. No iPads. No Bible apps. You learned by listening. Listening was a part of their life.

Listening was also a way they learned to show love. We love the Lord our God by first listening to him. Isn’t that true in any relationship? The person who really listens to you is someone that loves you. But attempt to nurture a friendship where the other person only talks and you will seek out a better friend elsewhere, won’t you?

We show God that we love him when we listen to him. That listening leads to his words being in our hearts. We become text people when that happens. And it is crucial for that to happen if the rest of this commandment is to be followed. Did you notice where the “talking about them [the words]” are to take place?

  • When you sit in your house.
  • When you walk along the road.
  • When you lie down.
  • When you get up.

“What? You mean you don’t have to have some formal family devotional time?” No, you don’t. If you can do that and it works for you, great! But the rest of us can take a cue from these faith ancestors and learn to talk about God and his ways as we go.

Jesus seemed to think that was the way to pass on the faith too. “Go, therefore, and make disciples…” he said (Matthew 28:19). This verse is better translated, “As you are going…” In other words, we can pass on our faith in the natural rhythms of our lives.

Apparently the early church did this well, starting with their families. There are three, maybe four, instances in the New Testament where we are told that entire households were baptized.[4] The “household” could include extended family and even servants. They were text people, and as they walked through their days with their families they talked about the Way of life as it is lived with God.

Paul would later stress the importance of how families were to interact in his writings. “Fathers, don’t stir up anger in your children, but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). The word translated “training” has to do with cultivating their souls. The word for “instruction” has to do with “calling attention to” something. It can mean a gentle correction too.

But notice what the training and instruction is in. Sports? Instruments? Academics? Business? Sure, we need to pass on that kind of wisdom to our children too. But Paul says it is to be “of the Lord.” Paul is reminding fathers of the role they have had since the beginnings of God’s people. The parent is to know the ways of the Lord and cultivate those ways in their children as they are going.

In Paul’s letter to Titus, he instructs Titus to teach the older men and older women in the church to parent the younger men and women in the ways of the Lord.[5] There may have been some formal teaching of these things. But mostly it came from the way Titus would live his life among the people in the church of Crete. As they watched him and interacted with him, and then as the older men and women interacted with the younger men and women, the faith and life and behaviors of Jesus would be passed on to another generation.

What then does it take to pass on the faith to our children? The answer is nothing new. The secret is found where it was found back in Deuteronomy and in the New Testament: parents in the home. The National Study of Youth and Religion revealed some sobering information. Only one percent of teens between the ages of 15 and 17 who were raised by a parent(s) who had little importance for religion in their lives were highly religious in their mid to late 20s.[6]

In contrast, 82% of kids who are raised by parents who talk about their faith at home, who attached great importance to their beliefs, and were also active in their church were also active in their faith as young adults.[7]

Christian Smith, a lead researcher for the study, said that one of the most important factors connected with older teens keeping their faith as young adults was that they had parents who talked about faith and spirituality at home.[8]

One final note from the study: attending church together and worshiping together as a family is another important factor in teens remaining active in their faith into their young adult years.

“How do you raise your kids to have faith?” It’s not rocket science parents. Here are three ingredients you need if you want your children to have faith.

First, listen to the Word. Read the scriptures. But more than read them, embody them. Your children may not read a Bible so much, but they will read you. They watch you. They listen to you. When our oldest son Kris was young he asked me one night after we read a Bible story, “Daddy, what does God look like?” I did what any growing theologian would do. I threw the question back at him.

“You go first. What do you think God looks like?” His answer came quickly. “Like you Daddy.”

In many ways this is true. The first picture our children will have is the one they have of us as fathers and mothers. So listen to the Word.

Second, spend time with your kids. It’s hard to plan for quality time. Inevitably when we planned for quality time, something messed it up. Usually it was me! We learned quickly that when you have quantity time together, quality will show up. Maybe it’s time we pursue our children and their faith more than we pursue our work and our hobbies and our recreation. You only have so much time to spend, so spend it with your children.

Then be intentional in sharing your faith with them. Look for moments to casually talk about God and his ways with your kids. Are they having an issue with another kid at school? Discuss with them how Jesus would want them to deal with it. Have they just been hired for their first job? Talk about money and how God would want us to manage it. Are they in love for the first time? Hand that one over to mom. No, talk to them about appropriate ways to think about the opposite sex and how we are to treat each other in any kind of relationship.

