Misdirected Effort

12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.

17 Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. 18 For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. 19 Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. 20 But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. – Philippians 3:12-21 ESV

As we saw in yesterday’s post, our faith in Christ is meant to be practical and visible. It should show up in the way we live our lives and give proof of the Spirit’s presence within us. Our faith can manifest itself in the fruit of the Spirit flowing out from us and through the supernatural abilities with which He has gifted us. Leading and loving are both evidence of the Spirit’s presence. His power can show up in the capacity to provide spiritual nourishment to God’s people or by meeting their physical needs with food, clothing, and shelter. But regardless of what we do, we are to recognize that we do it in the strength of the Spirit of God and for the glory of God.

If anyone speaks, he should speak as one conveying the words of God. If anyone serves, he should serve with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory and the power forever and ever. – 1 Peter 4:11 BSB

But there is another important factor that should influence what we do, and Paul addresses it in his letter to the believers in Philippi.

There is little debate over the fact that Paul was a man on a mission. He was driven. He was almost obsessive-compulsive in his desire to obey the command of Christ to carry the gospel message to the Gentiles. He had done so in the face of all kinds of obstacles, including shipwreck, beatings, a stoning, hunger, thirst, imprisonment, and constant opposition to his message and ministry. But, like the Energizer Bunny, he just kept going and going. But why? What was his motivation? How did he manage to maintain his enthusiasm and not lose hope when faced with constant threats to his life and the unceasing attacks on the churches he had worked so hard to plant?

He provides us with the answer in the third chapter of his letter to the Philippians. And it is in the form of a personal glimpse into his own approach to his spiritual life and ministry.

First of all, Paul admits that he ’s a work in process. He’s not some kind of religious rock star or spiritual superhero. In fact, he confesses to the Philippians, “I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection” (Philippians 3:12 NLT). When it came to spiritual maturity, Paul flatly denied that he had “arrived.” Instead, he tells the Philippians, “I press on.” Then he claims to be “straining forward to what lies ahead.” Paul had an objective in mind. But what was it? Was he attempting to achieve a state of fully realized spiritual maturity in this life? Did he believe that he could somehow work his way toward sinless perfection this side of heaven?

The answer is no. Look closely at his choice of words. He said that he was “straining forward to what lies ahead.” He claimed to be pressing on “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul had an objective in mind. He lived with a sense of purpose that was based on a well-defined outcome or destiny. Some might way that Paul lived with his eyes set on heaven, but I think there was more to it than that. Look at how he describes his goal for living.

My aim is to know him, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his sufferings, and to be like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. – Philippians 3:10-11 NET

Paul had been around long enough to know that the Christian life, this side of heaven, was going to be marked by suffering. But he also knew that the end result of any suffering we experience in this life was nothing when compared to our future glorification or resurrection. Which is exactly what he told the believers in Rome:

…what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. – Romans 8:18 NLT

For Paul, this life was temporary. It was a path that led to a preferred future in a much better environment. And he lived with the reality of that future constantly on his mind and permanently in his line of sight.

But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control. – Philippians 3:20-21 NLT

Paul lived with the end in mind. He viewed the Christian life like a race or a journey. In race, each runner has his eye focused on the finish line. They share a common objective. Every one of them is running with the finish line as their final objective. Not all will win, but they all need to run in order to complete the course. And Paul used this racing analogy to encourage the Corinthian believers.

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! – 1 Corinthians 9:24 NLT

Paul was a man who ran to win. He understood the reason behind Jesus’ calling of him. Yes, he had been called to be an apostle, a messenger of the good news of Jesus Christ. But, more importantly he had been called so that one day he might experience the sinless perfection promised to him by Jesus Christ and made possible by His sacrificial death on the cross. Which is why Paul said, “I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me” (Philippians 3:12 NLT). Glorification is God’s goal for every believer, so it should be our goal as well. We should settle for nothing less than that for which Jesus Christ died, our ultimate transformation into His likeness, complete with a glorified body and a sinless, perfectly holy character.

This entire passage is like a donut. Verses 12-17 and 20-21 surround verses 18-19. Those two verses form a kind of hole in the passage in which Paul places a negative example for the Philippians to avoid. In verse 17, Paul invites the Philippians to imitate him and to learn from anyone else in the church who follow his example. But then he warns of another group within the church whose behavior was not to be emulated. He describes these people in harsh terms, calling them “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Philippians 3:18 ESV). That’s not exactly politically correct terminology. But Paul sees these individuals as dangerous because their behavior was actually anti-gospel. Their lives were focused on the wrong thing. Rather than fixing their eyes on the prize to come, they were looking to enjoy all their blessings in this life. That is what Paul means when he states that “their god is their belly” (Philippians 3:19 ESV). They were all about satisfying their physical desires and appetites. They wanted to good life in this life, not the one to come. They wanted heaven on earth.

Rather than recognizing that Jesus had died so that they might live with the end in mind, with their hopes focused on their future glorification, they preferred to live in the moment. They lived with their minds set on earthly, rather than as citizens of heaven. And Paul states that “their end is destruction” (Philippians 3:19 ESV). In other words, what they had chosen to pursue was not going to produce what they were expecting.

But Paul reminds the Philippians that their citizenship is in heaven. That is their destiny and their final destination. But Paul is emphasizing much more than a change of address. He is stressing a change that will take place in our nature.

He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own. – Philippians 3:21 NLT

That is the goal. That is the objective. It is what God has in store for each and every believer and Paul would have us live our lives with that end in mind. We will not achieve that glorious state in this life, but if that is what God has in store for us, shouldn’t we make that our life’s focus? Wouldn’t it make sense to run the race with the actual finish line in mind? If not, we will run aimlessly, focusing our energies on the wrong goals and wondering why the promised prize remains beyond our grasp.

Yes, we have been saved, but as Paul reminds us, “we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” He is coming back one day and He will finish what He started. He will complete what He began. And we are to live with that end in mind.

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

 

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Fruitful Faith

14 What good is it, dear brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but don’t show it by your actions? Can that kind of faith save anyone? 15 Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, 16 and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?

17 So you see, faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless.

18 Now someone may argue, “Some people have faith; others have good deeds.” But I say, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.”

19 You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror. 20 How foolish! Can’t you see that faith without good deeds is useless? – James 2:14-2 0NLT

Without the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, the Christian life would be impossible to pull off. Not only that, without the Holy Spirit, the hope of anyone becoming a Christian would be impossible. It is only by the work of the Spirit that anyone is transformed from darkness to light, from death to life, and from condemned sinner to forgiven saint. Paul told Titus that prior to the Spirit’s divine help, “we, too, were foolish and disobedient. We were misled and became slaves to many lusts and pleasures. Our lives were full of evil and envy, and we hated each other. ” (Titus 3:3 NLT). And Paul followed up this less-than-flattering portrait of our pre-salvation condition with some very good news.

