The Universal Body of Christ

12 When I send Artemas or Tychicus to you, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. 13 Do your best to speed Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way; see that they lack nothing. 14 And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful.

15 All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith.

Grace be with you all. – Titus 3:12-15 ESV

The early community of Christ was a close-knit one. Despite the fact that Paul was traveling from one end of the known world to the other, and planting churches in ethnically and geologically diverse regions, they all shared a bond of unity. Wherever they were located, these fledgling communities of faith were in the minority and found themselves facing extreme opposition. To unbelieving Gentiles, Christians were nothing more than a sect of the Jewish religion. After all, the converts to Christianity followed the teachings of an itinerant Jewish rabbi. But to the Jews, Christians represented a dangerous heresy that rejected the Mosaic Law and dismissed the rite of circumcision. So, wherever Paul and his companions preached the gospel and saw its message of faith in Christ take root, they met with strong opposition fueled by extreme antagonism.

These new congregations of believers were often ostracized and isolated from their former communities, and lacked mature spiritual leadership, so Paul felt a strong sense of responsibility to provide them with instruction and encouragement. He wanted them to know that they were part of a much larger community of faith that was spreading around the world. His letters formed a kind of literary highway system linking together these distant and disparate congregations. His growing network of spiritual disciples included men like Timothy, Titus, Artemas, Tychicus, Zenas, and Apollos, who each played a vital role in ministering to the far-flung Christian community. These men provided much-needed spiritual training to the faithful, but they also served as the eyes and ears of Paul, giving him insight into what was happening within the body of Christ around the world.

Paul was constantly traveling from one place to another, fulfilling his commission to take the good news of Jesus Christ to the nations. But he tended to leave a part of his heart in every city, town, and village where the gospel found converts. In many cases, his first visit to a city was his last. His travels didn’t always allow him to circle back and check in on the churches he had helped to plant. And, in time, his lengthy imprisonment in Rome would completely curtail his efforts to minister to those whom he loved like his own children. But Paul never left them without adequate spiritual nourishment or oversight. He desperately wanted them to know that they were all in this together. They were part of a much larger family of faith that God was planting around the world and, for Paul, it was essential that each of these churches understand their role within the bigger picture. Rather than focus all their attention on their particular circumstances, they were to see themselves as members of the growing body of Christ.

Paul firmly believed that when an individual came to faith in Christ, they were to align themselves with a local faith community. They were not to act as a free agent, operating Lone Ranger style, independent and isolated from other Christians in their community. This corporate mentality was essential to the spiritual well-being of the individual and the community. And for Paul, it went well beyond geographic confines. He often used the metaphor of the human body as a way of illustrating the interconnected and interdependent nature of the body of Christ.

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into one body by one Spirit, and we all share the same Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:12-13 NLT

The concept of a global church made up of people from all walks of life, every conceivable economic background, and diverse ethnic makeups was revolutionary. And this new admixture of individuals into a mutually beneficial community of faith was making a radical impact on the world. The church was growing and people were noticing. And Paul was obsessed with getting his expanding family of faith to understand their need for one another. He encouraged an attitude of generosity and selflessness and praised the churches in Macedonia for their gracious giving toward the needs of the church in Jerusalem.

For I can testify that they gave not only what they could afford, but far more. And they did it of their own free will. They begged us again and again for the privilege of sharing in the gift for the believers in Jerusalem. They even did more than we had hoped, for their first action was to give themselves to the Lord and to us, just as God wanted them to do. – 2 Corinthians 8:3-5 NLT

Paul went on to encourage the believers in Corinth to follow the example of the Macedonian churches.

Right now you have plenty and can help those who are in need. Later, they will have plenty and can share with you when you need it. In this way, things will be equal. – 2 Corinthians 8:11 NLT

And Paul wanted the believers on Crete to have the same attitude, telling Titus, “let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need, and not be unfruitful” (Titus 3:14 ESV).

The church is a living organism, not an organization. It is an interactive, interdependent collection of individuals who have been formed into a worldwide community that is to reflect the unity of the Godhead. And the letter that Paul wrote to Titus is as applicable today as it was in the 1st Century in which he penned it. His call to Christ-likeness, humility, submission, service, and an unwavering commitment to the truth is as vital today as it ever was. The words Paul used to open his letter still apply.

I have been sent to proclaim faith to those God has chosen and to teach them to know the truth that shows them how to live godly lives. – Titus 1:1 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

 

Good Leadership Doesn’t Just Happen

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” 19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. 21 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. 22 Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. 23 (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.) 24 The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. 25 So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden. – 1 Timothy 5:17-25 ESV

Paul has already addressed the qualifications for elders earlier in his letter, but now he deals with the more practical realities of how Timothy is to interact with these essential church leaders. It’s interesting that he chooses to address elders immediately after giving Timothy advice on how to care for widows in the church. It would seem that, to Paul, both groups are important to the life of the church, and neither is to be overlooked or taken for granted.

It would be easy to forget about widows in the church because they tend to be out of sight and out of mind, even in society. Paul didn’t want that to happen in the church as well. And the same thing can be said of elders. Once a man is chosen to serve as an elder, it would be easy to overlook him and just assume that all is well and that his spiritual life is just fine. Paul didn’t want Timothy to take these men for granted and end up neglecting their needs or failing to show gratitude for the significant role they play in the health and well-being of the local church.

So, Paul tells Timothy to care for those men who voluntarily commit their time, talent, and energies to the oversight of the local church.

Elders who do their work well should be respected and paid well, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching. – 1 Timothy 5:17 NLT

It would appear that these men were financially compensated for their work. As teachers and preachers, they could expect to receive a “double honor.” This may refer to the respect that came with their position as leaders and some form of financial remuneration to compensate them for their hard work on behalf of the church.

They were to be honored, respected, and cared for, especially those who carried the extra responsibility of preaching and teaching. It would make sense that, in the early days of the church, these men would have received financial compensation for the time they spent ministering to the spiritual needs of the body of Christ. It would appear that they may have been bi-vocational, holding down secular jobs and sacrificing part of their work hours to serve the needs of the church.

Serving as an elder, which would have included teaching, preaching, leading, and praying for the local congregation, would have been a time-consuming job. So, Paul encourages Timothy to ensure that these men are taken care of adequately. Quoting Deuteronomy 25:4, Paul compares the efforts of an elder to those of an ox used to tread grain. “You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.”