You’ll run up against some things you won’t know how to handle. When you do, go to the fathers and mothers in your church who have traveled the road a bit further. Find the ones who have been listening to the Father and have embodied his ways.

Find text people. You probably don’t have to go to Malibu to find them.

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (Harper & Row: San Francisco, 1989), 25.

[2] Gary A. Parrett and S. Steve Kang, Teaching the Faith, Forming the Faithful (IVP Academic: Downers Grove, Illinois, 2009), 150.

[3] Ibid., 147.

[4] See Acts 10:47-48; 11:14; Acts 16:15; Acts 16:33-34; and 1 Cor. 1:16.

[5] See Titus 2:1-8.

[6] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-briggs/the-no-1-reason-teens-kee_b_6067838.html

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

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New Life Ways 10 Witness

We were on the streets of Lansdowne, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. I didn’t want to be there doing what we were doing that day. I was more introverted at that time and I certainly did not want to bother people I didn’t know.

Maybe you’ve seen and episode of Seinfeld where Jerry gets interrupted by a call from a telemarketer. Jerry responds to him by saying, “I can’t talk right now. Why don’t you give me your home number and I’ll call you later?”

Telemarketer: “Uh, well, I’m sorry. We’re not allowed to do that.”

Jerry: “I guess you don’t want people calling you at home.”

Telemarketer: “No.”

Jerry: “Well, I guess now you know how I feel.”[1]

I felt like the telemarketer. About 20 of us who were students at Abilene Christian University were spending our Spring Break helping a church in Lansdowne and learning what it is like to be a Christian in a big city. I would rather have been learning what it would be like to be a Christian at a beach, but nevertheless I was there because my friend Troy had asked me to come and help him with the group.

On this day our assignment was to go door-to-door in the neighborhoods and ask people if there was anything we could do to be of help to them. At least our opening question was not, “If you were to die today would you go to heaven?” Even so, we received the same general response from the people of Lansdowne. Let me tell you, their doors slam pretty loudly.

Give them credit. The church there was attempting a different approach to the standard “door-to-door witnessing” that had been common for years. Times have changed. There was a day people welcomed a visitor at their front door. Today? Let me ring your doorbell at dinner time or on a Saturday and you’ll probably ask me for my address so you can return the favor.

Door-to-door door-knocking may have started when someone read Paul’s words in Acts 20:20: “You know that I did not avoid proclaiming to you anything that was profitable or from teaching you publicly and from house to house.” Someone got the idea that if Paul went house to house, maybe we should too.

But they may have missed the context. Paul is talking to the elders of the church in Ephesus when he reminded them how he taught them—the elders. He taught them publicly and from house to house. Their houses. The elders’ houses. Elders who knew Paul was coming to their houses most likely because he invited himself.

These efforts stem from wanting to be obedient to Jesus’ words to his disciples. At the end of Matthew Jesus has met his gathered disciples on a mountain in Galilee. He says, “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

This passage is known as the Great Commission. Many see it as the marching orders of the church. It seems to be reiterated by Jesus in Luke’s rendition found in Acts 1:8: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

As we read through the book of Acts we see exactly that happening: the disciples are witnesses eventually to the end of the earth. Paul is under house arrest in Rome before he is eventually beheaded. As Acts ends we read: “Paul stayed two whole years in his own rented house. And he welcomed all who visited him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:30-31).

Those of us who follow Jesus are faced with how to do today what they did then. We want to be obedient to the commands to “make disciples” and be “witnesses.” We just don’t always know how.

The word “witness” comes from the Greek word “martys.” We get our word “martyr” from it. It means someone who is a spectator of anything. If you watched the Houston Astros win the last game of the 2017 World Series, you were a witness. And you could tell someone else about what you saw.

The word is used in a legal sense. When someone knows something about a situation that is being tried, they can be called as a witness. It might be a bit nerve-wracking, but all a person is asked to do is to tell what he or she saw concerning the matter that is being tried.

In a strong sense, a person becomes a martyr when they undergo a violent death because of their strong faith in Christ. Of the twelve apostles, all died a violent death except John, who died peacefully in his old age in Ephesus around AD 98.

When a person witnesses for Christ, he or she is simply telling someone else what they have seen of Jesus.

Peter did just that. He practiced what he preached. In 1 Peter 3:15-16 Peter sends these words to Christians who are starting to undergo persecution or are already deep into it. He says, “but in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, ready at any time to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you. Yet do this with gentleness and respect…”

Here the word “witness” is not used, but the idea is present. Peter says to be ready to give a “defense.” The word is apologia, from which we get the word “apologetics.” It means to give a “reasoned statement or argument.” In other words, when asked, we are to have a good explanation for the hope that is in us.