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior. – Titus 3:4-6 ESV

God saved us, out of His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit was made possible because of the sacrificial death of Jesus. His perfect obedience to the will of His Father, demonstrated by His incarnation and, ultimately, His crucifixion, is what made the Holy Spirit available to sinful men and women. And it is the Holy Spirit who gives new life to those dead in their trespasses and sins, enabling them to see for the very first time the wonderful gift of God’s grace as expressed through the sacrifice of His own Son for the sins of mankind.

Yet, the Spirit is often treated like the red-headed stepchild of the Trinity. We can easily overlook His significance and underappreciate His role in our spiritual lives. Or we can over-emphasize those aspects of the Spirit’s presence and power that are more flamboyant and fantastic. The gifts of the Spirit can suddenly become our primary focus, causing us to seek those gifts that come with greater authority, increased visibility, and that give us an air of superior spirituality. This was the problem Paul confronted among the believers in Corinth.

It seems that the congregation in Corinth was using the gifts of the Spirit as a litmus test for measuring spirituality. There were those who were guilty of viewing their particular gift as a badge of honor, rather than seeing it as an undeserved byproduct of the Spirit’s presence within them. And those who had the more flamboyant and visible gifts, such as tongues or prophecy, were wrongly assuming that their more spectacular gifts were proof of their superior spirituality. But Paul corrected this misperception.

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit is the source of them all. There are different kinds of service, but we serve the same Lord. God works in different ways, but it is the same God who does the work in all of us. – 1 Corinthians 12:4-6 NLT

Each and every gift present within the church in Corinth had been given by the Spirit, based on His divine determination alone. It had nothing to do with the spirituality of the one receiving the gift. And just as with the fruit of the Spirit, the spiritual gift given by the Spirit was not intended for the blessing of the recipient.

A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other. – 1 Corinthians 12:7 NLT

And every gift was necessary. There was no particular gift that carried greater weight or worth. The gifts, made possible by the Holy Spirit and meted out at His discretion, were intended to bless the body of Christ, not the individuals who possessed the gifts.

To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; to another the same Spirit gives a message of special knowledge. The same Spirit gives great faith to another, and to someone else the one Spirit gives the gift of healing. He gives one person the power to perform miracles, and another the ability to prophesy. He gives someone else the ability to discern whether a message is from the Spirit of God or from another spirit. Still another person is given the ability to speak in unknown languages, while another is given the ability to interpret what is being said. It is the one and only Spirit who distributes all these gifts. He alone decides which gift each person should have. – 1 Corinthians 12:8-11 NLT

Don’t miss what Paul is saying here. Notice how many times he writes, “the Spirit gives.” There is no indication that any of the gifts are given based on merit. No, Paul states that it is the Spirit who distributes all these gifts and He alone decides which gift each person should have. It’s not based on personality, spirituality, or inherent capability. It is a gift, and it is intended for the well-being of the body of Christ.

So, what does this any of this have to do with the words of James concerning faith and works? Paul is talking about gifts given by the Spirit, and James seems to be talking about practical expressions of faith. Paul mentions such things as tongues, prophecy, healing, wisdom, and discernment, but James focuses on what appear to be more mundane and practical expressions of faith like sharing food or clothing with a brother or sister in need.

But there is a common thread between these two passages, and it has to do with our outward behavior. Both men are dealing with the outer expressions of our inward faith. Paul is discussing spiritual gifts, and James is dealing with practical manifestations of faith. And both men would strongly assert that any hope we have of doing either is based on God, not us. As Paul told the church in Philippi: “For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:13 NLT).

And James told the believers to whom he wrote, “If you need wisdom, ask our generous God, and he will give it to you” (James 1:5 NLT). James wanted them to know that God was the source of all their needs. Which is why he reminded them, “Whatever is good and perfect is a gift coming down to us from God our Father” (James 1:17 NLT).

Both of these men are dealing with the reality of the Spirit’s presence within us flowing out of us in practical ways that end up blessing all those around us. For James, the declaration of faith in Christ that wasn’t accompanied by Christ-like behavior was worthless. It wasn’t true, saving faith. Because saving faith results in the Spirit’s presence and power. And that power is practical, producing spiritual fruit that blesses all those around us and gifts that minister to the body of Christ. And not only that, the power of the Spirit is evidenced by the simple, yet practical ways in which we love and care for those around us.

James will not allow us to over-spiritualize our faith. He will not let us become so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good. Which is why he uses a very practical, real-life illustration to keep us grounded.

Suppose you see a brother or sister who has no food or clothing, and you say, “Good-bye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? – James 2:15-16 NLT

In Corinth, the believers were bickering over who had the most important spiritual gift. They were jockeying for position within the church based on what they believed to be the perceived importance of the various gifts. And, in doing so, they were missing the point entirely.

James was dealing with people who were putting way too much emphasize on their displays of religiosity. They were consumed with impressing one another and intent of giving the appearance of spirituality. But James wouldn’t let them get away with it.

If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. – James 1:26 NLT

They were guilty of showing partiality by showing preference for the haves over the have-nots. In doing so, they were violating the royal law: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (James 2:8 NLT).

The practice of partiality, the desire for prominence, the jockeying for spiritual stature, and the fruitlessness of faith are all constant dangers we face as believers. And Paul and James would both have us understand that any hope we have of avoiding these pitfalls is an awareness of our complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit’s presence and power. He has given us gifts, and they are meant to bless others. He will produce fruit that is meant for the good of others. And His power will result in good deeds being done by us – giving ample evidence that our faith is real.

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

 

The Power of the Spirit

17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. – Romans 14:17-19 ESV

13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

14 I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another. – Romans 15:13-14 ESV

Remember what Jesus said to His disciples just prior to His ascension: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” (Acts 1:8 ESV). Luke records that Jesus promised that they would receive power and that power would be a result of the Holy Spirit’s coming. The Greek word for power is dynamis and, as you can see, it is where we get our word for “dynamite.” According to the Outline of Biblical Usage, it is “inherent power, power residing in a thing by virtue of its nature, or which a person or thing exerts and puts forth.” It can also mean the power to perform miracles.

When we consider the kind of power the disciples were to receive, we tend to associate it with that second meaning, the miraculous power to perform miracles. Why? Because we remember what happened that day in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit descended upon the disciples gathered in the upper room. Luke describes it for us:

…suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. – Acts 2:2-4 ESV

And this extraordinary phenomena did not go unnoticed.

…at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one was hearing them speak in his own language. And they were amazed and astonished… – Acts 2:6-7 ESV

The crowds that gathered were blown away by what they saw and heard because they immediately recognized that the disciples were Galileans. This prompted them to ask, “how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language?” (Acts 2:8 ESV).

We read this story and can’t help but associate the power of the Spirit with the miracle of speaking in tongues. And we are right to do so. But, at the same time, we tend to miss an important part of Luke’s record of the events of that day. While it’s only natural to focus on the miraculous nature of the disciples’ Spirit-empowered tongues-speaking, Luke wants us to consider what they were saying, not just how they were saying it.

“…we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” – Acts 2:11-12 ESV

There is no doubt that a miracle had taken place. Luke makes that point perfectly clear by providing a list of all the different ethnic groups represented whose languages were spoken by this small group of Galilean disciples. There were Parthians, Medes, and Elamites. There were residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phrygia, Pamphylia, Egypt, and Libya. Not only that, there were visitors from as far away as Rome, the island of Crete and the region of Arabia.

