Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Category: Christian Life

WITHOUT HOPE AND WITHOUT GOD

 

 

 

 

Edvard Munch

Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893

One of the most tragic comments ever written about a group of people is found in Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians.  There, writing to a church made up largely of Gentile converts, Paul reminded them “that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12; NKJV).  It is a vivid description of the world without Christ.

It must be remembered that before the coming of the gospel this was the condition in which most of the human race found itself.  God’s dealings with the human race were largely confined to one small group of people – the nation of Israel.  Thus Israel was uniquely in a position to know something about God and about His purposes in history.  He had made a promise to their ancestor Abraham, and that promise gave them hope – hope for a better tomorrow.

But where did that leave the rest of the human race?  They were “strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.”  The “covenants of promise” refers to the various covenants that God had made to Abraham and his descendants the Israelites.  The covenants included promises from God, and the promises gave Israel hope – the confident expectation that God would make things better in the future.  But the Gentiles had none of this.  Theirs was a dark and unpromising world, filled with toil and hardship, strife and conflict, with no hope for a better future.  What you so was pretty much what you got.

Moreover, the Gentiles were “without God in the world.”  They worshipped gods, of course; they were polytheistic.  But their “gods” were very much like themselves – only they lived longer.  What the pagan Gentiles had no concept of was a single, all-powerful Supreme Being, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe.  And this affected them psychologically.  Without God it is nearly impossible to find meaning and purpose in life.  We simply exist as an accident of nature, left to struggle to survive on our own.  For a while we might convince ourselves that we are doing well – we have jobs and houses and cars and boats.  But does anyone else really care about us?  Does it really matter in the long run?  And what happens when things turn bad?  What do we have then?  We are left with nothing.

You can see it on people’s faces.  Some look sad and depressed; some look bitter and cynical; others are just plain angry.  Few smile and few look happy.  They have eaten the bitter herbs of life without God.

As human beings we can find meaning and purpose, happiness and fulfillment, only by returning to our Creator.  We were created by Him for His purposes, and life was meant to function a certain way – His way.

Our sins stand as a barrier between us and God, and we must find forgiveness on the basis of Christ’s atoning death on the cross.  We must go to God in repentance and faith, and then we can find a meaningful relationship with our Creator.  In his letter to the Ephesians could go on to refer to Isa. 57:19: “And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near”; and went on to say, “For through Him [i.e., Christ] we both have access by one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2:17,18).

Does the Christian experience difficulties in life?  He most certainly does.  But he takes his burdens to God in prayer; he comes in complete submission to the Father’s will, and he trusts in God’s unfailing providence.  He finds fulfillment in life by serving God and helping others.  And in the end he dies in the hope of eternal life.  It is a hope worth living for.

THE CHRISTIAN IN THE WORLD

 

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Van Gogh: Man Reading the Bible

 

In our blog post of June 11 we saw that the Christian’s aim should not be the preservation of America’s civil religion.  But what should its aim be?  How is the Christian to relate to the surrounding world?

In Titus 2:11-14 the apostle Paul gives us a brief summary of what the Christian life is supposed to look like.  It is a different kind of life-style based on a distinctively Christian worldview.

It begins with a historical fact: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men . . .” (v. 11; NKJV).  Here Paul is undoubtedly referring back to the first advent of Christ and His death on the cross that opened up to all mankind the offer of salvation.  This was the great turning point in history.

But what effect does this have on us?  Paul goes on to say that salvation is “teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age . . .” (v. 12).  Here it will be seen that there is both a negative and a positive side to the Christian life.  On the negative side we are to “deny ungodliness and worldly lusts.”  The word “ungodliness” might better be translated “impiety” – it is the lack of devotion to or reverence for God.  A good modern term would be “secularism,” the absence of God in our thinking.  “Worldly lusts” are self-centered desires that drive most of human behavior – the lust for pleasure, wealth, fame or power.  We sometimes dress it up as “enlightened self-interest” or “the profit motive.”  These are the things which typically mark human behavior outside of Christ, and the Christian must turn his back on all of this, leaving it all behind.  He has been called to a higher life.

On the positive side we are to “live soberly, righteously, and godly.”  To live soberly means to exercise sound judgment in all of the decisions we make.  It means that we do not go through life pursuing pleasure with reckless abandon, but we carefully weigh the consequences of the actions we take.  We look to promote the glory of God and the well-being of our fellow man.

But we are also called to live “righteously,” which means to live in accordance with God’s law.  God is our Creator, our Lawgiver and Judge.  We can find happiness and fulfillment in life only when we live in accordance with His will and purposes.

And then we are to live “godly” or “piously,” as the word might be better translated.  We are to give God His proper place in our lives, to have a genuine and heartfelt devotion towards Him, and to acknowledge Him in all of our ways.

All of this we are to do “in the present age,” the time in which we are now living.  The Bible often contrasts “the present age” with “the age which is to come”: and the “the present age” is marked by sin and evil.  Nevertheless the Christian is expected to live a godly life now, in the present age.  This will inevitably mean a life of non-conformity to the world.