An ox, as it pulled a stone wheel over the stalks of wheat to separate out the grain, was allowed to eat as it worked, providing it with an incentive to continue to do its job. In a similar manner, elders who worked hard on behalf of the body of Christ should be compensated and cared for, in order to reward and encourage them for their efforts. But the apostle Peter warned elders against doing their job for profit.

Give a shepherd’s care to God’s flock among you, exercising oversight not merely as a duty but willingly under God’s direction, not for shameful profit but eagerly. And do not lord it over those entrusted to you, but be examples to the flock. Then when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that never fades away. – 1 Peter 5:2-4 NLT

Elders were never to do their job for what they could get out of it. Ultimately, they were servants of God, and any compensation they received was up to the local congregation. They were not to demand payment for services rendered. To do so would have altered the nature of their role as selfless shepherds of the flock of Jesus Christ.

Paul also knew that, because elders served in a leadership capacity, they were going to be open to criticism and accusations. There would be those who disagreed with their teaching and disliked their leadership at times. That’s why Paul told Timothy to “not listen to an accusation against an elder unless it is confirmed by two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19 NLT).

He was to give these men the benefit of the doubt, refusing to take at face value the word of one individual who might bring an accusation against an elder. If Timothy ever discovered that an elder had sinned, he was to confront them in private, and if that man proved unrepentant, he was to be reprimanded before the entire congregation, serving as a strong warning to the other elders and reinforcing the seriousness of their role as the spiritual leaders of the church. In all of this, Timothy was to act as an objective party, not showing favoritism or taking sides. While treating elders with respect and honor, he was not to side with them unfairly side or show them any form of favoritism.

Paul also warned Timothy not to be too hasty when appointing elders. To lay hands on a man, ordaining him for this highly important spiritual role, was a serious matter and was to be done soberly and carefully. To appoint a man to this high office, only to find out that he was unqualified, would be to share in his sin and shame. The one who placed an unqualified man in this important leadership position would be culpable for having put the congregation at risk.

So, Timothy was to be extremely careful when selecting men for the role of elder. But Paul knew that not all sins are obvious at first glance. There would inevitably be those cases where a man was appointed to the position of elder, only to find out later that he had some hidden sin in his life that disqualified him. It was going to happen and, when it did, Timothy would have to deal with it.

But there would also be cases in which a man’s good character might lie hidden and unseen. There would be those men in the church who were less obvious and whose good deeds were done behind the scenes, out of sight, and unrecognized by those in the congregation. That’s why it was so important for Timothy to choose carefully. The “obvious” candidates are not always the right candidate. He must look into the hidden character of each man being considered for the role of elder. As God told the prophet, Samuel, when he was looking for the next king of Israel, “The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7 NLT).

Finally, Paul gives Timothy some personal health advice. He was well aware that all of this could prove to be stressful and he knew that Timothy already suffered from some kind of chronic health issue. So, Paul recommended that Timothy “drink a little wine for the sake of your stomach because you are sick so often” (1 Timothy 5:23 NLT). Leading a church can be difficult and stressful. It is a huge responsibility and must be taken seriously. That’s why Paul pleaded with Timothy to take care of himself. He must be in good health if he is going to care for the body of Christ well.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Family Matters

1 Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.

Honor widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God. She who is truly a widow, left all alone, has set her hope on God and continues in supplications and prayers night and day, but she who is self-indulgent is dead even while she lives. Command these things as well, so that they may be without reproach. But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, 10 and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work. 11 But refuse to enroll younger widows, for when their passions draw them away from Christ, they desire to marry 12 and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith. 13 Besides that, they learn to be idlers, going about from house to house, and not only idlers, but also gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not. 14 So I would have younger widows marry, bear children, manage their households, and give the adversary no occasion for slander. 15 For some have already strayed after Satan. 16 If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows. – 1 Timothy 5:1-16 ESV

In the closing part of chapter 4, Paul gave Timothy three essential tasks to master if he wanted to be successful as a man of God. He must teach others, train himself to live a godly life, and he must use his life to typify what it means to love and serve God. Now Paul gets even more practical, giving Timothy concrete examples of how to apply what he is learning to everyday life within the body of Christ.

While Paul encouraged Timothy to never “let anyone think less of you because you are young” (1 Timothy 4:12 NLT), he also wanted his young protégé to refrain from arrogantly flaunting his position as a shepherd of God or treating those under his care with disrespect. He was to give special attention to his relationships with older men and women in the church, honoring them as he would his own father and mother by giving them the respect they were due. And Timothy was to look on the younger members of the church as his brothers and sisters in Christ, treating the younger men with dignity and interacting with the younger women in purity.

Paul wanted Timothy to know that being a minister of the gospel wasn’t just about disseminating information and doling out discipline to the unruly and unfaithful. Everything hinged on relationships. The church was a family, a God-ordained collection of individuals from all walks of life divinely joined together and commanded to care for, love, and support one another. Personality conflicts, disagreements, and each individual’s residual sin natures would tend to cause conflict within the local body of Christ. So, Timothy needed to know how to handle the practical side of ministry; that or people and the personal problems they bring to the table.

There are always constant needs within the church. In Paul’s day, widows were a significant concern because, in that culture, they tended to be overlooked and neglected. Women were often considered second-class citizens with few rights and privileges. Marriage was their safety net. Being a wife and mother was a necessity for most women, providing a roof over their heads, a source of respect within the community, and a means of making ends meet in a culture where jobs for women were few and far between. That’s why widows were especially vulnerable. They were viewed as having little value and were neglected by the culture at large. But Paul encouraged Timothy to care for those widows who had become part of the family of God.

He was to see to it that they were cared for, knowing that these women were looking to God as their help and source of hope. The church was to be the hands and feet of Christ, ministering to these women, and ensuring that their families were caring for them properly. When there was no family to meet their needs, Timothy was to make sure that the family of God stepped in and cared for them properly.

As usual, these cases are never cut-and-dried. There are always underlying circumstances that must be considered and dealt with. It would be much easier if we could just say, “Take care of the widows in the church,” but there are always insinuating circumstances that make our decisions a bit more difficult and a shade more grey than black-and-white.

Timothy was to consider all circumstances regarding widows. He had to factor in their age, existing family relationships, and most importantly, their character. Not every woman who was a widow was to be the church’s responsibility. Careful consideration was to be taken when investigating the needs of these women. In some cases, their families were to be confronted and held accountable for having refused to step in and care for their own. Obviously, there were cases where sons and daughters had chosen to neglect the needs of their own mothers. This was unacceptable and the church was not obligated to take on the responsibility.