This was a bonafide, Spirit-empowered miracle. But the point behind the miracle was the declaration of the mighty works of God. All of the people who gathered heard the wonders of God proclaimed in their own native tongue. And Luke notes, “all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?”” (Acts 2:12 ESV).

This obvious miracle had a not-so-obvious intent. It had gathered a crowd and had garnered attention. Not only that, it had raised the level of curiosity among those who saw and heard “the mighty works of God.” And Peter, under the power of the Holy Spirit, took advantage of the opportunity and addressed the crowd, sharing with them the good news concerning Jesus Christ. And Luke records that when Peter was finished, they were “cut to the heart” and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37 ESV).

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38 ESV).

And Luke points out that the real miracle that day was not the disciples speaking in tongues, but the conversion of thousands of sinners into saints.

So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. – Acts 2:41 ESV

Jesus promised power, and that promise was fulfilled in stunning fashion. But that day was to be one day among many yet to come. The Spirit of God was far from finished. And much of His work would prove to be far less flamboyant and spectacular.

Which brings us to Paul’s message to the believers in Rome recorded in chapter 14 of Romans. He has had to address an issue taking place within the local congregation in Rome. There were some disputes taking place between believers over what we might call “grey areas.” The church was made up of people from all walks of life, social strata, income levels, and religious backgrounds. There were Jews who had converted to Christianity and Gentiles who had turned from paganism to faith in Christ. And, like any other church, it was made up of believers of varying degrees of spiritual maturity.

The church in Rome had become a social, economic, racial, and religious melting pot. And, to a certain degree, it had become a spiritual petri dish where the Christian life was lived out, and the indwelling power of the Spirit was fleshed out in tangible and somewhat pedestrian ways.

Paul is addressing certain behaviors and personal beliefs that were causing conflict within the church. There were debates taking place over which foods were acceptable for Christians to eat. This had to do with meat sacrificed to pagan idols, which was often sold in the marketplace. The more mature believers were arguing that, since there was no such thing as a false god, because alone is God, the meat was perfectly fine for consumption. But the less-mature believers, many of whom had a pagan religious background, found the eating of this meat to be offensive – a kind of tacit approval of the false god to whom it was sacrificed. There were other conflicts brewing in the church as well, including arguments over which days were to be considered sacred and set apart as holy. These debates were dividing the church, and this led Paul to ask, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother?” (Romans 14:10 ESV).

For Paul, the real issue was selfishness and self-centeredness. Each group was judging the other based on their own particular viewpoint. So, Paul gave them a sternly worded command: “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Romans 14:13 ESV).

These people were worrying about and arguing over which food was proper to eat and which day was right for worship. But, in doing so, they were failing to love one another. Each had made the issue about themselves. Their personal viewpoint had become sacred, and the unity of the body of Christ has become secondary. Which is what led Paul to say, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

Don’t miss that last part of Paul’s statement. “Righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is not to be viewed as some kind of disembodied force that provides power for performing crowd-gathering miracles. He is the Spirit of God who dwells within the people of God so that they might express the righteousness, peace, and joy that come from God. And the forum for living this out is within the family of God.

In the very next chapter of his letter, Paul expands on his call for corporate unity through the power of the indwelling Spirit.

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself…  – Romans 15:1-3 ESV

He uses Jesus Himself as an example of what it looks like to please your neighbor for his good and to build him up. Even Jesus explained His ministry in terms of selfless service, not self-centeredness.

“…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Matthew 20:28 ESV

It was Paul’s heartfelt desire that the believers in Rome live in Spirit-empowered unity.  He knew there was no other way they could pull it off. The true miracle of the church is that it exists at all. It is a work of God. Which is why Paul asked God to unify the Roman believers and provide them the resources they needed to glorify Him together.

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. – Romans 15:5-6 ESV

And how does God do this? Through His indwelling Spirit. Paul makes that point clear when he prays yet again: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”

The power of the Spirit is intended to transform our lives. The third person of the Trinity exists to radically alter the lives of those who have placed their faith in Christ and whom God has placed within the body of Christ. Our unity will not be the result of human effort, but the power of the Spirit.

It’s interesting to note how Luke records the gathering of the disciples in the upper room on the day of Pentecost. He writes, “When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1 ESV). On closer inspection, we find that the term “all together” carries far more significance than we might think. Luke used the Greek word, homothymadon, which means “with one mind, with one accord, with one passion.” The disciples were of like mind. They had unity of purpose. They had been told by Jesus to return to Jerusalem, where they were to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit. And it was in that state of unity, accord, and like-minded passion, that the power of God came upon them. 

They were transformed and, as a result, the world was forever changed. The power of the Spirit isn’t about external miracles but about the transformation of lives and the miraculous, mysterious formation of the body of Christ.

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

 

The Fruit of the Spirit

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. – Galatians 5:122-26 ESV

12 So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. – Romans 8:12-14 ESV

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul prayed that their knowledge and understanding of their newfound position in Christ would deepen so that their love for one another would continue to grow. He knew that their capacity to love was directly tied to their comprehension of the love, mercy, and grace God had showered on them. And Paul assured them that, because of their relationship with Christ, they had a new ability to make wise life choices, that would result in them being “pure and blameless for the day of Christ” (Philippians 1:10 ESV). Paul was not promising them sinless perfection in this life, but he was assuring them that they could live in obedience to the will of God, and exhibit “the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:11 ESV).

But how? What was going to transform these former sin-enslaved pagans into pure and blameless saints who know how to live discerningly, wisely, and lovingly?

It was the indwelling Spirit of God, the “helper” or advocate Jesus Himself had promised. Jesus had assured His followers that, with His departure, the Holy Spirit would come to dwell with them and in them, providing them with all the help they needed to complete the commission He would give them.

“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” – John 14:26 ESV

The Spirit was going to be their personal advocate, but that doesn’t imply some kind of subservient, Genie-in-a-bottle kind of role. He would continue what Jesus had been doing in their lives for the last three-and-a-half years, teaching, training, and discipling them. And Jesus later told them, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13 ESV). Not only that, when they found themselves in times of difficulty and facing extreme opposition, Jesus assured them, “the Holy Spirit will teach you what you should say” (Luke 12:12 BSB).

The Spirit was not to be viewed as some kind of add-on or perk to be used like a valet or personal assistant. He wasn’t going to be their servant, but He would be a source of divine power, enabling them to live out their salvation in supernatural, yet fully tangible ways. Paul describes this as the “fruit of righteousness” and its presence in the life of a believer brings glory and praise to God, because He is its ultimate source. 

And this fruit of righteousness is not ethereal and other-worldly. It’s practical and personal, expressing itself in ways that impact the lives of those around us. Look at Paul’s list in Galatians 5. The fruit of the Spirit shows up as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Every one of those things is other-oriented. They are designed to benefit others, not ourselves. Yet, we tend to think of the Holy Spirit as existing for our good pleasure. We view Him as some kind of life-enhancement coach whose sole purpose is to make our existence as easy and enjoyable as possible. 