But why would we want to do this?  Why would we run the risk of social ostracism and financial failure by refusing to conform?  The answer is because we are “looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (v. 13).  The Christian looks forward to the future, and what he sees is “the glorious appearing” of Christ, His visible return at the end of the age when He comes to establish a new order of things here on earth.  The Christian is conscious that what we experience now will not last forever.  Christ will return and things will be entirely different.  The Christian lives for tomorrow and not for today.

It should be kept in mind that God’s whole purpose in our salvation is to free us, not just from the guilt of sin, but also from its power.  Christ “gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (v. 14).  The word “redeem” means to pay a ransom and thereby secure the release of a slave or prisoner.  We were once under the power and guilt of sin.  Christ paid the penalty for that sin by dying on the cross and thereby secured our salvation.  And He did this at enormous cost to Himself: He “gave Himself for us.”

But why did He do this?  What was His aim and objective?  It was not just to forgive us but also to sanctify us: “ . . .that He might redeem from every lawless deed and purify for Himself his own special people, zealous for good works.”  It was sin that got us into trouble; Christ freed us from that condition.  Now we are “His own special people, a people of His own possession; we now belong to Him.  And we are to be “zealous for good works” – we are not to conform half-heartedly to an external set of rules; we are to desire sincerely to do good to others.

The Christian, then, is called to a life of non-conformity to the surrounding world.  He does not have the luxury of living the life of a nice, comfortable, middle-class existence.  He is conscious of answering to a Higher Authority; and that will eventually bring him into conflict with the values of the surrounding world.  This will require personal sacrifice on his part – the possible loss of job, family reputation.  It may even invite on occasion legal prosecution.  But faithful to God he must remain.  The sacrifice is temporary; the gain is eternal.   May God grant us all the grace to live for Him!

A RELATIONSHIP WITH CHRIST

 

 

 

We sometimes hear it said that what we need is not religion, but a relationship with Jesus.  The statement, however, is a bit disingenuous.  If “a relationship with Jesus” is not “religion,” then what is “religion”?  Jesus was, after all, a highly regarded religious teacher, and to most people’s minds a relationship with Jesus is certainly religion.  So when people make the statement, how exactly do they mean by the world “religion”?  Usually they leave it undefined.  Presumably it is whatever bad experience one may have had with a church in the past.

There is, however, an element of truth to the charge.  It is sad but true that much of what passes for religion these days in the typical, modern institutional church has very little genuinely spiritual content.  The typical church functions as a social club, the pastor is a trained professional who is paid to perform certain administrative duties, and the Sunday morning service is little more than a mere formality.  Ironically there is very little sense of the presence of Jesus.  What is lacking is a meaningful relationship with Christ.

But what, then, is a relationship with Christ?  What does one look like?  The apostle Paul gives us a picture in Philippians chapter 3 in which he describes his own relationship with Christ.

By almost any measure Paul led a remarkable life.  Called to be the apostle to the Gentiles he preached the gospel throughout Asia Minor and Greece.  But in so doing he encountered ferocious opposition along the way, and his path eventually took him to the city of Rome where he suffered martyrdom.  His letter to the Philippians was written from a prison.

But what led him to take such risks, and expose himself to such dangers?  Why would anyone in his right mind persist in such a hazardous course?  In Philippians chapter 3 pulls back the veil a bit to give us a glimpse into his own heart.

He begins by describing his own religious background as a devout Jew.  He was “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews, concerning the law, a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; concerning the righteousness which is in the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:5,6; NKJV).  In other words his religion consisted almost entirely in what he was what he did.

But when he became a Christian his whole perspective on life changed dramatically.  “But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ.  Yes indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ” (vv. 7,8)

But why?  What is so special about Christ?  Paul goes on to explain.

Paul says that he wants to be “found in Him” (v. 9).  This is a reference to union with Christ.  When a person repents of his sin, puts his trust in Christ, and is baptized, he becomes one with Christ; he is “in Him.”  And this, in turn, has several implications.

The first of these is the forgiveness of one’s sins, or “justification by faith” as Paul puts it elsewhere.  Here Paul draws a contrast between “my own righteousness, which is from the law” and “that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith” (v. 9).  In other words we are made righteous in the sight of God (justification) by an imputed righteousness.  Having been united to Christ by faith we are counted as Christ Himself.  We are credited with His righteousness.

But does this mean that having been forgiven we can go out and live like the devil?  Not at all, because union with Christ means several other things as well.  For Paul goes on to say “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection” (v. 10).  Note: Paul said that he wanted to “know Him,” not merely know about Him.  What he aimed at was a personal acquaintance with Christ, a meaningful relationship with Him.  This, in turn, means knowing something of “the power of His resurrection” – the life-giving power that transforms lives, the spiritual life within.

But Paul goes on.  He also says that he wants to know “the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death” (v. 10).  To follow Christ means to go where He went and experience what He experienced.  And Christ was eventually crucified.  And so too we are told that we must experience persecution.  “’A servant is not greater than his master.’  If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).

Paul goes on to compare the Christian life to a foot race in which “forgetting the things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (vv. 13,14).  It is a life of determined purpose and strenuous exertion in which we press on to the goal that lies ahead, and do not allow ourselves to be distracted by lesser things.

Paul goes on in the end of the chapter to lament the presence of certain false teachers who, he says, are “enemies of the cross of Christ” (v. 18).  He describes them as a bunch of hedonistic materialists (“whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame – who set their mind on earthly things” – does this not sound like the typical, modern consumer oriented American?).

Christians, however, have a different perspective on life: “. . . our citizenship is in heaven” (v. 20).  We belong to a different realm or state; and we live for the future, not the present, viz., the Second Coming of Christ “from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus,” who will release us from our present ills and inaugurate a glorious future.  In the words of the old gospel hymn,

“This world is not my home,

I’m just apassing through.

My treasures are laid up

Somewhere beyond the blue;

The angels beckon me

Through heaven’s open door,

And I can’t feel at home

In this world anymore.”

The problem with many churches today is that they have a “religion,” but it mainly consists in external observances.  There is very little real spirituality about it.  But God calls us to have a relationship with Christ.  Christ is supposed to be the focus of our attention, the object of our worship, the driving force in our lives.  A real relationship with Christ begins with a sound conversion – repentance, faith and the new birth; and it is fostered by a life of prayer and personal Bible study.  A relationship with Christ transforms us inwardly – gives us a new perspective, new values and new desires.  It leads to holy living and a life of non-conformity to the world.

May God send His church a revival!

GOD’S LAW V. MAN’S LAW

 

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The United States Supreme Court has legalized abortion.  It has legalized same-sex marriage.  Both decisions have placed religious organizations in an awkward position.  What should the churches do?  Conform to the changing mores of society?  Or risk marginalization by clinging to the older standards of morality?

The question is not a new one, and Jesus made it clear that the conflict existed in the First Century.  The underlying question is this: what exactly determines morality?  The consensus of contemporary society?  Or some eternal, transcendent standard or moral law?  Are there such things as moral absolutes?  Jesus answered in the latter.

The Gospel of Luke records an incident in which Jesus confronted the religious leaders of His day.  At one point Jesus made the statement, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and Mammon” (Luke 16:13; NKJV).  “Mammon” is an Aramaic word that means wealth or profit.  Here it is personified into a kind of pagan god.  The Pharisees, Luke tells us, “were lovers of money” (v. 14), not unlike certain religious leaders today, and when the Pharisees heard Jesus’ statement “they derided Him.”

Jesus’ response was sharp and to the point.  He pointed out that “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts” (v. 15).  They has a high opinion of themselves based on their standing in society.  People looked up to them; they were honored and esteemed.  By all outward appearances they were successful.   But God knew better.  He looks on the heart, and knew what they were really like inside.  And the inward reality did not match the outward appearance.

Jesus then went on to make a telling statement: “For what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (v. 15).  What He is saying here, in effect, is that there is a difference between a morality based on the standards of human society and one that is based on the will of God.

Every civilized human society has standards of human behavior that it expects the members of that society to meet.  But these standards are usually based on a pragmatic consideration: this is what we need to do to be able to work together to achieve a common goal.  It is a morality based on enlightened self-interest rather than any regard for the will of the Creator.  Aristotle could actually go so far as to say that ethics or morality is a branch of political science.  “Whosoever therefore would achieve anything in social or political life must be of good moral character; which indicates that the discussion of character not only belongs to social science, but is its very foundation or starting-point” (Magna Moralia, I.i).  It was only later that men began to ask the question, what ultimately makes a given human action right or wrong?  Is there any universal or transcendent standard of morality?  And even then philosophers could not admit that there was only one, infinite, eternal Creator-God to whom we as human beings are accountable; they had recourse instead to the concept of natural law.

But the Bible begins with the obvious question, how did we get here in the first place?  And the answer is that we were created by an intelligent Supreme Being who made us in His image and gave us rational and moral faculties.  Everything, then, is supposed to conform to His creative purpose; and that, in turn, determines the nature of morality.

So great, however, is the disparity between God’s standards and man’s that Jesus could say that “what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”  Human society admires success.  We look up to people who have education, wealth, good looks, athletic prowess, political standing.  We encourage ambition and gratify pride. But Jesus uses an exceptionally strong word to describe all of this: it is an “abomination” in the sight of God – literally something that is disgusting or detestable.  What God requires of us is that we love the Lord our God with all of our hearts and love our neighbors as ourselves; not push and shove our way to the top and then pat ourselves on the back for our good success.

That, of course, places the individual human being in an awkward position.  When God’s law and man’s law conflict, what should he do?  Jesus went on to tell His listeners that “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one tittle of the law to fail” (v. 17).  A “tittle” was the tiny little overhang or projection that would distinguish one letter of the Hebrew alphabet from another.  Legislatures, courts and monarchs may all have their ideas about what they might like to see happen in the world; they might seek to impose their will at the point of the bayonet; but in the end it will all come to naught.  In the end every human government passes from the stage of history.  But God’s throne is eternal; His rule over the universe is never-ending, and in the end He will be the final Judge.  His word is the only one that counts.  As human beings we dare not disobey Him, no matter what men may say.

In modern Western society Judaeo-Christian morality may seem old-fashioned.  We are accused of living in the past.  But we are really living in eternity, while the surrounding world is self-destructing.  The path of wisdom is obvious.

CHRISTIANITY AND CIVILIZATION

 

The Tower of Babel

 

 

In our last blog post we considered the nature of civilization, and concluded that it was an organized effort on the part of human beings to live and work together; and that this, in turn, required certain standards of behavior.  But what is a Christian to make of all of this?  Is civilization good or bad?  Should he support it, attack it, or ignore it?

The answer is that from a Christian standpoint civilization is both good and bad.  It is both good and bad because it reflects the fundamental contradictions of human nature.  We are created in the image of God and have consciences.  We are social creatures.  Yet at the same time we are also fallen sinners and routinely do what is bad.  And thus it is with human civilization as a whole.

On the one hand there is much that is undeniably good in civilization.  In a civilization people are willing to work together for the common good.  When a government is created to establish justice, this is a positive thing.  The apostle Paul could go so far as to call the civil magistrate “God’s minister to you for good” (Rom. 13:1-7), and urges prayers to be made “for kings and all who are in authority” (I Tim. 2:1,2).  Civilizations have made tremendous advances in science and technology and have created great works of art, music and literature.  All of this is undeniably good.

But sinners are still sinners, and this is reflected in civilization as well.  Even when human beings outwardly do what is right they often do it for the wrong reasons.   Instead of being motivated by a genuine love for God and for righteousness, individuals are often driven by the prospects of rewards and punishments that are held out by the particular society in which they live.  They seek the praise of their fellow men, or dread the prospect of a prison term.  They go along in order to get along.  At best they are motivated by “enlightened self-interest,” but that is still a form of selfishness nonetheless.

Moreover civilization itself is in many ways an attempt to better the human condition, but to do it without God. It is an expression of man’s hubris, a reflection of his underlying rebellion against God.  Civilizations impose standards of behavior, but these are usually conceived of as standards we create ourselves to advance our own interests as a society.  And these values and ideals often fall far short of God’s standards of morality – everything from Roman gladiatorial games to American rugged individualism.

But what is even worse, the members of society often try to undermine the very ideals they profess to believe.  No sooner is a constitution adopted and laws passed then men begin looking for ways to circumvent them.  Right and wrong soon become a matter of what we can get away with.  We in the U.S. declared that “all men are created equal” and are endowed by their Creator with “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  But just eighty years later the U.S. Supreme Court, in the infamous Dred Scott decision, declared that black people were not included in the “all men” of the Declaration, and that “they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.”  And so we rationalize our bad behavior.

What our Creator really expects from us, however, is that we love Him with all of our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves.

The Bible gives us a brief but vivid account of the beginning of human civilization.  In Gen. 11:1-9 we are told how that ancient peoples found a place to dwell in the land of Shinar (Sumeria).  They then proceeded to build a city.  “And they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (v. 4; NKJV).  What is significant here is not just that they undertook a construction project, but the mentality that lay behind it.  They wanted to reach the heavens and “make a name for ourselves.”  In other words it was a purely human endeavor driven by pride and ambition.  And God’s response was to scatter them by confusing their language.  The city became known as Babel, or Babylon, and it remained a symbol of worldly power and human arrogance.

To understand the biblical attitude toward civilization it is necessary first to understand the biblical view of history.  The Bible draws a contrast between “this age” and “that which is to come” (Eph. 1:21).  The age to come is a time when the Messiah will reign over all the earth.  But this age is the time when “the prince of the power of the air” is “the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience” who are “fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:1-3).

By the same token the apostle John tells us that “all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father, but is of the world.  And the world is passing away, and the lust of it . . .” (I John 2:16, 17a).  In other words human society as a whole, including its various civilizations, is fallen and corrupt, and under the wrath of God.

The Christian, however, is no longer a part a part of this corrupt world system.  “He [i.e., God] has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love” (Col. 1:13).  And this kingdom operates on a whole different principle from the surrounding world.  “. . .for the kingdom of God is not eating or drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).  Thus a human civilization can never truly be called “Christian”; it is always sub-Christian at best.

But what about the culture of civilization – its arts and science, its learning and philosophy?  “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (I Cor. 3:19: cf. 1:18-25).  Because fallen sinners refuse to acknowledge God as the Creator and Lord, their philosophy is based on a false premise and they develop a warped and distorted view of reality.  They live in a world created by God, but they refuse to admit the fact.  The result is an educational system that does not truly educate.

That, then, is the picture that the Bible paints of human civilization.  But how is the Christian to relate to the surrounding world?  How does he fit in?  Or doesn’t he?

On the positive side we are to honor and respect those who are in positions of authority in human society.  Jesus said “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21).  The apostle Peter could write, “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake . . .” including kings and governors.  We are to “Honor all people.  Love the brotherhood.  Fear God.  Honor the king” (I Pet. 2:13-17).  It is even permissible on occasion for the Christian to avail himself of the legal remedies at his disposal.  The apostle Paul could claim Roman citizenship and make a formal appeal to Caesar when threatened (Acts 22:25-28; 256:10-12).

Yet the Christian must always be conscious that he answers to a higher authority, and when human law clashes with divine law, divine law always takes precedence.  Jesus state the matter quite starkly: “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).

The fact of the matter is that the life of a Christian should stand in sharp contrast with that of the world.  Paul could write to the Ephesian believers and tell them “For you were once darkness, but you are light in the Lord.  Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), . . .”  He then goes on to say, “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them . . .” (Eph. 5:8-11).

