A Fond Farewell

Please read Acts 20:17-38 in your Bible.

A Tearful Farewell_vFinal(Image by James Best, (C) 2019, https://www.behance.net/gallery/82544295/Sermon-Illustrations-2019.)

We must love one another deeply.

          The CONTEXT of this passage is provided by verses sixteen and seventeen.  Paul was making his way back to Jerusalem sailing along the coast of Asia Minor.  His haste was so great he chose not to put into the harbor at Ephesus, but sent a message to the elders of the church at Ephesus to meet him at a place called Miletus.  There were other factors in this decision, but the text reports only Paul’s desire to reach Jerusalem in time for the Feast of Pentecost (29 May 57).

Based on the reaction of the ELDERS, I wonder if Paul anticipated that the church would want to keep him and he wanted to avoid a long goodbye.  In any case, Paul called the official leaders of the church to him and gave them a message to take back to the members.

  1. Paul’s departure provoked deep emotions. (vs. 36-38)

Their time together ended with prayer.  As a demonstration of reverence for God, all of them KNELT DOWN.  What Luke may be describing here in very few words, is a service of ordination.  Kneeling and prayer have been part of ordinations from the beginning, along with the laying on hands.  A group ordination fits with Paul’s purpose in meeting with the ELDERS, to prepare them for his absence.

In their culture embracing and kissing were typical greetings, so this doesn’t necessarily convey deep love.  However, weeping and grieving do imply a deep love between Paul and the ELDERS.  Verse 38 tells us they accompanied Paul to his ship.  I assume this detail means they were reluctant to be parted from Paul and wanted to keep an eye on him as long as they could.

  1. The deepest love is founded on shared service to Christ. (18-35)

Paul’s focus was on Jesus Christ.  Paul was a “WYSIWYG” (What You See Is What You Get) follower of Christ; there was no pretense in his exercise of faith and ministry.  When he said “YOU KNOW HOW I LIVED…” (18) that was a completely accurate statement.  Modern politicians like to talk about transparency, but Paul practiced it.

His statement in verse nineteen would sound self-contradictory if it were spoken by anyone else: I SERVED THE  LORD WITH GREAT HUMILITY.  Note the object of the sentence is THE LORD.  Paul’s focus on Jesus did not allow room for selfish ambition, a vice he condemned four times in his letters (2 Corinthians 12:20; Galatians 5:20; Philippians 1:16; 2:3).

If you take time to look at it, Paul’s selflessness is indicated twice in this phrase alone.  The word SERVED is used to indicate slavery.  Paul identified himself as a slave of Jesus Christ more than a dozen times.

GREAT HUMILITY summarizes the details that will follow; all the aspects of selfless devotion and self-sacrifice Paul demonstrated over the years.

Verse 24 passionately states Paul’s devotion to Jesus and his determination to do what Christ commanded.  He said, “I CONSIDER MY OWN LIFE WORTH NOTHING TO ME, IF ONLY I MAY FINISH THE RACE AND COMPLETE THE TASK THE LORD JESUS HAS GIVEN ME.”  It is pretty easy to claim GREAT HUMILITY; here Paul gives evidence of it in his attitude.  He does not consider his own life as valuable on its own, only as it gives him opportunity to work for Jesus.

The TASK Jesus assigned to him was to testify to the GOSPEL OF GOD’S GRACE.  Paul had ambition, but it was grounded in faith.  It was to FINISH THE RACE and COMPLETE THE TASK; Paul wanted no part of his calling left undone, no matter the cost.

What never motivated Paul was financial gain.  He goes into some detail in verses 33-35 to prove this point.

First, he pointed out his attitude: I HAVE NOT COVETED (33).  In contrast to false teachers whose major motive for church work was greed, Paul had no desire for material compensation of any kind.

Second, he pointed out his ambition: THESE HANDS OF MINE HAVE SUPPLIED MY OWN NEEDS AND THE NEEDS OF MY COMPANIONS (34).

Paul avoided all charges of greed by refusing all kinds of support.  He supported himself and his associates by working his trade as a tentmaker.  We know from 2 Corinthians 11:8-9 and Philippians 4:15-16 that Paul accepted gifts from churches after he’d left them, but observed a strict separation of finances.  This was a decision Paul made for his own ministry; we have no evidence he was commanded to operate this way, nor did he command other pastors to work outside the church.  Instead, he argued for a fair wage for full-time church workers (1 Corinthians 9:9; 1 Timothy 5:18).

Third, he pointed out his altruism: I SHOWED YOU THAT BY…HARD WORK WE MUST HELP THE WEAK (35).  This was based on the teaching of Jesus whom Paul quoted as saying, “IT IS MORE BLESSED TO GIVE THAN TO RECEIVE.”  In addition to teaching this truth, Paul set an example in his own service and in his leadership of the church’s service. Interestingly, these words of Jesus are not found in any of the Gospels.  This may have been something Jesus said to Paul alone or just not reported in the Gospels.

The Apostle Paul clearly had a tender heart for the Ephesian church.  He made two references to TEARS: “I SERVED THE LORD…WITH TEARS (19+31)”.  He gave THE PLOTS OF THE JEWS as one of the reason for his tears.  Their plotting did not prevent Paul from preaching to His native people as he made clear in v. 21.  A simple fact of ministry to people is that TEARS are an occupational hazard.  It is a sign of genuine love.

His tenderheartedness compelled Paul to tell the Ephesians the whole truth in his preaching and teaching. This is expressed in three statements.

“I WOULD NOT HAVE HESITATED TO PREACH ANYTHING THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN HELPFUL TO YOU (20).”  This verse speaks to boldness in preaching; Paul did not avoid subjects because they would invite opposition.   The content of his preaching was not limited to what was popular or easy.  He preached everything that was HELPFUL to the church’s health and growth.

“I…TAUGHT PUBLICLY AND FROM HOUSE TO HOUSE (20).”  Paul carried out both avenues of pastoral ministry; public and private.  In our study of Acts we saw that Paul preached in the Jewish synagogues, in a lecture hall owned by Tyrannus, and in the marketplace; all public venues.  The early church also met in homes, but these meetings were not limited to a single family, they were simply smaller venues into which the church gathered.

“I HAVE DECLARED TO BOTH JEWS AND GREEKS (21).”  Paul presented the Gospel to all the people of Ephesus, not excluding or favoring either of these groups.  His message to all of them was the same: THEY MUST TURN TO GOD IN REPENTANCE AND HAVE FAITH IN OUR LORD JESUS.

“FOR THREE YEARS I NEVER STOPPED WARNING YOU DAY AND NIGHT (v. 31).” Paul did not seek popularity in his messages, sticking to the truth even to the degree that his messages consisted of warnings.

The purpose of this meeting was for Paul to transfer his authority in leading the church to the ELDERS (25-32).  They would lead the church from now on.

“NONE OF YOU…WILL EVER SEE ME AGAIN (25).”  In v. 22 Paul declared his uncertainty about what would happen to him in Jerusalem but he was certain he would never return to Ephesus.  That’s why he went to all this trouble to prepare the ELDERS to take over for him.

