All Things to All People (a meditation)

We live in a world where it is easy for us to fall under the sway of the seemingly all-demanding “I”. It’s been like that ever since Genesis 3 where Satan lured Eve into eating from the forbidden tree by speaking words exalting personal autonomy: You will be like God (Genesis 3:5). When we come to Jesus we realize that this self-worship gets us nowhere good and that true happiness and true life comes from the One who told us to deny self daily (Luke 9:23).

As we read in 1 Corinthians 8&9, Paul learned that life in Jesus means great freedom. There are still things that are right and wrong, things to do and avoid, but in letting go of self and following the great Savior-King we possess many great freedoms a life of self-worship and sin did not afford us.

Yet, for the sake of the gospel—in people coming to Jesus and in people growing in Jesus, Paul was willing to lay aside certain rights. We read:

But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block for the weak. … Therefore, if food makes my brother or sister stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother or sister stumble. ~1 Corinthians 8:9, 13

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. … I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. ~1 Corinthians 9:19, 22

Paul wasn’t advocating a compromise of faith. He did not start worshiping Greek and Roman gods and goddesses in order to connect with people in his culture. Nor did he ever give a hint that they might be true gods or goddesses. Paul never took his eyes off Jesus crucified, resurrected, and ascended, the only solution to sin and the only way to salvation.

Instead, Paul advocated a willingness to set aside personal freedoms in order to see as many people as possible come to know Jesus and grow in Jesus.

He wasn’t afraid to offend with the gospel, as the story and person of Jesus is offensive to certain people (1:23). But beyond that he would do all that he could to avoid offending another. So if a fellow Christian, young in their faith, struggled with the appropriateness of eating meat sacrificed to idols, then Paul said, “I will avoid it.” If he was sharing Jesus with one of his fellow Jews and they ate fish and lamb but not pork, then he would eat only fish and lamb.

This is what Paul meant by all things to all people. Except for the gospel and Jesus himself, if something Paul did or felt he was free to do would hinder his witness to another, then he would set aside his freedom for the sake of the other. This is the reversal of Genesis 3 and the propensity to exalt self, instead choosing to walk in the same humility and other-concern that Jesus showed by going to the cross in the first place. This is the same attitude we should have as well.

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

The Truest Freedom (a meditation)

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” ~ Jesus, John 8:31-32

Slavery, in its various forms, has been a dehumanizing blight throughout many cultures of human history. At the root of slavery is both pride and selfishness. Pride manifests itself in the attitude that says, “I am better than you, stronger than you, and smarter than you, therefore I will oppress you.” Selfishness manifests itself as it says, “I will make you work to serve my needs.” Both pride and selfishness are antithetical to the gospel where God took on our limitations to live for us and then die for us, all from shear grace.

But slavery did not begin with a human culture where one man oppressed another. Instead it began in the Garden of Genesis 3 where Adam and Eve, meant to lovingly rule the world together and with their offspring, bowed their hearts to the whims of a creature, Satan, instead of to God their creator.

As they disobeyed God, the stewards of creation became slaves of their sin.

In John 8 Jesus spoke to a group of Jews who “had believed in him.” To drive home the point that following him had to be about more than belief, Jesus spoke of obedience. If you abide in my word is the phrase Jesus used to describe devotion to him. First, we put ourselves under his teachings so that it could be said we live in them, they direct our lives. Second, we actually live according to that direction.

Submit ourselves to Jesus, the one true Savior-King, and we will know truth and this truth sets us free. It was here that these Jews bucked against the teachings of Jesus. “What do you mean free? We’re the offspring of Abraham, we’ve never been enslaved to anyone!” they exclaimed, forgetting the 400 years their ancestors had lived as slave labor in Egypt and forgetting at that moment they lacked the right to be a self-governing people since the Roman conquerors dictated law and life.

But Jesus had a different kind of slavery and freedom in mind, anyway. In 8:34 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” This enslavement knows no bounds. It looks at no person and backs down. It matters not age, gender, ethnicity, social standing, or education. As Paul wrote in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Every human being who has ever lived, other than Jesus himself, suffered the same fate as our first parents, for like Adam and Eve we daily choose the bite of fruit over the word of God.