Younger widows were not added to the “list” of those who received regular support from the church. It was still possible for them to remarry, have their own families, and access to a reliable means of support. It would appear from Paul’s statements that he expected the older widows who received care from the church to willingly dedicate their lives and service to the body of Christ in return for financial support. They evidently vowed to not remarry, instead dedicating themselves to the service of God and the church. Younger women, if added to this list, and then presented with the opportunity to remarry, would find it hard to live out that kind of commitment.

These verses deal with a very specific issue that was a real problem in the church in Ephesus. It is more descriptive than prescriptive. In other words, Paul is not establishing a binding rule or law for the church. These 16 verses should not be interpreted as the non-negotiable biblical requirements for caring for widows in the local church. But they do provide an insightful glimpse into the kind of careful consideration that must be applied by shepherds when caring for their flock.

The bottom line is that the church is to be all about relationships. It can be messy and, at times, difficult. There are always variables and certain circumstances that make decision-making anything but easy. There are many things to consider when dealing with people and relationships. We must often apply a careful combination of biblical wisdom and common sense.  We must do our homework, considering carefully and prayerfully what God would have us do, always striving to treat everyone with dignity, respect, and honor.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Teach, Train, and Typify

If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. 10 For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe.

11 Command and teach these things. 12 Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. – 1 Timothy 4:6-16 ESV

Our lives are meant to make a difference. But not in the way that the world would have us believe. In this age, the sign of significance is measured in assets, popularity, job title, income, the neighborhood we live in, the kind of car we drive, or even the number of friends and followers we have on Facebook or Twitter. We live to impress. We exist to consume. We long to make a difference in the world, but the terms by which we measure the success of our contribution can be shallow and exceedingly temporal. Paul would have Timothy use a different standard. He wanted this young man to keep his eyes focused on what really mattered, so he gave him a few basic tips for living a life that truly makes a difference.

First, he tells him to teach. Paul wanted Timothy to take what he was learning and share it with those all around him. Knowledge that is never shared is wasted. Wisdom that is never passed on to others ends up being self-centered and senseless. But Paul’s letter to Timothy wasn’t meant for him alone. Paul’s intention was that Timothy teach the truths contained within it to those under his care. He told him to “explain these things to the brothers and sisters” (1 Timothy 4:6 NLT). He challenged him to “teach these things and insist that everyone learn them” (1 Timothy 4:11 NLT). The truths of God’s Word are meant to be shared, not to be horded. We are to pass on what we learn.

Secondly, Timothy was to train. And Paul was quite specific when it came to the kind of training he was talking about. Paul said, “train yourself to be godly.” (1 Timothy 4:7 NLT). The Greek word Paul uses is gymnazō and it means “to exercise vigorously, in any way, either the body or the mind.” It is the word from which we get our English word, gymnasium.

Paul was expecting Timothy to put effort into his pursuit of the spiritual life. Godliness was to be his goal in life, not material success, financial reward, physical health, or personal fulfillment. Paul reminded Timothy that he would receive far greater benefits from the pursuit of a healthy and vibrant spiritual life than he ever would from getting physically fit. Godliness has both temporal and eternal ramifications for the life of the believer. We benefit in the here and now as well as the hereafter.

Third, Paul tells Timothy to typify what a believer looks like. He was to be an example of godliness to those around him – in every area of his life – through his speech and conduct, in his demonstration of love and faith, and through living a life of purity. Purity includes sexual purity as well as integrity of heart.

The Christian life is to be a holistic life – with no compartmentalization. In other words, there are no hidden or secret areas where the light of God’s transformative power does not shine. Timothy’s godliness was to touch every area of his life and it was to be a clear model of Christ-likeness to all those around him. And Timothy’s young age was never to be a hindrance or used as an excuse. Timothy’s chronological age was to have nothing to do with it because godliness is ageless. It has nothing to do with the number of years we spend on this planet. But it has everything to do with the amount of time we spend in the Word, with the Lord, and submitted to the Holy Spirit. Godliness is to be lived out for others to see.

Paul gives Timothy one final charge: “Give your complete attention to these matters. Throw yourself into your tasks so that everyone will see your progress. Keep a close watch on how you live and on your teaching. Stay true to what is right for the sake of your own salvation and the salvation of those who hear you” (1 Timothy 4:15-16 NLT).

Timothy was to teach others, train himself diligently, and typify the life of a believer. And he was to throw his entire energy into making this a reality in his life. The pursuit of a godly life cannot be done half-heartedly. It’s a full-time job that requires our constant attention. We have to regularly examine how we’re doing and constantly assess our spiritual well-being. There is no room for complacency or contentment. And Paul modeled this lifestyle of constant commitment to excellence.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:12-14 NLT

There will be always distractions along the way. We will be tempted to become satisfied with where we are and how far we’ve come. But Paul warned Timothy that the goal will not be realized on this earth. Our salvation will be consummated in heaven, not here. This life is not to be all there is. This world is not our home – we’re just passing through on our way to somewhere better. Our salvation awaits our glorification. That is to be our ultimate goal and objective. That’s why Paul told Timothy to train himself for godliness. Eventually, our godliness will be complete. We will be done with all the training. We will have completed the race. The apostle John reminds us, “Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is” (1 John 3:2 NLT).

That day is coming. But in the meantime, we are to teach, train, and typify. So let’s get busy!

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

His Will, Not Mine

11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. 12 There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 16 As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin. James 4:11-17 ESV

James had strong words for those who claimed to be Christ-followers but failed to live in obedience to God’s commands. That kind of behavior was unacceptable because saving faith always results in sanctification, the Spirit-empowered transformation of the believer into the likeness of Christ. The apostle Paul’s informed the believers in Thessalonica of his ongoing prayer for them:

Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 1 Thessalonians 5:23

The New Living Translation words Paul’s request this way: “Now may the God of peace make you holy in every way…”

Both James and Paul had high expectations for the believers to whom they each ministered. There was no room for spiritual apathy or complacency. God’s gift of salvation was not intended to be viewed as a ticket that gained the holder entrance into some future state of glorification. While eternal life is the final reward for all those who place their faith in Christ, there is also the present reality of our ongoing transformation into the image of Christ.

Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, who were primarily Gentiles, and reminded them that there had been a time when their hearts were incapable of seeing the truth. It was as if they had a veil over their eyes that prevented them from recognizing the gift being offered to them in Christ. Their condition had been just like that of the Jews in the days of Moses. He had delivered to them God’s law but they had been unable to understand or obey it.