But Paul insists that the fruit of the Spirit is not intended for us. It is produced in us by the Spirit for the sole purpose of benefiting those around us. There’s no doubt that we benefit from the Spirit’s presence within us, but if we attempt to over-personalize His purpose for indwelling us, we will fail to appreciate the fruit He wants to produce through us. God didn’t place His Spirit within you so that you would love yourself more. The Spirit enables you to love self less and others more. He produces joy in you, but that joy is not to fixate on you. It’s a joy that exists regardless of the circumstances and brings comfort to others as they watch you rejoice in the face of difficulty. Paul insisted that God “comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us” (2 Corinthians 1:4 NLT).

Paul says that the Holy Spirit produces the fruit of peace in you, not so you can have a peaceful, problem-free life, but so that you might live in peace with others. The Spirit miraculously produces patience in you, enabling you to express that patience to those around you – especially to those who test your patience.

The fruit of the Spirit is designed by God to bless others. It is not intended to benefit the fruit-bearer. An apple tree receives no personal benefit from the apples is bears. It is simply doing what it was created by God to do. And as Jesus told His disciples, “When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father” (John 15:8 NLT). Our fruitfulness, made possible by the Spirit’s presence within us, benefits those around us and demonstrates Christ’s redemption of us. 

Our fruitfulness is a byproduct of our relationship with Christ. Because we placed our faith in Him, He placed His Spirit in us. And His Spirit produces His fruit in us so that Christlikeness might from flow from us. The key is that we must recognize the Spirit’s presence in us and understand His purpose for producing His fruit through us. He is the only reason we can live godly lives. He is the only source we have for living out our identity in Christ, allowing us to live as “children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world” (Philippians 2:15 ESV).

But fruit-bearing requires abiding. As Jesus told His disciples, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5 NLT). And the means by which we remain in Christ is through the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God. He is the key to our fruitfulness. He is the key to our faithfulness. It is when we willingly allow Him to lead us that His fruit begins to flow up from us. Our acknowledgment of His presence and submission to His power allows us to enjoy the blessing of being fruitful. It also provides us with a much-needed reminder that apart from Jesus and the Spirit of God, we can do nothing. But because of them, all things are possible.

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

 

The Mind of the Spirit

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. – Galatians 5:16-18 ESV

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. – Romans 8:5-10 ESV

Living water. That’s how Jesus described the ministry of the Spirit in the life of the believer. He told His disciples that whoever believed in Him would have “rivers of living water” flow from his heart. And John makes it clear that this rather obscure reference was to the coming Holy Spirit. 

Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. – John 7:39 ESV

Prior to His death and resurrection, Jesus spent a great deal of time attempting to prepare His disciples for His eventual departure. On numerous ocassions He warned them that He was going to Jerusalem where He would be put to death. His disciples had a difficult time accepting these dire predictions because they didn’t fit their understanding of the Messiah’s role. At one point, Peter even rebuked Jesus for saying such things, telling Him, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:23 ESV). 

Peter didn’t understand the significance of Jesus’ death. The idea of Jesus being the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world had escaped Peter and his companions. And, while Jesus had repeatedly spoken of His death and His resurrection, the disciples remained fixated on the idea of Jesus setting up His earthly kingdom in their lifetimes. They were eagerly waiting for Him to enter Jerusalem and present Himself as the long-awaited Messiah and King of the Jews. But Jesus continually pointed them to the necessity of His death, resurrection, and ascension. He even told them that they would be better off without Him.

“I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” – John 16:7 ESV

Whether they understood it or not, and regardless of whether they liked it or not, Jesus was going to leave them. But He assured then that He would not abandon them. He would send them a helper or advocate. The Greek word is paraklētos, and it refers to one who comes alongside to provide aid. And Jesus assured His disciples that this helper, intercessor, or advocate would not only come alongside them, but dwell within them.

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” – John 14:16-17 ESV

And Jesus wanted His followers to know that the Spirit was going to be a gift from the Father. His role would be to give testify through their lives as to the veracity of who Jesus was and what He had done on their behalf. In other words, the Spirit was going to be a witness to the reality of the gospel message.

“But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.” – John 15:26 ESV

His presence within the life of the believer would provide tangible proof that the salvation message offered by Jesus was reliable. When Jesus had said that He came to provide abundant life, He had meant it, and the Spirit would prove it. The disciples would discover that the key to them living in Christ’s absence would be the reality of the Spirit’s presence. The Spirit would be a game-changer, providing them with power beyond anything they had ever seen or experienced before. And while the disciples had already experienced the thrill of performing miracles and casting out demons, they had something even greater in store for them. Jesus had even told the disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:12-14 ESV).

Think about that. Consider carefully what Jesus said to the disciples. He told them that they would do greater works than He had done. That had to have blown them away. But it probably left them a little bit excited as they thought about the prospects of all that it might mean. But it’s important to keep these words within their context, because immediately after making this promise, Jesus told them: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever” (John 14:16 ESV). 

The Spirit was going to be the key to their success. He would be the source of those “greater works.” And just so we don’t overlook the obvious, one of the greatest works the Holy Spirit makes possible is the miraculous transformation of a sinner into a saint. He provides the power for those who were once slaves to sin to live in freedom, fully capable of living in obedience to the will of God. That is Paul’s primary point in Galatians 5 and Romans 8. The believer can walk or live his life by the Spirit, and by doing so, no longer live in captivity to his old sin nature. And the reason the believer can live differently is because the Spirit equips him to think differently.

Paul describes two options. The first is to set the mind on the flesh. The other is to set the mind on the Spirit. One leads to death, while the other leads to life and peace. But what does he mean by “to set the mind on”? He used the Greek word, phronēma, which refers to one’s thoughts and purposes. It has to do with a person’s mindset or way of thinking about things. So, Paul is saying we can be flesh-minded or Spirit-minded. We can view life through our own natural, sin-contaminated disposition or we can have a godly perspective made possible through the presence of God’s Spirit.

To live according to our flesh is to live as we used to – in open hostility toward God. When we set our minds on ourselves, thinking we can somehow live righteous lives in our own strength, we end up living in opposition to God, not in reliance upon Him. We live with the mistaken impression that we can somehow earn a right standing with God through our own efforts. And when we do so, we devalue the sacrifice of Christ. We make the sufficiency of His death null and void, an unnecessary expenditure of life. If we can make ourselves righteous, Jesus didn’t need to die.

But Paul would have us remember that “no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are” (Romans 3:20 NLT). Law keeping is not wrong or sinful, but it can become so if we think it can lead to a right standing with God. Paul emphasized that point to the believers in Galatia.

…we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law. – Galatians 2:16 NLT

We have been made right with God through the efforts of Jesus Christ. His work on the cross made possible God’s declaration that we are righteous in His eyes. And it is His Spirit within us that makes possible our ability to live righteously in this life. The Spirit’s presence within us makes Christ’s righteousness available to us. We can think as Christ did. We can live as He did. All because the Spirit of God lives within us.