Yet we find hope. Jesus continued, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (8:36). Coming to follow Jesus as Savior-King, we find true freedom. Not only this, but we find an eternal home. One verse prior, Jesus said, “The salve does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.” In other words, even if a slave has the privilege of working, eating, and sleeping in his master’s house, he is still not truly a son. He has no right to claim inheritance on the home. He is not family. A son, a child on the other hand has the full right of inheritance.

That is who we are in Jesus—sons and daughters of God, adopted as part of the family, and fellow heirs with Jesus (Romans 8:12-17). As a slave to sin, we own nothing; as a child of God, the Father has given us everything he gives to Jesus the Son, and Jesus gladly shares it with us.

This is the greatest freedom we could hope for!

Yet, those who heard Jesus that day still rejected his words. They chose to argue and ultimately called Jesus demon possessed (8:52). And here we find one of the saddest truths of sin: until Jesus sets us free, we don’t actually realize or accept that sin had us enslaved. The sin that enslaves us also deceives us with its passing pleasures (Hebrews 11:25), so that we think our enslaved life is a better life.

But Jesus keeps calling out, “Follow me and I will set you free.” Will you hear his call? (You can click here for more information about following Jesus)

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

This changes everything (a meditation on how the gospel confronts self)

Paul, in prison, met a runaway slave named Onesimus. Onesimus had been on the run after stealing from his master, a church leader in Colossae named Philemon. In his time with Paul, Onesimus heard the gospel and became a follower of Jesus. Sometime after this Paul decided to send back Onesimus to Philemon with a letter in hand in which we see the great call to a different life for a follower of Jesus.

The gospel changes everything. We see this throughout the Bible. Sin has infested the world and among many other vices it has found a common home in each person’s heart manifested through self-focus and selfish desires. We want to be our own kings and queens. We each want to rule our own lives in pursuit of our own happiness.

Yet when confronted with Jesus and his message we are confronted with a great love demonstrated in an other-focusedness. Yes, God does all things for his glory and fame because that is the greatest good. But in doing all things for his glory and fame, Jesus took on our flesh, became our sin, absorbed the Father’s wrath for our sake, and gave us his life. God is the self-giving God as he saves us sinners from our own sin with which we rebelled constantly against his goodness.

Self-giving in joyful love, and he calls us to do the same.

So Paul wrote to Philemon. By grace through faith in Jesus, Onesimus had undergone a spiritual release. Once enslaved to sin he was now free in Christ, free to live for God and his glory. Paul desired that Onesimus receive a social status which granted the same. In this way, Paul was able to work (at least in one situation) to undercut a societal system which neglected the truth that all people are equally created in the image of God; and he was able to highlight the reality that no matter your background if you belong to Jesus you belong as brothers and sisters in the great Family.

In Paul’s short letter we see a couple of realities about how the gospel changes things. First, Paul as an apostle had authority in Christ to command Philemon to let Onesimus go free, but he desired to accomplish this another way: he appealed to Philemon’s own transformation by the gospel. Paul wrote:

I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your goodness might not be by compulsion but of your own accord. For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother (Philemon 14-16).

Paul trusted that God had been working goodness in the heart and life of Philemon and that when he came to understand the situation then he would see it as Paul. Yes, Onesimus had been a slave to Philemon. Yes, Onesimus even stole from him. But that was before; this is now—he’s a beloved brother, he’s part of the family, and he’s together with you, Philemon, a member of God’s household. Treat him as such. Paul appealed to the realities of the gospel above those of society.

Second, Paul himself was willing to assist two brothers. Paul mentioned the fact that Onesimus had stolen from Philemon. And Paul told Philemon, “If he owes you anything, charge it to me. I’ll pay it.” Then as a seeming side but getting to the heart of the issue of the gospel and the Family, Paul reminded Philemon, “You owe everything to me.” Paul spoke here of spiritual realities.

Though he himself had not gone to Colossae, the gospel did under the guidance and leadership of Paul. Philemon was a follower of Jesus and therefore one who had passed from death to life because of Paul’s gospel work. Without God using Paul to spread the gospel through the nations, then Philemon would have been without a gospel witness and still lost in his sin. Money and possessions infinitely pale in comparison to life in Christ and forgiveness from sin. Without the former one might suffer from some temporary lack; without the latter one will suffer the judgment of eternal hell.