A mentor of mine named Stanley Shipp used to say, “Now, a person is probably not going to come up to you and say, ‘Can you give me a reason for the hope that is in you.’ That’s not how they are going to ask the question.” Instead, Stanley said they are going to watch our lives and see something different. And when they do, they will ask what that difference is. Then we give an apologetic. We witness.

That’s what the early church did. That they witnessed may not surprise you. How they witnessed might. We know the church grew. The book of Acts tells us that it did in five different places. But early church writings tell us too. In the second-century Diognetus wrote that Christians “day by day increase more and more.”[2] At the start of the third century Tertullian, a theologian in North Africa, wrote—somewhat exaggerated—that the Christians were “a great multitude of men—almost the majority in every city.”[3]

Scholars have estimated that by the time of Constantine in the fourth century the Christians numbered 5-6 million, or between 8-12% of the population. Rodney Stark then calculated for this kind of growth to happen, the church grew for the first three centuries at a rate of 40% per decade.[4]

Historians may differ on numbers and percentages, but one thing we know: the church grew. Wouldn’t you like to see that kind of growth today? Here’s the surprise. The church’s growth was not organized. There was not mission program. There certainly was no door-to-door evangelism training. (Did I hear someone say, “Thank goodness!”?)

From the Christian writings—and there is much that remains—from the second and third centuries there is not one treatise on evangelism that can be found. And when a writer refereed to the Great Commission, it was to speak about the Trinity or baptism but was not used as a way to encourage missionary activity.

You might like to know that the early Christians did not use their worship services to attract new people. Think about that the next time you get a flyer in the mail or see an ad on Facebook and see how far we’ve drifted. They believed the worship service was designed to glorify God and build up the believers, “not to evangelize outsiders.”[5]

How did they grow then? In a short statement: they walked their talk. Cyprian—bishop of Carthage in North Africa—wrote in 256: “we do not speak great things but we live them.”[6] In the 150s Justin (who was martyred—there’s that word again—in 165) said that the “Christians are growing in numbers because their lives embody ‘the fair commands of Christ.’” … He believed that “the effectiveness of the Christians witness depends on the integrity of the believers’ lifestyles.”[7]

There are many other writings from the ancient Church Fathers that can instruct us in how the church grew then. It can be summed up in the idea that they believed in “patience.” They valued the idea of not getting in a hurry and letting God shape them and do his work. Patience worked out in their lives in a variety of ways, one of which Justin said was that it is “important for Christians not to quarrel like other people, and it is essential that they live their ‘good works’ visibly in the sight of others.”[8]

We live in a “instant” world. We want things to happen now. God does not work that way. He is patient. Peter, who denied Christ, knew about that patience: “The Lord does not delay his promise, as some understand delay, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). Paul, who persecuted the Christians, knew of God’s patience: “Or do you despise the riches of his kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).

That repentance, or changed life, is the witness of the early church. Origen, a theologian of the third century, “envisioned the world as a great theater filled with spectators, all of them watching to see how the Christians respond to persecution.”[9]

We may not be undergoing the same persecution our faith ancestors did and that some are undergoing today, but we are being watched. Our lives are our witness. And according to Jesus our main witness is our love for each other: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). We don’t need a concert level worship time. We don’t need the newest building. We don’t need whatever the latest conference tells us we need.

We need love for each other. And we need a word for others. That’s what witnesses do. They share what they have seen. When someone asks about what they see in us, we share what we have seen in Jesus.

  • We listen well to their questions. We’re slow to speak, quick to listen.
  • We give answers, but we don’t have to know all the answers.
  • We can be certain of our hope, but we don’t have to be arrogant. I recently heard a preacher who was certain that the days of creation were 24-hour days and anyone who disagreed is a heretic. (The Hebrew word can mean “a twenty-four hour period”, “a half-day”, and “a season of time.” The post-Christian world we live in will not be attracted to that certainty that comes off as arrogance. (Especially when they can sense, sometimes better than we, that the length of “day” is not the main point of the Creation story anyway.)
  • And we can be patient like our ancestors were. We don’t have to “close the deal” in one conversation, or one week, or one month, or even one year. If God can give us time and give us space, we can do the same for others.