On the basis of the integrity of his service (27), Paul announced the church was no longer his responsibility: “I AM INNOCENT OF THE BLOOD OF ALL MEN (26).” This comment reflects Ezekiel 3:17-21 where the prophet was told his responsibility by the figure of the watchman on the wall is responsible to give a warning of danger.  He is then not responsible for anyone who refuses to heed the warning and act appropriately.  Because Paul DID NOT HESITATE to give this warning, his responsibility is ended.  He can leave Ephesus and never return with a clear conscience.

Paul made the ELDERS responsible for the church in Ephesus (28). He called them OVERSEERS and SHEPHERDS, in charge and in care of the membership.  He stated that the HOLY SPIRIT had put them in these positions.  The value of the church (and thereby the seriousness of their responsibility) is not overstated when Paul reminded them that Christ bought the Church WITH HIS BLOOD.  He warned them that their service would be fraught with trials (29-31); they would have occasion for tears of their own.

In light of these truths, Paul commanded them twice to be wary.  In contrast to the SAVAGE WOLVES – the false teachers – the ELDERS are to carefully maintain their integrity.

The first warning is in verse 28: “KEEP WATCH OVER YOURSELVES.”  This command is not limited to keeping their integrity but includes practicing what we might call “adequate self-care,” maintaining physical health and spiritual growth.

The second warning is in verse 30: “BE ON YOUR GUARD!” Compromising one’s integrity can be a slow process, one small step at a time.  Only vigilance will keep any of these ELDERS from becoming one of the WOLVES that will arise from within the church (FROM YOUR OWN NUMBER).

He commissioned them in v. 32; urging them to rely on God’s GRACE.  It is God alone who can build us up and secure for us AN INHERITANCE AMONG ALL THOSE WHO ARE SANCTIFIED.  Faithful service is our part; fruitful labor is God’s blessing.  God intends His Church to succeed in making disciples and extending His Kingdom in this world.

Paul endured opposition to his service.  In verse nineteen Paul noted he was SEVERELY TESTED BY THE JEWS in Ephesus.  He did not allow their opposition to silence his proclaiming the message.  He continued to use their synagogues and other public places to preach about salvation in Christ.  In fact, there was nothing that would make him hesitate (v. 19) from fulfilling that TASK Jesus had given him to do (v. 24).

The other thing Paul did not hesitate to do was go to Jerusalem (vs. 22-23).  Paul was COMPELLED BY THE SPIRIT to go there and he was determined to be obedient to God, though he had been warned he would face PRISON and HARDSHIPS.  Paul was not deterred by PRISON or HARDSHIPS in part because he considered his own life as being worth something only as it allowed him to FINISH and COMPLETE the TASK OF TESTIFYING that Jesus had given him.

We must love one another deeply.

          The Apostle Peter shared this perspective.  Under the Spirit’s direction he recorded these words in 1 Peter 4:8, ABOVE ALL, LOVE EACH OTHER DEEPLY, BECAUSE LOVE COVERS OVER A MULTITUDE OF SINS.  This verse establishes both the priority of deep love (ABOVE ALL) and the effect of deep love (COVERS OVER A MULTITUDE OF SINS), that is, forgives offenses.  This is the kind of love evidenced in our passage in Acts, the kind of love Paul demonstrated.

Love is not optional; it is a command and is a necessity.  The church cannot be the church without the deep love that COVERS OVER offenses, allowing people to go forward in faith.

Love also feels better; it’s more fun to forgive and move forward than to nurse grudges.  We all make mistakes and we’re all guilty of giving offense; we can’t avoid it all the time, so it’s necessary that we exercise deep love and overcome the offenses with forgiveness.

 

RESOURCE:

Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Eckhard J. Schnabel.

Wise Guys (and Gals)

Please read Ephesians 5:15-20 in your go-to version of the Bible.

Wise Guys and Gals (1)(Image by James Best, (C) 2019, https://www.behance.net/gallery/82544295/Sermon-Illustrations-2019.)

I came across this bit of wisdom that has undoubtedly made the rounds on the internet but also bears repeating:

The SIX most important words: “I admit I made a mistake.”
The FIVE most important words: “You did a good job.”
The FOUR most important words: “What do you think?”
The THREE most important words: “After you, please.”
The TWO most important words: “Thank you.”
The ONE most important word: “We”
The LEAST important word: “I”

This set of important words is the kind of attitude the Apostle Paul commanded the Ephesian church to have.  This is the last of the section where he urged them to behave in these ways and will next turn to three specific sets of typical relationships where these imperatives may be applied.

CONTEXT = Much of the book of Ephesians is about relationships and that may be another good reason for closely studying this book.  Having good relations does not come automatically; sometimes they don’t come easily.  Being wise, spiritual, and knowledgeable makes relationship-building better.

The exercise of wisdom builds relationships.

  1. Wise people make best use of every opportunity to build relationships. (15-17)

As is often done in the book of Proverbs, Paul explained wisdom by comparing it to foolishness.  The first of two comparisons is between the wise and foolish person.  Paul didn’t directly describe the UNWISE/FOOLISH person because the point is the UNWISE person fails to do what the wise person does.

Paul does give details about “wise guys/gals” in these verses.

– They are CAREFUL how they LIVE.  Wise people are proactive, sensitive, and motivated by love to do the right thing in the right way at the right time.

– They make the MOST OUT OF EVERY OPPORTUNITY.  In the Greek, this is a word picture of a savvy businessman who sees the condition of the market and acts in a way to make a profit.

– They recognize THE DAYS ARE EVIL.  To follow up on the meaning behind the phrase MAKE THE MOST, Paul implied sensitivity to our situation is necessary for appropriate action and thereby success.  In this case, the wise person sees THE DAYS ARE EVIL and makes the most of every opportunity to do GOOD to counter-act the evil.  These DAYS ARE EVIL because they are full of worldly enticements to sin and because the times as we know them will soon end.

– They UNDERSTAND WHAT THE LORD’S WILL IS.  When God gives us unexpected insights into His will, that’s called prophecy.  That’s one way we understand His will.  Most of the time we come to an understanding of God’s will by putting in time and effort of our own, in cooperation with the Holy Spirit.  Activities that increase our understanding are prayer, Bible study, conversation with brothers and sisters, and acts of service and witness.

  1. People Filled with the Holy Spirit share in building maturity and unity. (18-20)

Here is the second contrast: drunkenness versus the Filling of the Spirit.  There are at least two big problems with drunkenness.  One, the Bible identifies it as a sin.  (See Proverbs 20:1; 1 Corinthians 5:11; Galatians 5:21; 1 Timothy 3:8.)

Two, as Paul observes here, it leads to other sins: it LEADS TO DEBAUCHERY.  DEBAUCHERY means “wild living;” it is indulging every fleshly appetite.  The relationship between drunkenness and sin is obvious and has been proven many times in human experience.  Alcohol is a depressant and it has the effect of lowering one’s inhibitions.  In a state of impaired judgment, people are more likely to do the wrong thing.  Drunkenness often makes a person more vulnerable to peer pressure.