This was Paul’s way of saying to Philemon, “What’s a few dollars compared to your soul?”

Love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Paul hoped that Philemon’s love for Christ and for Paul’s work in his life would lead to forgiveness of the debt Onesimus owed. But even if Philemon demanded repayment, Paul was willing to cover Onesimus’ sin by having it charged to his account. Paul’s love for both his brothers in Christ was that great.

This is what the gospel does in the lives of followers of Jesus. If we have truly encountered Christ, we will not be left the same. We become people who value love, grace, and mercy towards others above whatever we might gain from life. The gospel moves us from being self-focused to being other-focused in how we live and prioritize our lives.

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

When Individualism and Autonomy Rule (a meditation on the sense of self in the Christian life)

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in their own eyes. ~ Judges 21:25

If you were looking for a Bible verse to describe the attitude and ethic in western culture today, Judges 21:25 might be your verse. We live in a culture that values individualism and autonomy so much that the greatest wrongs seem to be offending someone’s feelings about himself or herself and limiting a person’s self expression.

We even see a love for autonomy in many churches. The churches of my tradition tend to wear it proudly as a badge: We are an autonomous body under no other ecclesiastical control.

Yet, if you read through the book of Judges where this verse is used twice (17:6 being the other time), it is clearly not a good attitude. In this way the verse reflects a most dangerous idol: seeing ourselves as ‘god.’

On the one hand there is goodness in these traits when properly ordered. All you have to do is read Genesis 1-2, Psalm 139, Romans 12, or 1 Corinthians 12 among other passages. God created each of us unique. God loves variety in his creatures and not a strict uniformity. Even people created in the image of God and followers of Jesus filled with his Holy Spirit have different looks, personalities, talents, abilities, experiences, tastes, and gifts. We are unique individuals. Through Jesus God brings these unique creatures together in the great mosaic of the body known as church.

And as we age in life, we reach a point where God says we leave mother and father. We grow up and our family dynamic changes. Where once we lived under the care and decision making of adults, we become the adults who make decisions and care for others.

There is room for individuality (which is different than individualism—the former being a sense of our uniqueness, the latter being an attitude that posits individual freedom as the highest good) and autonomy, to a certain degree.

Yet we go off track when we value these things over obedience to God, accountability to others, and the good of the community. God didn’t create us to be on our own and completely separate from the influence of others. He created us to live within the midst of vertical and horizontal relationships.

Vertically, we are to submit to God and to his rule. This is why Jesus isn’t interested in just portions of our lives. He’s not interested in being a priority on a list of many priorities. He demands everything from us and calls us to follow him (Luke 9:23). When we choose to let our sense of individualism and autonomy dictate to God what we think is right, instead of submitting ourselves under what he has declared is right, we have made an idol of ourselves. Just like every other false god the world has to offer, in the end the god of self will crumble and fall. God gives us plenty of room for creativity and self expression, so long as we live under his good rule. Self idolatry enslaves and destroys.

Horizontally, we are to love, serve, and submit ourselves to others. When we become followers of Jesus we give up our autonomy to God and to the community of his people for their good and ours. “Don’t judge me” is a mantra of our age. But no Christian should ever utter this phrase to another Christian.

According to Paul in 1 Corinthians 5, we are not to judge people who make no claim to be followers of Jesus. Yes, they live in sin; and yes, they do things of which we should not partake. What they need from us, though, is to see the love, grace, and joy that we have in Jesus. They need to hear the good news that is the message of hope in him. They don’t need our condemnation or our judgment. As Paul wrote, God is their judge; not us.

But when it comes to each other, Paul wrote that we judge one another. This is the same thing Jesus said in Matthew 7. Yes, we must judge ourselves first and be dealing with our issues (the planks in our eyes), but that allows us to help our brothers and sisters in Christ with their issues (the specks in their eyes). It’s also what Jesus said in Matthew 18. If you see a brother or sister sin, first go to them in private and seek to win their repentance. If they refuse, then go with one or two others; and then if they still refuse, take it to the church.

The goal of our judgment of each other also is not condemnation. In Galatians 6:1, Paul said to seek to restore with a spirit of gentleness those who are caught in sin. This is a loving concern that wants to help our brothers and sisters be fully committed to Jesus, as should be our desire for our own lives.