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

 

Living Water

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” – John 4:10-14 ESV

37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. – John 7:37-39 ESV

What is the key to living the Christian life? That’s an age-old question that has garnered a wide range of answers over the centuries. Even within the 1st-Century in which Jesus lived and died, the early church found itself debating and disagreeing over this question, even though the disciples of Jesus had been given the answer by Jesus and had experienced evidence of its veracity at Pentecost.

Just minutes before His ascension into heaven, Jesus had told His disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV).

After hearing this somewhat cryptic promise from the lips of Jesus, the disciples had watched Jesus ascend into heaven, and then they returned to Jerusalem where they waited for the proof of Jesus’ promise. And they didn’t have to wait long.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. – Acts 2:1-4 ESV

Luke goes on to record the incredible results of that filling. Yes, they spoke in languages they didn’t know but, more importantly, they spoke with a power and boldness they hadn’t formerly possess. Peter, the one who had distinguished himself by denying he  even knew Jesus, now found himself fearlessly proclaiming the truth of the gospel to anyone who would listen. He spoke with a clarity and boldness that, no doubt, surprised him and shocked his fellow disciples. And it was all in keeping with the promise Jesus had made to them. He had told them that, when the time came and they found themselves standing in the synagogues and before rulers and authorities, “the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what needs to be said” (Luke 12:12 NLT).

And Jesus had made it clear that their words would not be their own.

“For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” – Matthew 10:20 NLT

Again, Luke points out that the disciples were able to speak in languages they didn’t know because “the Holy Spirit gave them this ability” (Acts 2:4 NLT).

And just a few days later, Peter and John found themselves under arrest and standing before “the council of all the rulers and elders and teachers of religious law” (Acts 4:5 NLT). The Jewish high priest had these two men dragged before him and questioned them, “By what power, or in whose name, have you done this?” (Acts 4:7 NLT). And Luke records, “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…” (Acts 4:8 NLT).

As the book of Acts unfolds, we are provided with repeated proof of the Spirit’s presence and power in the lives of the disciples. The disciples, and all those who were coming to faith in Jesus, were displaying evidence of Jesus’ words: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38 ESV).

They were exhibiting never-before-seen evidence of the powerful transformation that had taken place when the Spirit had taken up residence within them. These men and women had been radically changed. They were not who they had been before. And the Spirit’s impact on their lives was, as Jesus had described it, like “living water.” It was zaō, a Greek word that means “alive.” This was not stagnant, standing water, like that found in a roadside ditch or a man-made cistern. It was living, vibrant, life-giving water that flowed freely and abundantly. And, as Jesus had promised, it flowed “out” of the heart, refreshing all those with whom it came into contact.

The Spirit’s presence within the disciples was not just life-transformative for them, but for all those around them. Others were impacted by the Spirit’s presence within them. Like a spring flowing from a hidden source, the Spirit poured out of the disciples and nourished the lives of others. The power of God, in the form of the indwelling Spirit of God, flowed from the followers of Christ and impacted the world in which they lived.

As Jesus had told the crowds who had gathered to hears His sermon on the mount: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6 BSB). The disciples had been filled to overflowing, and now the power of the Spirit within them was spilling out and refreshing all those around them. It’s interesting to note that Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are not inwardly-focused qualities. They are not intended to bless the one from whom they flow. No, they are meant to flow out and touch the lives of others. Self-love is not a fruit of the Spirit. Joy that focuses on one’s own happiness is not the fruit of the Spirit. The presence of peace in the absence of others is not peace at all, it’s selfish isolation and, most certainly, not the fruit of the Spirit. The kind of patience that fades away as soon as others show up is fake fruit.

Take a look at all the fruit mentioned by Paul. They are intended for the good of others. Which brings us back to our original question: What is the key to living the Christian life? Obviously, it’s the presence of the Holy Spirit. He is the power source. He is fountain from which the living water flows. And He exists in us in order that He might flow out from us.

When we think about living the Christian life, we tend to place all our emphasis on us. In other words, we focus on what we can get out of it. But God would have us consider what He desires to flow from us. The Christian life is not intended to be me-focused. It is not supposed to be some myopic, me-centered quest for personal gain, comfort, and satisfaction. The abundant life Jesus promised was not a guarantee of our best life now. No, it was the promise of thirst-quenching, life-giving, power flowing from within us and pouring out from us to all those around us.

Over in the book of Isaiah, there is a powerful invitation extended from the lips of God.

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” – Isaiah 55:1 ESV

He invites the thirsty to come to Him and find refreshment. Earlier in the same book, God had promised His wayward people that salvation was available to them, if they would only come to Him in repentance. If and when they did, He promised them, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3 ESV). The could find living water, but they had to come to the source.

And the amazing thing is that God has chosen to place that living water inside each and every one of His children. We have the Spirit, the water of life, living within us. And God intends for that life-giving water to flow from us to all those around us – to believers and non-believers alike. What’s the key to living the Christian life? The Spirit of God. But a better question might be: What’s the purpose of the Christian life? And the answer would be found in the words of Jesus.

“Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” – John 7:38 ESV

Our very existence as followers of Christ is so that the same life-giving power that filled us and quenched our spiritual thirst, will flow from us and bring refreshment to the lives of those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. And it shows up in the form of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

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

 

But As For You…

11 But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13 I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, 14 to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15 which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. – 1 Timothy 6:11-16 ESV

Flee. Pursue. Fight. Take hold. Keep.

In just six short verses, Paul provides his young protégé, Timothy, with at least five imperatives or commands. And at least one of those commands includes six subsets or categories. Paul warns Timothy to run for his life, getting as far away as he can from false doctrine because it can lead to conceit, controversy, and unproductive quarreling over words. And those things will be produce jealousy, division, slander, and evil suspicions (1 Timothy 6:4-5 NLT). 

But it wasn’t enough that Timothy avoid false teaching like the plague. In running from the negative, Timothy was to run toward the positive. Paul tells him to “pursue righteousness and a godly life, along with faith, love, perseverance, and gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11 NLT). That word “pursue” is diōkō in the Greek and it means “to run after.” It pictures a runner in a race who is actively pressing on toward the finish line. Paul used this imagery in his first letter to the Corinthians.

Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win! – 1 Corinthians 9:24 NLT

He used the very same illustration when writing to the believers in Philippi. In fact, in this passage he uses the very same Greek word: diōkō.

I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on [diōkō] 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 [diōkō] 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

Paul wanted Timothy to run from one thing and run towards something else in its place. And Paul was quite specific about what Timothy was to pursue or press on toward: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness. Those qualities or characteristics were to be Timothy’s end goal. But was Paul telling Timothy to achieve these things? Was he commanding his young brother in the faith to somehow increase these qualities in his life? Probably not. Because Paul told the Corinthians, “because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Paul wasn’t demanding that Timothy make himself more righteous or godly. He wasn’t suggesting that Timothy could or should increase his faith, ramp up his capacity to love, grow in his ability to persevere, or improve the degree of his gentleness.

But there is always a risk when we come across a passage like this. We read those commands from the pen of Paul and we immediately begin to think in terms of self-effort. We hear Paul telling us to flee, pursue, fight, take hold, and keep. It’s a list and we tend to like lists because they provide us with tangible, measurable and, for the most part, achievable objectives for which to strive. Lists trigger the built-in performance mindset that exists in each and every one of us.

But is that Paul’s point? Is he really telling Timothy to achieve? It’s important to note that Paul refers to Timothy as a “man of God.” He doesn’t call him a man of God in the making or a work in process. No, he addresses Timothy as who he is: a man of God, and then he gives him five commands:

…flee these things

…pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness

…fight the good fight of the faith

…take hold of the eternal life to which you were called

…keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach

And Timothy is to do these things “until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, they are to be lifelong objectives or goals. But why? Because they are God’s goals for us. He has sanctified us or set us apart that we might reflect His image as we live in the power of His Spirit and exhibit the new nature He has made possible through His Son’s death on the cross.

Paul is not providing us with a to-do list of religious exercises to perform in order to improve our spiritual health. He is not asking us to become something we are not. He addressed Timothy as a man of God for a reason. Timothy was a man of God. And Paul wanted him to live as who he was. But to do so was going to entail a change of focus, a new way of Timothy seeing himself. Paul emphasized this new perception to the believers in Corinth.

Those who indulge in sexual sin, or who worship idols, or commit adultery, or are male prostitutes, or practice homosexuality, or are thieves, or greedy people, or drunkards, or are abusive, or cheat people—none of these will inherit the Kingdom of God. Some of you were once like that. But you were cleansed; you were made holy; you were made right with God by calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 NLT

Paul provided a similar reminder to Titus, addressing the change that takes place in the life of a believer and the need to view embrace a radically different perspective.

Once we, too, were foolish and disobedient. We were misled and became slaves to many lusts and pleasures. Our lives were full of evil and envy, and we hated each other.

But—

When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Because of his grace he made us right in his sight and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life.  – Titus 3:3-7 NLT

It is not that we have no role to play in the process. But where we tend to focus all our attention on activities to be performed, Paul would have us recognize the radical transformation that has been provided for us by God.  He saved us. He washed away our sins. He gave us new birth and new life. He poured out His Spirit. He made us right in His sign. And He gave us the confidence that eternal life is ours, not because of anything we do, but because of who we are in Christ.

Our natural tendency is to look for something we can do to earn God’s favor. We’re performance-driven, rewards-oriented creatures who are hard-wired for self-achievement. And while Paul had a type-A, driven personality, he also confessed, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13 ESV). Paul prayed on behalf of the Colossian believers that they would be strengthened with all power, according to his [Jesus] glorious might” (Colossians1:11 ESV). And Paul was happy to boast about his own weaknesses and insufficiencies so, as he put it, “the power of Christ can work through me” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV).

The Christian life involves effort. But there is no place for earning. It requires energy on our part but, more than anything else, it demands a new way of seeing ourselves. We are children of God. We are filled with the Spirit of God and, as a result, have the power to…

…flee these things

…pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness

…fight the good fight of the faith

…take hold of the eternal life to which you were called

…keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach

Not in our own strength or according to our own effort. Not for our own glory or in order to earn God’s favor. But in total dependence upon Him and in full recognition that, as Paul put it, “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 ESV). So, by all means, flee, pursue, fight, take hold, and keep. But do so because of who you are, not because of what you hope to become.

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

 

If You Love Me…

15 If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” – John 14:15-21 ESV

Jesus has been discussing some significant issues with His disciples. As the day for His crucifixion drew closer, He had begun intensifying His efforts to prepare these men for His departure. He wanted them to know what was coming. Jesus knew that His words would make no sense to His disciples, because they were still living with their own concept of who He was and why He had come. To them, He was still the long-awaited Messiah who had come to set up His kingdom on earth. Any hope they had of Israel being restored to prominence and the Romans being removed from power was tied to their concept of Jesus as Messiah.

But everything Jesus was saying and doing in these last days was creating confusion and concern among them. At supper, Jesus had surprised them by assuming the role of a household servant and washing their feet. And He followed this shocking display of humility with the words: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15 ESV).

His call to follow His example was accompanied by the reminder that “a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:16 ESV). If He, as their rabbi, teacher, and Messiah, had been willing to humble Himself and serve them, what right did they have to see themselves as somehow exempt from such lowly service? Jesus was sharing important truths with His disciples that He fully expected them to hear and obey.

If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” – John 13:17 ESV

Immediately after this exchange, Jesus had revealed that one of them would betray Him. And Judas, having been exposed by the Lord, had left the upper room to follow through with his prearranged plans to turn over Jesus to the religious leaders.

Jesus, knowing that His Father’s divine plan was in full motion and the time for His death was drawing near, told His remaining disciples, “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. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35 ESV).

Jesus seems to have picked an odd time to discuss this particular topic. He had just told them that His remaining time with them would be short. He would soon be leaving them, and they would be unable to accompany Him to His destination. This shocked and saddened them, and prompted Peter to ask where it was that Jesus was going. And Jesus informed him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward” (John 13:36 ESV). Peter, always quick to speak his mind, declared that not only was he willing to follow Jesus, but he was also ready to lay down his life for Him. But Jesus prophesied that Peter, rather than dying for Him, would actually deny Him, three times.

Do you see a pattern here? Jesus was talking about the future, while the disciples were stuck in the present. They couldn’t see past the moment in which they lived, and yet Jesus was thinking about the glory to come. That’s why He had told them, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once” (John 13:31-32 ESV).

Jesus had been sent by His Father to pay the penalty for the sins of mankind and to make it possible for the justly condemned to be released from their condemnation and restored to a right relationship with Himself. But not only that, Jesus’ act of sacrificial obedience was going make it possible for unrighteous men and women to live truly righteous lives. No pretense. No pretending. No hypocritical displays of self-righteousness. What Jesus was about to do was going to be a game-changer. Better yet, it was going to be a life-changer for His disciples.

It is essential that we understand the timing of Jesus’ words. Everything recorded in this portion of John’s gospel is prior to the cross and long before the resurrection. Jesus was speaking of things to come. And while the news He was sharing sounded grim to His disciples, He encouraged them, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1 ESV). Jesus knew that they were struggling with disbelief and doubt. None of what He was saying made any sense to them. But He called them to believe. He assured them that He was going to prepare a place for them and that one day He would return for them. But Thomas, speaking on behalf of the other disciples, expressed his confusion over where it was that Jesus was going. They didn’t know the way. So, Jesus told him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV). 

Notice what Jesus is doing here. Thomas was asking about directions to a destination. and Jesus pointed Him to God. Thomas was focused on a point on a map, but Jesus was pointing Him to a relationship. Thomas couldn’t stop thinking about where, but Jesus was attempting to shift their focus to who. And Jesus reveals a powerful truth concerning these men who had followed Him for more than three years.

“If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” – John 14:7 ESV

They had seen Jesus perform miracles. They had heard Him speak, marveling at His wisdom and wrestling over the meaning of His parables. But Jesus reveals that they had not yet understood His relationship with the Father. While at one point Peter had confessed, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16 ESV), he had not fully understood the weight of his own words. He had seen Jesus as a messenger from God, even as the long-awaited Christ or Messiah, but he had not understood Jesus to be the one who would reconcile sinful men to God. Peter and the disciples had not yet grasped the true nature of Jesus’ earthly ministry. But in time, they would.

Jesus was going out of His way to help the disciples understand His relationship with the Father. He asked them, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:10 ESV). Jesus was trying to convey to them the unity He enjoyed with God. His coming had not been about establishing an earthly kingdom, but about re-establishing man’s broken relationship with God. And He wanted them to understand that He was the key to that reconciliation taking place.

“Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me…” – John 14:11 ESV

It was His union with the Father that was going to make possible mankind’s reunion with their Creator. The disciples were still under the impression that their relationship with God was perfectly fine. But Jesus was revealing that His whole earthly ministry had been about the reconciliation of sinful men with a holy God.

And that brings us to chapter 14. Look carefully and closely at Jesus words. Consider all that He has communicated to His disciples up to this point. And then think about the import of His statement: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

What a punch to the gut that must have been to His disciples. It had to have sounded like He was questioning their love for Him. And it must have come across to them as if He was tying their love for Him to their obedience to Him. In other words, their behavior, as evidenced by their obedience, would the proof of their love. And sadly, that is how most of still interpret Jesus’ words. We hear Jesus saying that our obedience to His commands will prove that we love Him. And our disobedience will demonstrate that we don’t. But is that what Jesus is saying?

Jesus was letting His disciples know that the kind of obedience He was looking for was beyond their capability to pull off. They didn’t have it within them. But they soon would. Because He was going to provide them with the capacity to love and obey. Don’t miss how Jesus follows up His question, “If you love me…”

“I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.” – John 14:16-17 ESV

Their ability to love God had been marred by sin. Their capacity to obey God had been damaged by the fall. And Jesus had come to remedy that problem. His death was going to be the ultimate display of God’s love for sinful mankind and His selfless sacrifice would be the key for men being able to love in return. Take a look at the words of John, written long after Jesus’ death and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. – 1 John 2:3-6 NLT

Don’t miss what John says: “In him (the one who keeps God’s commandments) truly the love of God is perfected.” It is God’s love for us that allows us to obey. It is God’s love, as displayed in His Son’s sacrificial death, that made it possible for sinful men and women to be transformed into loving, caring children of God, who not only have the capacity to love Him, but one another. And to live in willful obedience to His commands.

By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome. – 1 John 5:2-3 ESV

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

 

No Condemnation

1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. – Romans 8:1-11 ESV

No condemnation. Let those two words sink in.

Don’t allow yourself to blow past them by treating them with that brand of apathy that so often accompanies over-familiarity. Many of us have read this passage so many times that it no longer carries any meaning for us. But if you keep in mind all that Paul has said in the first seven chapters of his letter to the Romans, the words, “no condemnation” should carry much greater significance for us.

Paul opened his letter with the sobering words: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18 ESV). The truth they suppressed was God’s revelation of Himself through creation. People had no excuse for refusing to acknowledge God because He had made Himself visible and knowable through all that He had made. But mankind chose to ignore God. And Paul states that “since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done” (Romans 1:28 ESV). And Paul provides a less-than-flattering list of the things they did that “ought not to be done.” It includes every kind of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, slander, insolence, pride, disobedience, foolishness, faithlessness, and gossiping. And in chapter two, Paul drops the bombshell that “the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things” (Romans 2:2 ESV). And just so there’s no question as to what Paul means by judgment, he states, “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil” (Romans 2:9 ESV).

So, who does evil? According to Paul, everyone. There is no one who will escape God’s judgment because all stand before God as guilty.

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” – Romans 3:10-12 ESV

No one will escape God’s judgment, because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV). And just so we understand what that judgment entails, Paul tells us: “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV).

Now, look at those two words again: No condemnation.

Those who are in Christ Jesus are no longer under God’s righteous and just condemnation. Which means that His judgment of guilt, which brings with it a mandatory penalty of death, has been lifted. We stand before God, the judge of the universe, as those who are no longer condemned because of our sin. But why? Is it because we got our proverbial act together? Has God removed our guilty sentence because we have somehow reversed our behavior and made ourselves more acceptable in His sight? Of course not.

Paul’s whole point is that we stand uncondemned because we are in Christ. At one point, we stood before God as His enemies, but “we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son” (Romans 5:10 ESV). We were made right with God, not because of anything we did to earn or deserve it, but because of what Jesus did on our behalf.

We now enjoy “peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 5:1 ESV). His death paid the penalty for our sin. He gave His life in our place, presenting Himself as the sacrificial substitute who took away the sins of the world. And His death was necessary because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV).

His death on our behalf has provided release from condemnation, complete forgiveness of sin, reconciliation with God, and the promise of eternal life instead of eternal judgment.

But what does this have to do with sanctification? Everything. Notice how Paul links our release from condemnation to our freedom from the law of sin and death. That word “freedom” is vitally important to understanding what it means to stand as uncondemned before God. Our release from condemnation was not temporary or limited to a point in time. We weren’t released for a moment and then left to live under the threat of future condemnation. And yet, that is how many of us view the Christian life. We live under the constant fear of falling back under God’s condemnation based on what we do or don’t do. In other words, we see our behavior as the determiner of our status before God. And in doing so, we display a flawed understanding of what it means to stand uncondemned before God.

But look closely at what Paul says:

By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he [God] condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. – Romans 8:3-4 ESV

Back in chapter three, Paul told us the sobering news that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20 ESV). No one can be made right with God through adherence to the law. Why? Because the law was designed to make man aware of God’s holy requirements. It told us what God expected, but had no power to assist us in living up to those expectations. Like a speed limit sign on the side of the road, the law displayed God’s expectations and condemned our violation of them. It couldn’t make us obey, but it could expose us when we failed to do so.

But Paul says there is a new law at work in our lives. He describes it as “the law of the Spirit of life.” When we hear the word, “law,” we tend to think in terms of restrictions and binding requirements that keep us from doing what we want to do. But the Greek word Paul uses is nómos, and it has a much broader and more pleasant meaning behind it. According to Strong’s Concordance, it is derived from the Greek word “νέμω némō (to parcel out, especially food or grazing to animals). The law was intended to be prescriptive, not restrictive. The Mosaic law had benefits. It gave directions for life and provided God’s prescribed way for living in unbroken fellowship with Him. In the 23rd Psalm, David describes this prescriptive nature of God’s law. “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Psalm 23:1-3 ESV). Through the law, God guided, directed, and protected His people. But the law was weakened by man’s flesh or sin nature. Man couldn’t follow willingly or obediently.

So when Paul speaks of “the law of the Spirit of life,” he is telling us that God has provided us with a new way to live in fellowship with Him. “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:3-4 ESV). The key is the last phrase in these verses. We are to walk according to the Spirit, not the flesh. We are to live our lives in obedience to and dependence upon the Spirit of God. He is the nómos or prescribed way to live in fellowship with and obedience to God. And Paul provides us with a vivid contrast of the choice that lies before us each and every day as God’s children. “Those who are dominated by the sinful nature think about sinful things, but those who are controlled by the Holy Spirit think about things that please the Spirit. So letting your sinful nature control your mind leads to death. But letting the Spirit control your mind leads to life and peace. For the sinful nature is always hostile to God. It never did obey God’s laws, and it never will. That’s why those who are still under the control of their sinful nature can never please God” (Romans 8:5-8 NLT). 

Our sinful nature is alive and active. But we are no longer slaves to it. We have been set free from its control. We now have the Spirit of God also living within us, providing us with direction for living a God-honoring life and the power to accomplish it. But we must choose to live under His control and not our own. We must submit to His leadership. We must desire what He desires and long for those things that He has determined as best for us. But in his letter to the Galatian believers, Paul reminds us of the constant battle going on within us. “The sinful nature wants to do evil, which is just the opposite of what the Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are the opposite of what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other…” (Galatians 5:17 NLT). If we try to please God through our flesh, we will fail. But if we live our lives in dependence upon the Spirit of God, His prescribed means of living a godly life, we will experience life, peace, joy, contentment, and the transformation of our lives into the likeness of Christ. And no threat of condemnation.

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

 

His Grace Is Sufficient

On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:5-10 ESV

When we speak of sanctification, we typically frame the discussion in terms of spiritual growth or maturity. We tend to use terminology that conveys the idea of progress or of an incremental increase in our spirituality from one degree to another. We talk of becoming more like Christ, of increasing in our faith, or of growing in godliness. And there is ample biblical evidence to support this kind of language.

But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 3:18 ESV

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 1:5-8 ESV

Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation – 1 Peter 2:2 ESV

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. – Ephesians 4:15 ESV

The concept of spiritual growth is indeed biblical, but we tend to read these verses with a modern mindset that has been heavily influenced by the American work ethic. What do I mean by that? It’s really quite simple. We read the Bible through the lens of our pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps view of achievement and success. We even throw in biblical-sounding phrases like, “God helps those who help themselves.” This well-worn bromide has become sacred truth in the eyes of many, even though it has no precedence in Scripture. In fact, it is diametrically opposed to the whole concept of grace as found in God’s Word.

But, as western Christians, we have been raised on a steady diet of self-help books that promote autonomy and encourage self-actualization. We are the do-it-yourself generation with an Internet full of how-to videos on virtually any topic just a mouse-click away. With a few helpful tips, we can rebuild an engine or relaunch our careers. We can learn to brew our own beer or open up our own winery. With a little self-effort we can improve our quality of life, increase our income stream, enlarge our network of friends, and even take our spiritual life to a whole new level.

But is that what Paul has in mind in 2 Corinthians 12? I don’t think so. In fact, Paul’s emphasis seems to be on weakness, not strength. His focus is on inadequacy and need, not self-sufficiency and individual sovereignty. Paul was not encouraging the Corinthian believers to help themselves, but to acknowledge their need for God’s grace in their lives. And he used himself as an example.

Paul refers to a man he knew who, fourteen years earlier, had received a vision from God. This man had been allowed to enter into the “third heaven,” a reference to God’s dwelling place.  As a result of this divine vision, this man “heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (2 Corinthians 12:4 ESV). Like the apostle John in the book of Revelation, this individual was given a one-of-a-kind experience that was difficult to put into words. He saw things no other man had ever seen before. And Paul took it upon himself to brag on this man’s behalf. This hadn’t been your average, run-of-the-mill encounter with God. It had been totally supernatural and an undeserved act of God’s grace.

And it becomes clear from the context that this “man” was actually Paul himself. He was speaking in the third-person in order to relate a past event that had experienced, but he didn’t want it to come across as boasting. His intent was not to make himself look better in the eyes of others, but to emphasize the grace of God. The vision had been God’s doing. Paul wasn’t even sure how it happened. He couldn’t tell you whether he was physically transported to heaven or if it had all been some kind of dream. But Paul refers to  “the surpassing greatness of the revelations” and his fear of the experience producing in him a level of conceit or pride. So, he says that “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited” (2 Corinthians 12:7 ESV).

Paul had a mountain-top experience with God, but that was followed by some kind of pride-popping, humility producing “gift” from God to keep his head out of the clouds and concept out of his heart. We aren’t given the nature of this “thorn” but we know that Paul prayed for its removal, not once, but three separate times. And each time Paul prayed, the answer was, “No.” God wanted to keep Paul from focusing his attention on the wrong thing. His heavenly vision, as great as it was, was not be mistaken as a sign of his own godliness. His God-ordained glimpse into glory was not to be understood as God somehow glorifying Paul.

In response to Paul’s request for the thorn removal, God simply said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV). The solution to Paul’s problem was not another vision of heaven or a divine thorn-extraction procedure. No, all Paul needed was grace. The grace of God was fully sufficient. It was grace that had transported an undeserving man into God’s presence. And it was grace that would transform an undeserving man into Christ’s likeness. And that is the bottom line of this passage. Paul’s vision of heavenly glory was not the real miracle. It was God’s power made available to Paul in all his earthly inadequacy. Look closely at what Paul says:

“Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. – 2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV

Paul could have bragged about going to heaven. But he knew the real miracle was that heaven had come to him, in the form of the power of Christ. His weakness had not been a barrier. It had actually been the required condition for the saving power of God to show up. For Paul, weakness was a badge of honor, not a sign of unworthiness. He didn’t view weakness as a deficit to be filled through self-effort and hard work. No, it was a non-debatable reality of who he was, apart from Christ. Which is what leads him to say, “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10 ESV).

Had Paul lived in the 21st-Century, he might have been tempted to seek the latest self-help advice and do-it-yourself tips for improved spiritual strength conditioning. He might have found himself listening to the endless stream of well-meaning voices telling him how to overcome his weakness and embrace his inner warrior. But I doubt it.

Paul was quite at peace with his deficiences because he knew the real source of his strength. He would not allow heavenly visions or pain-producing thorns in the side determine his identity. His weakness was not a sign of unrighteousness or evidence that he was growth-deficient in his spirituality. It was an opportunity to refocus his faith on the grace of God and to reestablish his hope on the power of Christ.

Think about your own life. If you’re like me, you tend to long for those rare moments when heavenly visions give you a glimpse of God’s glory. But they are few and far between. And you also long for God to remove the thorns that bring you pain and leave you feeling weak and ineffective in your spiritual walk.

Paul’s vision of heaven didn’t make him any more spiritual. And the presence of pain and suffering didn’t make him any less spiritual. Escaping earth for heaven is not the point. Avoiding weakness through self-effort is not the goal. It is a realization that heaven came to a fallen earth in the form of the Son of God, and He made divine power available to sin-weakened men and women who recognize that God’s grace is sufficient.

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Philippians 4:11-13 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