…the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ. Yes, even today when they read Moses’ writings, their hearts are covered with that veil, and they do not understand. – 2 Corinthians 3:14-15 NLT

Little had changed over the centuries. Even Paul, a Jew himself, recognized that his people still lived in a state of spiritual darkness, unable to see or receive the truth concerning Jesus as their Messiah and Savior. Then he reminds the Corinthians believers that they had come to faith in Christ because the Holy Spirit had removed the veil of ignorance and apathy.

But whenever someone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. For the Lord is the Spirit, and wherever the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. – 2 Corinthians 3:16-18 NLT

Not only had they experienced freedom from sin and condemnation, but they had begun the process of transformation into the likeness of Christ. And all those who are being conformed to His image should reflect His character. That is the whole point behind James’ letter. He is demanding that his readers embrace the life of holiness to which they had been called by God. They were free in Christ, but they were not free to live as they pleased. Their behavior was to be in keeping with the Word of God. Obedience to God’s law was non-optional. And he made that point perfectly clear.

Don’t speak evil against each other, dear brothers and sisters. If you criticize and judge each other, then you are criticizing and judging God’s law. – James 4:11 NLT

And James appears to have the Mosaic Law in mind. He is calling believers to live in keeping with the commands of God as found in the book of Leviticus.

“Do not twist justice in legal matters by favoring the poor or being partial to the rich and powerful. Always judge people fairly.

“Do not spread slanderous gossip among your people.

“Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened. I am the Lord.

“Do not nurse hatred in your heart for any of your relatives. Confront people directly so you will not be held guilty for their sin.

“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

“You must obey all my decrees.” – Leviticus 19:15-19 NLT

While these commands had been given by God to the people of Israel as they made their way from Egypt to the promised land, James insists that they were still relevant and required for his 1st-Century audience. God’s will regarding the interpersonal interactions between His people remained unchanged. And James warns his readers against cherry-picking which laws they wanted to obey.

…your job is to obey the law, not to judge whether it applies to you. – James 4:11 NLT

In order for them to practice partiality and justify their fits of anger against one another, they were having to play fast and loose with God’s law. If nothing else, they were violating the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. And they were disobeying the command of Christ.

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” – Jonn 13:34 ESV

These people had made a habit out of judging one another. They were hyper-critical and harsh in their treatment of one another. But James warns them:

God alone, who gave the law, is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbor? – James 4:12 NLT

They were guilty of violating every command found in Leviticus 19:15-19. It was as if they had chosen to put back on the veil that the Spirit had removed. They were willingly closing their eyes to the truth of God’s Word and living in disobedience to His will for them.

In a sense, they were acting as if they were large and in charge. They had decided that they wanted to be the masters of their own fates and the captains of their own souls. And this shared sense of autonomy and self-determination was doing great damage to the body of Christ. And James warns them against trying to play god. Their desire to control their own fates was not only misguided but impossible. And James points out just how ludicrous their attempt at self-sovereignty really was.

Look here, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we are going to a certain town and will stay there a year. We will do business there and make a profit.” How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. – James 4:13-14 NLT

Their power was limited and their ability to predict the future was laughable. While they could make grandiose plans, they had no idea what tomorrow would bring. In fact, they had no guarantee they would live long enough to see the next day. So, James provides them with an alternative perspective.

What you ought to say is, “If the Lord wants us to, we will live and do this or that.” Otherwise you are boasting about your own pretentious plans, and all such boasting is evil. – James 4:15-16 NLT

This all points back to the issue of holiness. As followers of Christ, they were to recognize their new status as children of God and citizens of the Kingdom. They were no longer of this world. They belonged to God and were expected to live according to His will and not their own. They could make plans, but they were to hold them loosely and always remember that those plans must be in keeping with God’s will.

The apostle Paul constantly encouraged believers to recognize their new identity in Christ.

Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT

And Paul made it clear that this set-apart status as God’s temple applied to the corporate community of faith, not just the individual believer.

Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? – 1 Corinthians 3:16 NLT

The temple of God in Jerusalem had been set apart for His use. It was intended to be His earthly dwelling place. And it was the responsibility of the priests to maintain the holiness and purity of the temple through constant obedience to God’s laws. A believer’s body belongs to God. It is the temple or dwelling place of the Spirit of God. And God expects us to keep His house pure and set apart for His use. The same thing is true regarding the body of Christ, the church. According to Paul, it too is the temple of God and its holiness should be diligently maintained. That’s why James pleads, “Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world” (James 4:8 NLT).

They needed to do some serious house cleaning. They had allowed the temple of God to become impure and uninhabitable. Unconfessed sin had made God’s dwelling place unacceptable. And their individual battles with sin had done serious damage to the faith community. So, James closes out this chapter with a call to obedience.

Remember, it is sin to know what you ought to do and then not do it. – James 4:17 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Suit Up, Stand Up, Speak Up!

18 To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak. Ephesians 6:18b-20 ESV

Paul ended his description of the armor of God with a call to prayer, strongly advising his readers to “Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion” (Ephesians 6:18a NLT). Constant communication with the Father is essential for our spiritual survival. Prayer is not simply a tool we use to get what we need from God. As Paul will show, it is not to be used for our own selfish desires either.

Throughout this letter, Paul has been addressing the great doctrine of the church, the body of Christ. In chapter one, Paul addressed Christ’s headship over the church, having earned that role through His sacrificial death and resurrection.

And he [God] put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. – Ephesians 1:22 ESV

And all believers are members of that body because they share a common faith in Christ, and that faith was a gift provided to them by God, “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:9 ESV). The church was and is the mysterious or previously hidden idea that God would miraculously join Jews and Gentiles into one body.

…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross. – Ephesians 2:14 ESV 

It was God who made us “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19 ESV). And it is through the church that “the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10 ESV). It was Paul’s prayer that the Ephesian believers would “know the love of Christ” and be “filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19 ESV). Paul knew that God had a divine plan for the church. He also knew that the future success of the church, including all those who would later become a part of it through faith in Christ, was totally dependent upon the work of God and for the glory of God. That is why he ended his prayer in chapter three with the words:

Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen. – Ephesians 3:20-21 ESV

The body of Christ, the church, is a powerful force, but only as long as it remains dependent upon God. It is a God-ordained agent of change in the world, but only when it stays committed to the will of God and connected to the power God has made available through His Spirit. When we lose sight of the fact that God saved us and placed us within the context of the body of Christ, and begin to see our salvation as something individualistic and isolated, we miss the whole point. A self-centered, what’s-in-it-for-me attitude has no place within the body of Christ. Even the armor of God is of little use to the Christian, if he wears it in a futile attempt to act as a one-man army.