Instead of being “under the influence of spirits,” wise people are under the influence of the Holy Spirit.  The “Filling of the Spirit” is a word picture of spiritual maturity.  If maturity could be measured as a volume, the maturing person is “filled” with the Spirit, where an immature person has little or none.

Paul listed three ways in which Spirit-filled people help each other mature in the faith.  To one degree or another, these three examples happen in the context of shared worship.  The first is to SPEAK TO ONE ANOTHER in worshipful, musical ways.

– PSALMS are songs of praise that are preserved in the Old Testament book of Psalms.

– HYMNS refer to epic ballads sung by pagans in praise of their gods and heroes; in this case, offer praise to God instead.

– SPIRITUAL SONGS can be the opposite of secular songs or spontaneous, Spirit-inspired music.  Either way, it’s SPIRITUAL because it comes from God.

No matter which kind of music we make, the objective is to SING AND MAKE MUSIC IN YOUR HEART TO THE LORD.  Truly worshipful music is sincere (it comes from the inner person, the HEART) and is directed to the Lord.  As someone observed years ago, we tend to think of worship the wrong way.  We see God as the director, worship leaders as performers, and the people as the audience.  Biblically, the worship leaders are the directors, the people are the performers, and God is the audience!

The second way we can help each other mature is to encourage the attitude of gratitude in each other = ALWAYS GIVING THANKS TO GOD THE FATHER FOR EVERYTHING IN THE NAME OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST.  Contra Unitarians, let’s note all three members of the Trinity in are mentioned in 18-20.  Let’s note the two words that make this command unconditional: ALWAYS and EVERYTHING.  Let’s notice that gratitude motivates our worship.  We gather because we are grateful for what we’ve done.

I’m saving v. 21 for next Sunday, so I’ll only briefly mention this third way believers help each other: mutual submission.  While it is good in some contexts, competition is inappropriate and can be toxic in the church.  Mutual submission requires humility, the death of pride, and putting others ahead of one’s self.

The exercise of wisdom builds relationships.

Ironically, the last 25 years has seen a proliferation of communication technology and a decrease in communicating.  What we’ve also seen is an emphasis on emotional intelligence to facilitate better relationships while our culture isolates us from each other.

That said, the emotional intelligence industry is a good thing.  While it’s not biblical, it gives scientific insight into human nature that is consistent with what the Bible reveals about people.

For example, emotional intelligence expert Harvey Deutchendorf suggests six habits of relationship-builders.  Here’s an abridged version of his article.

  1. BECOME A GREAT LISTENER. Most people are too busy thinking of what they want to say next to really listen to what the other person is saying. We naturally bond with people who really listen, hear us, and that we’d want to relate to.
  2. ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS. The best way to let people know that we hear them is to dig deeper and ask questions.
  3. PAY ATTENTION TO THE WHOLE PERSON. Focus not only on the words, also the tone of their words, but also facial expression and body language.
  4. REMEMBER THINGS THAT ARE IMPORTANT TO OTHERS. Remembering people’s names, what is important to them, keeping facts accurate.
  5. BE CONSISTENT AND MANAGE EMOTIONS. Regardless of how we are feeling, we need to be able to temporarily put those feelings aside to fully listen and engage others. If we are experiencing strong emotions, we are better off letting this individual know what is going on.
  6. BE OPEN AND SHARE WHEN THE TIME IS RIGHT. To build strong relationships we need to be able to pace ourselves and share when it’s appropriate to the depth of the relationship.

 

RESOURCES:

Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Ephesians, Clinton E. Arnold

Message #778

https://bible.org/illustration/most-important-words-getting-along-people

https://www.fastcompany.com/3041774/7-key-habits-for-building-better-relationships

More Than the Sum of Our Parts

Moses Aaron Hur at Rephidim (1)

Please read Exodus 17:8-16.

Just in time for Mother’s Day, we’ve had the birth of a royal baby in England.  I heard Prince Harry’s remarks after the blessed event, and he sounded pretty giddy about it.

As many of you have experienced, however, childbirth isn’t all cigars and flowers.  It can cause problems in family relationships.  I read an article published a year ago by Terra Marqutte, citing a study in Evolutionary Psychological Science.  The article is titled, “Study Finds Spats With Your In-Laws Increase When Children Enter The Picture.”

“What many of us have long suspected is true: Becoming a parent really does alter family dynamics, especially with in-laws. Researchers at the Academy of Finland found people with children experience more tension with their spouse’s parents than couples who have yet to enter parenthood.

“It seems that when children are added to a family, the in-laws begin to feel more of a direct kinship to the other side of the family. The ties that bind bring help to young parents, but also new conflicts.

“The biggest source of conflict comes when grandparents provide childcare, the authors say. Although very helpful, the degree of interaction involved is almost bound to lead to areas of disagreement.

“Researchers say the conflicts arise because grandparents begin to see themselves in an expanded role, sort of like investment bankers. In this case, though, the investment is in the future of the offspring.”

https://www.studyfinds.org/couples-children-in-laws-conflicts/

Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Grandparents Day are all days created to celebrate relationships.  So the Lord lead me to this passage that demonstrates in a plain way how cooperative relationships can win the day.  When we cooperate with God and compromise with one another, we will see our homes, our communities, and our nation become more peaceful and productive places.  Let’s study up on how Moses accomplished it.

Compromise and cooperation create peace.

  1. The problem: Moses’ arms got tired. (8-11)

Verse eight sets the event in its context. This is a passage that is very dependent on its context for us to understand it properly.  The freed Hebrew slaves had just got out of Egypt by miraculously crossing the Red Sea. They have not yet got to Mr. Sinai, where they’d receive the 10 Commandments.

They had been fed with manna for the first time and were miraculously given water to drink at Meribah.  However, these gracious acts had come in God’s gracious response to their sinful bellyaching.  It was providence – not coincidence – that this military emergency comes immediately after two bouts of bellyaching. The Israelites have been testing God’s patience and are now going to be tested by God’s discipline.

The Amalekites were descendents of Jacob’s brother Esau.  Their attack at Rephidim, is a large-scale family feud.  The reason for the attack is not stated in the text, so we are free to speculate.  One reason is to continue the family feud between Jacob and Esau.

Of more immediate importance, the Amalekites would have known the ancient promises that Jacob’s offspring would inhabit Canaan.  So they knew where this group was headed and that they’d go right through their territory to get there.  The Amalekites wanted no part of that.

The Israelites were still a long way south of Amalek.  There was no immediate need for a direct assault.  To go out of their way like this implies the leaders of the Amalekites were intimidated and they didn’t want to suffer the same fate as Egypt.

Finally, there are limited resources in the desert.  The Amalekites were clearly in no mood to share.

That’s on the human side.  On the divine side, why would God allow an attack to take place?  I can imagine at least two Providential purposes.  One, God sent the Amalekites to test His people.  This experience would be an opportunity to prove they were ready to trust Him in battle.  They would have to trust Him fully when they got to Canaan.

Two, the Amalekites had chosen to do evil to God’s people before they launched the attack.  Deuteronomy 25:17-19 tells us Amalekite soldiers had begun hostilities by attacking the stragglers among the Israelites.  They picked off the sick, aged, and disabled people who lagged behind the main group.

