A New Name, A New Life

Many of the New Testament letters, found in the second half of the New Testament, have many scholars wondering if the writers at the beginning of the letters actually wrote them.

It’s a strange scholarly problem, built upon various wonderings and thoughts from the texts themselves. Asking these sorts of questions opens up an entire criticism of the New Testament, that makes one wonder how, exactly, did any of these books get to be a part of the bible we now hold.

I won’t defend any of that here. Some of those theories have some merit, I think, at least in wondering who wrote what. Many of these theories are based upon latter church fathers, as early as the end of the first century, who begin to refer to some of these letters, either through various quotations, or by seeming to validate the authors listed in those letters, by using their written name.

So, which church father, who quoted or referred to various letters, lends a huge amount of credibility to this sort of problem.

So that’s where we find ourselves, today, in the reading of 1 Peter. The very first suggestion, it seems, is that, through the research of various commentaries and scholars, most are quick to say that actually naming Peter, as the author, is tougher than it looks. The style of the letter is eloquent Greek, which, to many, is an indication that a simple, unlearned man could not have used such the Greek language in such a beautiful, eloquent way. That’s a weak argument, though.

If the earliest date for the writing of 1 Peter is around 62 AD, then at least thirty years had passed between the reference to Peter being unlearned in Acts 4:13, and the writing of this letter.

I think thirty years is a pretty substantial amount of time to get a little smarter, don’t you think? Or, for that matter, isn’t it natural to suppose that any person could write any letter in any style he wanted?

But why am I sharing all of this with you?

Here we are, on day 79, through 90 straight days of reading the New Testament, and writing some brief thoughts here, on this site. The material written in 1 Peter is by no means new. There are no new theological advancements. 1 Peter was written, too, to the first church plants outside of Jerusalem. They had heard all of this before, by way of Paul’s visitations, and the letter he wrote to the Galatians.

What struck me, today, was the very first phrase of the very first verse. Here it is:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ … (1 Peter 1:1a; NIV84)

What at first appears to be a foregone conclusion is actually quite moving. Powerful. And, as they say, “it will preach.”

Before I go any further, though, I want to tell you that I do, think, that Peter wrote this letter. All of the arguments to the contrary just aren’t compelling enough. Peter, probably in Rome, maybe even in prison, wrote this, maybe even a year before he was executed.

So, back to the first verse.

Peter writes his name. Which really wasn’t his name at all.

Given the name Simon at birth, he was a fisherman. Old enough to be married. Trying to make a living. Rough. Impulsive. Yet recognized by Jesus as a man who could lead.

And so, in a marked conversation, Jesus referred to Simon as Cephas, because Peter, without batting an eye, looked at Jesus and said, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God” (Mark 16).

Do you realize how scandalous this could have been? For Peter to remark to a man of flesh and blood that he was, in fact, the son of God, was huge. And he did so without a doubt.

Because of his boldness, Jesus then saidthat “Upon this rock, I will build my church.”

And from that point forward, Simon was known as Peter. The rock.

So thirty years later, after this relationship and the death and resurrection and ascension of Jesus, Peter referred to himself as Peter. Not Simon.

He was the man Jesus claimed him to be.

Because when Jesus changes a person, that person is truly changed.

Advertisements

The Praise of Your Mouth and the Work of Your Hands

It’s been said so much, that I think we are either tired of hearing it, or don’t even understand it.

It’s found in the letter of James, in the New Testament, and is part of our reading today. Here it is:

He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created. (James 1:18; NIV84)

The idea of a “new creation” is way overused. And a bit difficult for us. To be re-formed and re-made is, in and of itself, a miracle. James’ way of writing it, though, gives it a different slant.

We were purposed to be new. We were purposed to be re-made. It was God’s actual will to “give us birth,” again.

God has an investment in you. It was his design to make you completely new, into the best of his entire creation.

The letter of James, then, gives us an idea of what that sort of new creation looks like. Traditionally considered to have been written by Jesus’ brother, James, it is a letter from the pillar of the emerging church in the city of Jerusalem, in the decades following Jesus’ passion. It was written from the epicenter of God’s work in human history, from the city of the ages, and from the beginning place of the new covenant.

So, if the James of the letter is truly the James of Jesus’ family, it is a letter of immense proportions. But even if it isn’t, it still is powerful.

At first, though, it seems like a slight to the message of grace, which is THE central message of the New Testament, because it prescribes behaviors (called “works” in the letter), and that has made lots of scholars, through the centuries, a bit nervous. The central question that emerged was how the prescribed lifestyle of James actually gels with the freedom from religious behaviors found in grace.

It does, once you consider the verse above. These behaviors, these “works,” aren’t dictated for believers. They are the evidence of a completely changed life — of a life re-created. In the first chapter alone, look at what must be different in a life given to Jesus:

  • Trials are received with joy (1:2-7).
  • There is a blessing in financial humility, and a detriment in financial prosperity (1:9-11).
  • Temptations come from our own selfish ambitions and desires (1:13-18).
  • Anger doesn’t produce a righteous life (1:19-25).
  • The “least of these” become your first priority (1:26, 27).

And then, in chapter three, James turns towards the power of a teacher, and that even teachers should have re-created lives. Teaching is not a position of status, but of extreme humility. So, those who believe to be called by God to teach have a special consideration: watch what you say.

(It’s interesting that for most of my life, this famous chapter has been used to keep people from saying really, really bad things. If we look at it in light of James’ warning in 3:1-2, and that people should not aspire to be teachers because of the immense weight of influence, then the entire chapter changes. True, everyone should have full control over what they say, but that’s dealt with in other passages in the Word of God. James, here, is talking about what comes from the mouths of teachers. So, if you are a teacher, pastor, worship leader, mentor, preacher, or ministry leader, read James 3 as if he is talking to you.)

I think what James writes in chapter 1 suffices for a conclusion today. The behaviors in this letter mark us as re-created. If we do these things, for vanity or power (James 3:1, 2), then we’ve not been changed. But if they flow from our hearts, they become the qualities of a new life. But how are we to know?

We ask for wisdom. “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (1:5).

God destined you to be re-created. Does the praise of your mouth match the work of your hands? Big question today, and a question worth asking every day.

__________

Today is day 77. Only 13 more days.

The One Thing That Keeps You From Truly Worshiping

It is guilt that keeps us from worshiping God in freedom and celebration.

Guilt is so heavy. It is smothering. And it leads us to all sorts of places. We find it awkward to confess our sins to other people, for fear of judgmental behaviors. We are afraid of losing things we hold dear, because losing relationships, because of our own personal sin, is too great a price to pay for our own various struggles.

Private, secret sin is so personal. And so destructive. And so heavy.

And it leads us to some strange form of penance. It leads us to become vigorous in our own traditions in our own churches. We become almost vitriolic in those traditions. We make a stand for those traditions, and declare, solemnly, that we are right. Guilt pushes us to hold fast to what has always been there, and has always made us comfortable.

Yet, when we respond to guilt like this, we have given guilt more power than it is due. We give it the power to determine what, in our lives, will become an idol. Many of us have never been taught the true release found in Jesus. We think, instead, that true release is found in a human system that seems comfortable and right. Guilt binds us to those traditions, and we become enslaved by them because of our personal guilt.

I’ve done that. You’ve done that. I know people, right now, who are doing it. They are so bound to the traditions of their church that they have sacrificed their own personal integrity to uphold a system that is inherently flawed. Instead of running to Jesus, they are running to the idol they can see, can attend, and can critique.

The freedom Jesus offers, though, is complete. We can walk away from our addictions, from our sins, from our secrets. Only this freedom can release us from guilt. It releases us from guilt. It supersedes all traditions. It overwhelms all human systems. It exposes our own idolatry.

__________

The book of Hebrews teaches this much better than I can, though. Today’s reading, from Hebrews 8 through Hebrews 10, exposes the flaws of tradition, and the maintenance required when we try to burden our own sin, instead of releasing it.

There were sacrificial requirements for sin, in the Old Testament, that Hebrews completely exposes as unable to cleanse people from guilt. Here they are:

Sacrifices were ineffective.

… it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:4; NIV84)

Sacrifices were endlessly repetitious.

The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. (10:1)

Sacrifices could not permanently relieve the burden of guilt and sin.

… indicating that the gifts and sacrifices being offered were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. They are only a matter of food and drink and various ceremonial washings — external regulations applying until the time of the new order. (9:9, 10)

Sacrifices were forever tainted by the sin of the priests who offered them.

But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year,and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance. (9:7)

It’s not a small step to take, to find that these things could never cleanse the heart.

The blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkled on those who are ceremonially unclean sanctify them so that they are outwardly clean. (9:13)

In other words, these sacrifices only made a person think they felt better about their sin and their guilt. It never took it away.

__________

Our great tragedy, though, is not necessarily understanding these things. Our great tragedy is finding ourselves back in the same situation as the Israelites.

We don’t sacrifice bulls and goats and such. Obviously, we don’t. But we do sacrifice a lot of other things.

We “sacrifice” our gifts and talents. We “sacrifice” our time. We “sacrifice” our money. We “sacrifice” our resources.

We don’t give them. We “sacrifice” them. We place them on the altar, and by doing so, we start thinking that we feel better about our sin and guilt, because we start to think that our “sacrifices” our so needed.

But we still live with the tremendous load of guilt. “Getting involved,” or “being recruited” to work in some church program cannot relieve our guilt, regardless of how hard we work, or how talented we are. Nothing we can offer, of value, can replace the grace of Jesus.

As sobering and hurtful as that sounds, our gifts and resources and talents and money and time are not needed. When we start thinking we are needed, we start thinking that we have something that can compete with the full atonement and release and forgiveness Jesus gives us.

Yes. I said that. The full atonement and sacrifice of Jesus can never be replicated, even in our petty “sacrifices.” God may call us to a certain place, to give our time and resources, but he does so because it will transform us, not because we are needed. God has given millions of people the same talents he has given you and me. We aren’t unique.

__________

This is full and complete absolution of guilt and sin:

The Holy Spirit also testifies to us about this. First he says: “This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds.” Then he adds: “Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.” (10:15-17)

God has penetrated all rituals, programs, and sacrifices that could only make us feel better, and has, himself, written his law upon our hearts. And he remembers our sins no more.

No more.

That is freedom. That frees us worship. To serve. To bless. To praise. To pray. To share. To offer. To give. To live. To love. To endure. To teach.

Because we have nothing — not one thing — to fear. And we have nothing that could ever compete with this.

__________

This is my 75th straight post, in 75 straight days, while reading and blogging through the New Testament. God is continuing to do something supernatural in me. If you want to check out the other posts, click here. Thanks for reading these meager wonderings.

It’s the End of the World As We Know It, And I Feel Fine

I think we are afraid of the end of the world.

And a great many of these fears center around a passage like this, from today’s reading:

Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers, not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by some prophecy, report or letter supposed to have come from us, saying that the day of the Lord has already come. Don’t let anyone deceive you in any way, for that day will not come until the rebellion occurs and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the man doomed to destruction. He will oppose and will exalt himself over everything that is called God or is worshiped, so that he sets himself up in God’s temple, proclaiming himself to be God. (2 Thessalonians 2:1-4; NIV84)

It almost sounds sinister, doesn’t it?

Some people I know build a huge theology around the end of the world, by coupling this passage with others in the Word of God. Wikipedia has even recognized the popularity of this “man of lawlessness” and has an article dedicated to it.

This man is famous.

Here are the remaining verses in this passage:

Don’t you remember that when I was with you I used to tell you these things? And now you know what is holding him back, so that he may be revealed at the proper time. For the secret power of lawlessness is already at work; but the one who now holds it back will continue to do so till he is taken out of the way. And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness. (2:6-12)

But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers loved by the Lord, because from the beginning God chose you to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you,whether by word of mouth or by letter. (2:13-15)

I would like to take a look at what we can know, not what we think we know, from this entire passage.

  • Some Thessalonians were under the impression the day of the Lord had already come.
  • Yet, they were already familiar with the rebellion and the man of lawlessness. Paul wrote in 2:5, “Don’t you remember when I used to tell you these things?”
  • So, none of this is new information to them.
  • Not only were the Thessalonians familiar with this man, they also knew what would hold him back (2:6). You and I do not have that information.
  • They knew there would be a proper time for his revelation (2:6).
  • Paul is not giving them any new information in this letter, whatsoever.

And that’s it. Anything beyond this information is sheer speculation.

The most powerful thing to me is that the Thessalonians knew all of this. They knew the identity of this man. They knew what was holding this man back. They were taught to interpret the signs.

It’s like you and I are hearing just one side of a phone conversation. We just don’t know what the other side knows.

Here, Paul was correcting some misinformation. Whatever he had previously taught had been construed in his absence. This letter was an attempt to remind them of his original teachings, and to tell them the day of the Lord had not yet arrived.

But also, there is no sense of heightened anticipation in these verses. These things will happen “in their proper time,” and only God has the power to control time. There is no need for us to try to decipher these identities, or these times, or these signs. God alone knows, and if we trust him, then that trust should be enough. If threatening situations occur during this time, or if they don’t, believers are the only ones with security.

__________

Here’s what I wonder, though.

Paul wrote, at the end of this passage, that this man would be accompanied by “counterfeit miracles, signs, and wonders.”

I think we are missing something.

If there are counterfeit miracles, then that means in the community of believers, there are also genuine miracles. Genuine signs. Genuine wonders.

Here is what one commentator, Gordon Fee, says about these signs and wonders:

Paul uses such language only because he presupposes that miracles produced by the Holy Spirit are part and parcel of the Christian faith he knew and experienced. But it is the very “in passing” way they are referred to that in the end indicates how presuppositional such working of the Holy Spirit was for him and his churches — a presupposition that seems to have been lost in much of later Christendom. Fervent expectation has tended to be replaced with benign nonexpectation that God can (or will) do anything out of the ordinary. I for one think Paul and his churches had the better of it. (Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, 2009).

I think that pretty much sums it up.

__________

Again, today, I must bear witness to what God is doing in me this summer. I began on June 1, 2012, by reading Matthew 1-3, and then writing a blog. During that first writing process, I was burdened, by God, to write something every day, for 90 straight days.

I hesitated, though. I don’t have time for this. I don’t have the energy for this. And I wasn’t sure if I wanted to make my thoughts so vulnerable.

Yet, here I am, 66 days later, waking incredibly early to read, to pray, to write. I am thankful for this journey, but it has exhausted me. I can only say that God has worked in my life, this summer, to make this happen. I remarked to a friend, just a few days ago, that this summer, and this reading, and this writing experience, has been the most spiritually formative experience in my life. I still believe that.

By the way, you can find all of the other posts here.

My wife and I are reading this together, too. It’s been amazing to talk to her, every day, about these readings.

If you are married, or in a close relationship, I highly encourage you to read the Word of God together.

Thank you, faithful reader, or first-time guest, for giving some of your time to find your way to this tiny little blog. Blessings to you.

Pagan Church?

(I borrowed the idea for the title of today’s post from the book Pagan Christianity? by Frank Viola and George Barna. This is a book that is worth your time.)

What Paul wrote, in his letter to the Galatians, in chapters 4-6, was so astounding to me today.

Before you read these three chapters, though, remember the context of this letter. These new believers, called forth from a pagan world, began to dabble in the Jewish law and rituals, as prescribed in the Torah. Paul was hurt, believing, to some extent, that he wasted his time when he taught them. That was how mad he was.

So they were called from the pagan world, to believe in the grace of Jesus, only to enter into a ritualized form of faith, as observed by Jewish believers. They exchanged free grace, for the lie of earning favor with God.

Okay. Once we have that, now we can read these words, in Galatians 4:8-11.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God —how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.

Paul compared their previous pagan faith, to their current observance of the Jewish law.

This was written by a guy who killed people on behalf of that very same Jewish law.

Paul’s transformation is remarkable. Formerly, he defended the Jewish law. Now, to him, it was nothing more than idolatry.

Thus, according to these words, if you and I believe in any way we can earn God’s favor (in such a way reminiscent of how Paul’s detractors were trying to sway new believers to accept, and adhere to, the Jewish Law) we are, too, committing idolatry.

The modern unbeliever does not want this. I know, because if I were an unbeliever, I wouldn’t want this.

I would not want strings attached to any adventure I would take in faith. I would not want to volunteer, or I would, at least, not want my desire to volunteer be used as a gauge for my devotion to Jesus. Nor would I want any inherent responsibility. I am already overwhelmed with such things. To find a local church that offers me grace, but then demands all of my spare time, would offend me greatly.

I once attended a church where the pastor, after baptizing a sweet, sweet lady, asked if she also would pledge her time to volunteer, and her money, to that particular church. It was a strange thing to me. According to Paul, such activity is a return to the practices of a pagan world, where identity is found in what you do, not whose you are.

__________

To enforce his argument, Paul included the ways of a very pagan world in Galatians 5:19-21. Here they are, and they are the products of lives lived without the Spirit of God:

… sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.

Very aggressive behaviors. Selfish behaviors. Greedy behaviors. Ambitious behaviors.

There is a great exchange that happens, though, when the Spirit of God invades our lives. It frees us from investment and ambition. These very pagan behaviors are gone. Instead, this is what is produced, from Galatians 5:22.

… love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

The ways of a pagan world are purposeful behaviors. Pre-meditated. But the ways of the spirit are natural. They do not require practice, or ambition.

They do not need to be provoked. These things grow from a person whose nutrition is the Spirit of God.

__________

One more statement from Paul today. It is one of the final things he wrote in Galatians.

Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you to be circumcised.The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. (Galatians 6:12)

Circumcision, as you know, was the physical proof that one followed the Jewish law. To Paul, though, as he wrote this letter, he saw it as something different.

He saw it as a perceived better choice, for some, than being persecuted for Jesus – because doing something (anything … even this!) was better than dying. Perhaps anything that gives us a sense of accomplishment, or keeps us busy, is far better than being what Francis Chan called, in his book, Crazy Love, radical believers. Here’s what he said, and, could probably be a modern re-telling of Galatians 6:12:

Lukewarm people are moved by stories about people who do radical things for Christ, yet they do not act. They assume such action is for “extreme” Christians, not average ones. Lukewarm people call “radical” what Jesus expected of all his followers.

Galatians 6:12 is so powerful, that I fear any such commentary on my part, and the commentary you just finished, will just diminish its power. I pray that it does not.

 

__________

Today is day sixty in ninety straight days of reading the New Testament, and posting here, on my blog, each of those days. Thank you for reading today. You can find the all of the other posts here.