As Christians, we must come to grips with the fact that we are in this battle together. Even the best-equipped, most highly trained army, without unity, will fall to its enemy. And without constant communication with and obedience to its commander, even the mightiest army will fail. So, Paul calls Christians to prayer.

Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere. Ephesians 18 NLT

There is a sense of camaraderie and unity in his words. We are to pray not only for ourselves but for one another as well. We should desire that each and every believer on the planet lives in the power of the Spirit and according to the will of God. The body of Christ requires members who are healthy, whole and committed to the cause of Christ. That is why Paul even asks for prayer on his behalf.

And pray for me, too. Ask God to give me the right words so I can boldly explain God’s mysterious plan that the Good News is for Jews and Gentiles alike. – Ephesians 6:19 NLT

Paul knew that he needed the prayers of the saints in order to stay committed to the call given to him by God. He coveted their prayers. And he longed that they would pray for one another.

What more selfless, loving thing can we do than pray for God to protect, guide, strengthen, and embolden our fellow believers. We must realize that our strength, while provided by God, is found in our unity with fellow believers. It is together that we form the powerful force that can dramatically alter the landscape of the world in which we live. Solitary soldiers, even though well-armored, will have little impact “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV). So, we must pray. We must seek God’s face, determining to know His will, lifting up our fellow soldiers, and resting in His divine strategy for ultimate victory.

Not surprisingly, Paul asks his flock in Ephesus to pray for him. He is writing his letter while under house arrest in Rome, awaiting trial before the emperor. But Paul doesn’t request that they pray for his timely release. While there’s little doubt that Paul longed to be set free so that he could continue his ministry, he also saw his confinement as a God-ordained opportunity to share the message of Jesus Christ with a “captive” audience. In his letter to the Philippians, he mentioned those he had been able to lead to faith in the household of Caesar.

The brothers who are with me send you their greetings. And all the rest of God’s people send you greetings, too, especially those in Caesar’s household. – Philippians 4:22 NLT

Paul had been busy while under house arrest in Rome. He had been bemoaning his circumstances or complaining about his sorry lot in life. No, he had been spreading the good news of Jesus Christ to anyone and everyone.

I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News. For everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ. And because of my imprisonment, most of the believers here have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear. – Philippians 4:12-14 NLT

Paul was an equal-opportunity evangelist. He was ready, willing, and able to share the gospel with Jews, Gentiles, Romans, freemen, slaves, guards, and even emperors if given the chance. No one was “safe” when Paul was around. So, instead of asking that his friends in Ephesus pray for his release, he asks them to pray that he will “keep on speaking boldly for him” (Ephesians 6:20 NLT). He desires strength, endurance, and a fearlessness to boldly proclaim Christ even in the face of possible rejection and ridicule.

Paul knew that he would need just the right words to speak in each situation. He was totally dependent upon God to provide him with just the right message at just the right time. Paul didn’t preach a one-size-fits-all kind of gospel. He allowed the Holy Spirit to custom-fit the message for each individual. That is why he asks that the Ephesians pray that God would give him “the right words so I can boldly explain God’s mysterious plan that the Good News is for Jews and Gentiles alike” (Ephesians 6:19 NLT).

Paul didn’t ask for release from confinement, but instead, he asked for Spirit-empowered communications skills. He wanted to make the most of his time while under house arrest. He viewed his situation as part of the sovereign will of God, and not as some kind of difficulty from which to escape. He was in God’s hands and what he desired most was the Ephesians’ prayers so that he might have God’s help in proclaiming the news of God’s Son.

Paul‘s prayer request reminds me of the words of an old hymn that echoes the same sentiment. Oh, that we would have the same perspective as Paul and share his desire to be used by God no matter the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Open my eyes, that I may see
Glimpses of truth thou hast for me;
Place in my hands the wonderful key
That shall unclasp and set me free
Silently now I wait for thee
Ready, my God, thy will to see
Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine!
Open my ears, that I may hear
Voices of truth thou sendest clear;
And while the wavenotes fall on my ear
Everything false will disappear
Silently now I wait for thee
Ready, my God, thy will to see
Open my ears, illumine me, Spirit divine!
Open my mouth, and let me bear
Gladly the warm truth everywhere;
Open my heart and let me prepare
Love with thy children thus to share
Silently now I wait for thee
Ready, my God, thy will to see
Open my heart, illumine me, Spirit divine!

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

A Spiritual Wake-Up Call

(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. Ephesians 4:9-16 ESV

In an attempt to encourage the Ephesian believers, Paul paraphrased a verse from one of King David’s psalms.

You ascended on high,
    leading a host of captives in your train
    and receiving gifts among men… – Psalm 68:18 ESV

As a former Pharisee and a student of the Hebrew scriptures, Paul knew that this passage was written by David as a praise song to God, thanking Him for His divine assistance against Israel’s many enemies. In verse 18 of David’s psalm, he describes gifts being given to God as an expression of gratitude and praise for His divine intervention in their military affairs. But Paul takes this Old Testament passage and repurposes it to drive home his point about God having given the gift of grace to all who believe in His Son (Ephesians 4:7).

“Paul made a valid application of Christological significance to the Old Testament passage. On the one hand, according to Psalm 68:18, God ascended Zion as a victorious king worthy of being the recipient of gifts of homage. On the other hand, according to Ephesians 4:8, Jesus also ascended to the heavenly Zion as the victorious Lord who lovingly bestowed on His church the gifts of ministry essential to her future well-being.” – Bibliotheca Sacra 148:591 (July-September 1991):335-36

In Paul’s application of this verse to the Ephesian context, he portrays Jesus as the one who, having accomplished a mighty victory over the enemy, ascended back into heaven. But rather than receiving gifts from men, Jesus poured out the gift of the Spirit on His church. This gracious outpouring of the Spirit resulted in the provision of divinely-enabled gifts to assist the church in its ministry. Paul mentions just a few of those gifts in verse 11 and explains their purpose.

…he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. – Ephesians 4:11-12 ESV

In his other letters, Paul provided a series of lists that contain other gifts provided to the church. They include the speaking gifts such as apostleship, prophecy, teaching, evangelism, exhortation, discerning of spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpreting tongues. But he also lists gifts of service that include leadership, helps, mercy, giving, faith, healing, and miracles. Paul fully believed that Jesus had provided His church with everything it needed to not only survive but thrive.

