The Only Way to Find Our Identity

The short letter to Philemon, to me, is like a postscript, from Paul, in the New Testament.

It is, in its simplest explanation, an appeal from Paul to his friend, Philemon, encouraging reconciliation between Philemon and his slave, Onesimus. In the middle of the letter, it’s safe to say that Paul even suggests to Philemon that he liberate and free Onesimus, once the two are reconciled.

Both Philemon and Paul were well-traveled men.

Philemon probably lived in Colossae. In Colossians 4, we find a reference to Onesimus, and that he lived in the city. If both of these names refer to the same person, then we logically get an idea that Onesimus and Philemon both lived in Colossae.

Yet Paul, according to the narrative in the New Testament, never visited Colossae, nor did he plant a church there. That means that somewhere, along the way, the two men met, and became friends. I always found that bit of information fascinating. There was an entire network of believers, crossing the Roman Empire. It just stands to reason that many would meet and begin lifelong relationships.

In this postscript sort of letter, then, there is just one thing that is so apparent to me.

And it is the only way we can really find our true identity. Here it is.

I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ. (v. 6; NIV84)

We only share our passions. We rarely share our secrets.

This small verse, in a letter otherwise known for reconciliation, became so real to me today. Actively sharing our testimony is what gives us a full understanding of our blessings in Jesus.

Wow.

Again, the Word of God has just blown my mind.

Once we begin to share how grace enraptured us, we are compelled to share it. And we share it because we have been enraptured by grace. It becomes our passion.

I do not write this to bring guilt to anyone. I do not believe that guilt or attendance or loss of funds should ever compel us to share our faith, and bring people back to our worship gatherings.

But this small verse speaks to the heart of what really motivates us.. It speaks to the very heart of what we hold most sacred in our lives. What we publicly share and what we publicly display are what we believe truly makes our lives worth living. And, to be honest, it may not be how grace reached us.

Look again at the verse, though. Sharing our testimony is not a one-time event. It’s an active expression. It’s a constant expression.

It is all we live for.

Nor is it to “win people for the Lord.” It is about the transformation that happens to us when we share it. We start to own it, to appreciate it, to live like it’s for read. Our testimony doesn’t have the power to convict people, anyway. Only the spirit of God has that ability.

So here’s my quick thought. Once we realize the enormous, overwhelming blessing of grace, WE WILL NOT WANT TO TALK ABOUT ANYTHING ELSE.

There. I said it.

Thanks for reading today.

__________

This is day 72 in a 90-day reading of the New Testament. By the grace of God, I’ve written something here, on my site, for each of these days. You can find all of those posts here. Blessings today.

This Can Destroy a Family

What is profound about the letter to Titus, is also what is profound about the first letter to Timothy. Namely, Paul, who was hundreds of miles away, had diagnosed the crisis of the church on the island of Crete, just like he did with the church in Ephesus.

Here is his diagnosis:

For there are many rebellious people, mere talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision group. They must be silenced, because they are ruining whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach—and that for the sake of dishonest gain. Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the commands of those who reject the truth. To the pure, all things are pure,but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted. They claim to know God, but by their actions they deny him. They are detestable, disobedient and unfit for doing anything good. (Titus 1:10-16; NIV84)

But avoid foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law, because these are unprofitable and useless. Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. (3:9-11)

So, let’s break it down:

  1. There were people who were emphasizing extreme religious behavior (i.e., “those of the circumcision group”).
  2. Their teaching on extreme religious acceptance was “ruining whole households.”
  3. They were making a profit from their teaching (“dishonest gain”).
  4. Some were emphasizing “foolish controversies.” Again, some people were addicted to drama.
  5. There were “genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law.”
  6. There were divisive people.

Religion is an addiction. Again, Paul was in chains because he preached a religion-free message. He, of all people, knew how difficult it was to break the human psyche from religious addiction.

It’s a simple, but intoxicating, addiction. It’s much easier to spend all of your time in small matters, propriety matters, church-attendance matters, than it is to live a radical, grace-filled, minimalist lifestyle.