You can knock doors if you want. But you may do better to hear the knock at your door. If you open it, Jesus will come in, sit down with you, and eat with you. You will go deeper in your devotion to God and your love of other believers. When you do that with patience, people will ask questions.

They may even give you their number so you can call them.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QRh1CMC3OVw

[2] Kreider, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church, 7.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, 6.

[5] Kreider, 11.

[6] Ibid., 13.

[7] Ibid., 15.

[8] Ibid. 16.

[9] Ibid., 19.

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New Life Ways 9 Fruit

The way we experience church in America can make our Asian friends laugh. Francis Chan tells the story of how he had made a trip to be with some college age people in the underground church in China.[1] They were telling him all the stories they had about persecution they were experiencing. They were fired up about their stories.

Chan told them that was not how church in America was.  He said:

We have buildings in America we call churches. You go to them and sit for an hour or an hour and a half and someone teaches you a message. And if you don’t like it, you can go to the church down the street. If you get in a fight with someone you can go to another church. If you want a divorce and they’re against divorce you can go to another one. If their music is better, if their children’s ministry is better…that’s what we call church.

That’s when they started laughing. Hysterically. They were wondering how the church in America got to where it was. They were wondering how a person could go to the church gathering and leave thinking, “I didn’t really like it.”

We got there because somewhere along the road we decided to ask the wrong question. The wrong question is, “What kind of church would I like?” At times that question is phrased in a different way: “What kind of church would people like?”

And so the kind of church people would like is one that meets in a nice, new building. There would have to be a speaker that is a cross-between a Biblical scholar, a GQ cover, and Jerry Seinfeld. People would have to be friendly, at least as friendly as the people at Chick-Fil-A. The music would have to be on par with the latest band that has played Cynthia Woods.

If a meeting did not bring in many people, we would change the meeting. If people complained that the worship time was too long, we would shorten it. If no one came for prayer gatherings, we would delete them from the schedule.

Our faith family in other parts of the world can see what we cannot see. We have asked the wrong question about church.

You may be wondering what the right question is. Before I tell you, notice what was happening to the believers in the early church. “They ate their food with joyful and sincere (frankness and openness) hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:46-47).

The first church had “joyful” hearts. The motif of joy is present in Luke’s writing, both the Gospel of Luke and his follow-up called Acts. Let me walk you through some examples:

  • The angel says that people will rejoice because John, a prophet, and Jesus, the Savior, will be born (Luke 1:14, 44, 47, 58; 2:10).
  • Even followers of Jesus who are persecuted can rejoice because following him is worth the cost (Luke 6:23; 7:23; 8:13; 10:17-20).
  • God experiences joy when his children are saved and healed (Luke 13:17; 15:5-32).
  • Israel can rejoice because Jesus is their king (Luke 19:37; 24:41; 24:52).
  • The church can rejoice because of the community (Acts 2:46; 5:41).
  • Gentiles rejoice because the word has come to them (Acts 8:39; 12:14; 13:48; 13:52; 14:17; 16:34).
  • The church rejoices when Gentiles receive the word (Acts 11:23; 15:3, 31).

There is a lot of joy in Luke/Acts. People rejoicing with other believers. People rejoicing in church. People rejoicing in homes. People rejoicing in prison. People rejoicing when sinners get saved. People rejoicing when they are persecuted.

Like the underground church in China. Where is their joy coming from? And where did it come from in the first church? Wouldn’t we like to know?

Luke knew the answer to that question. He used joy to help us understand what God is up to by making us wonder where the joy is coming from. For example, the shepherds get the announcement that the Savior has been born. It is “good news of great joy for all the people.”  You hear that every Christmas season when Linus quotes Luke 2:8-14.

The social status of the shepherds should have made them the last to hear this announcement. Instead, they were the first. The world as we know it is getting turned upside down. And that’s a reason for joy. We should expect that the common worldview will be turned on its head.

But woven within Luke’s verses of joy is the cross. He weaves joy throughout his writing because joy comes to those who are saved. And it comes to those who are about the things of God. When we are about his things that lead to salvation, joy is a by-product.

And that is why the early church knew joy: they were about the things of God. They were “devoted” to the Apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, to prayer, to meeting in the temple courts and from house to house, and to being generous givers.

Let’s be honest. Are those things we would list if asked “what would bring you joy?” If we’re like a recent survey, probably not. The American Bible Society releases their “State of the Bible” survey results every year.[2] Already that sounds pretty stuffy, doesn’t it? The report aims to show how people are engaging with the Word of God. That would be the first devotion listed, that of being devoted to the Apostles’ teaching.

One part of the survey asked Americans if they thought the Bible was a daily necessity. Now, remember, this is asked of people who probably can quote Jesus’ saying that “Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

The ABS asked their question and put the Bible alongside coffee, something sweet and social media. 37% responded that coffee was necessary for their day. 28% said something sweet was essential. 19% said they had to have their social media fix every day.

If the answers were a race to finish last, the Bible would win hands down. It came in at 16%.

In case that brings you down, here’s some other news that might help. The study also shared some demographic-specific data. People who identified as “Bible-centered” are most likely to say it’s a daily necessity to the tune of 61%. But that’s like asking a body-builder if the gym is a necessity in their life.

Joy is missing in our lives and so is Bible reading as a necessity. Could there be a correlation? As America becomes less Christian are we becoming less joyful? Another survey says that we are only 33% happy.[3] It’s up from the previous year of 31%, but if two out of every three people you bump into are unhappy, watch out.

John Gerzema, CEO of the Harris Poll, says that “To me, it feels like a cultural lack of presence… we are so caught up in our texting, multitasking, jobs and commutes that we seem to have less and less free time. Older people age 65+ are the happiest.”[4]

Joy is missing in our lives and so is connection, the kind where we are present to other people. The early church would call it fellowship. Could there be a correlation?

One more study just for grins. Researchers from the University of Zurich in Switzerland conducted a survey to see if there was a link between generosity and joy. Hint: there was. They said that a “…piece of good news was that it didn’t seem to matter how generous people were. Planning to give away just a little bit of money had the same effects on happiness as giving away a lot. …. at least in our study, the amount spent did not matter…It is worth keeping in mind that even little things have a beneficial effect—like bringing coffee to one’s office mates in the morning.”[5]

Joy is missing in our lives and so is generosity. People give on average 3% of their income to charity.[6] Could there be a correlation?

Could there be a correlation to the devotion of the early church to the Apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayer, meeting together, and giving to the joy they experienced?

We want joy, don’t we? Advertisers try to sell us joy. It’s promised in every commercial or ad you see. White teeth: joy. New car: joy. Eat at this restaurant: joy.

Joy is a big topic in Luke’s writing. It’s a big topic because God wants his church to be joy-filled. Like any Father who wants to see his children giggling with joy, so God wants his church to find his joy. And his joy is something different than what the latest product or trip or purchase can give.

That kind of joy is dependent on what is happening around us. His kind of joy is a decided joy that is rooted in what is happening in us. When his Spirit—another favorite topic of Luke’s—is in us, there is joy.

Peter knew that joy. He wrote: “Though you have not seen him, you love him; though not seeing him now, you believe in him, and you rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8,9).

Peter was not writing to people living the lifestyles of the rich and famous. He is writing to people who have been displaced, people who were facing persecution, some separated from families, and their futures upended.

All their stuff had been taken. But Jesus was not taken from them. He was the source of their joy. And since no one could separate them from Jesus, no one could take their joy. These Christians were joyful Christians, which is a bit of redundancy. What other kind is there? It’s like saying a “tall skyscraper.” Or “dry desert.” Or “handsome Rick.”

When our joy is decided instead of dependent, our joy percentage will increase. The question, “What kind of church do I like?” will only disappoint you. It’s the wrong question.

The right question is this: “What kind of church does God like?” Instead of changing the exterior workings of the church, what if we let God change our hearts? He tells us how that happens. It happens when our heart devotions get aligned with his.

And by now you can guess what those are: The Apostles’ teachings, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, prayer, meeting together, and generosity. When we are being the church that God likes, joy will show up.

The early church was not known for their buildings. They had none. They weren’t known for their denomination. There were none. They were known by their joy.

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and signs were being performed through the apostles. Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple, and broke bread from house to house. They ate their food with joyful and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.

Try God on this one. Devote yourself to the things that make up the church he likes. And see if your joy gets back to where the church’s joy was in the beginning. We want people laughing with us. Not at us.

[1] https://churchleaders.com/pastors/videos-for-pastors/324549-francis-chan-what-kind-of-church-would-people-like-is-the-wrong-question.html

[2] https://1s712.americanbible.org/cdn-www-ws03/uploads/content/state-of-the-bible-2018.pdf

[3] http://time.com/4871720/how-happy-are-americans/

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://time.com/4857777/generosity-happiness-brain/

[6] https://www.financialsamurai.com/the-average-percent-of-income-donated-to-charity/

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