Paul was reminding his readers that Jesus, the Son of God, had descended from on high and taken on the role of a lowly servant. He had left His rightful place at His Father’s side and chosen to take on the form of a man. Paul eloquently described the “descent” of Jesus in his letter to the church in Philippi.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
   he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:6-8 NLT

And as a result of His incarnation and crucifixion, God raised Jesus from the dead and “elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names” (Philippians 2:9 NLT). And Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to indwell and equip His followers with the power to use their God-ordained gifts and display the fruits of a righteous life – all so that the body of Christ might be built up or edified. In his letter to Timothy, Paul described the church as the household of God and “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15 NLT). Jesus poured out gifts on the church so that all of its members might be adequately taught and prepared to carry out His mission on earth.

And, according to Paul, the goal of this “work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12 ESV) is the spiritual maturity of every believer. It will continue unabated and uninterrupted until “we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13 NLT). This is a lofty and seemingly impossible goal. But Paul’s point is that it is the work of the Spirit, not the flesh. God sent His Son so that sinful humanity might be restored to a right relationship with Him. But Jesus sent the Spirit so that redeemed men and women might have the power they needed to experience the full potentiality of their new nature. Their spiritual transformation was to be ongoing and evidenced by an ever-increasing capacity to thrive in a hostile and often harmful earthly environment. 

In verse 14, Paul telegraphs where he is headed with this line of reasoning. He is preparing his readers to receive a stern but loving lecture regarding false teachers. And he does so by reminding them that their ongoing spiritual maturity is both non-optional and extremely vital. When the members of Christ’s body are growing effectively, they “will no longer be immature like children…tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching,” and they won’t be easily deceived by those who try to trick them “with lies so clever they sound like the truth” (Ephesians 4:14 NLT).

This was all intended as a set-up for Paul’s main point. He is preparing the Ephesian believers to receive his not-so-flattering assessment of their current spiritual condition. In a sense, Paul is describing them as immature children who are being tossed about by every wind of new teaching. Rather than growing up in their salvation, they have remained like helpless and defenseless children who lack discretion and discipline.

According to Paul’s assessment, the Ephesian church was not where it needed to be spiritually. The leaders of the church were not effectively doing their job of equipping “God’s people to do his work” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT). And, as a result, God’s people were not edifying one another and strengthening the body of Christ. Paul calls them to course correct, demanding that they “speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ” (Ephesians 4:15 NLT). They needed to express their love for one another by being honest in their assessment of one another. There is a sense in which love must be hard and unforgiving, pointing out the flaws and failings of one another so that the body of Christ might be healthy and whole. Paul is recommending the truth found in Proverbs 27:6: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend.” He is echoing the sentiment expressed by King David in another one of his psalms.

Let the righteous man strike me; let his rebuke be an act of loving devotion. It is oil for my head; let me not refuse it.

Paul’s heartfelt desire was that the Ephesians would experience all the gifts that Christ had poured out on their behalf. He wanted them to experience the unity that Christ had died to make possible. He longed for them to display the spiritual maturity that the Spirit made available. And he prayed continually that their lives would reflect the character of Christ that God’s grace had made attainable. As far as Paul was concerned, there was no reason for the Ephesians to be living in doubt, fear, immaturity, disunity, or impurity. God had provided everything they needed. He had done His part. He had sent His Son and His Son had sent the Spirit. Now, it was up to them to live out what God had ordained for them.

He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love. – Ephesians 4:16 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

 

Don’t Grow Weary

11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.

13 As for you, brothers, do not grow weary in doing good. 14 If anyone does not obey what we say in this letter, take note of that person, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. 15 Do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.

16 Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all.

17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the sign of genuineness in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. 18 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. 2 Thessalonians 3:11-17 ESV

Because of his authorship of the book of Romans, Paul is sometimes pigeon-holed for his theological acumen, but as this letter clearly shows, he could be highly practical as well. In these closing verses of 2 Thessalonians, he addresses what, to some, may appear to be a rather pedestrian problem: Laziness or idleness within the church. Paul had received news that there were those in the congregation in Thessalonica who were living undisciplined lives. This small contingent of individuals were refusing to work and expecting the rest of the church body to provide them with food. At first glance, it may seem that Paul is guilty of making a mountain out of a molehill. He is giving far too much attention to something that is essentially a non-issue.

But Paul saw the danger lying beneath the surface. He knew that, while the actions of these individuals may appear somewhat innocent and innocuous, they were actually quite dangerous. In the letter that bears his name, Jude warned of false teachers who had infiltrated the church and whose presence and teaching were posing a threat to the well-being of the fellowship. His description of them provides some insight into how Paul viewed those who were “walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6 ESV).

…they are like dangerous reefs that can shipwreck you. They are like shameless shepherds who care only for themselves. They are like clouds blowing over the land without giving any rain. They are like trees in autumn that are doubly dead, for they bear no fruit and have been pulled up by the roots. They are like wild waves of the sea, churning up the foam of their shameful deeds. They are like wandering stars, doomed forever to blackest darkness.  – Jude 1:12-13 NLT

Those within the body of Christ who chose to live undisciplined lives, whether through the teaching of false doctrine or by refusing to work, were doing irreparable harm through their self-centered actions. They cared only for themselves. They appeared to be active members of the congregation, but there was no benefit to their presence. They were like clouds that promised much-needed rain but never delivered. They were like fruit trees that failed to provide any harvest because they were dead. Like the waves of the sea, their presence within the body of Christ produced nothing of value, simply stirring up the foam of their shameful deeds. And like “wandering stars” or planets that move across the night sky, they proved to be unreliable sources for navigation. In other words, they provided nothing of value for the faith community.

And it wasn’t just that they refused to work. It was that their idleness would lead to a lifestyle of undisciplined behavior that would become like cancer in the body of Christ. Paul describes how their idle lives, characterized by a refusal to work, left them with too much time on their hands, which they used to meddle in other people’s business. Rather than being busy about work, they became busybodies, stirring up contention and strife among the fellowship.

Paul was a firm believer in the concept of the body of Christ and was adamant that each and every member of the body should be a contributor to its corporate well-being. Because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, everyone had something to give back to the body of Christ. And it didn’t matter how bad your pre-conversion state may have been. He wrote to the church in Ephesus, encouraging its members to put aside their past and live new lives of usefulness and godliness.