But what about Western Civilization?  Was it not a “Christian” civilization?  Should not Christians have whole-heartedly supported it?

The answer is that Western civilization was only superficially Christian.  It supported state churches and professed Christian values, but it was largely an external morality, whereas genuine Christianity is the life of Christ within the heart, transforming life from the inside out.  Western civilization was the greatest civilization in the history of mankind, and it attained that status precisely because of the influence on it of Christianity.  But it still fell short of what our Creator expects from us as human beings.  Genuine Christians must conform to a higher standard.

The Christian, then, lives in the world but is not really a part of it.  He seeks to do good to his neighbors wherever he can, but must be careful not to participate in their sins.  While he may support the government in its efforts to establish justice and meet human need, the Christian realizes that man’s real need is for salvation and eternal life.  The Christian’s aim, then, is to be a light shining in the darkness.

THE CHRISTIAN’S PRAYER LIFE

 

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David the Psalmist Giving Thanks

 

Having enumerated all the different pieces of armor, Paul then adds to that the exhortation, “praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints . . .” (Eph. 6:18; NKJV).  He began this section by saying, “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might” (v. 10).  The “whole armor of God,” by itself, is insufficient.  Ultimately we are directly dependent upon God himself, and the way we appropriate His strength and power is through prayer.  Prayer is the life-blood of the Christian life.

We are to pray “always,” or “on every occasion,” or “at every time,” as it might be more literally translated.  The idea here is not that you are constantly engaged in the act of prayer, 24-7, but rather that every time you are conscious of a need, every time a situation arises that requires a conscious decision, you pray.  We seek the Lord’s guidance; we seek the Lord’s aid.  We bring everything to Him in prayer.

We are to pray “with all prayer and supplication.”  “Prayer” is the general word for just that – prayer.  “Supplication” carries with it the specific connotation of petition or entreaty.  Obviously part of what we do in prayer is to ask God for things.

We are to pray “in the Spirit.”  We are told in Romans 8:26 that “. . . the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses.  We do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”  Prayer is not just a simple matter of us talking directly to God the Father.  We do that, of course.  But because we cannot see the future, let alone see the spiritual forces arrayed against us, we often find ourselves in a position in which we really do not know what to pray for.  In this the Holy Spirit works actively on our behalf.

We are to be “watchful.”  The word here means being awake and alert, watchful and vigilant.  As Paul has gone on to great lengths to demonstrate, we “wrestle . . . against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (v. 12).  Satan will try to catch us off guard.  He will tempt us when we least expect it.  Therefore we must be in a prayer attitude at all times.

We are to pray “with all perseverance.”  In other words, we are to continue in prayer steadfastly.  This is to be a regular, continuous part of the believer’s life.  There will always be a need for prayer; the struggle is never ending and God wants us to feel our dependence upon Him.  Prayer is a necessary and vital part of the Christian’s life.  Without prayer there is no meaningful relationship with God.

We are to pray “for all the saints.”  We have been commanded to “love one another” (John 15:12,17; I Thess. 4:9,10; I Pet. 1:22; I John 3:11; 4:7,11).  One of the ways that we express that love is by praying for each other.  We are not always in a position individually to meet the physical and financial needs of others, but we can go to the One who can.  It is one of the most important ministries we can exercise for each other.

But most importantly of all, prayer is necessary for the effectiveness of the ministry.  And so Paul asks for prayer for himself “. . . praying always . . . and for me, that utterance may be given to me, that I may open my mouth boldly to make known the mystery of the gospel . . .” (v. 19).  Paul, at the time he wrote this, was a prisoner.  He refers to himself as “an ambassador in chains” (v. 21).  He had been arrested for causing a disturbance in Jerusalem.  At the time that he wrote the epistle he was living in his own quarters in Rome, and was free to receive visitors and speak to them, but he was under guard (Acts. 28:302,31).  What he asks is that “utterance” would be given to him so that he could speak boldly.  There is obviously something intimidating about being arrested for something that you said, and our natural instinct for self-preservation might lead us to temper the message a bit to make it less offensive to others.  But it takes both wisdom and courage to react to circumstances as we ought.  The real question is, what needs to be said and how ought we to say it?  What does God want us to say?  And what do people need to hear?  How can we say it so that it is unmistakably clear yet not unnecessarily offensive?  And then this, in turn, calls for an inward strength to do the right thing under difficult circumstances, and the Holy Spirit must provide that.

And why is this so necessary?  It is so that we might “make known the mystery of the gospel” (v. 19).  What is ultimately at stake is the eternal destiny of countless multitudes of lost sinners.  Without the gospel they are lost.  And today perhaps the greatest crime against humanity are churches that no longer preach the gospel.  They fail to discharge the solemn commission that has been given to them by God.

Revival comes from God; and if we would have it we must ask for it.  Why is our nation in the shape that it is in today?  One reason, at least, is that Christians do not pray!

THE SPIRITUAL WAR

 

107

We are living in a tumultuous time.  A controversial president is sitting in the White House, Russia is interfering in elections throughout the free world, and North Korea racing to develop nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.  Congress is struggling to reform the healthcare system.  And the LGBTQ community is actively working to change long accepted standards of sexual morality.  What are Christians to make of all of this?

One response is to take political action – to organize, canvass and raise funds.  Yet the Bible makes it clear that there is more to the world’s problems than just special interests at work in Washington.  There is a spiritual dimension to the conflict, and it will take more than just political action to make things right.  We are, in fact, locked in a spiritual war.

“”For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in high places” (Eph. 6:12: NKJV).  What we are up against is not just “flesh and blood,” the natural human and physical forces we encounter in everyday life, but rather “principalities” (“rulers” – NASV, ESV), “powers” (“authorities” – ESV), “rulers of the darkness of this age,” “the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”  Paul had previously introduced these sinister forces in chapter 2, verse 2 when he said that the unsaved “walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience . . .”  What is going on in the world is positively evil, and it plays into the hands of Satan himself in his rebellion against God.  He is the one who “works in the sons of disobedience,” and has blinded their eyes (II Cor. 4:4)  These spiritual forces are not bound by the laws of nature and human psychology, and hence social pressure and marketing techniques are of no avail against them.

What is needed is something greater, something more powerful.  And so Paul tells his readers, “be strong in the Lord and in power of His might” (Eph. 6:10).  We must look outside of ourselves, to God Himself, for the strength to prevail.

To illustrate the point Paul borrows some metaphors from the military realm.  “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (v. 11).  He then elaborates in verses 14-17 where he describes the individual pieces of armor.  Some of the imagery is drawn from passages in the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, describing the Messiah armed for battle.

So what do we need in order to succeed in the Christian life and ministry?  The first thing that Paul mentions is “having girded your waist with truth” (v. 14).  The first thing we need is absolute sincerity of heart and mind.  “Behold, You desire truth in the inward parts . . .” (Ps. 51:6).  We must sincerely believe and practice what we preach.  Hypocrisy will get us nowhere in the Christian life and ministry.

The next piece of armor that Paul mentions is “the breastplate of righteousness” (v. 14), or “the breastplate of faith and love,” as he calls it in I Thess. 5:8.  The war in which we are engaged is primarily a conflict between good and evil. By living a righteous life we advance the cause of Christ and frustrate the plans of the devil.  Christ is glorified when His people are living examples of what the Christian life is supposed to be like.

Paul then says that we are to have “shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace” (v. 18).  Here the reference is undoubtedly to Isa. 52:7:

“How beautiful upon the mountains

Are the feet of him who brings good news,

Who proclaims peace,

Who brings glad tidings of good things,

Who proclaims salvation,

Who says to Zion,

‘Your God reigns!’”

The church is to go forth and proclaim a message, the “good news” of salvation.  This is what the church has to offer to the world, the message to which men and women are invited to respond.  If we are to fulfill the Great Commission we must make sure that we get the message right.

Then we are to take up “the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one” (v. 16).  The Roman shield was a large, oblong shield made of wood and covered with leather.  The “fiery darts” were darts or arrows dipped in pitch and set on fire.  Thus when the darts would hit the shield they would be blunted and extinguished.  The “fiery darts of the wicked one” would include temptations, accusations and outright persecution.  To counter Satan’s attacks what is needed is faith – faith in God’s goodness and power to deliver us.

Next Paul mentions “the helmet of salvation” (v. 17), or as he calls it in I Thess. 5:8, “the hope of salvation.”  We fight the battle in the confidence that no matter what befalls us in this life we have been saved and have been promised eternal life.

And then finally Paul comes to “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (v. 17).  Interestingly this is the only offensive weapon mentioned in the passage.  Here “the sword of the Spirit” is identified as “the word of God,” and the word for “word” (rema) refers specifically to the spoken word.  It is Scripture, as originally inspired by God Himself, and it is Scripture as it is faithfully proclaimed today.  Moreover it is “the sword of the Spirit” – it was originally inspired by the Holy Spirit, and it is used today but the Holy Spirit to convict sinners.  And is this not the major weakness of the church today?  We are liable to hear anything and everything from the pulpit today except a careful but forceful exposition of Scripture.  And man’s word cannot replace God’s.

All of these things constituted “the whole armor of God.”  They are the result of God’s grace at work in our lives, and are the practical means by which Christ advances His kingdom.  In this way we can be “strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.”

And here we can see the necessary ingredients for an effective ministry.  It is not necessarily education or technology or financial resources.  It is a life lived close to God, it is personal holiness, and it is the blessing and power of the Holy Spirit on God’s Word as it is proclaimed to mankind.  May we consecrate our lives to Him, and seek the filling of His Spirit!

 

THE CHRISTIAN EMPLOYEE

 

4.2.7

Van Gogh: Men and Women Going to Work

 

Most of us have had the experience of working for employers, and we would have to admit that it has not always been a pleasant experience.  Most business executives today are focused on the corporate bottom line, and that often means that they work their employees as hard as they can and pay them as little as they can.  And in some cases our immediate boss may be either difficult to work with or just plain incompetent.  What is a Christian employee to do in such a situation?

Writing to the church at Ephesus the apostle Paul addresses the master / servant relationship.  The immediate reference is to the institution of slavery, and significantly Paul does not condemn it outright.  Every society has a social and economic structure that places some individuals in positions of authority over others, and that is unavoidable.  The question is, however, how are the individuals in these relationships supposed to treat each other?

Paul says, “Bondservants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling. . .” (Eph. 6:5; NKJV).  And the masters are exhorted to do good to their servants, “giving up threatening” (v. 9).  And if outright slaves are morally obligated to obey their masters, and masters are required to treat their slaves humanely, how much more employees and employers, who have voluntarily agreed to work with each other?

Paul tells the bondservants to “be obedient to those who are you masters according to the flesh” (v. 5).  But he goes one step further and says that this is to be done “with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart . . . not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers . . . with goodwill doing service” (vv. 5-7).  In other words, it is not enough merely to “go through the motions” on the job, and to “goof off” when the boss is not looking.  If we are getting paid to work, we should work, and we should try honestly and faithfully to follow our boss’s instructions.

But we have all had the experience of working for bosses who are difficult and unreasonable, and the temptation is to respond in kind.  Yet God tells us in His word that we are to obey “with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart.”  Why?  How is that even possible when the boss is clearly being unreasonable?  Paul explains: we are to render obedience “as to Christ . . . as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart . . . as to the Lord, and not to men” (vv 5-7).  Yes, the boss is being difficult.  But ultimately we perform our work to please Christ, not the boss.  And Paul goes on to add: “knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is slave or free” (v. 8).  God sees what good we have done, and God Himself will reward us accordingly.

Paul concludes this section with a word o exhortation to masters: “And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master in heaven also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him” (v. 9).  The parallel passage in Colossians reads: “Masters, give your bondservants what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven” (Col. 4:1).  Disciplinary action, of course, is sometimes necessary.  Some employees malinger, some disobey orders, some may even be guilty of outright theft.  Some may have to be warned of the potential consequences of their unsatisfactory work performance.  And yet it is a rule of human relations that nothing will demoralize a workforce faster than constant harsh criticism from management.  When you make impossible demands and hurl insults at your employees, and never reward them for good work, morale sinks and the quality of the work suffers as a result.  If you treat your employees well you will have a more highly motivated workforce.

Businessmen all too easily forget that their customers, employees and vendors are all human beings, and if you want to be successful in business you have to treat the other people well.  Paul reminds the masters that “your own Master is also in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.”  Owning a business does not give someone the right to be a petty tyrant.  We are all accountable to our Master in heaven.  It behooves us, then, to do unto others as we would have God do unto us!

PARENTING

 

4.2.7

Anthony van Dyck: Family Portrait, 1621

 

 

Being a parent is perhaps one of the greatest challenges any human being can face, and we have all probably fallen short in this area.  And here as in other areas of life God’s Word offers valuable guidance.  If there was ever a time when it was needed, it is now.

“And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4; NKJV).  Significantly, this is addressed specifically to “fathers.”   Mothers obviously have an important role in parenting, but as the head of the household the responsibility for childrearing falls squarely on the shoulders of the father.  He bears ultimate responsibility for the upbringing of his children.

And like so many biblical exhortations this one contains both a negative and a positive.  The negative command is this: “fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath . . .”   Or, as it stated in the parallel passage in Colossians, “Fathers, so nor provoke your children, lest they become discourage” (Col. 3:21).  Tragically this is where many fathers fail today.  How many adults still bear the emotional scars that resulted from the abusive treatment they received as youngsters from their fathers?

But no child likes being disciplined; how is a father supposed to correct his children?  Obviously a spanking would cause short term pain, but what leads to lasting anger and resentment is the perception of injustice.  If the rules have not been made clear, if punishment is haphazard and inconsistent, if the children are treated differently from each other, this will naturally lead to anger and resentment.  This the father should never do.

On the positive side fathers are instructed to “bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.”  It is not exactly clear how Paul intended to differentiate “training” and “admonition.”  The two words mean nearly the same thing.  The Greek word translated “training” (paideia) originally meant childrearing, and then by extension education in its broadest sense.  But in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, it is used to translate the Hebrew word musar, which carries with it the distinct meaning of chastisement, punishment, correction and discipline.  The difference is significant.  For the ancient Greeks the root of man’s difficulty was ignorance, and the aim of paideia was to impart knowledge, and its highest form was found in literature.  But the Bible presents a different view of things.  Man is partially ignorant because his will is stubborn.  He does not want to behave righteously, and therefore he more or less deliberately distorts his view of reality.  He uses a false worldview as a cover for his rebellion.  Child discipline, then, involves changing both the mind and will, and this in turn requires the skillful use of rewards and punishments.  “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; / The rod of correction (musar) will drive it from him” (Prov. 22:15).

But there is more to child-rearing than just corrective discipline; there is also “admonition” or verbal instruction as well.  And that raises the question of what we should be teaching our children.  Significantly, in this passage says “bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.”  In other words, parents have a responsibility to provide their children with an education that is Christian.

The reason is simple.  First of all, the purpose of an education ought to be more than prepare one for a job.  It should equip one to live life.  Solomon outlines the purpose of education in the opening verses of the Book of Proverbs:

“To know wisdom and instruction,

To perceive the words of understanding . . .”

(Prov. 1:2)

Wisdom, in the Bible, is the ability to manage one’s affairs in every area of life, and it involves both technical skills and human relationships.  To that end the aim of education should be

“To give prudence to the simple,

To the young man knowledge and discretion . . .” (v. 4).

(The word “simple” here refers to a person who is gullible and naïve.)  Thus the aim of a sound education is not just simply to be able to earn a living, but to make wise decisions in every area of life.

This, in turn, requires a well-defined set of values based on a Christian worldview.  If we live in a world that was created by God, the only way we can make sense out of it is to understand it as God’s creation.  Everything has meaning and purpose because of the way that God created it.  Once God is removed from the picture all we are left with is a jumble of unrelated facts.  This is why Solomon could say, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge . . .” (v. 7a).

Never have the stakes been higher.  American family life has crumbled.  We have raised a whole generation that does not know what a stable family life is, has no sense of morality, and has been fed a steady diet of consumerism.  As society around us goes to hell in a handbasket, it is up to Christian parents to preserve what is left of Western Civilization by bringing up their children “in the training and admonition of the Lord.”

THE CHRISTIAN IN THE WORLD

             In our blog post three weeks ago (“What God Thinks of the Modern Church” – March 18, 2017) we saw that the church’s aim should not be the preservation of America’s civil religion.  But what should its aim be?  How is the Christian supposed to relate to the surrounding world?

In Titus 2:11-14 the apostle Paul gives us a brief summary of what the Christian life is supposed to look like.  It is a different kind of lifestyle based on a distinctively Christian worldview.

It begins with a historical fact: “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men . . .” (v. 11; NKJV).  Here he is undoubtedly referring back to the first advent of Christ and His death on the cross that opened up to all mankind the possibility of salvation.  This was the great turning point in history.

But what effect does this have on us?  Paul goes on to say that salvation is “teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age . . .” (v. 12).  Here it will be seen that there is both a negative and a positive side to the Christian life.  On the negative side we are to “deny ungodliness and worldly lusts.”  The word “ungodliness” might better be translated “impiety” – it is the lack of devotion to or reverence for God.  A good modern term would be “secularism,” the absence of God in our thinking.  “Worldly lusts” are the self-centered desires that drive most human behavior – the lust for pleasure, wealth, fame or power.  We sometimes dress it up as “enlightened self-interest” or “the profit motive.”  It is consumerism.  These are the things which typically drive human behavior outside of Christ, and the Christian must “deny” these things – he must turn his back on all of this, leaving it all behind.  He has been called to a higher life.

On the positive side we are to “live soberly, righteously, and godly.”  To live soberly means to exercise sound judgment in all of the decisions that we make.  It means that we do not go through life pursuing pleasure with reckless abandon, but we carefully weigh the consequences of the actions we take.  We look to promote the glory of God and the wellbeing of our fellow man.

But we are also to live “righteously,” which means to live in accordance with God’s law.  God is our Creator, our Lawgiver and Judge.  We can find happiness and fulfillment in life only when we live in accordance with His will and purposes.

And then we are live “godly,” or “piously,” as the word might better be translated.  We are to give God his proper place in our lives, to have a genuine and heartfelt devotion towards Him, and to acknowledge Him in all our ways.

All of this we are to do “in the present age,” the time in which we are now living.  The Bible often contrasts “the present age” with “the age which is to come”; and “the present age” is marked by sin and evil.  Nevertheless the Christian is expected to live a godly life now, in the present age.

But why should we do this?  Why should we run the risk of social ostracism and financial failure by refusing to conform?  The answer is because we are “looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (v. 13).  The Christian looks forward to the future, and what he sees is “the glorious appearing” of Christ, His visible return at the end of the age when He comes to establish a new order of things here on earth.  The Christian is conscious that what we experience now will not last forever.  Christ will return and things will be entirely different.  The Christian lives for tomorrow and not for today.

It should be kept in mind that God’s whole purpose in our salvation is to free us, not just from the guilt of sin, but also from its power.  Christ “gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works” (v. 14).  The word “redeem” means to pay a ransom and thereby secure the release of a slave or prisoner.  We were once under the power and guilt of sin.  Christ paid the penalty for that sin by dying on the cross and thereby secured our salvation.  And He did this at enormous cost to Himself: He “gave Himself” for us.

But why did He do this?  What was His aim and purpose?  It was not just to forgive us, although that was certainly a part of it, but also to sanctify us: “. . .that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works.”  It was sin that got us into trouble; Christ freed us from that condition.  Now we are “His own special people,” a people of His own possession; we now belong to Him.  And as such we are to be “zealous for good works” – we are not to conform half-heartedly to an external set of rules; we are to desire earnestly to do good for others.

The Christian, then, is called to a life of non-conformity to the surrounding world.  He does not have the luxury of living the life of a nice, comfortable, middle-class existence.  He is conscious of answering to a higher Power; and that will eventually bring him into conflict with the values of the surrounding world.  This will require personal sacrifice on his part – the possible loss of job, family, reputation  It may even invite on occasion legal prosecution.  But faithful to God he must remain.  The sacrifice is temporary; the gain is eternal.  May God grant us all the grace to live for Him!