The text does not give any divine directive, so we can assume Moses came up with this unusual battle plan on his own (9+10).  Moses decided it would be a good idea to stand on a hill overlooking the battle site with his shepherd’s crook – now known as the STAFF OF GOD –  upraised.  As this is the same staff and the same gesture that preceded their miraculous crossing of the Red Sea, perhaps Moses assumed it would have a similar effect in that battle.  Also, standing with hands upraised to heaven was a typical posture of prayer for Jewish men.

Moses chose Joshua as his general and selected his brother Aaron and brother-in-law Hur (Miriam’s husband), to go up the mountain with him.  In retrospect, that part of the plan turned out to be a stroke of genius.  Moses would need both of them later.

From their vantage point on the high ground, Moses, Aaron and Hur could see the battlefront and easily tell how the tide of battle was going.  They saw that when Moses held the staff aloft, the Israelites turned back the Amalekites.  But when Moses lowered his hands for any reason, the battle went the other way.  The problem became how to keep those 80 year-old arms up in the air long enough to win the battle (11).  I suspect Moses did not foresee having to keep his hands in the air any length of time, certainly not all day.  Anyone’s arms would tire of being kept in that position.

  1. The solution: a support group. (12-13)

Moses may have bit off more than he could chew, physically speaking.  Try holding a staff over your head from sunup to sundown sometime; see how you do.  When it became clear that they would win the battle only if Moses’ arms were aloft, these three guys devised a plan where Moses was seated on a rock so Aaron and Hur – while standing – could take the burden off Moses’ arms (12).

Their plan succeeded.  As the sun set on the battlefield, the Amalekites were defeated (13).  This outcome does not prove there was something magical about Moses’ staff.  As is always the case in the Bible, the object used is merely a symbol of God’s power.

There are two clues in verse thirteen that this was Moses’ plan, not God’s. The first: JOSHUA OVERCAME THE AMALEKITE ARMY.  Normally, God got the credit for military success (for example, see Deuteronomy 20:1-4.  Here in verse thirteen, Joshua is credited.  How did Joshua do it?  WITH THE SWORD; a phrase implying this was a victory achieved by strength of arms.  There is no acknowledgement of God delivering the victory.

This will be the first time Moses would learn a lesson on the value of partners in ministry.  In the very next chapter, his father-in-law gave him sound advice about the folly of trying to lead what may have been 2-3 million people by himself.  Elders were appointed to help Moses administrate the immense group of people.

  1. The command: write this down. (14-16)

For the first time in this passage, we hear the Lord’s voice.  He commanded the event be recorded as He would otherwise blot out the memory of the treacherous Amalekites (14).  This is the first time in the Bible that there is a reference to writing things down. These things will eventually become the Bible.

History tells us the Israelites did not obey God in destroying the Amalekites, because they become a problem again during the reigns of Kings Saul and David.  Hundreds of years later, while the people of God were in exile in Babylon, an Amalekite named Haman very nearly eliminated the Jews!  (See Esther.)

Moses apparently learned his lesson (15-16).  He gave glory to God by building an altar as a memorial to the event.  He called the altar THE LORD IS MY BANNER, signifying that the LORD needed to be lifted up, not any staff.  Moses’ new motto should’ve been “The power is in God, not the rod.” (As if to underline this point, God commanded that Aaron’s staff be preserved in the Ark of the Covenant, not Moses’.)  And, as previously noted, the lifting of his hands TO THE THRONE OF GOD describes the posture of prayer.  In prayer, Moses gave all future battles with the Amalekites to the LORD.

Compromise and cooperation create peace.

          Whether Moses acted on his own initiative or not, the chief lesson of this passage is recognizing that God and His people must work together to achieve His will.  It is an interesting illustration of the power of good relationships.  The Israelites won a victory in their first battle because God, their leaders, and the people all cooperated.

This is not going to happen if we allow our sinful or selfish impulses rule our emotions and decisions.  Peace comes to our situations when we all work at it.  The work of peace is sacrifice and love; we love and obey God, we love and cooperate with each other.

Cleaning House

temple cleaner

Love for God’s “house” (His people) may require a cleansing.

          Even a quick look around our house would cause you to observe that I have no business preaching a message entitled “Cleaning House!”  I’m afraid matters are worse after Wednesday night.

This sad story begins with God giving me a warning on Tuesday when Dawn stopped by the office to accuse me of working overtime.  Of course I denied it.  In the course of our conversation, she mentioned how they had to quick get the hose back on their sump pump discharge because it had started running with all the snow and ice melting outdoors.

That is something I had never thought of doing.  Take off your sump pump hose?  Who does that?  The Lord sent Dawn to warn me to check my own hose.  But I did not catch the warning, so when I got home after Bible study Wednesday night, it finally occurred to me to check.  The answer was waiting for me at the bottom of the stairs: at least a half-inch of water all across the basement floor.  The sump pump couldn’t run because the hose outside was frozen shut.

So now we have some serious house cleaning to do, especially in the basement.  This experience confirms a pair of my sayings:

“Snow is rain on credit.  You’ll pay for it later.”

“A basement is a hole under your house for catching rainwater.”

Jesus never had to use a wet-dry vac, but today we’ll look at a time He set out to do some cleaning out of the house of God.  It was a dramatic, aggressive act on Jesus’ part but entirely necessary.  Let’s see what we can learn from His example.

CONTEXT: This passage follows Jesus’ first miracle, the changing of water into wine (vs. 1-12) and precedes His instruction of Nicodemus (3:1-21).  In John’s Gospel, these are all precedent-setting events; the first miracle demonstrated Jesus’ power, the cleansing of the temple His authority, and the encounter with Nicodemus the substance of His teaching.

  1. Jesus’ actions invited opposition. (vs. 13-17)

The PASSOVER was the ideal time to launch a new ministry and that’s how this incident is used in John’s gospel.  The PASSOVER was one of three annual festivals godly Jews were required to attend.  At that time the city swelled with pilgrims from around the ancient world. The event probably occurred in the Court of the Gentiles, the most public place in Jerusalem.  All lights “green” for launch!

The people doing business there were “authorized sellers” in one sense or another.  The sellers of sacrificial animals (CATTLE, SHEEP AND DOVES) were authorized by the Law: Deuteronomy 14:24-26 allowed those traveling a great distance to sell the animal they intended to offer, converting it to cash.  Upon arrival at the sacred place, the cash could be used to buy another animal to be offered to God.  This avoided the inconvenience and expense of transporting live animals.

The MONEY CHANGERS were not authorized in Scripture, but were deemed necessary under Roman occupation.  Roman coins depicted Caesar and described him as god.  They were considered blasphemous, unfit for use in the temple.  Every adult Jewish male was expected to pay the “temple tax” of a half shekel to support the temple and the priests (Exodus 30:13).  Specially minted coins called “temple tokens” were used.  The exchange rate always benefitted the exchangers.

No weapons were allowed in the temple or its courts.  When Jesus MADE A WHIP, he likely bundled together some of the ropes used to contain the cattle.

He DROVE ALL out.  This stampede was a severe disruption of “business as usual.”  Jesus threw the tables and coins of the MONEY CHANGERS into disarray.

Why did Jesus do it?  The gospels advance three explanations:

Jesus told the sellers of DOVES they’d turned His FATHER’S HOUSE INTO A MARKET.  Zechariah 14:21 promises an ideal future where NO MERCHANT would be found in the temple, so turning the temple courts into a marketplace was bad all on its own.

The disciples believed Jesus’ ZEAL for God’s house consumed him.  They saw Psalm 69:9 as a prediction, Jesus’ actions as the fulfillment.

In Matthew 21:13, Jesus condemned them for making the temple into A DEN OF THIEVES, quoting the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 7:11).

  1. Jesus’ actions were opposed. (18-22)

Matthew’s reference to THE JEWS in verse eighteen is shorthand for the religious/civil leaders of the Jewish people.  They demanded Jesus give them a SIGN – a miracle – that would prove his authority to disrupt the ordinary business of the temple.

Jesus did offer them a SIGN, just not the kind of SIGN they were expecting.  Referring to His own body, He offered His resurrection as the ultimate proof of His authority.  When they killed Him, he would not remain dead, but be raised to life.

In Jesus’ reply John used the word RAISE, unlike the other Gospels, which used the word REBUILD.  RAISE is a more typical figure of speech for “resurrection.”  After Jesus was raised from the dead, the DISCIPLES understood Jesus’ intended meaning and believed all had taken place as God had predicted in the SCRIPTURES (22).

THE JEWS’ misunderstanding is in evident in verse twenty.  They thought Jesus was referring to the temple.  Jesus’ words were later turned against Him: during His trial, Jewish leaders cited them as a threat to the temple (Mark 15:58; Matthew 26:61) and people used them to mock Him at His crucifixion (Mark 15:29; Matthew 27:40).  After Jesus returned to heaven, this charge was repeated when Deacon Stephen was on trial (Acts 6:14).

  1. Jesus backed up His claims with miracles. (23-25)

Ironically, Jesus would not give the Jewish leaders a SIGN when they demanded it (18), but He gave several to the people (23).  In reaction to Jesus’ MIRACULOUS SIGNS, MANY PEOPLE BELIEVED IN HIS NAME.

In JHN 1:12 the phrase BELIEVED IN HIS NAME described those who faith was adequate for salvation.  But here, the same Gk words describe people who did not possess true faith.  This use of the same words to describe very different spiritual conditions illustrates the difficulty we have in knowing people’s hearts.  However, Jesus knew the difference; HE KNEW ALL MEN.  There’s no fooling Him.

Knowing their faith was merely superficial, Jesus did not consider them to be trustworthy followers.  Their excitement about the miracles would not carry them through the real work of following Him.

The Pharisee Nicodemus is offered as an example of these fair-weather disciples.  In fact, He began the conversation referencing the miracles, “FOR NO ONE COULD PERFORM THE MIRACULOUS SIGNS YOU ARE DOING IF GOD WERE NOT WITH HIM.”  The good news is that he did come to true faith.  In John 19:39 Nicodemus joined Joseph of Arimathea in burying Jesus’ body.

Love for God’s “house” (His people) may require a cleansing.

At this point we should all be asking ourselves, “What would Jesus if He walked into our church right now?”  Would He thank us for our faithfulness or chase us out of here with a broom?  I would expect most churches fall somewhere between obviously faithful and obviously false. And that is a big reason why churches can be so hard to sort out.

Dr. Thom S. Rainer is a church consultant.  He published an article on his website five years ago identifying nine traits of “mean churches.”  Based on his experience and training, he offered these insights as a means of prayerfully and carefully considering our own life together.  Take a moment to think about each one as I merely list them.

Too many decisions are made in the cloak of darkness. 

The pastor and/or staff are treated poorly.

Power groups tenaciously hold on to their power.

There is lack of clear accountability for major decisions and/or expenditures.

Leaders of the power groups have an acrimonious spirit.

A number of the members see those outside of the church as “them” or “those people.”

Many members have an inward focus; they view the church as a place to get their own preferences and wants fulfilled.

Many people in the community view these churches negatively. 

Most of the members are silent when power plays and bad decisions take place. 

(https://thomrainer.com/2015/03/nine-traits-mean-churches/)

How are we doing?  It’s not realistic to think that churches are only going to be places where nice people are nice to one another.  Real people in real places having real relationships will often be quite messy.

That said, the point is that we have chosen a direction aimed at Jesus: that we are characterized by love manifest in forgiveness and cooperation.  That kind of fellowship is the kind that will attract and retain new life.  The question is never “What kind of church do I want?” instead it is “What kind of church is Jesus working to make us?”  Like Jesus, we must not let the Pharisees have the final say.

 

Resources:

The Anchor Bible Commentary, Raymond E. Brown.

Let’s Get Real

Our common life is founded on the reality of God.

Just before worship was to start, the pastor heard a loud argument going on outside the church.  He stuck his head out the door to see four preteen boys and a dog.

It didn’t seem like they were going to resolve it or move on any time soon, so the preacher stepped out and approached the boys.

“Hey fellows,” he said, “We’re about to start worship here and can’t have this ruckus.  What’s the problem?”

One of the boys spoke up.  “It’s like this, preacher.  We found this stray dog and caught him and made this leash.  We all want to take him home and keep him.  Just before you walked up here, we decided to hold a contest.  Whoever could tell the biggest lie would get to keep the doggie.”

“Oh no, boys,” the pastor looked shocked.  “That idea is straight from the pit of hell.  When I was your age, I never told a lie.”

The boy’s faces suddenly took on a glum aspect and one of them put the leash in the preacher’s hand.  “All right, pastor, you win.”

When a whopper is told, the reply is given, “Get real.”  By that, we express our desire to know the truth and be governed by honesty.  The most real thing in all creation is our Creator.  As we’ve been learning, in order to get real, we need to get closer to Him.

REVIEW:

Realistic Identity = Who are we?

We must not be worldly (vs. 1-4, 18-20).

We must be godly (vs. 16-17, 21-23).

Realistic Expectations = What can we do?

We must build on a good foundation (vs. 10-15).

NEW:

We must be faithful laborers (according to vs. 5-9, that means farmers and builders).

Paul and Apollos both served the church in Corinth,  each in their assigned roles.  Contrary to the controversy that co-opted them, both Paul and Apollos were SERVANTS (see Philippians 1:1 where Paul identified both himself and Timothy as SERVANTS).

The word for SERVANTS is diakonai, the word we translate as “deacons.”  There are several things implications from Paul’s use of this term.

One, as SERVANTS, leaders are never to idolize themselves or be idolized by their followers.  Leaders are not to cooperate with controversy by becoming the figurehead of one side.  Paul wrote this chapter to defuse that very thing in the Corinthian church.

Two, SERVANTS know their master.  In all his letters, Paul identified himself and his associates as serving God or the Gospel, but NEVER as serving churches.  This means his authority to preach and teach did not stem from the church members, but came from God Himself.

It can be confusing because when we look at the relationship between church and pastor, it looks like an employer-employee relationship.  However, that is not the whole truth.  The pastor’s authority includes and surpasses the local congregation.  For example, in Corinth, Paul did not draw a wage, but Apollos did.  Their authority was the same in both cases, as Paul makes clear.  The pastor-church relationship needs to be understood biblically first, then implemented in ways that exhibit good stewardship.

Three, SERVANT is not a demeaning term.  Servants are not doormats, scapegoats, or gophers.  All people, regardless of their roles are worthy of a basic level of respect.  Leaders are to receive an extra dose of respect according to 1 Timothy 5:17; The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.

Jesus Himself took on the role of a servant (see John 17).  Paul wrote the same thing about him in Philippians 2:7.  No one is greater than Jesus.

Four, Jesus taught true leadership begins and ends with service: Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35)

Biblical servanthood is always voluntary; never imposed.  It is a choice we make out of the best possible motive; to serve Jesus by serving each other.  Ephesians 5:21 says plainly; Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Servanthood is not for leaders alone: how can leaders lead when followers don’t follow?  That’s why Hebrews 13:17 says, Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.

In terms of roles, Paul identified three.  Paul identified himself as the “planter,” the one who started the church.  In 2 Corinthians 13:10, Paul asserted his authority to BUILD UP the Corinthian church. He identified Apollos as the “waterer,” someone who nurtured the church.  Paul identified neither himself nor Apollos as the one who grew the church, but instead, rightly credited God as the “grower.” The planter and waterer have their roles, but they deserve neither the blame nor the credit for church growth – that is solely God’s work.

Leaders in the church are CO-WORKERS.  We have differing roles but only one purpose; pointing people to Jesus.

As followers of Jesus, our job is two-fold.  We plant, which is we prepare for growth by creating opportunities for ministry and training ministers.  We water, which means we nurture followers that come into our church, helping them to mature in their faith.  God requires faithfulness, which He recognizes with fruitfulness.                 Church growth is not supposed to be our achievement, but sometimes it is.  Human will and worldly wisdom do account for numerical growth in some churches.

True church growth can’t be measured in numbers alone.  It is measured in improved character, in greater spiritual maturity, more joy, deeper prayer, and improved service, among other things.

Logically, God exercises wisdom choosing churches to receive His gifts of growth.  When we get frustrated at what we perceive as a lack of growth, we should ask ourselves, “What is my contribution to the life of the church?  Am I building up or tearing down?”

Then we should ask of our church, “What is it about our planting and watering that is not of God?  Are we prepared to receive growth or not?  Are we nurturing what we have or not?”  As we saw last Sunday in vs. 10-15, in v. 8, the laborers’ work will be REWARDED after it is judged by God.

Paul clarified the identity of the Church in two figures of speech.

One, YOU ARE GOD’S FIELD.  The Greek word for FIELD is georgion, and it refers to a cultivated field; land that has been worked for the purpose of growing things.  We are a FIELD in the sense that we try to make Jesus visible every moment we live.

Two, YOU ARE GOD’S BUILDING.  In Ephesians 2:20-22 and 1 Peter 2:5, the people of God being a BUILDING that is constructed of living stones like a physical building is constructed with individual bricks and stones.  We are also God’s BUILDING in the sense of our being the result of His work building up His Church, causing it to grow, as in v. 6.  Finally, we are God’s building in the sense of being His TEMPLE, as affirmed in vs. 16-17.

Our common life is founded on the reality of God.

According to the USDA, the harvest is pretty much over here in SD.  The rich black soil of planted fields in the spring has given way to the green, growing fields of summer and the brown harvested fields of fall.  Unless global warming becomes perfectly obvious, the ground will rest and be covered in white. The seasons in the life of a church are measured in years, sometimes generations, and follow similar cycles of growing and going fallow.  Following this agricultural

symbolism, Paul taught that it is our job to prepare for growth and care for growth, but we cannot make church growth happen on our own; it is a gift from God. It is preparing our church as a farmer prepares the soil in the spring, then planting the seed.

How do we do that?  If we desire God to grow our church, we have to prepare by becoming the kind of people He can trust with new lives.  Specifically, this means:

– Getting rid of all sin, especially sins of the tongue.  God will not build where the people will tear down.

– Encouraging right living by means of Scripture, prayer, and spiritual maturity.  God will grow His best fruits where the soil is fertile with His Spirit and His words.

– Building community through worship, fellowship, and Christian education.  God will not sow His seeds among weeds.

– Creating relationships outside our walls by pairing acts of service with words of witness. God will not grow fruit in a walled garden.  He wants His fruits to bless all the people.

Let’s get real.  Let’s prepare this field by praying for wisdom to see ourselves candidly and know the truth.  Listen to no one else.  Repent of the problem parts, explore and expand the solution parts.

Reality Sets In

Please read 1 Corinthians 3:16-17, 21-23 in your favorite Bible.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.

Our common life is founded on the reality of God.

The Internet search company Google is probably the world’s biggest data collector.  No surprise there.  It may surprise you to hear they have spent millions of dollars measuring their own employees, attempting to learn how to compile “the perfect team.”

They assumed building good teams required combining the best people, but it wasn’t that simple.  In 2012 Google started Project Aristotle.  Abeer Dubey, a manager in Google’s People Analytics division “We looked at 180 teams from all over the company. We had lots of data, but there was nothing showing that a mix of specific personality types or skills or backgrounds made any difference. The ‘who’ part of the equation didn’t seem to matter.’’

The study concluded that in good teams, members show sensitivity, listening to one another.   This lead to a concept called “psychological safety;” a belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking.  That feeling of safety allows all members to contribute to the conversation knowing that their ideas and emotions will be respected.  Putting together a successful team has less to do with who is on the team, more with how the members interact.

(Adapted from https://www.scoro.com/blog/teamwork-stories-importance-of-teamwork/ on 11/3/17.)

Once again, this is a case of science affirming what was already revealed to the writers of Scripture.  We see affirmation of the fact that being a church requires an agreement to love one another.

Love forbears, forgives, and forgets.  Love welcomes the practice of trial and error as a means of discovering God’s will and is never guilty of putting someone on trial for making an error.

In Christian families and churches we are called to create the kind of safe environment that Google’s data revealed as the most productive type of environment.  Psychological Safety will exist among people who emphasize grace and gentleness.  People who follow Jesus and who want their church to grow begin with love, which is manifest in purpose tempered by positivity, success achieved by means of interpersonal support.

REVIEW:

Realistic Identity = Who are we?

a. We must not be worldly (vs. 1-4, 18-20).

NEW:

b. We must be godly (vs. 16-17, 21-23).

First, godliness involves knowing who you are.  According to this passage, you are GOD’S TEMPLE (16) and YOU TOGETHER ARE THAT TEMPLE (17).  The Gk word for TEMPLE (naos) refers specifically to the building itself; the Holy Place and the Most Holy Place, not the whole temple campus.  This gives the analogy a depth of meaning.

Here in 1 Corinthians 3, believers joined together in a church form GOD’S TEMPLE.  (See Ephesians 2:21-22 and 1 Peter 2:5.)  Later, in 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, Paul’s emphasis seems a bit more centered on individual believers as God’s dwelling-place:

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.

Individual believers being “little temples” (God’s “mobile homes,”) going about the world is a thought that follows Jesus’ description of Himself.  He said His earthly body was a TEMPLE (JHN 2:19-21).

Whether together or apart, believers are God’s dwelling-place.  That fact alone makes us responsible to behave like a believer everywhere we go.

How do we know we’re His temple?  We know it is true because God the Father has given God the Spirit to us.  This is what Paul meant when he wrote: GOD’S SPIRIT DWELLS IN YOUR MIDST.  In 2 Corinthians 1:22 & 5:5, Paul wrote that the Holy Spirit is our GUARANTEE that all God’s promises are true; they will be kept.

Part of God’s guarantee is His promise to protect us.  GOD’S TEMPLE is SACRED as indicated by His promise to avenge us against all who DESTROY us.  The word SACRED means “holy” and “set apart.”  It is a state of moral/spiritual purity and a state of separation from sin and worldliness, as we saw last week.  DESTROY also means “to defile or corrupt,” so it doesn’t only mean persecution in the form of acts of physical violence.  It includes spiritual corruption.  This warning is not limited to persons outside the church.  People inside the fellow-ship who are divisive or in any way impede the ministry of the church are in trouble.

Paul was concerned this is what was happening at Corinth.  He didn’t exaggerate the situation: they were dividing over flagrant

immorality, idolatry, relationships between WEAK and STRONG members, Spiritual Gifts, mis-practiced communion and the resurrection, just to hit the highlights.  Competitiveness and false doctrine had created separate parties in the church and anyone who pushed the success of their party over obedience to Christ was destroying the church.  God Himself opposed them.

People of faith should be encouraged to know that God will defend His own.  Justice will be served.

YOU ARE OF CHRIST AND CHRIST IS OF GOD explains how it is that ALL THINGS belong to God’s people.  This is a theological statement that reveals the fact that God the Son and God the Father are one, just as Jesus said (see John 10:30).

– It is through our faith-relationship with Jesus Christ that the unlimited resources of God the Father are made available to us.

– In His death and resurrection, Jesus redeemed us.  That is, He paid the price for our sins; He bought us out of slavery to sin.

– Through Jesus Christ – God the Son – we have access to God the Father, and that is the life-giving chain by which all this is possible.

Second, godliness involves knowing what is in store for you (21-23).  Good things are in store for those who wait upon the Lord.  Paul’s words ALL THINGS ARE YOURS (22) and ALL ARE YOURS (23) leave nothing to worry about.  Because we have God’s unlimited provision in the PRESENT and FUTURE, we can obey God’s command in Philippians 4:6 = Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

Your future does not depend on any of your leaders; WHETHER PAUL OR APOLLOS OR CEPHAS.  This should be obvious; God is in charge.  Church leaders have their roles to play, but God decides whether a church will be fruitful or not (as we’ll see in v. 7).

Your future does not depend on the WORLD’s approval or support.  That’s good news because we can generally depend on the WORLD’s disapproval and, in some places, outright persecution.

Everything – LIFE and DEATH, PRESENT and FUTURE – is in God’s hands.  God is going to work in favor of His family.  He is going to work for the betterment of His children.

Our common life is founded on the reality of God.

Last week we observed that one of the appeals of the Christian faith is that we offer the world something real.  We hold forth words of assurance that there is more to life than what the world offers.  We can make such claims until we run out of breath, but when our actions are merely worldly, then the claim is denied.

We need to work at having a culture of safety in our church.  Competition and condemnation shut down imagination and  experimentation, which forbids the innovation we need to succeed.

Churches tend to fall into one of two extremes just because it’s easier to think in extreme terms.  The one extreme exalts innovation.  With an evolutionary point of view, the assumption is that newer is always better.

The other extreme is imitation.  People in these churches have an opposing view that older is always better.  They assume that if we better imitate the way we’ve always done things, recreating the good old days, they better off we will be.

A more biblically realistic view, but one that is more difficult to achieve, puts imitation and innovation on an equal level, understanding these are both merely tools to achieve what is our true goal: pointing people to God.

Philosophies and programs are not goals; they are means to the real goal, which is making Jesus Christ apparent in our lives, whether we are together in this building or apart from it.  Good builders know how to use a variety of tools to complete their job.  If all you have in your toolbox is a hammer, then hanging pictures is easy, but sawing wood is practically impossible.

What we see here in 1 Corinthians 3 is that God’s people use God’s methods and His tools to faithfully build more of Jesus in their own lives and in the lives of those around them.

Realistic Expectations = What can we do?

a. We must build on a good foundation (vs. 10-15).

b. We must be faithful builders (vs. 5-9).

Four Bear Ants

Please read Romans 14+15 in your go-to version of the Bible.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.  (This is the third in a series of three posts.)

True faith requires us to get along with each other.

By the way, if you want an explanation of this post’s title, please repeat it aloud until you hear the word that’s really there.  Forbearance is the virtue of extending forgiveness in advance of an offense: it is essential for godly relationships.

This week an article posted on the Harvard Business Review website caught my eye.  The title of the article was “Work and the Loneliness Epidemic.”  The author was Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murthy, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States.  He served in that position from 2014 to 2017.

His point is that loneliness is more prevalent than we may realize and why it’s a problem.

“Loneliness is a growing health epidemic. We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that t real number may well be higher.”

“Loneliness and weak social connections are associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity. At work, loneliness reduces task performance, limits creativity, and impairs other aspects of executive function such as reasoning and decision making.”

“Loneliness is t feeling of having inadequate social connections. Why has this feeling increased over past decades? Partly because people are more geographically mobile and are thus more likely to be living apart from friends and family. Indeed, more people report living alone today than at any time since the census began collecting this data.”

(Retrieved from https://hbr.org/cover-story/2017/09/work-and-the-loneliness-epidemic on 09.27.17>)

After we’ve had a chance to complete our understanding of God’s teaching in RMS 14+15, we’ll revisit this article and adapt Dr. Murthy’s advice to businesses on how to help people with the problem of loneliness.

Let me make this simple.  God has two solutions to the problem of loneliness: family and the Church.  This fact makes it even more of a shame that we have so thoroughly messed-up BOTH these institutions.  The result is that loneliness is a problem growing in width and depth.

  1. God’s solution has many layers.

Our motive is love and in this order: God, others, self (14:15).  Given the culture we have, here’s an ethical principle our nation needs to hear and practice: your freedom (“rights”) NEVER trumps your responsibility to love.

The value of other people is NOT dependant on what YOU think of them; the value of other people depends on what God thinks of them.  V. 15 reminds us of what God thinks of them; they are SOMEONE FOR WHOM CHRIST DIED.

The standard is unity (14:7-9, 19-21; 15:5-6) as an expression of our commonly-held life.  14:7-9 explain why we are not in this alone: we’re part of a team, the winning team, as a matter of fact.  Let’s observe something important: you may feel alone sometimes, but you are never really alone (14:7).

The most important reason we’re never alone is that the Lord Jesus is always with us.  In life and in death He is with us and we BELONG to Him (14:8).

Jesus died on the cross to make this depth of relationship possible (14:9).  It is His action not yours; Jesus picked you first.  It’s GRACE, folks.

In 14:19-21 an important objective is set before us, a main reason to be church.  THEREFORE (14:19) alerts us that an application is coming; in this case three of them.

One, MAKE EVERY EFFORT means that unity is a greater priority than getting your way.  Sacrifice selfishness to succeed in spirituality!

Two, DO WHAT LEADS TO PEACE requires us to choose our words and deeds carefully; to intentionally select things that cause PEACE.

Three, DO WHAT LEADS TO MUTUAL EDIFICATION means to choose things that will build others’ faith and confidence in the Lord.

The FOOD & DRINK in 14:20-21 are examples of non-issues that became issues because a weaker sibling in the family of God made them an issue. Maturity and freedom do not give anyone the right to purposely ignore the conscience of others or give offense.  Love trumps one’s rights.  If you truly love God and your neighbor, you’ll show it by being considerate.

The weaker sibling is someone who has genuine but wrong convictions.  This obviously does not include people who are choosing to be obnoxious, willful bullies, and hypocrites.  We don’t let them rule the day by pettiness.

Unity is not something we accomplish on our own strength; God provides it (15:5+6).  God gives us ENDURANCE and ENCOURAGEMENT; He gives us THE SAME MIND TOWARD EACH OTHER THAT CHRIST JESUS HAD (a sacrificial one).

These gifts are for the purpose of glorifying God the Father by having ONE MIND AND ONE VOICE.  Of course, having ONE MIND AND VOICE is not possible in our humanity; it is a gift from God.  God is glorified when we are in unity; He is not when we are in disunity.

Have your convictions but temper them by accepting others (14:1, 3, 5-6, 14-16, 22; 15:1-4, 7).  Accepting one another means two things.

One, do not quarrel at all & especially not over DISPUTABLE MATTERS (14:1).  Paul offered the choice of SACRED DAYS (14:5-6), and MEAT offered to idols (14:6) as examples of disputable matters.

Two, no matter which side of an issue you take, don’t TREAT anyone w/ CONTEMPT.  In Jesus, it is possible to be FULLY CONVINCED without being obnoxious.  The “secret” is that regardless of which side you take, you do it for the Lord, not self.  This will keep your pride from getting in the way of your better judgment.  Whatever your conviction is, redeem it from selfishness by  doing it with THANKS to God.  This orientation will take selfishness out of the equation, keeping our priorities in proper order.

Practicing what he preached, Paul accepted other believers (14:14-16).  His personal conviction was that NOTHING IS UNCLEAN IN ITSELF.  But he didn’t go around forcing his belief on others.  Out of love, he was considerate and did all he could to avoid causing distress.

When you find yourself in a disagreement or argument, what is your first inclination?

– If you want to force your will and win at all costs, then know you are sinning. It’s serious.  You are destroying someone for who Christ died.

– If you want to give in and do anything to keep even a false peace, then know that you are sinning because you lack the courage of your convictions, even tho’ God gives strengthens us to do right.

– As usual, the best way is in the middle.  In this case, that means being careful to not do anything to offend sincere spiritual siblings.

A practical way to avoid this sin is to keep your opinions to yourself as Paul commanded in 14:22.  If you’re not asked for your opinions, don’t volunteer them.  Instead, do as Paul suggested and KEEP them BETWEEN YOURSELF AND GOD.  Do this and you will be BLESSED because you will avoid unnecessary conflicts and embarrassing yourself.

Those who think themselves STRONG will prove it by not living to PLEASE themselves (15:1-4).  This means bearing with the FAILINGS OF THE WEAK.  We don’t assert superiority – especially if it’s real – but in humility, love them.  This also means we aim to BUILD UP our neighbors in spiritual maturity by doing GOOD.

In this we have Jesus Himself as our example, as everything He did was aimed at helping others, not Himself.  He even suffers the INSULTS intended for us.  15:7 provides perspective; we are motivated to accept one another in the way God has accepted us IN ORDER TO BRING PRAISE TO GOD.

The teaching of God’s word makes His will plain: we are to love one another.  The Scriptures help us to endure difficult people and toxic relationships graciously.  The Scriptures give us courage by giving us HOPE.  God is in charge; the truth will win out.

Another method is to keep your perspective broad by trusting God that He will get it right at the end (14:1, 13, 17-18; 15:8-14).  A lack of perspective makes DISPUTABLE MATTERS (14:1) feel like a matter of life and death, even when they aren’t.  Seeing things from God’s point of view reduces problems down to actual size.

The word THEREFORE in 14:13 introduces two more applications of this truth.  First, STOP PASSING JUDGMENT ON ONE ANOTHER.  This is a command to stop acting on your human nature.  We tend to show prejudice and bias because we’re too hateful or too lazy to get to know people individually.

Another tendency is to “demonize” people who dare to disagree with us.  We imagine them to be bad people because we’re unwilling to concede they may be right.

The second application is to not put a STUMBLING BLOCK or OBSTACLE in the way of another person.  Don’t make living a life of faith harder; make it easier.

When we see life from God’s perspective we don’t allow DISPUTABLE MATTERS to become divisive (14:17-18).  From His perspective, what matters is the KINGDOM OF GOD and it is made up of more important things that mere EATING and DRINKING.  People who make God’s perspective their own will succeed in PLEASING GOD and will ultimately win HUMAN APPROVAL.

This lengthy and essential section on righteous relationships concludes with the ultimate example of God bringing people together: God brought the Jews and Gentiles together (15:8-15).  The Jews were the people of God from the time he made them a nation at the exodus.  Everybody else is a GENTILE.

BUT – God has always been working to bring the Gentiles into the family of God.  In Old Testament times, this was accomplished by Gentiles converting to the Law.  Case in point; Jesus served the Jews to fulfill all God’s promises to the Jewish founding fathers, but by His death and resurrection, He broke down the DIVIDING WALL between Jews and Gentiles (see Ephesians 2:14), creating one new people, the Church.  The Church is supposed to be God’s greatest achievement in bringing people together and just look at what we’ve done with it.  To prove this point Paul offered a series of OT quotes – all of them with the word GENTILE in them – to demonstrate God always intended all nations to be included among His people.

The passage concludes on a positive note, offering all these divine blessings: HOPE…ALL JOY AND PEACE…OVERFLOW WITH HOPE.  Paul also explained HOW we will come to these blessings.  Two means:

AS YOU TRUST IN HIM.  Interesting.  The more we trust God, the more accepting we are of each other.

BY THE POWER OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.  The Holy Spirit is the power cable through which the divine energy of God is channeled to us.

Our days are pockmarked with bullet holes.  Nationalism and tribalism give rise to war and other kinds of conflicts around the world.  Have you seen the news and heard the rhetoric in the media and in government?  We seem to be more divided than ever as a nation.  The Church is divided into tens of thousands of splinter groups.  Individual churches see feud and splits over matters that are trivial.  Families are broken on a scale we would have thought unimaginable a generation ago.

We are in need of righteous relationships.  In Jesus Christ, believers have all we need to make righteous relationships a reality.  The only question is our willingness to believe, to sacrifice selfishness, and to enact the commands of God in the power of the Spirit.  Righteous relationships do not come easy, but they are worth it.