If you are a thief, quit stealing. Instead, use your hands for good hard work, and then give generously to others in need. – Ephesians 4:28 NLT

There was no reason for any member of the body of Christ to be fruitless or to fail to be a contributor to the corporate needs of the community. That’s why Paul warned the Ephesians: “do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live” (Ephesians 4:30 NLT). Someone who willingly chose to live an undisciplined or idle life grieved the Spirit of God because it evidenced their refusal to live in keeping with His will. Rather than using the gifts given to them by the Spirit of God for the benefit of the body of Christ, they were living self-centered lives with no regard for anyone else.

And, for the first time in his letter, Paul addresses these individuals directly, commanding and encouraging them “to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (2 Thessalonians 3:12 ESV). They knew who they were and they knew what they needed to do. No more freeloading. No more living off the generosity of others. They were to get busy and do their part, contributing to the needs of the body of Christ and displaying the transforming nature of the gospel through the way they lived their lives.

To the rest of the congregation, Paul provides a simple, yet profound piece of pastoral counsel: “do not grow weary in doing good” (2 Thessalonians 3:13 ESV). He knew that living the Christian life was not easy and there would be times when the Thessalonian believers would be tempted to throw in the towel. Not only were they having to deal with persecution from without, but they were also having to battle the presence of false teachers and lazy fellow parishioners. But Paul called them to a life of perseverance. He wanted them to keep their eye on the objective, what he elsewhere referred to as “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14 ESV). This life would be filled with difficult people and trying day, but the end of the race would come with a reward that would make all the effort they expended more than worth it.

In the meantime, they were to distance themselves from the disobedient and undisciplined among them. Paul makes it clear that they were not to treat these people as enemies but they were to “admonish them as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:15 ESV). James encouraged the same kind of brotherly love toward those who had wandered from the faith.

…if someone among you wanders away from the truth and is brought back, you can be sure that whoever brings the sinner back from wandering will save that person from death and bring about the forgiveness of many sins. – James 5:19-20 NLT

Restoration and reconciliation were to be the ultimate objectives. Maintaining unity within the body of Christ had to be of the highest priority. Calling out the unruly and undisciplined was non-optional. It wouldn’t fun but it had to be done or, like yeast, the sin of the few would spread throughout the body, destroying its vitality and diminishing its influence in the world.

And with that thought in mind, Paul closes his letter with a prayer for the presence and peace of God to be evident among the Thessalonian Christians.

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you his peace at all times and in every situation. The Lord be with you all. – 2 Thessalonians 3:16 NLT

As Paul had told the believers in Philippi, God’s peace, “exceeds anything we can understand.” Not only that, “His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7 NLT). Even in the midst of turmoil, trials, and difficulties of all sorts, God’s peace would always be available and viable. They could count on it.

And the Thessalonians could count on the fact that this letter was actually from Paul because he had personally signed it. While there may have been those who claimed to have letters from Paul that contained false teaching, this one was legitimate. He had included his own signature as proof.

Paul closes out his letter with his favorite benediction: “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” (2 Thessalonians 3:18 ESV). He wanted them to remember that the grace of God – His unmerited, undeserved favor – was the key to their salvation, sanctification, and ultimate glorification. Grace was the God-given power to live the lives they had been called to live. They had been saved by grace. They could experience the peace of God because of His grace. And they would be preserved and protected according to abundant, never-ending grace.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Imitate Good

11 Beloved, do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God. 12 Demetrius has received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself. We also add our testimony, and you know that our testimony is true.

13 I had much to write to you, but I would rather not write with pen and ink. 14 I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face.

15 Peace be to you. The friends greet you. Greet the friends, each by name. – 3 John 1:11-15 ESV

John has managed to pack a lot of information into the closing verses of his third and final letter. After portraying the actions of Diotrephes in stark contrast to those of Gaius, John turns his attention back to his dear friend. He reminds Gaius to model his life after those who do good and not evil. John has clearly established Diotrephes as someone whose actions are evil, but he is not declaring Diotrephes to be an unbeliever. The Greek word John used is kakos, and it can refer to someone behaving in a manner that is unacceptable or not as it should be. Their actions are wrong and, therefore, harmful.

The habit of Diotrephes to put himself first was unacceptable because it was antithetical to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus regularly instructed His disciples to pursue a life of humility and service, and He provided His own life as a model for this kind of behavior.

“Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.” – John 13:34 NLT

Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. – John 15:12-13 NLT

Jesus did that which is good (agathos). The actions of His life were admirable, pleasant, upright, and honorable. Jesus was the consummate servant, giving His life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). And the apostle Paul provides a sobering reminder that, as followers of Christ, we are to share the mindset of Christ.

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. – Philippians 2:3-5 NLT

That is exactly what John means when he tells Gaius to imitate that which is good. Jesus, though God, displayed no illusions of grandeur and refused to flaunt His divine glory in the face of sinful men. Instead, He willingly took on the nature of a slave, laying aside His divine privileges in order to serve the needs of humanity. Paul explains the mindset that drove the behavior of Jesus.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
   he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:6-8 NLT

And this is the very mindset that John desired his dear friend to emulate. Diotrephes was modeling his life after the manner of this world. He was following the example of leadership, as displayed in the culture. But Paul told the believers in Rome to let God transform their way of thinking.

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. – Romans 12:2 NLT

Only God can produce in His children the kind of behavior that is good, pleasing, and perfect in His sight. And He does so through the power of His indwelling Holy Spirit. The actions of Diotrephes were the normal and natural outflow of a heart that was under the influence of the sin nature rather than the Spirit. The apostle Paul provides an extensive, yet not an exhaustive list of the “evil” actions that flow from a flesh-based heart.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear: sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these. – Galatians 5:19-21 NLT

Notice his mention of jealousy, selfish ambition, dissension, and division. These were the very kinds of things evident in the life of Diotrephes. But Paul provides a list of the kinds of characteristics that mark the life of someone who is living in the power and under the influence of the Holy Spirit.

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. – Galatians 5:22-23 NLT

John told Gaius, “Remember that those who do good prove that they are God’s children, and those who do evil prove that they do not know God” (3 John 1:11 NLT). In a sense, he was reminding Gaius of the teachings of Jesus: A tree is known by its fruit.

“A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. A tree is identified by its fruit. Figs are never gathered from thornbushes, and grapes are not picked from bramble bushes. A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart.” – Luke 6:43-44 NLT

Only a good heart can produce good fruit. Again, John does not seem to be insinuating that Diotrephes was unsaved, but that his behavior was evidence of a flawed relationship with God.  He claimed to know God but failed to live in obedience to the commands of God. And John addressed this problem in his very first letter.