So in the Christian life, we must keep our sense of being an individual and our desire for autonomy in their proper places. They should not rule as king and be, in our minds, our greatest virtues. We should first submit ourselves to God and second submit ourselves to others. A person committed to Jesus doesn’t look at other people and say, “I don’t care what you have to say, I’m going to live the way I want to live.” Instead they look at others and say, “Since we are brothers and sisters, I want you to help me follow Jesus more fully as I want to help you do the same.”

May it not be said of us, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Instead may we crucify the idol of self and do what is right in the eyes of our Lord.

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

“How could God love and use me?” (a meditation on the regrets of the past and the joys of now)

9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. ~ 1 Corinthians 6:9-11

Shame.

We all feel it at different times, either for a present failure or a past way of life. The past comes back to haunt you, some people say. We can fear who we were, what we did, and what we feel like doing. It’s these times that the enemy comes and whispers in our ears, “God could never use you. You’re worthless.”

When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church, he wrote to a group of people with a lot of problems. He pulled no punches, either. He told them in no uncertain terms, “The unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Our sin separates us from the goodness of God.

Paul listed several examples in which most of us could find a home. Maybe its sexual immorality where we have twisted God’s good gift. Maybe its greed and covetousness. Maybe its depending too much on a bottle or a can to drown sorrows and search for happiness. Maybe its…

Paul knew many in the Corinthian church had experienced the things he mentioned. And such were some of you. If that is where Paul stopped, these verses would not carry much hope and joy.

Yet he continued with but—a most powerful tiny contraction. This but changes things. This but pulls us out of shame and guilt and leads us into the joy of God’s grace. This but shows us a new person and a new identity.

In Jesus, we are washed. The sins of our lives once stained us like a child covered in dirt and grime after a day of romping through the mud. Yet God stripped those dirty clothes away, bathed us, and gave us fresh clothes unmarred by the filth. In Jesus we are sanctified. This is to be pure, holy, and righteous like Jesus. It’s a process throughout this life, but it’s also a guarantee. God will rid us fully of the presence and effects of sin, and it will be glorious. In Jesus we are justified. On our own there is shame and there is guilt. We have fallen well short of the righteousness God requires. Yet in giving us Jesus, the one who took our sin, God writes righteousness fulfilled throughout the story of our lives.

We are new. We are set free. We are forgiven. We are God’s beloved children.

underwaterLost and condemned in unrighteousness—such were some of you; but not anymore. This is a glorious breath of fresh air as we emerge from the pool in which we were drowning.

The enemy, Satan, wants to remind us of what was to take our minds off what is. He wants us to dwell on the thoughts of shame and guilt, to suffocate under the questions: “How could God love me? Look at all I’ve done. How could God use me? Look at how much I have failed.”

When God washed our sins away, he washed away the shame and guilt as well. He gives us new life and makes us part of his Family through Jesus precisely because he loves us already (1 John 4:7-21). He gives us new life and makes us part of his Family precisely because he has determined already to use us for his glory (Ephesians 2:10).

When you feel the weight of shame and guilt, when you hear the voice echo in your head, “God can’t use you, you’re not good enough.” Say, “You’re right, Satan, but Jesus is. In him I rest and live. In him I have been washed, sanctified, and justified. In him, I am a child of God and will be used for his glory.” Let this joy of the now overwhelm the regrets of the past.

This post is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church.

Freedom and Maturity (a meditation)

20Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. ~ Romans 14:20-21

Don’t touch, don’t taste, don’t think about… There are many things that people turn into rules because they think they’re wrong. There are even things people devoted to following Jesus will debate. Some have no problem seeing a movie with an R rating, while others refuse to go. Some will listen to a wide variety of music, while others will only listen to what is played on Christian radio. Some will celebrate holidays like Christmas, while others chose to forgo.

In Romans 14, Paul wrote on the topic of liberty and doing. In Christ and free from the Old Testament Law, we are free to do many different things. Unless it is something that God explicitly condemns, we are free to partake. Yet for different reasons, often related to upbringing or a cultural religious background, people see certain things as wrong even if the Bible does not condemn such things.

Paul told us to expect this and to understand that it has to do with faith and conscious. Even if we can’t find a command against it, if it bothers our conscious then we must avoid it because we won’t be doing it out of faith and whatever we do without faith is sin.

Yet Paul also taught that greater maturity in Christ results in greater freedom.

Paul had been raised as a Jew with a religious background that prevented the eating of many different foods including pork and shellfish. Yet Paul also understood that through Jesus and his fulfillment of the Law, there are no longer any unclean foods. As a follower of Jesus, his conscious was clear to enjoy a wide variety of food including the previously condemned pork.

Paul also knew that not every brother or sister of his in Christ would see it the same as him immediately, if ever. Though he knew he could freely enjoy anything he wanted, he decided that if it would harm the conscious of another Christian then he would forgo eating these foods.

Romans 14 teaches us a two-fold truth about spiritual maturity as a follower of Jesus: (1) greater maturity leads to greater freedom; but (2) greater maturity also leads to greater concern for our brothers and sisters in Jesus. Maturity leads us to defer our wills and desires out of love for those around us.

Paul spoke of the same thing in 1 Corinthians 9:22 in regard to our witness. He wanted to become all things to all people in order to win to Christ as many as he could. This was not a violation of his convictions or conscious in order to fit in, this was rather a laying aside of his own ambitions to reach others.

So it is to be with us. The test of our maturity in Jesus is not how much we know but how much we love. Are you willing to set others above your own desires?

This devotion is part of our ongoing journey through the Bible as a church…

Saying ‘Yes’ in a World of ‘No’ (pastor’s blog)

noRecently my town decided to graffiti its own Main Street sidewalks with the message: no bicycles or skateboards. I’m sure the intention is safety. People walk in and out of the shops and storefronts, and you don’t want anyone young or old to be taken out by a person on a bicycle. But it made me think of two things: (1) perhaps there is a better way to state the message, like a nice looking sign that reads for the safety of others, please walk your bicycles or skateboards on these sidewalks; and (2) how swift we are to shout No! even in church, and maybe we shouldn’t be.

Of course, we get no ingrained into our minds at an early age. Children learn to talk by mimicking those who talk to them. Often no is one of the first words a child learns to say, in part because we yell it at them so often. And again, our intentions are noble—we want our children to be safe and not running into the road or pulling books from the shelf down upon their heads or sticking fingers or other objects into the tempting little holes that deliver electricity to us.

The Bible even has plenty of no. If you read the Ten Commands in Exodus 20, eight of them contain the phrase “do not.” Yet something changed whenever a certain expert in the law asked Jesus about the greatest commandment. Jesus didn’t quote a do not, rather he said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40, ESV).

Jesus turned the do not into a do—negatives into positives. This isn’t to say that when you read through the New Testament you won’t find not and no scattered throughout various commands. You do, but you tend to find them couched heavily within a whole bunch of do (take Romans 12 or Ephesians 4, for example).

The ethic for the Christian is that we are free from sin and the law and free to live for God. We still have to have the occasional not thrown in because our old nature of sin still clings to us kicking and screaming and trying to drag us down with its last gasps. But with hearts free to love God, we are free to pursue and free to follow and free to do.

Sometimes people talk about the church and Christians being known more for what we’re against than what we’re for. Perhaps this is because we get more caught up in running from the old than running towards the new. It’s time that we change that.

Take Galatians 5:22-23 for example: “But when the Holy Spirit controls our lives, he will produce this kind of fruit in us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Here there is no conflict with the law” (NLT).

May we be known for love—for self-sacrifice, serving others, and seeking their best. May we be known for joy—for true happiness that rests in God, his goodness, and his grace. May we be known for peace—for seeking to reconcile people to God and to each other, being voices of grace and unity when we face bitterness and division. May we be known for patience—for setting our own wills and timelines aside that we might encourage others along in the journey with Jesus.

May we be known for kindness—for reaching out to others to extend to them grace in friendships. May we be known for goodness—for reflecting God’s character in everything we do. May we be known for faithfulness—for staying true to God and being there for others in a world where it’s so easy to walk away and not look back. May we be known for gentleness—for reaching out to the hurting and troubled and offering a hand to those in need. May we be known for self-control—for keeping ourselves in check by delighting in the ways of God above the passions of the flesh.

May we be known most for our yes to God and not live lives of constant no.