Religion makes you think you are intelligent. Grace makes you see you are indebted.

No wonder people keep enforcing various religions ideals in churches today. Paul, himself, wrote in 1 Corinthians 8 that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

Religion makes you feel better. Love and grace make others feel better.

But here, in this small letter to Titus, Paul makes, to me, his most startling case against religious teaching: it ruins households. It divides and imprisons families. If it does this, then it is no wonder that church attendance, in America, has been declining for the past twenty years.

And, again, I’ve written this before (or, rather, Paul has taught this before), but families do not want one more thing that they are required to do. They are required to work. Required to go to school. They do not want to be, or feel, required to worship with a church.

They want to want to.

I’m afraid we are all guilty of this. Our allegiance to our particular tribe of church usually makes us enforce and force our allegiances on others. We take everything we know about “our church,” instead of our God, and use it to labor families even further.

But wait. How do we make this relevant today? No one teaches the Jewish law in Protestant churches.

No. But, for the most part, we teach other things. They sound like this:

  • “You must be more involved.”
  • “You must attend bible class regularly.”
  • “You must give ten percent of your income.”
  • “You must wear certain clothing if you attend a worship gathering, or lead a worship gathering, or distribute communion trays.”

And the list can continue. The danger in teaching religion, and not grace, is that religion makes you emphasize hell a whole lot more than is necessary. Grace is liberating. Religion is imprisonment.

If you read anything in Paul’s letters to these churches in crisis, read this. See this.

__________

To rescue the church on the island of Crete, Titus was to find himself an inner circle of men, whom he greatly trusted, but who also had to be taught, who then, in turn, could steer the church in the right direction.

The most overlooked thing about these so-called elder/shepherd passages is that these men were probably not where they needed to be, or they did not already inherently possess these qualifications. If so, a simple instruction to Titus, to “find good men,” would have been enough. Instead, Paul spent a great amount of time telling Titus (and Timothy) to find men who were men of integrity. Evidently, Titus had to either 1) teach men to be this way, or 2) actually find them.

The latter would have been difficult, if these false teachers had created so much controversy. It would have been a struggle to actually find men who were already qualified this way.

This letter to Titus is an inner-circle book. It’s a dream-team book. It’s Titus, finding and teaching men he could trust.

(But why men and not women? Well, the answer that Paul “said so” may be simple enough. But Titus, for all intents and purposes, was a single man. Could it be that a single man, choosing women to help steer the church, would have produced an other extreme scandal among the believers?)

By the way, Paul made no requirements on the Cretan church for deacons. Just overseers. That’s somewhat interesting, but not worth a commentary here.

__________

Anyway, this letter finds me, again, with Paul, at the end of his life, very, very, very upset at religious teaching.

If religious teaching infected grace-filled churches, his entire life would have been lived in vain.

If you try to manipulate church behaviors with five-year plans or intense bible class attendance … or if you emphasize allegiance to your particular church tribe to non-believers… or if you rarely talk about grace, and mainly talk about your awesome programs — if you do any of those things, then you, too, have disregarded the life and influence and death of Paul, and have forsaken then message of grace for the sin of religion.

As we close this letter, and thus close the final words of Paul recorded in our New Testament, we should see a man whose heart was set free by the message of grace. He walked away from overbearing religious zeal, to become enraptured by grace. If anyone has a testimony, it is this man.

And I, for one, am thankful for his life.

Are We Radical Enough?

2 Timothy is the final letter written by the apostle Paul in our New Testament, written around 65 or 66 AD. If other sources are true, Paul probably died within a year of writing this letter.

Yet, even if he did not die that soon, it is still our final glimpse into the life of this man, who, at the time of writing this letter, was imprisoned and alone.

Reading through its short four chapters, its teaching isn’t what strikes me the most. It is Paul, the man. There are a few theories about his final imprisonment. Some say that he was still under Roman house arrest, while others think he was serving a second imprisonment, because of the dating of the letter. Either way, the passion and fire of his previous letters, like Romans or Galatians seems to be gone. Instead, we find a man at peace with his situation, yet looking over a life of suffering for Jesus. I wouldn’t say Paul was sad, but I would say that Paul felt he was immobilized for the rest of his life.

Consider this verse, one of the last in the letter, and of the last we have from him:

When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments. (2 Timothy 4:13; NIV84)

Paul didn’t even have a coat. Only one companion, Luke, was with him. He wrote, later, in chapter 4, that “everyone deserted him” (4:16).

He was suffering for the gospel. Read these verses:

So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God … (1:8)

 And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet I am not ashamed … (1:11, 12)

You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes. (1:15)

May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. (1:16)

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. (2:8)

You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. (3:10, 11)

In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil men and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. (3:12, 13)

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. (4:6)

Do your best to come to me quickly, for Demas, because he loved this world, has deserted me and has gone to Thessalonica. Crescens has gone to Galatia, and Titus to Dalmatia. (4:9, 10)

Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done. (4:14)

At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them. (4:16)

The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. (4:18)

Depressing, isn’t it? This one man, entrusted to blow open the gates of freedom, was in a jail cell, humiliated and alone and cold.

Yet, by the grace of God, his life intersected with a young man from Lystra, who became his protegé. So mature was Timothy, that Paul sent him to Ephesus, to deal with an intense crisis. The crisis had not abated, because Paul told Timothy to “keep reminding them” of truth (4:14).

It was no matter to Paul, though — he wanted to see Timothy, maybe for the last time, and was content to ask Timothy to leave Ephesus, and visit him.

This letter always breaks my heart when I read it. There is some obvious teaching, yet it is not new. Paul shared these very same sentiments elsewhere. But his suffering is what is most obvious. His suffering was the result of his calling.

Yet he believed in God’s vindication, even to the very end. His suffering would not be in vain.

I am reminded of a scene in the movie “The Count of Monte Cristo,” when Abbe Faria, the priest, and Dantes, spent years unjustly imprisoned, and through a series of unlikely circumstances, meet each other. The surprising intersection of these two men was a great episode in the film. While they dig a tunnel to escape the prison, the priest spends hours teaching and instructing young Dantes, who had become his own unlikely protegé.

Yet the priest died before their chance to escape had come. Dantes is broken, as he watches the priest die on a cold floor in the French jail. Yet the priest had one final lesson for Dantes. Here is the scene:

This is how I imagine Paul. Fighting, struggling, suffering, as best he could, until the very end, blessed to have someone to listen to his final words. His legacy — one of teaching and suffering — is one that gives us pause today, and makes us wonder if our lives are radical enough for the kingdom.

__________

This is my seventieth post in 70 straight days, while reading through the New Testament. It’s been an amazing journey, and has been such a blessing to me. All of the previous posts are here. I have twenty more days of reading and writing, and while there is a light at the end of the tunnel, it is almost bittersweet. God has done a supernatural work in me this summer, and has given me a blessing that is priceless. Thank you for joining me.

A Word for Ministers

There are some things that just need to be pointed out.

For a church in crisis, it was simple:

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:1-5; NIV84)

  • There will be a moral abandonment.
  • Those who lead this abandonment are hypocritical liars, with a seared conscience.
  • They preach intense spiritual asceticism, with abstinence from marriage and certain foods.
  • God is not interested in intense spiritual asceticism, though.

Well, that seems simple enough. But this is the twenty-first century, and how do we bring this teaching to today’s modern church?

The key, I think, has little to do with what was plaguing the Ephesian church. Each of our churches, to some degree, are infected with some degree of teaching that is not grounded in the gospel.

I think the key lies in the messenger.

Yet how are we to know who is an hypocritical liar, with a seared conscience?

I’m not real sure.

But I am sure that we have a moral obligation to ensure our own character is daily molded by God. Which would then keep us far from the category above.

1 Timothy 4 is an intense chapter, and it is some intense instruction to Timothy, as he leads the Ephesian church through this time of crisis. What makes it all the more fascinating is that this instruction is given by Paul. It’s safe to say that 1 Timothy 4 is how Paul lived his life as a teacher.

Look at these characteristics:

  • Point out heresy (4:6).
  • Avoid “godless myths and old wives’ tales” (4:7). In other words, STAY AWAY FROM DRAMA.
  • Train to be godly (4:7).
  • Command, and teach, that hope is found only in Jesus (4:9-11).
  • Do not let anyone look down on you because of your age (4:12). By the way, it’s safe to say that Timothy probably wasn’t a teenager, as has often been taught. It’s more likely that he was in his thirties or forties.
  • Set an example, for the believers, in your public life (i.e, “speech,” and “life”), in love, faith, and purity (4:12). Purity, too, probably refers to sexual purity, seeing that sexual impurity was plaguing the Ephesian church, especially in the immodesty of the women (1 Timothy 2:9).
  • Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture (4:13).
  • Devote yourself to exhortation (4:13).
  • Devote yourself to teaching (4:13).
  • Watch your life and your doctrine closely (4:16).

I despise “to-do” lists. I didn’t really want to present these things as a list today, but it helps me see them better. I hope it helps you see them better, too.

Look at the verbs alone: point, avoid, train, command, set, devote, watch. Those words, alone, define this as a constant lifestyle for those of us who are called to ministry.

It is also the very way Paul lived his life.

I see it this way. We never get “a break” from our life with God. It is a constant feat to nurture our side of the relationship.

It is intentional.

It is both public, and private.

It is drama (Facebook?) free.

It is an investment of all of our time.

It makes us check our doctrine. This doctrine, by the way, isn’t what you think it is. It isn’t the rote acceptance of everything your church believes to be truth. It is, rather, the very antithesis of everything that was plaguing the Ephesian church. Paul did not want Timothy’s belief system to be infected by all of the damaging things that were being taught to the believers. (If you want to see the list, click here.)

Ministry is not a job. It is not a career. It is not a stopping-place until the next position opens. It is a calling. It is the result of a prophecy, spoken into your life. Yes — prophecy. This is how Paul explained it to Timothy:

Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through a prophetic message when the body of elders laid their hands on you. (1 Timothy 4:16)

The moment that we, as ministers, start to think that our jobs are just jobs, and treat them as such, is the moment we neglect the prophetic gift given to us.

I highly doubt Timothy wanted to minister to a church in such moral and spiritual trouble. It was not the promised-land of churches, with big stages and bright lights. His calling was dirty. Gritty. Tough. Which was why Paul chose to spend one-sixth of this letter encouraging him. His calling there would not be easy.

So let’s just be real this morning, and bring 1 Timothy 4 to our current environment. Those of us in ministry do not have time to be consumed with drama, with culture, with sports, or with anything other than Jesus.

It is true that God expects us to find enjoyment in various avenues, but devotion is only reserved for the Word and it’s ability to teach others.

That’s it. And that’s enough.

A Church in Trouble

The church in the city of Ephesus was in trouble.

Even though today’s reading covers only the first three chapters of 1 Timothy, I want to include a few passages from the latter chapters of this letter, and 2 Timothy, to show you this crisis. (By the way, of all of my posts this summer, this is the longest, primarily because I’ve included many passages here.)

Here was what troubled Paul the most:

False doctrines, consumed with myths and endless genealogies:

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God’s work—which is by faith. (1 Timothy 1:3, 4; NIV84)

Propriety and attire during worship gatherings:

I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God. (2:8, 9)

No rigid leadership to help “right the course”:

Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. (3:1)

Deacons, likewise, are to be men worthy of respect, sincere, not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain. (3:8)

And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable men who will also be qualified to teach others. (2 Timothy 2:2; NIV84)

Demonic teaching:

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose consciences have been seared as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

If you point these things out to the brothers, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed. Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. (4:1-7)

Disrespect of the elderly, younger men and women, family, and widows:

Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.

Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. (5:1-4)

If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (5:8)

Disregard for the gospel:

If anyone teaches false doctrines and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, he is conceited and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between men of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. (6:3-5)

A teaching that the final resurrection had already taken place:

Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have wandered away from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some. (2 Timothy 2:16-18)

Weak-willed women in Ephesus were especially receptive to these false teachings:

They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over weak-willed women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth. (2 Timothy 3:6, 7)

I think we’ve missed the forest, because of the trees, because this letter has been so scrutinized for Paul’s writings on leadership and his perspective on women.

What we’ve missed, though, is the troubling reputation this church had. In just a few short chapters, Paul encouraged Timothy to see what he saw, and to hear what he heard.

It’s also no surprise, then, that we find such rigid instructions, by Paul, to this church.

Because of this serious crisis, the entire church, and it’s purpose and function, was under attack. It had essentially no hope of offering any sort of rescuing message to the entire city, while it was being seduced by teaching that was demonic and harmful.

The men of the church in Ephesus were susceptible to this false teaching. They were praying, in public, even though everyone seemed to know they were engaged in public disputes and arguments (1 Timothy 2:8). That was no longer acceptable.

The women of the church in Ephesus were susceptible to this false teaching. They wore clothing, to a public worship gathering, that was immodest, and, according to some scholars, probably very similar to the attire worn by prostitutes (1 Timothy 2:9, 10). That was no longer acceptable.

There was no one to guard the teaching in Ephesus, hence Paul’s very rigid instructions about overseers in Ephesus (2 Timothy 2:2), and 1 Timothy is the first time, in the New Testament, we find any such qualifications. They were, essentially, a very detailed and very public image of these overseers.

But this isn’t the first time we find overseers in the New Testament. Paul and Barnabas appointed some in Acts 14:23, in the first church plants in Lystra, Iconium, Derbe, and Pisidian Antioch. And according to what Paul wrote in 1 Timothy, his own appointees would have been disqualified.

In those cities, in Acts 14:23, the elders that he and Barnabas appointed would have been recent converts, some as recently as a few months, if you follow the timeline of this first missionary journey. Yet in 1 Timothy 3, in the city of Ephesus, overseers could not be recent converts (3:6). Which I find very interesting.

But there were other strict guidelines Paul encouraged Timothy to enforce regarding overseers. They were so strict, in fact, that they excluded single men, married men who had no children, married men with only one child, and married men who were fathers of disobedient children.

Moreover, the requirements for deacons seem to be more strict than the requirements for elders. In 1 Timothy 3:10, they had to be tested, and had to pass that test. Paul required no such rigorous test for those becoming overseers.

(It’s also interesting to note, too, that the only person specifically called a “deacon” in the entire bible is a woman, not a man — Phoebe, in Romans 16.)

The prohibition against women, too, is startling, in 1 Timothy 2.

Not only do we have Romans 16, and the various women who served, and led, in various churches in the Roman empire, and not only do we have Galatians 3:26-29, which declared everyone, both male and female, as legitimate sons and heirs of Abraham’s promise, and the declaration that there is no distinction among people before the throne of God, we read in 1 Timothy 2 that women were to no longer teach in public. Evidently they were teaching, and teaching the wrong things.

It sounds very similar to what Paul wrote to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 14.

Back to 1 Timothy, though, could Paul’s restriction (1 Timothy 2:9 — “I do not permit …”) have something to do with the women’s reputation, and their propensity of dressing in very immodest and promiscuous ways, which he addressed a few sentences prior? Could it be because they were most susceptible to this false teaching (2 Timothy 3:6, 7)? Could it be that they were teaching this sort of false teaching?

It’s interesting to note that in Titus, a letter written at the same time as 1 and 2 Timothy, Paul encouraged women to teach. Titus 2:3 encouraged them to be faithful, so they could “teach what is good.” He even encouraged them to teach the younger women, perhaps because of the crisis in Ephesus regarding the women there.

It’s easy to get lost in these particulars. So let’s pull back, and see the real issue here. Paul had a serious concern about the church in Ephesus.

The easiest thing to glean from this letter is a proper evaluation of our own churches.

  • What are the crisis points?
  • What areas are contributing to spiritual deficits?
  • And, going to the Word of God, and relying on the guidance of God’s spirit, how do we start reconstructing a place where people can connect with God, instead of connecting to a group of people heavily influenced by the evil in our culture?