If someone claims, “I know God,” but doesn’t obey God’s commandments, that person is a liar and is not living in the truth. But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. – 1 John 2:4-6 NLT

As far as John was concerned, there was only one way to truly know God, and that was through a relationship with Jesus Christ. In his gospel account, John opened with the bold and exclusionary claim: “No one has ever seen God. But the unique One, who is himself God, is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us” (John 1:18 NLT). But this was not something he made up. He had heard the claims of Jesus Himself:

“Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. (Not that anyone has ever seen the Father; only I, who was sent from God, have seen him.).” – John 6:45-46 NLT

I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is. From now on, you do know him and have seen him!” – John 14:6-7 NLT

Jesus made it perfectly clear: No one could truly know God without coming to a knowledge of Jesus as the Savior sent from God. He was the conduit of God’s grace, providing a means by which sinful men could be restored to a right relationship with their Heavenly Father. And the “good” actions of Gaius were evidence of his newly restored relationship with God. His changed behavior was proof that he had seen God, and it was because he had believed in the One sent by God.

John wraps up his letter to Gaius by encouraging him to extend hospitality to Demetrius. We have no idea who this individual was, but it is clear that John held him in high regard, noting that he had “received a good testimony from everyone, and from the truth itself” (3 John 1:12 ESV). In other words, Demetrius, like Gaius, walked the talk. He was walking according to the truth of the Gospel, allowing his behavior to flow from his beliefs.

John closed his letter with a declaration of his desire to see Gaius face-to-face. While writing a letter of encouragement was helpful, he would much prefer an up-close and personal visit with his brothers and sisters in Christ. The growing number of faith communities springing up all over Asia Minor and the rest of the world made personal visits by the apostles nearly impossible. Travel was arduous and expensive. Driven by their pastors’ hearts, they longed to personally visit each and every congregation, but it was physically impossible. So, they wrote, encouraged, admonished, and prayed. And they continued to perform their God-given responsibility “to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT).

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Boys to Men

1 But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? – 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 ESV

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. – Ephesians 4:11-16 ESV

Spiritual maturity. Among those who consider themselves Christians, there are few who would argue over the fact that spiritual growth is a non-negotiable biblical mandate. We can all relate to Paul’s use of infancy and adulthood as a comparative example of our Christian experience. When someone comes to faith in Christ, they display the characteristics of a child: Innocent faithfulness, trusting reliance, and a natural need to be led and fed. But it is only normal to expect infants to grow and mature into the next phase of life. We anticipate growth. As parents, we encourage and help facilitate it. And, as Christians, we understand that our spiritual maturity follows a similar pattern. It begins with new birth, the God-ordained and Spirit-empowered transformation of one who was dead into new life.

…even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved… – Ephesians 2:5 ESV

And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses… – Colossians 2:13 ESV

Jesus told Nicodemus, a fully mature man who was a proud member of the party of the Pharisees: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV). Jesus’ analogy went over the head of this learned religious leader and he responded, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:4 ESV). He missed the point altogether. Unaware of his own state of spiritual death, Nicodemus could not understand what Jesus meant by new birth. But everyone who comes to faith in Christ is born again or made new. Or as Paul put it, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV).

It is the new birth, made possible by the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, that makes it possible for believers to “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4 ESV). Or as Paul later described it, “the new way of the Spirit” (Romans 7:6 ESV). The new birth is to lead to new life. Just as we view the birth of a baby as the beginning of life, to be followed by the normal and natural marks of ever-increasing maturity, so God sees our new birth in Christ as the beginning of a life marked by spiritual growth. Which is why Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, provided the following directive to followers of Christ: “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation…” (1 Peter 2:2 ESV).

We are to grow. It’s expected. And the lack of growth is to be viewed as unnatural and abnormal. It is not what God intended for us. In fact, Peter reminds us, “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT). He has provided us with new birth and a new nature. He has placed His Holy Spirit within us and placed us in the body of Christ. He has given us His Word to teach us, the Spirit to lead us, and the family of God to care for us. God has given us everything we need to live the life to which He has called us. And that life is to be marked by ever-increasing evidence of spiritual maturity.

Look closely at Paul’s words to the believers in Ephesus. He told them that Christ had given “gifts” to the church, in the form of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. These divinely gifted individuals were “gifted” to the church by Christ and given the responsibility to “equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT). And Paul infers that their job would not be complete “until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13 NLT). Talk about job security.

None of us are there yet. We have not yet arrived to the full and complete standard of Christ. But then, neither had Paul. He openly confessed, “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me” (Philippians 3:12 NLT). While Paul fully understood that he stood before God as fully righteous because he bore the righteousness of Christ, he also knew that there were areas of his life that did not measure up to that reality. His old nature still had a habit of showing up and causing him to act in spiritually immature ways. His flesh was constantly doing battle with the Spirit within him. He made this painfully clear in Romans 7.

And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. – Romans 7:18-20 NLT

But while this internal battle was an ever-present reality for Paul, he also understood that his old nature had been crucified with Christ on the cross, which is why he could say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 NLT).

Like Paul, we have been sanctified, set apart by God for His use. He has placed His Spirit within us and placed us within the body of Christ. He has provided us with a host of gifted individuals whose sole responsibility it is to equip and prepare us for the work of building up the body of Christ. And Paul makes God’s objective in all this quite clear: “Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth” (Ephesians 4:14 NLT).

Maturity in place of childishness. Spiritual stability rather than the easy manipulability that too often accompanies immaturity. It is not that God doesn’t expect immaturity. It is normal and natural. It has its place. But He has provided all that is required for our spiritual growth and development. God has given us all we need for living godly lives. But we must avail ourselves of His gifts and graces. We must rely upon His Spirit. We must take advantage of the wisdom provided by His Word. We must submit to the authority of those He has placed in our lives as our spiritual fathers and mothers, tasked with the responsibility of equipping us for the work of the ministry.

Boys do not become men in isolation. They require care, discipline, instruction, and love. Infants left to themselves will grow, but not for long. And the same is true for believers. Any man or woman who attempts to grow more like Christ apart from the body of Christ will find themselves tossed and blown by every wind of new teaching. Their lives will be marked by jealousy and strife, immaturity and instability. And rather than being the spiritual people God has called them to be, they will be immature, stunted in their growth and stuck in the early stages of spiritual infancy.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson