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.

When scripture makes us uneasy… (a meditation)

“Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. When you buy a Hebrew slave…” ~ Exodus 21:1-2

When we read though the Bible, inevitably there are certain scriptures that will make us feel uneasy and wonder, “Did God actually say that?” and make us wonder if the ‘God of the Old Testament’ is somehow different than the magnified love of God in Christ we see in the ‘God of the New Testament.’

In Exodus 21 and other places, there are a lot of laws that have to do with the handling of slaves. Exodus 21:21 even refers to a slave as property or money. How does this square with what we read in other places in scripture about how we are to treat other people?

I think part of the answer comes when we look at what Jesus says about the Old Testament Law. On the one hand, he affirmed it as God’s good word (Matthew 5:17-18). On the other hand, he looked at it through a lens reflecting human nature post-Genesis 3.

In Matthew 19, some Pharisees asked Jesus about divorce: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” Jesus responded by going back to Genesis 1&2, stating how God had made mankind male and female, and a man was to leave his father and mother to become united as one flesh in a relationship to his wife. Therefore, Jesus concluded, “What God has joined together, let not man separate.”

The Pharisees asked, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and send her away?” It’s actually a fair question, because Moses wrote about divorce proceedings in Deuteronomy 24, which the Pharisees quoted (though how accurately they quoted it is up for debate). Jesus’ response is telling, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.”

In other words, Genesis 1&2 reflect how the world was supposed to be. In Genesis 3, we broke it when we chose sin over God. Jesus is restoring it, but it will not be fully restored until he returns (Revelation 21&22). Even among the Israelites, the nation marked out to be God’s people in the Old Testament, not everyone truly trusted God. Indeed, even though all the male children were to be circumcised on their eighth day, according to the command of God, Moses still had to call them to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” (Deuteronomy 10:16, also: 30:6).

The Law in the Old Testament was not given as a reflection of a return back to Genesis 1&2 or forward to Revelation 21&22. In other words, the purpose of the Law was not to create a society in which things were as God created them to be. Rather the Law put restraints on the hardness of heart which is, and kept sinful men who had no love for God from falling into the full trap of their sinfulness.

Stubborn hearts were bounded by a complex set of laws, mainly to protect others. Hearts made new in Christ which beat for God reflect a simpler law—a law of love and freedom (Galatians 5:13-26 and James 2:8-13).

A person under the law of love and freedom will seek to be a servant to others instead of forcing others to serve them. But without such love, people will seek to use others. Many of the Old Testament laws sought to keep in check the harmful reach of sinful and stubborn hearts.

So when a passage makes us uneasy, let’s remember to think of it in the full context of God’s word.

This post is part of our ongoing series as we go through the Bible together as a church in 2015-16.