The Fatal Flaw of Favoritism

1 My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. 10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it. 11 For he who said, “Do not commit adultery,” also said, “Do not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. 13 For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. James 2:1-13 ESV

James ended the previous section of his letter by inviting his readers to take a long, close look at themselves in the mirror to determine the true nature of their spiritual condition.

For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. – James 1:23-24 NLT

The Word of God requires obedience. Intellectual assent is not enough. Knowledge without application is nothing more than hypocrisy.

…don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. – James 1:22 NLT

So, James provided a practical and timeless illustration of the Word applied to everyday life. He raises the ugly specter of partiality within the body of Christ. And there is an interesting, yet subtle, connection between James’ warnings about practicing partiality and their handling of the trials of life.

Back in chapter one, James mentioned two different groups of people who comprise the church: the rich and the poor.

Believers who are poor have something to boast about, for God has honored them. And those who are rich should boast that God has humbled them. – James 1:9-10 NLT

Now he expands on the potentially contentious relationship between these two disparate groups. Their coexistence within the church is a potential time bomb that threatens to destroy the corporate unity of the fellowship. And, sadly, many of the trials of the less fortunate are due to the inequitable and unjust actions of the wealthy and influential – even within the body of Christ.

There was a common misconception in James’ day that the wealthy were blessed by God. Their affluence was seen as a sign that they had found pleasure with God and had been deemed to be more spiritual. At the same time, poverty was viewed as a curse from God. Despite James’ earlier statement, most people saw no honor in being poor. That condition was to be avoided at all costs. And if you could somehow escape your impoverished circumstances, you should do so without delay.

This errant perspective on wealth and poverty was negatively impacting the health of the local congregation to which James wrote. They were allowing a spirit of unjustified favoritism to influence their daily interactions, and it was motivated by the potential for personal gain. When the church gathered for worship, the wealthy were being treated as first-class citizens and given the best seats in the house – all in the hopes of securing their favor. But James questions the motivation behind their actions.

…how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? – James 2:1 NLT

And he doesn’t sugarcoat his assessment of their problem. Instead, he goes straight to their practice of partiality in worship.

…suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, “You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor”—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives? – James 2:2-4 NLT

James introduces a real problem within the church by presenting it as a thinly veiled hypothetical situation. It’s as if he is saying, “So, for instance, let’s just say a rich man comes into your church and you show him preference over a poor man…”

James isn’t suggesting this scene could happen; he was subtly declaring that it already had. And he declares that this kind of unjustified partiality was motivated by prejudice and pride. They were guilty of judging one another based on an unrighteous standard.

“The form of James’ question in the Greek text expects a positive answer: ‘You have, haven’t you?’ The usher made two errors. First, he showed favoritism because of what the rich man might do for the church if he received preferential treatment. He should have treated everyone graciously, as God does. This reflects a double-minded attitude in the usher, thinking like the world in this case while thinking as God thinks in other respects (1:8).” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on James

The practice of partiality is a form of prejudice. It elevates one individual over another based on a false set of external criteria that have nothing to do with the individual’s true value or worth. Rich people are not inherently more spiritual or worthy of honor. Poor people are not to be treated as second-class citizens simply because their clothes and financial status don’t measure up to some arbitrary social standard.  James was warning his readers that they needed to view one another the same way God does.

When God commissioned the prophet Samuel to find the next king of Israel, He warned His servant not to be taken in by the outer appearance of the candidates.

“Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” – 1 Samuel 16:7 NLT

Just because someone looked like a king didn’t mean he had the attributes necessary to fulfill the role of king. God was more interested in the inner character of the man than any external traits he may have displayed.

But how easy it is to judge one another based on an arbitrary and inconsistent set of standards that have nothing to do with spiritual maturity or holiness. This led James to remind his audience that many of them had come to faith in Christ while in a state of abject poverty. God had chosen to redeem them, not because they were wealthy and influential, but based solely on His grace and mercy.

Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? – James 2:5 NLT

God didn’t reserve salvation for the well-to-do. He didn’t send His Son to die only for those who measured up to some worldly standard of worth and merit. No, Jesus came to offer the gift of salvation to all those who were humble enough to admit their need for it. He spent the vast majority of His time on earth ministering to the poor and disenfranchised. He reached out to the dregs of humanity – the tax collectors, prostitutes, maimed, blind, demon-possessed, and even the lowly and despised Gentiles.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus declared, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:7 ESV). Spiritual poverty has nothing to do with financial status but it has everything to do with humility and an awareness of one’s own unworthiness. Eternal life is not reserved for the wealthy and well-off. It is the gift of God made possible through the death of His Son and is available to any who will receive it in humility and faith – regardless of their earthly status or social standing.

Yet, James accuses his audience of dishonoring the poor by showing favor to the wealthy. Then he reminds them of the ludicrous nature of this kind of behavior.

…you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? – James 2:6-7 NLT

They were treating the poor like social pariahs while honoring the very people who were oppressing and mistreating them. What would possess these people to show favoritism to the very ones who were causing them trials and troubles? The simple answer is greed. They hoped to gain something from the flattery of their more well-to-do foes. Perhaps if they treated their rich guests with dignity and respect, they might return the favor. After all, the wealthy had resources and wielded great influence in the community, and the poor were nothing more than a burden on the faith community.

But James warns that this kind of logic was not only dangerous, but it was also ungodly and in violation of God’s law.

But if you favor some people over others, you are committing a sin. You are guilty of breaking the law. – James 2:9 NLT

James specifically mentions one particular law: “the royal law according to the Scripture” (James 2:8 ESV). Then, just to make sure they understood what he meant, he quotes the law for them.

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself…” – James 2:8 ESV

Again, in His sermon on the mount, Jesus affirmed this “royal law” when He stated, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NLT). Jesus was not recommending the practice of preferential treatment in order to get a preferred response. He was promoting the practice of equity and selfless love. We are not to love based on what we get out of it. Christlike love is not a form of quid pro quo where our love is reciprocal in nature. It is not a you-scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-your-back kind of equation. Yet the practice of partiality is almost always selfish and self-centered. 

To drive home his point, James reminds his readers of the importance of every one of God’s laws. They were not free to cherry-pick which laws they wanted to obey. And he uses the rather absurd example of murder and adultery. They weren’t free to commit murder just because they had never committed adultery.

the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. – James 2:10 NLT

God expected His children to keep all of His laws, including His royal law to love one another. So, favoritism had no place in the household of God. As far as God was concerned, partiality was a sin and unacceptable behavior among His chosen people. And James provides them with a stern reminder of how God views those who receive His undeserved mercy but refuse to share it with others.

There will be no mercy for those who have not shown mercy to others. But if you have been merciful, God will be merciful when he judges you. – James 2:13 NLT

And once again, James seems to be echoing the words of Jesus, spoken in His sermon on the mount.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. – Matthew 5:7 ESV

The apostle Paul provides us with a powerful reminder of just how important it is to live according to God’s standards and not the world’s. There is no place for partiality in the family of God.

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up. Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith. – Galatians 6:9-10 NLT

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

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

Words Matter

19 Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. 21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.

22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.

26 If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:19-27 ESV

One of the most common responses to unwanted and unexpected trials is anger. The intrusion of difficulties into our comfortable lives can cause resentment that ultimately turns to rage. And far too often, our anger can be directed at God for having allowed the trial to disrupt our otherwise comfortable circumstances. But James cautions against being too quick to lash out at God when facing difficulty.

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. – James 1:19 NLT

James suggests that we take a deep breath and thoughtfully consider how best to respond when a trial comes our way. Pointing our fingers at God in anger will do little to solve our problem and even less toward producing righteousness in our lives.

Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires. – James 1:20 NLT

Anger may be a normal and natural response to unexpected difficulties, but when directed at God, it can be a dangerous game to play. The prophet Isaiah also warned against the danger of unjustly accusing God when things don’t go quite the way we want them to.

How foolish can you be? He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay! Should the created thing say of the one who made it, “He didn’t make me”? Does a jar ever say, “The potter who made me is stupid”? – Isaiah 29:16 NLT

“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’” – Isaiah 45:9 NLT

Isaiah goes on to recommend a much more reverent and respectful attitude toward our Creator God.

O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter. We all are formed by your hand. – Isaiah 64:8 NLT

So much of what James is saying in this opening chapter of his letter has to do with perspective. That is why he recommends that we ask God for wisdom when facing trials. We need the divinely enabled capacity to see our trials from God’s vantage point. And that includes the ability to maintain a healthy perspective regarding our Creator-creature relationship with God. He is the potter, we are the clay. We have been formed by His hand and He has the sovereign right and responsibility to do what He deems best for our lives.

When writing to the believers in Rome, the apostle Paul utilized Isaiah’s metaphor of the potter and the clay in order to remind his readers of God’s sovereign authority.

…who are you, O man, to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to Him who formed it, “Why did You make me like this?” Does not the potter have the right to make from the same lump of clay one vessel for special occasions and another for common use?  – Romans 9:20-21 BSB

But James would have us understand that our anger when facing trials and difficulties comes from the inside out. In other words, the trial itself is not the problem. It is simply the trigger that produces our unrighteous reaction. That’s why he encourages an ongoing process of purification and sanctification in our lives.

So get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives, and humbly accept the word God has planted in your hearts, for it has the power to save your souls. – James 1:21 NLT

Long before the trial ever arrived, we should have been doing some serious house-cleaning and soul-searching so that we might be better equipped to respond in reverent reliance upon God. James is recommending a life of dependence upon the sanctifying power of God’s Word. The gospel doesn’t simply save us; it produces the fruit of righteousness in our lives. The apostle Paul referred to it as the fruit of our salvation.

I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding. For I want you to understand what really matters, so that you may live pure and blameless lives until the day of Christ’s return. May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ—for this will bring much glory and praise to God. – Philippians 1:9-11 NLT

According to James, this life-transforming “fruit” can save our souls. He is not referring to salvation from eternal condemnation. In other words, James is not teaching that anger expressed in the midst of trials can cause a believer to lose his salvation. He is simply warning that any form of unconfessed sin in our lives will have detrimental consequences. That’s why he tells us to “get rid of all the filth and evil in your lives” (James 1:21 NLT). But too often, we allow our distaste for any form of discomfort in our lives to produce anger and resentment. And rather than seeing the trial as a God-ordained test to purify and cleanse us, we simply demand that the difficulty be removed.

“We pray for safety instead of purity because we do not see impurity as dangerous.” – George M. Stulac, James

God speaks to His children through His Word. He uses it to guide, direct, convict, and encourage them. But James warns that it isn’t enough to hear God’s Word; you have to obey it.

…don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. – James 1:22 NLT

Hearing the Word without applying its truths is like glancing in a mirror and then walking away. Whatever flaws and imperfections the mirror may have revealed will be quickly forgotten once you walk away. Whenever the Word reveals an area of your life that needs attention, you must deal with it immediately – with the Holy Spirit’s help.

James reminds us that obedience to the Word of God comes with a blessing.

…if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it. – James 1:25 NLT

This process is an ongoing one. The Christian life is a constant exercise in self-assessment and Spirit-empowered reformation. And the Word of God is the primary tool the Holy Spirit uses to transform our lives by removing all the remaining filth and evil from our lives. And this process will continue until our final glorification.

James concludes this section of his letter with a rather stern warning against hypocritical behavior. And nothing reveals hypocrisy in the life of a believer quite like a trial. We can be going along quite well, displaying a form of righteousness that has everyone believing we are some kind of super saint. But then an unexpected and unwanted difficulty rears its ugly head and our facade of faithfulness comes crashing down like a house of cards. And, according to James, it is our verbal reaction to trials that exposes our hypocrisy.

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

James seems to have had firsthand experience with this topic because he will revisit the problem of the tongue later in his letter.

…the tongue is a flame of fire. It is a whole world of wickedness, corrupting your entire body. It can set your whole life on fire, for it is set on fire by hell itself. – James 3:6 NLT

As far as he was concerned, the tongue is the Christian’s primary roadblock to sanctification. It may be small, but it can cause a great deal of grief and sorrow. And it is an accurate barometer of our true spiritual condition.

…if we could control our tongues, we would be perfect and could also control ourselves in every other way. – James 3:2 NLT

What James says next seems contradictory or out of place. He shifts from discussing the need to control our tongue to describing pure and genuine religion.

Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. – James 1:27 NLT

What’s his point? It would seem that James is trying to differentiate between religion that is nothing more than lip service and actual sacrificial service to others. Not only can we use the tongue to curse and rage at the presence of trials. We can also use it to project an attitude of spiritual superiority by professing our allegiance to God. But James would suggest that words are not enough. In fact, in the very next chapter of his letter, he will expand on this hypocritical tendency and the need to walk the talk.

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

We need to put our words into action. True faith is life-transforming. It changes our lives as well as all those around us. it puts shoe leather to our religion and provides a practical expression of the sanctifying power of God’s Word.

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

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

Count It All Joy

1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion:

Greetings.

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:1-4 ESV

Many of the early church fathers ascribed the authorship of the book of James to the half-brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:53-55; Mark 6:1-3). Early in Jesus’ earthly ministry, His siblings had a difficult time reconciling Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God. In his gospel, the apostle John reveals that they enjoyed the notoriety of Jesus but remained unconvinced that He was the long-awaited Messiah of Israel.

After this, Jesus traveled around Galilee. He wanted to stay out of Judea, where the Jewish leaders were plotting his death. But soon it was time for the Jewish Festival of Shelters, and Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, where your followers can see your miracles! You can’t become famous if you hide like this! If you can do such wonderful things, show yourself to the world!” For even his brothers didn’t believe in him. – John 7:1-5 NLT

According to Mark’s gospel, the family of Jesus eventually reached the conclusion that Jesus’ actions were the result of madness. In their estimation, He had lost His mind and needed to be taken into custody for His own protection (Mark 3:20-21). As the half-brother of Jesus, James would have been involved in the family’s debates over Jesus’ lofty claims and potential madness. But somewhere along the way, James came to believe that his older sibling was who He claimed to be: The Messiah of Israel and the Savior of the world.

In the book of Acts, Luke records that not long after Jesus’ resurrection, the 11 disciples returned to Jerusalem just as Jesus had commanded them to do.

Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, a distance of half a mile. When they arrived, they went to the upstairs room of the house where they were staying.

Here are the names of those who were present: Peter, John, James, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James (son of Alphaeus), Simon (the zealot), and Judas (son of James). They all met together and were constantly united in prayer, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, several other women, and the brothers of Jesus. – Acts 1:12-14 NLT

After Jesus’ post-crucifixion appearances in His resurrected body, His brothers had been transformed from doubters to believers. The apostle Paul records that James, the half-brother of Jesus was among those who were visited by the resurrected Christ.

He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he was seen by James and later by all the apostles. – 1 Corinthians 15:4-7 NLT

And after the coming of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, James would go on to be one of the leading figures in the newly established church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-21). According to the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, James died during the reign of Portius Festus who died in A.D. 62. So the date of this epistle has to be sometime before that. The audience to whom James wrote was made up of Jews who had been scattered because of ethnic and religious persecution in Palestine. These displaced Jews, who were official members of the 12 tribes of Israel, had come to faith in Christ and were now living as aliens and strangers outside the confines of the Promised Land. The book is distinctively Jewish in terms of its tone and contains references to Old Testament characters such as Abraham, Rahab, Job, and Elijah. James also makes repeated references to the Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses.

The book is highly practical in nature and attempts to correct potential misunderstandings regarding the role of faith and the need for outward transformation of one’s character. The recipients of the letter were Jewish Christians who were attempting to reconcile the role of the Old Testament Law with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. They were living as exiles from the land of Palestine and facing persecution for their membership in the Jewish community as well as their newfound identity as followers of Christ. Their non-believing Jewish friends and neighbors would have disagreed strongly with their acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. Their membership in the “cult” known as The Way would have turned off their fellow Jews and infuriated the Gentiles among whom they now lived. These Jewish converts to Christianity were facing the difficult task of living out their faith in Christ within a less-than-friendly environment. And James is trying to help them balance their reliance upon the Spirit’s indwelling power and their own need to live out their faith in practical and tangible ways.

“The purpose of this potent letter is to exhort the early believers to Christian maturity and holiness of life. This letter deals more with the practice of the Christian faith than with its precepts. James told his readers how to achieve spiritual maturity through a confident stand, compassionate service, careful speech, contrite submission, and concerned sharing. He dealt with every area of a Christian’s life: what he is, what he does, what he says, what he feels, and what he has.” – J. Ronald Blue, “James.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament

James opens his letter with a salutation in which he describes himself as “a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1 NLT). Rather than claiming his unique status as the half-brother of Jesus, James introduces himself as a lowly servant (Greek: doulos) of his Lord and Savior. As a bondservant, James was willing to place his will in submission to that of the Father and Son. He served at their discretion and was more than willing to play a subservient role when it came to accomplishing their will for the body of Christ and the continued spread of the gospel.

James opens up his letter with a rather strange admonition. He calls his readers to consider any trial they encounter as a believer as “an opportunity for great joy” (James 1:2 NLT). James knew they were facing all kinds of difficulties and he wanted them to recognize the God-ordained nature of those trials. As followers of Christ, their trials (peirasmois) were not indiscriminate and pointless. There was a purpose behind them. God was using those uncomfortable and unwanted difficulties to strengthen the faith of His children.

For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. – James 1:3 NLT

James invites them to reflect on their own experience with past trials. They have ample evidence from their own lives to prove the value of having their faith tested. And that is exactly what a trial does. It tests our faith in the goodness of God. It tempts us to doubt that God truly loves us and has our best interest in mind. When we are trying out best to live in obedience to the will of God and find ourselves facing unexpected difficulties, it’s easy to assume that God has fallen out of love with us and is punishing us. This can cause us to respond in anger and disappointment, and even tempt us to turn our backs on the will of God.

But James encourages his readers to remain steadfast, refusing to waver in their commitment to the cause of Christ and the transforming power of the indwelling Spirit of God. For James, the Christian life was a dynamic process, the ongoing transformative plan of God that had a specific end in mind: the believer’s sanctification and ultimate spiritual maturity. That’s why he encouraged them to embrace each trial as an opportunity to watch God work in their life.

So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. – James 1:4 NLT

The author of the book of Hebrews provided his readers with a similar reminder to find hope and comfort in God’s ability to use difficulties and divine discipline to produce holiness in the lives of His children.

God’s discipline is always good for us, so that we might share in his holiness. No discipline is enjoyable while it is happening—it’s painful! But afterward there will be a peaceful harvest of right living for those who are trained in this way. – Hebrews 12:10-11 NLT

To many Christians, the presence of trials and difficulties seems incongruent with the promises that Jesus made.

I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” – John 10:10 ESV

When you obey my commandments, you remain in my love, just as I obey my Father’s commandments and remain in his love. I have told you these things so that you will be filled with my joy. Yes, your joy will overflow!” – John 15:10-11 NLT

There is an expectation among believers that faith in Christ should produce a trouble-free existence, devoid of difficulties, hurts, and heartaches. And yet, Jesus also promised, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NLT).

We live in a fallen world where troubles, trials, and tribulations are par for the course. They come with the territory. But, as Jesus said, because of our relationship with Him, we are not victims but overcomers. The apostle Paul would have us remember that our relationship with Christ makes us victors not victims.

Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:33-39 ESV

We can rejoice in the difficulties because we know that, in God’s capable hands, they become tools of transformation. He uses them to purify and perfect us. Like tools in the hands of a master craftsman, trials become divine utensils in the hands of a loving God that He uses to sanctify and perfect His children. No trial is indiscriminate or unnecessary. No pain is wasted. No suffering is without merit or purpose. The apostle Paul reminded the believers in Corinth of the redemptive nature of difficulties and trials.

We think you ought to know, dear brothers and sisters, about the trouble we went through in the province of Asia. We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead. And he did rescue us from mortal danger, and he will rescue us again. We have placed our confidence in him, and he will continue to rescue us. – 2 Corinthians 1:8-10 NLT

Ultimately, James wanted his readers to experience the same confident assurance that Paul had. Trials tend to make us God-dependent rather than self-sufficient. They expose our weaknesses and provide opportunities to rely upon the power and promises of God.

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

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

A Leadership Void

15 Like a roaring lion or a charging bear
    is a wicked ruler over a poor people.
16 A ruler who lacks understanding is a cruel oppressor,
    but he who hates unjust gain will prolong his days.
17 If one is burdened with the blood of another,
    he will be a fugitive until death;
    let no one help him.
18 Whoever walks in integrity will be delivered,
    but he who is crooked in his ways will suddenly fall.
19 Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread,
    but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty.
20 A faithful man will abound with blessings,
    but whoever hastens to be rich will not go unpunished.
21 To show partiality is not good,
    but for a piece of bread a man will do wrong.
22 A stingy man hastens after wealth
    and does not know that poverty will come upon him.
23 Whoever rebukes a man will afterward find more favor
    than he who flatters with his tongue.
24 Whoever robs his father or his mother
    and says, “That is no transgression,”
    is a companion to a man who destroys.
25 A greedy man stirs up strife,
    but the one who trusts in the Lord will be enriched.
26 Whoever trusts in his own mind is a fool,
    but he who walks in wisdom will be delivered.
27 Whoever gives to the poor will not want,
    but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.
28 When the wicked rise, people hide themselves,
    but when they perish, the righteous increase. 
– Proverbs 28:15-28 ESV

We have a leadership void. Don’t get me wrong; we have no shortage of leaders in this country. It’s just that we don’t have very many godly leaders. There are plenty of ambitious, intelligent, capable, and sometimes even moral men and women who hold positions of leadership in our nation, but most of them lack the wisdom that only God can provide.

The following verse above paints a pretty bleak picture for a nation that finds itself with a moral and spiritual leadership void.

When there is moral rot within a nation, its government topples easily.
    But wise and knowledgeable leaders bring stability. – Proverbs 28:2 NLT

The Message paraphrases verse two this way: “When the country is in chaos, everybody has a plan to fix it – But it takes a leader of real understanding to straighten things out.”

What an apt description of our own country at this stage of the game. We are in chaos, and everybody has a plan to fix it. We have an abundance of “princes” as the NIV describes them. These so-called leaders and a host of political pundits each offer up solutions to our nation’s myriad problems, but none of them really have a clue as to what should be done about the economy, terrorism, or any other issue facing us. They fail to realize that the root of all our problems is a spiritual one.

A wicked ruler is as dangerous to the poor
    as a roaring lion or an attacking bear.

A ruler with no understanding will oppress his people,
    but one who hates corruption will have a long life. – Proverbs 28:15-16 NLT

Because they lack the wisdom of God, these godless rulers have no way of understanding that the troubled economy is a symptom of a much more serious issue. Raising or lowering taxes is not going to fix what is broken. A larger or smaller government will not be the panacea for our problems. In the very next chapter, Solomon gives us the real solution.

When the godly are in authority, the people rejoice.
    But when the wicked are in power, they groan. – Proverbs 29:2 NLT

In other words, when godly men and women lead a nation according to godly principles and provide wisdom and insight directly from God Himself, the people find themselves living in peace and moral prosperity. Godly leaders make godly decisions. They are not selfish and self-centered. They are not greedy and out to benefit only themselves.

Greedy people try to get rich quick
    but don’t realize they’re headed for poverty. – Proverbs 28:22 NLT

Leaders who lack godly wisdom operate in a spiritual vacuum and are unable to see things from God’s perspective. They are motivated by pride and consumed with the need for recognition. But a godly leader views any power they possess as having been given to them by God, to whom they must report and by whom they will be held accountable.

The trustworthy person will get a rich reward,
    but a person who wants quick riches will get into trouble. – Proverbs 28:20 NLT

What we pass off as leadership today is a far cry from what God had in mind. All you have to do is look at Jesus to see what God views as godly leadership. Jesus came to earth to be the Messiah of Israel. He was to be their King and set up His kingdom on earth. And yet, Jesus claimed that He “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV).

Jesus came to give His life away for the sake of others. He was concerned with and consumed by the will of His Father. He was obedient to God to the point of laying down His life. He knew that the world’s problems were spiritual in nature and the solution would have to be a spiritual one. Toppling the Roman government was not going to bring peace to the Jews. Only a Savior could heal them from what ailed them. They needed deliverance from sin, not relief from high taxes. They needed dependence on God, not independence from Rome.

Jesus did not come to tell people what they wanted to hear. He refused to tickle their ears with pleasant-sounding platitudes or comforting words designed to placate their guilt. No, as the apostle Paul makes clear, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners…” (1 Timothy 1:15 NLT). And as this Proverb so powerfully states:

In the end, people appreciate honest criticism
    far more than flattery. – Proverbs 28:23 NLT

Jesus was the ultimate example of a godly leader. After all, He was God in human flesh and as a man, He manifested all the wisdom of God perfectly and completely. Jesus lived to do the will of His Father.

“My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work.” – John 4:34 NLT

“For I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me, not to do my own will. – John 6:38 NLT

Jesus was not a flatterer or glad-hander. He didn’t tell people what they wanted to hear but, instead, He boldly proclaimed the words of His Heavenly Father and demonstrated the attributes of a godly leader. And His example was emulated by men like the apostle Paul.

For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. Never once did we try to win you with flattery, as you well know. And God is our witness that we were not pretending to be your friends just to get your money! As for human praise, we have never sought it from you or anyone else. – 1 Thessalonians 2:4-6 NLT

Paul and his fellow apostles modeled their lives and ministries after Jesus. They fully understood the wisdom found in Proverbs 28:26.

Those who trust their own insight are foolish,
    but anyone who walks in wisdom is safe.

But we live in a day when everyone seems to be doing what is right in their own eyes. Our society is obsessed with the idea of individual autonomy and freedom from restraints of any kind. Everybody wants to be their own king ruling over their kingdom. And yet, when things don’t turn out quite the way we expect, we look to the government or a political leader to bring us relief and restoration. We naively expect a flawed and failed system to deliver us from our self-inflicted predicament.

Yet God has already provided a deliverer in the form of His very own Son. Godly leaders point a nation back to God. They don’t try to act as a substitute for Him. We find ourselves in trouble as a nation, not because of a bad economy, social inequities, or global warming, but because we have appointed leaders who have no respect for God. Without Him, they are helpless and hopeless to lead us because they lack the wisdom required for the job.

We need to pray that God will raise up men and women who know Him, love Him, and are willing to live for Him. But we also need to pray for a spiritual reawakening among the people of God who have become complacent and sometimes even contributors to the moral chaos facing our nation. We lack godly leaders because we have become a godless nation. But the wise see things from God’s perspective and always know there is hope.

When the wicked take charge, people go into hiding.
    When the wicked meet disaster, the godly flourish. – Proverbs 28:28 NLT

In the end, the godly win. The wicked may have their 15 minutes of fame, but the righteous will always come out on top. Those who walk the way of the wise will find that their path ultimately leads to joy, peace, comfort, and blessing.

trusting the Lord leads to prosperity. – Proverbs 28:25 NLT

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

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

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

The Heart of the Matter

1 Better is a dry morsel with quiet
    than a house full of feasting with strife.
A servant who deals wisely will rule over a son who acts shamefully
    and will share the inheritance as one of the brothers.
The crucible is for silver, and the furnace is for gold,
    and the Lord tests hearts.
An evildoer listens to wicked lips,
    and a liar gives ear to a mischievous tongue.
Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker;
    he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished.
Grandchildren are the crown of the aged,
    and the glory of children is their fathers.
Fine speech is not becoming to a fool;
    still less is false speech to a prince.
A bribe is like a magic stone in the eyes of the one who gives it;
    wherever he turns he prospers.
Whoever covers an offense seeks love,
    but he who repeats a matter separates close friends.
10 A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding
    than a hundred blows into a fool.
11 An evil man seeks only rebellion,
    and a cruel messenger will be sent against him.
12 Let a man meet a she-bear robbed of her cubs
    rather than a fool in his folly.
13 If anyone returns evil for good,
    evil will not depart from his house.
14 The beginning of strife is like letting out water,
    so quit before the quarrel breaks out.
15 He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous
    are both alike an abomination to the Lord.
– Proverbs 17:1-15 ESV

At first glance, the book of Proverbs seems to be all about good behavior versus bad behavior. It contrasts the life of a wise person with that of a foolish person, and it would appear that we are to choose one over the other. Solomon seems to suggest that we must make the decision as to which set of behaviors will characterize our lives. But there is an underlying assumption that Solomon goes back to time and time again. There is an important ingredient required, without which none of us will ever be able to enjoy a life marked by consistently good behavior. He hints at it in verse 3.

Fire tests the purity of silver and gold,
    but the Lord tests the heart. – Proverbs 17:3 NLT

The source for ALL behavior, good or bad, is the heart. In the Hebrew mind, the heart referred to the inner man. It was the seat of his mind, will, desires, and emotions. The heart is what drives us. Our behavior is a direct reflection of our hearts. But here’s the problem.

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? But I, the Lord, search all hearts and examine secret motives. I give all people their due rewards, according to what their actions deserve. – Jeremiah 17:9-10 NLT

Our hearts are wicked. Our desires are naturally skewed toward evil, all as a result of the fall. Good behavior is achievable, but it is impossible to maintain long-term. It is not natural for us to do what is good because our hearts are bad. So any good behavior we attempt is short-lived because it is manufactured in the flesh. Yes, we may fool one another with our acts of compassion and deeds of apparent righteousness, but God knows our hearts.

Solomon describes a house full of feasting and conflict (verse 1). He laments the fate of a disgraceful son who forfeits his inheritance to a faithful servant (verse 2). He warns that those with evil intentions tend to surround themselves with like-minded individuals who provide evil advice (verse 4). The unwise tend to mock the poor and “rejoice at the misfortune of others” (verse 5). A fool may attempt to disguise his ignorance with eloquent words but, in time, the truth of his condition will become known to all.

God warned Samuel the prophet,  “The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7 NLT). We may even be able to fool ourselves into thinking we are good, because of all the “good things” we do. But Solomon gives us the bad news:

People may be right in their own eyes,
    but the Lord examines their heart.

The Lord is more pleased when we do what is right and just
    than when we offer him sacrifices.Proverbs 21:2-3 NLT

Good behavior is only possible when our hearts are good. And none of us can produce a good heart apart from the intervention of God in our lives. He must change our hearts before we can see a change in our behavior. Jesus said, “A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart” (Matthew 12:35 NLT).

A good heart is the work of God, not man. It is not a case of behavior modification, but heart transformation, which only God can accomplish. So when Solomon describes wrong-doers, liars, mockers, fools, the wicked, the unjust, quarrelers, the crooked, and deceivers, he is simply listing characteristics that naturally flow from a heart that remains unchanged.

Wisdom, love, common sense, understanding, and friendship are all the characteristics of a heart committed to and under the control of God. And with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, God provided a means by which sinful humanity can live in keeping with His divine will and righteous commands. Paul describes it this way:

So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit. – Ephesians 5:15-18 NLT

He told the Galatian Christians, “So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. 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” (Galatians 5:16-17 NLT).

And then he described what the fruit of a life lived under God’s control looks like: “But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23 NLT).

It all begins in and flows from the heart, and only God can transform the heart. Reading the book of Proverbs should remind us that the behavior God desires from us is unnatural and impossible for us. We can’t do it without Him.

Without God’s assistance, sinful men and women will continue to behave like fools. And while they may appear to find success in their chosen way of life, God will judge them according to the condition of their hearts. Solomon indicates that it is only right for a fool to receive a hundred lashes as punishment for his crimes (verse 10). He should get what he deserves. And the evil person who eagerly seeks rebellion (verse 11) shouldn’t be surprised when the wickedness of his heart is exposed and his defiance is dealt with.

Yet, the good news is that because of the love of God as expressed through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross, we can live new lives because we have new hearts that are being daily transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.  The Word of God reveals our need for God.

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. – Hebrews 4:12 NLT

If you find your life more characterized by the negative characteristics outlined in Proverbs 17, thank God for showing you the true condition of your heart and ask Him to renew His work of transformation. Confess that you can’t change your behavior without His help. Submit to His Spirit’s control. Let Him produce in you what you can’t produce on your own.

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

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

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

Christ, the Wisdom of God

22 “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of his work,
    the first of his acts of old.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
    at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
    before the hills, I was brought forth,
26 before he had made the earth with its fields,
    or the first of the dust of the world.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there;
    when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
    when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
    so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30     then I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight,
    rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
    and delighting in the children of man.

32 “And now, O sons, listen to me:
    blessed are those who keep my ways.
33 Hear instruction and be wise,
    and do not neglect it.
34 Blessed is the one who listens to me,
    watching daily at my gates,
    waiting beside my doors.
35 For whoever finds me finds life
    and obtains favor from the Lord,
36 but he who fails to find me injures himself;
    all who hate me love death.” – Proverbs 8:22-36 ESV

Wisdom has an impressive pedigree, and it isn’t shy when it comes to talking about it. According to verse 22, Wisdom is literally older than dirt. It has been around since the beginning of time.

The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his ways, before he made any thing from the beginning. – Proverbs 8:22 DRB

The Hebrew word, qānâ, can be translated as either “created” or “possessed,” and various Bible translations use one or the other to describe Wisdom’s relationship with God at the point of creation.

The LORD created me as His first course, before His works of old. – Berean Study Bible

“The LORD formed me from the beginning, before he created anything else.” – New Living Translation

“The LORD possessed me at the beginning of His way, Before His works of old. – New American Standard Version

“Jehovah possessed me in the beginning of his way, Before his works of old.”  – American Standard Version

But if God created Wisdom, then that would suggest there was a point in time when it did not exist. Like the rest of creation, it was formed out of nothing. But that would infer that  Wisdom exists independently of God. Like the sun, moon, stars, plants, and animals, it owes its existence to God’s divine power. But that would seem to contradict the idea that Wisdom is an attribute of God Himself.  So, given the context established in Proverbs 8, it makes much more sense to translate the word qānâ as “possessed.”

“As Creator, God counted wisdom most important. Wisdom is older than the universe, and it was essential in its creation. Nothing came into existence without wisdom. Wisdom leads to joy because creation produces joy (vv. 30-31) both for the Creator and for the creature. God made and did nothing without wisdom. Therefore it is very important that we obtain it. That is the point.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Genesis

Wisdom boldly claims to have been “set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth” (Proverbs 8:23 ESV). Again, understanding the meaning of this passage is dependent upon a proper translation of the Hebrew word, nāsaḵ. It carries the meaning “to pour out,” as in the pouring out of a libation or in the anointing of a king. God poured forth His Wisdom in the process of forming the universe, anointing all it contained with His unsurpassed intelligence, skill, and creative prowess. Nothing was left to chance. Everything God made reflects intelligent design and symmetry of order.

Before God made the oceans, seas, rivers, and streams, Wisdom was already in existence. Long before there were mountains and hills and the dirt and rocks from which they consist, Wisdom was there. The sun, moon, stars, heavens, clouds, and atmosphere surrounding the earth were all made according to God’s infinite and incomparable wisdom. And the apostle John explains how this Wisdom manifested itself.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. – John 1:1-3 ESV

In his first letter to the Corinthians church, the apostle Paul declares that Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24 ESV). In other words, He is the wisdom of God personified. Just a few verses later, Paul asserts that Christ and Wisdom are synonymous and inseparable.

For our benefit God made him to be wisdom itself. Christ made us right with God; he made us pure and holy, and he freed us from sin. – 1 Corinthians 1:30 NLT

And the prophet Isaiah, writing under the influence of the Holy Spirit, predicted that the Messiah would be the greatest expression of God’s infinite wisdom.

And the Spirit of the LORD will rest on him— the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. – Isaiah 11:2 NLT

Paul firmly believed that Jesus Christ was the wisdom of God in human flesh. And his greatest desire was for all believers to “have complete confidence that they understand God’s mysterious plan, which is Christ himself” (Colossians 2:2 NLT), because  “In him lie hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3 NLT).

So, when Wisdom boldly claims, “I was beside him, like a master workman,
and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man” (Proverbs 8:30-31 ESV), you can hear the voice of Jesus speaking. Because of his knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures, Solomon would have had some idea of the promised Messiah of Israel. But much of the Messiah’s mission and role would have remained a mystery to even the all-wise King of Israel.

But after the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, the apostles were able to put together all the pieces of the puzzle and form a more cohesive and cogent explanation of Jesus’ divine role as the wisdom of God made manifest.

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God.
    He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation,
for through him God created everything
    in the heavenly realms and on earth.
He made the things we can see
    and the things we can’t see—
such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world.
    Everything was created through him and for him.
He existed before anything else,
    and he holds all creation together. – Colossians 1:15-17 NLT

Solomon may not have had a comprehensive grasp of Jesus as the embodied wisdom of God, but he fully understood that Wisdom was indispensable and vital to living a life that brought glory to God. That’s why he spent so much time pleading with his sons to make the pursuit of godly wisdom a high priority in their lives. He even portrayed Wisdom as a human being, calling to his young sons and begging them to avail themselves of her gift.

“And so, my children, listen to me,
    for all who follow my ways are joyful.
Listen to my instruction and be wise.
    Don’t ignore it.
Joyful are those who listen to me,
    watching for me daily at my gates,
    waiting for me outside my home!
For whoever finds me finds life
    and receives favor from the Lord. – Proverbs 8:32-35 NLT

The words of Wisdom are reminiscent of those spoken by Jesus centuries later.

“My Father has entrusted everything to me. No one truly knows the Son except the Father, and no one truly knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” – Matthew 11:27-30 NLT

Jesus offers all those who are worn out from trying to earn their way into God’s good graces, the gift of peace. Peace with God. He alone can provide sinful men and women restored access to God’s presence. Through faith in His sacrificial death on the cross, fools can receive “wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30 NIV). By accepting Christ as our Savior, we receive all that He is, including His eternal wisdom and spotless righteousness, as our very own.

But Wisdom has one final word of warning that should leave us shaking in our boots.

“But those who miss me injure themselves.
    All who hate me love death.” – Proverbs 8:36 NLT

And the apostle Paul described a similar fate for all those who turn their back on God’s Wisdom. They suffer serious consequences for refusing to embrace the gift that God has made available.

…they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.

So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. As a result, they did vile and degrading things with each other’s bodies. They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires. – Romans 1:21-26 NLT

And all those who refuse to accept Jesus, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30 ESV), will suffer a similar fate.

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

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

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

 

A Radical Change in Relationships

Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. Ephesians 6:5-9 ESV

Paul continues to discuss the practical implications of walking as children of light, in love and in submission to one another. But in doing so, he brings up a relationship that is particularly difficult for 21st-Century believers to understand. He has already addressed the relationship between believing husbands and their wives, and he has covered God’s will concerning children and their parents. But now he takes on the the rather awkward topic of slaves and their masters. But in keeping with the rest of his letter, he is still focusing his attention on believers. So, in this case he is addressing slaves who have come to faith in Christ but still find themselves in the same hopeless position they had been in before their conversion.

Based on this passage, there are those who have accused Paul of being a proponent of the institution of slavery, because he refuses to speak out against it. But Paul, like Jesus Himself, was not out to revolutionize the civil or cultural institutions of his day. Nor was he out to bring about social upheaval. He was interested in redeeming the lives of all those who made up the the variegated fabric of society. So, while it’s true that Paul did not condemn the socially accepted practice of slavery in his day, it doesn’t mean he was in favor of it. In fact, in his letter to Philemon, he makes an appeal to his brother in Christ regarding one of his slaves, a man called Onesimus. Evidently, Onesimus had run away from Philemon and had somehow ended up meeting Paul in Rome. Under the apostle’s influence, Onesimus became a follower of Christ.

He ended up ministering to Paul while he was under house arrest. Eventually, Paul encouraged Onesimus to do the right thing and return to his master. Slavery was legal in Paul’s day and Onesimus was obligated to return to Philemon or face severe punishment. But Paul sent his letter to Philemon explaining the change that had taken place in the life of Onesimus and to ask Philemon to see his former slave as a brother in Christ.

For perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forever, no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother, especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord. – Philemon 1:15-16 NLT

This is exactly the kind of context Paul is addressing in his letter to the Ephesians. Slavery was a socially-accepted and legally-sanctioned part of the culture of the day. And yet Paul was calling those slaves and masters who had come to faith in Christ to radically change their perspective regarding their relationship and the institution that determined dictated it. The interesting thing is that slaves, who were viewed as property and sub-human in many ways, were coming to faith in Christ. Not only that, they were becoming members of the local churches. It was not uncommon for a 1st-Century church to have slaves and their masters as part of its congregation. And within the context of the church, there was a unity and equality that was unheard of anywhere else in the culture of that day.

This is why Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia: “For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28 NLT).

In the context of the body of Christ, everyone was on an equal footing. But while coming to faith in Christ had set Onesimus free from sin, it had not freed him from slavery. In fact, Paul wrote to the Corinthians and told them, “Yes, each of you should remain as you were when God called you. Are you a slave? Don’t let that worry you—but if you get a chance to be free, take it. And remember, if you were a slave when the Lord called you, you are now free in the Lord. And if you were free when the Lord called you, you are now a slave of Christ” (1 Corinthians 7:20-22 NLT).

Paul’s primary concern was the behavior of believers. He was focused on their walk – the daily living out of their faith within the context of their existing social relationships. This is reflected in what he wrote to the church in Ephesus.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. – Ephesians 6:5 NLT

We see once again, that their motivation was to be Christ-centered, as if they were serving Christ. Jesus had became a slave on their behalf, even dying in their place so that they might be freed from slavery to sin. Now He was calling them to serve their earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Rather than forced subservience, Paul was calling them to willing submission. Paul gives them some very specific instruction about how their faith should manifest itself in their relationship with their masters.

Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. As slaves of Christ, do the will of God with all your heart. Work with enthusiasm, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. – Ephesians 6:6-7 NLT

Notice that Paul encourages them to do the will of God with all their heart. What would the will of God be in their particular situation? To walk as children of light. To walk in love. To walk in a manner worthy of their calling. Yes, even within their context as slaves because, in reality, they were slaves of Christ. Their earthly situation was temporary. So, they could work with enthusiasm, performing their earthly responsibilities as if they were doing it for the Lord, knowing that “the Lord will reward each one of us for the good we do, whether we are slaves or free” (Ephesians 6:8 NLT).

But Paul is not done. He also addresses those individuals in the churches in Ephesus who happened to be masters. He tells them, “Masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Don’t threaten them; remember, you both have the same Master in heaven, and he has no favorites” (Ephesians 6:9 NLT).

Their faith in Christ was to have a relationship-altering impact on their lives. Their slaves were now their brothers. And everything they did was to be done as to the Lord. This was a game-changing, life-altering moment in the lives of these individuals. Can you imagine what kinds of renewing of the mind and shifting of their paradigm was taking place as they wrestled with their new-found faith in Christ and its impact on the social construct in which they found themselves? This particular relationship between slaves and masters would put the daily application of faith in Christ to the test like no other. 

Jesus did not come to revolutionize the structures of society, but He came to dramatically transform the lives of the people who make up that society. He did not come to radically alter institutions, but to redeem individuals. Political change or legal sanctions do nothing to remedy the condition of the heart. Overthrowing the evil social structures of a society through rebellion or civil disobedience may bring about external change, but it will never fix the problem of sin. Believers living as children of light in the midst of darkness, loving unconditionally, submitting to one another willingly, and obeying Christ joyfully are the true change-agents in the world.

As modern-day Christians, we find Paul’s discussion of slavery to be distasteful and outdated. After all, we live in a nation that outlawed slavery a long time ago. But in Paul’s day it was alive and well. And becoming a believer did not set slaves free from slavery. It didn’t change their circumstances, but it did radically alter the way they were to live their lives. Because of the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, slaves were expected to do their jobs differently. They were expected to relate to their masters differently. They were to obey with “deep respect and fear.” And they were to do it as they would serve Christ. Their subservience was now to become willing submission, performed for the Lord, not for their earthly masters. Their work ethic was to be motivated by their love for the Lord. They were still slaves, but they were slaves who had been changed by Christ and had a new capacity to love – even within the context of their slavery. And those masters who happened to be believers, were to treat their slaves with dignity and respect, knowing that they would one day be held accountable by God for their actions.

Paul makes a significant statement regarding God’s view of slaves and masters. He says, “remember, you both have the same Master in heaven, and he has no favorites” (Ephesians 6:9 NLT). God doesn’t see as man sees. While He has ordained there to be order, structure, and degrees of authority in the world, He sees all men as equals. He views husbands and wives as equals. He regards parents and children as equals. And He sees slaves and masters in the same way. The key issue is how His Spirit can radically change each of the individuals in those relationships and give them a new capacity to interact and interrelate so that He is honored.

Spirit-filled, Spirit-controlled believers bring a whole new meaning to their earthly relationships. They view their roles and responsibilities differently. They see their positions as opportunities to serve others and honor God. They do their work as unto the Lord. They serve others as they would serve Christ. They submit to others as they would submit to Him. They love as He would love. They obey as if He were the one giving the command. Living under the influence of the Spirit is a life-changing, relationship-altering experience.

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

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

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

 

Power to Spare

15 For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. Ephesians 1:15-23 ESV

After having summed up all the blessings that come by God’s grace through the gift of His Son and guaranteed by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, Paul expresses his profound joy for the faith of the Ephesian believers. They have been blessed by God and Jesus Christ “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3 ESV). They have been chosen by God and predestined for adoption as His children. They have been redeemed, forgiven, and have obtained an eternal inheritance as sons and daughters of God. And they had received the Holy Spirit as a seal and a guarantee of that inheritance, all because they had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed” (Ephesians 1:13 ESV).

With all that in mind, Paul tells the Ephesians how grateful he is for the faith and love they display because it gives evidence of their salvation. Their lives provide ample proof that they have been set apart by God, but Paul declares that he constantly prays that God will give them spiritual wisdom and insight so that they might continue to increase in their knowledge of God. Paul’s persistent prayer for them was for a growing understanding of who God was and all that He was doing in their lives. God had revealed Himself to them through His Son but there was so much more they needed to know. Even their knowledge of Christ was limited and in need of constant development.

Paul knew that their rudimentary knowledge of God and His Son had been sufficient for them to understand the nature of salvation. But there was so much more they needed to know if they were going to fully appreciate and appropriate their access into God’s presence. There was a natural and necessary progression that needed to take place in their relationship with God. And Paul continually prayed for God to do what only He could do: Make Himself known and knowable.

“To know God personally is salvation (John 17:3). To know Him increasingly is sanctification (Philippians 3:10). To know Him perfectly is glorification (1 Corinthians 13:9-12).” – Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary

Paul’s request entailed far more than mere mental assent. He was not interested in head knowledge, an academic understanding of God, and His attributes. No, Paul was praying for an intimate and intensely personal knowledge of God that would result in greater faith and an ever-increasing willingness to obey His will. Those who fail to get to know God well will always have difficulty trusting and relying upon Him. Their perceptions of Him will remain one-dimensional and prone to misunderstanding and susceptible to misrepresentation. Those who hold a shallow understanding of God will tend to have a faith that lacks depth and breadth.

Paul’s prayer included three specific requests. First, he asked that God would help them grasp the significance of the hope to which they had been chosen. God had elected them for a purpose and He had great things in store for them. And while their redemption and forgiveness of sins were remarkable gifts from God, there were far greater blessings awaiting them. This life was not all there was. Their current state would not be their final state. For Paul, the good news concerning Christ always included the initial gift of salvation but also the reality of the believer’s ongoing sanctification, and the hope of future glorification. Those who have been saved are in the constant state of being saved until God completes the process with the final act of their salvation – their glorification.

Secondly, Paul constantly prayed that they would understand their status as God’s inheritance. Not only would they inherit all the blessings God had in store for them, but they would one day be received by God as His inheritance. They belonged to God because He had purchased them with the blood of His Son. And yet, as long as they lived on this earth, they were physically separated from their adoptive Father. But Paul wanted them to know that the day was coming when they would be ushered into the very throne room of God and greeted with open arms by their Heavenly Father. The apostle John describes this marvelous scene in the book of Revelation.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” – Revelation 3:3-4 NLT

Third, Paul prays that they will come to “understand the incredible greatness of God’s power” (Ephesians 1:19 NLT) available to all those who have placed their faith in His Son. Once again, salvation from sins is a marvelous gift from God, but He has so much more He wants to do for His children. He has provided them with access to the full scope of His power and might through the indwelling presence of His Holy Spirit. This was the “power from on high” that Jesus promised to give His followers (Luke 24:49).

In a sense, Paul is emphasizing the divine enablement available to all believers through the gift of the Holy Spirit. God has saved us from our past – delivering us from condemnation and death. He has guaranteed us our future – promising us the hope of eternal life. But He has also provided us with the power to preserve us for the present.

“By making us His inheritance, God has shown His love. By promising us a wonderful future, He has encouraged our hope. Paul offered something to challenge our faith: ‘the exceeding greatness of His power to us-ward who believe’ (Ephesians 1:19).” – Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary

The Ephesian believers had already experienced the love of God, as expressed through the gracious gift of His Son. And they had hope for the future because of the unwavering promises of God. But as they lived their lives in the present, Paul knew that they would need to avail themselves of the power of God so that their faith in God would continue to increase. Paul understood that faith, hope, and love were each essential to the Christian faith. That is why he wrote to the believers in Corinth, “Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13 NLT).

He prefaced this statement with an entire chapter on the preeminence of love. Spiritual gifts practiced without love were meaningless. Power displayed without love was potentially harmful, and not helpful. Knowledge of the secret things of God may be impressive but it would prove worthless without love. Faith that could move mountains but was unmoved by love for others was of no value. And then he added, “Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely” (1 Corinthians 13:12 NLT).

The day will come when the believer’s knowledge of God will be complete and perfected. But in the meantime, Paul desired that every child of God would grow in their knowledge and understanding of God and His ways. Paul wanted them to avail themselves of God’s power so that they might grow in their knowledge of His goodness and greatness. The very same power that raised Jesus Christ from the dead was present in each of the Ephesian believers in the form of the Holy Spirit. They possessed all the power they needed to live the Christian life. That is exactly what Peter meant when he wrote, “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT).

And Paul reminds the Ephesians that when Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of God’s Spirit, He returned to His Father’s side in heaven. And, as a result of His resurrection and ascension, Jesus enjoyed unprecedented authority, “far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come” (Ephesians 1:21 NLT). And the power that Jesus wields is for the benefit of the church, His body.

Paul wanted the Ephesians to understand that the power of God, delegated to His Son, was available to them through the indwelling presence of the Spirit. And the place where that power was to be on constant display was right here on the earth. The resurrection power of the Spirit of God was at their constant disposal. And every time the church avails itself of that power, the resurrection of Christ is visualized and God is glorified.

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

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

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

 

A Trifecta of Blessing

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, 12 so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory. Ephesians 1:3-14 ESV

After a brief salutation, Paul begins his letter with a virtual flood of carefully crafted words designed to express his deep admiration and appreciation for the saving work of God the Father as expressed through the sacrificial life of the Son and empowered through the gift of the Holy Spirit. In Greek, these 12 verses form one long but eloquently worded run-on sentence. It’s as if Paul were speaking the words, and in his excitement, the thoughts in his mind literally explode from his lips without leaving him time to catch his breath.

He is a man possessed by and obsessed with the incredible nature of God’s redemptive plan for mankind. Unable to contain his enthusiasm for all that God has done, Paul explodes in a flood of praise and worship for each member of the Godhead, outlining the vital role that each played. This punctuation-free praise song to the Trinity is designed to instill in the Ephesian believers a deep and abiding awareness of the divine nature of their salvation. They had been chosen, predestined, and adopted by God the Father. They had been redeemed out of slavery to sin by the precious and priceless blood of Jesus Christ. And they had received the indwelling presence of the Spirit of God as a sign of their new identity as God’s children and as a proof of the promises to come.

For Paul, it all begins with God the Father, who made the determination to send His Son as the solution to mankind’s sin problem. And, according to Paul, God came up with that plan “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4 ESV). In other words, long before God made the universe or fashioned Adam out of the dust of the ground, He had come up with the plan to send His Son as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of a not-yet-existent humanity.

God had not been caught off guard by Adam and Eve’s rebellion. He had actually made provision for their fall and had a predetermined plan already in place long before they made the fateful determination to disobey His command. And Paul wanted the Ephesians to know that they had been blessed by God in Christ. Jesus was the sole means by which God had chosen to redeem fallen mankind. Together, the Father and His Son made possible the reconciliation of a guilty and justly condemned humanity – and that included the believers in Ephesus. They had been blessed by God in or through Christ “with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3 ESV).

Paul emphasizes spiritual blessings in order to accentuate the eternal nature of the gift the Ephesians had received. God had not sent His son to die so that men and women might have their best life now. The sacrificial death of Jesus was not meant to pave the way to an earthly life marked by health, wealth, and prosperity. His precious blood was spilled so that a spiritual transformation might take place, turning former sinners into sons and daughters of God, holy and blameless in His sight. All “according to the purpose of his will” and “to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:5-6 ESV). This radical transformation of sinners into saints had been God’s idea and had only been possible as a result of His grace or unmerited favor. No one deserved to be saved. No one had earned the right to be redeemed.

Paul stresses that God “lavished” His grace on mankind. The Greek word, perisseuō, conveys the idea of a superabundance of grace. God poured out His grace in such a way that it overflowed and exceeded all expectations and requirements. It was, as Jesus told Paul, an all-sufficient grace.

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” – 2 Corinthians 12:9 ESV

Paul knew that the Ephesian believers were grateful for the forgiveness of sins that came with their faith in Christ, but he wanted them to understand that was just the tip of the iceberg. Paul doesn’t underestimate the value of forgiveness but stresses that God was “so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins” (Ephesians 1:7 NLT). But God’s grace didn’t stop there. He also showered His children with “wisdom and understanding” (Ephesians 1:8 NLT), so that they might know “the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ” (Ephesians 1:9 ESV). And by disclosing this previously undisclosed mystery, God revealed His “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:10 ESV).

In other words, God’s plan of salvation includes far more than forgiveness of sins. As great as that may be, it pales in comparison to the future God has in store for His children. Forgiveness of sins does not eradicate the presence of sin in the life of a believer. Life on this earth will always be marred by the persistent presence of sin. Believers are no longer slaves to sin but they are not free from its influence. Paul described his own experience with sin in his letter to the Romans.

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

And that’s why Paul places so much emphasis on the inheritance that awaits the believer.

…because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan. – Ephesians 1:11 NLT

It is the promise of this future inheritance that should motivate the believer in this life. It is the assurance of coming glorification that should encourage a life of faithfulness as we wait for God to fulfill the final phase of His grand redemptive plan. That is why Paul reminded the believers in Corinth to focus their attention on the hope to come.

We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:2-5 NLT

In his letter to the Ephesian believers, Paul reiterates the role of the Holy Spirit as the downpayment or guarantee of their future glorification.

The Spirit is God’s guarantee that he will give us the inheritance he promised and that he has purchased us to be his own people. He did this so we would praise and glorify him. – Ephesians 1:14 NLT

And the gift of the Spirit had been poured out on Jews and Gentiles alike. The body of Christ was made up of people of all ethnicities and backgrounds. It was just as Paul had told the Christians living in Galatia.

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. – Galatians 3:26-29 NLT

While God had set apart the Jews as His chosen people and had ordained that His Son be born of the seed of Abraham, He had always planned for His gracious gift of redemption to be for all mankind. The Jews were a means to an end. They had been blessed by God so that they might be a blessing to the world. And God had accomplished that blessing through the gift of His Son and guaranteed the eternal nature of its consequences through the gift of His Spirit.

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

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

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

 

A Man on a Mission

1 Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,

To the saints who are in Ephesus, and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Ephesians 1:1-2 ESV

Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus is the second of four letters he wrote while under house arrest in Rome, awaiting trial before the emperor. The four letters include Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Philemon. The first three were written to particular congregations located within those cities. The fourth letter was personal in nature, written by Paul to a man named Philemon, who was a member of the church in Colossae. The purpose of Paul’s letter to Philemon was to inform him that his runaway slave, Onesimus, had somehow made it to Rome, where Paul had led him to place his faith in Christ. Paul had convinced Onesimus to return home and make amends with his master. But in his letter, Paul begged Philemon to accept Onesimus with open and loving arms.

It seems you lost Onesimus for a little while so that you could have him back forever. He is no longer like a slave to you. He is more than a slave, for he is a beloved brother, especially to me. Now he will mean much more to you, both as a man and as a brother in the Lord. – Philemon 1:15-16 NLT

Each of the four letters was written sometime between 60-62 AD, while Paul was confined to his home in the Roman capital. Unable to continue his missionary journeys, Paul used his time to interface to teach, preach, and write. He seems to have had many visitors, including Luke, Onesimus, Timothy, Aristarchus, Epaphras, Jesus Justus, Demas, and John Mark.

Luke accompanied Paul to Rome and records in the book of Acts the details concerning their arrival.

When we arrived in Rome, Paul was permitted to have his own private lodging, though he was guarded by a soldier. – Acts 28:16 NLT

News of Paul’s trip to Rome had preceded him, and he was greeted by a contingent of fellow Christians upon his arrival.

The brothers and sisters in Rome had heard we were coming, and they came to meet us at the Forum on the Appian Way. Others joined us at The Three Taverns. When Paul saw them, he was encouraged and thanked God. – Acts 28:15 NLT

Just three days after his arrival, Paul invited members of the local Jewish community to visit him at his rented home. He was anxious that they know the reason for his arrest and confinement but, more importantly, that they hear the good news concerning Jesus Christ.

“I asked you to come here today so we could get acquainted and so I could explain to you that I am bound with this chain because I believe that the hope of Israel—the Messiah—has already come.” – Acts 28:20 NLT

This initial meeting led to a later gathering that was attended by a much larger number of Jewish exiles to Rome.

…a time was set, and on that day a large number of people came to Paul’s lodging. He explained and testified about the Kingdom of God and tried to persuade them about Jesus from the Scriptures. Using the law of Moses and the books of the prophets, he spoke to them from morning until evening.  Some were persuaded by the things he said, but others did not believe. – Acts 28:23-24 NLT

And while Paul’s evangelistic efforts among the Jews met with limited success, it did not dampen his enthusiasm or diminish his desire to spread the good news concerning Christ.

For the next two years, Paul lived in Rome at his own expense. He welcomed all who visited him, boldly proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ. And no one tried to stop him. – Acts 28:30-31 NLT

This background is essential for understanding the nature of the letters Paul wrote while imprisoned in Rome. The documents themselves reveal a great deal about Paul’s missionary zeal and determination to help the fledgling congregations to whom he wrote reconcile their newfound faith in Christ with the less-than-ideal circumstances in which they lived. Paul could relate to their predicament. He knew what it was like to live in hostile conditions, and yet he never lost sight of his desire to accomplish the mission for which Christ had called him. In his letter to the church in Philippi, he expressed his confidence that his imprisonment in Rome was all part of the sovereign will of God.

And I want you to know, my dear brothers and sisters, that everything that has happened to me here has helped to spread the Good News. For everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ. And because of my imprisonment, most of the believers here have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear.– Philippians 1:12-14 NLT

Paul was a firm believer in the will of God. In fact, he opens his letter to the church in Ephesus by identifying himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God” (Ephesians 1:1 ESV). This was not a role he had chosen for himself. He had been sovereignly ordained and commissioned by Jesus Christ Himself. At one point in his life, Paul had been a faithful member of the Pharisees, a religious sect of the Jews. And he had been charged by the high priest with the responsibility of persecuting all those who were members of “the Way,” the derogatory name given to those who followed the teachings of the dead Rabbi, Jesus. In the book of Acts, Luke records Paul’s description of his former occupation, before coming to faith in Christ.

“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem under Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did, just like all of you today. And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison. The high priest and the whole council of elders can testify that this is so. For I received letters from them to our Jewish brothers in Damascus, authorizing me to bring the followers of the Way from there to Jerusalem, in chains, to be punished.” – Acts 22:3-5 NLT

But Paul never made it to Damascus. Instead, he found himself confronted by the “dead” Rabbi whose name and memory he had so desperately tried to eradicate. Paul’s encounter with Jesus left him blind and confused, but he was directed to meet with a godly believer named Ananias, who told him, “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will and to see the Righteous One and hear him speak. For you are to be his witness, telling everyone what you have seen and heard. What are you waiting for? Get up and be baptized. Have your sins washed away by calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:14-16 NLT).

After having his sight restored, Paul was baptized and returned to Jerusalem, where he had a second encounter with Jesus, who told him, “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles!” (Acts 22:21 NLT). And Paul had spent the rest of his life obeying that commission, taking the gospel throughout the known world and helping to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to people of every tribe, nation, and tongue.

Now, years later, Paul found himself confined to rented quarters in the capital of the most powerful nation on earth. But his missionary zeal remained unabated and his dedication to his original commission was undeterred. He was committed to running the race well. He wanted to complete the mission given to him by Christ. And he was not about to let imprisonment deter or distract him from his God-appointed objective. Years later, while imprisoned in Rome a second time, Paul would write to his young protégé, Timothy:

Don’t be afraid of suffering for the Lord. Work at telling others the Good News, and fully carry out the ministry God has given you.

As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing. – 2 Timothy 4:5-8 NLT

That unwavering commitment to the cause of Christ permeates all of Paul’s letters, including the one he wrote to the believers in Ephesus. In the salutation of his letter, Paul refers to them as “saints” or holy ones. He wanted them to understand their identity as those who had been set apart or consecrated by God. They were no longer citizens of Ephesus, but they were now members of the household of God and could count themselves as citizens of a new kingdom whose ruler was Jesus Christ the Lord.

As Paul begins his letter, he does so with a wish that the Ephesian believers will experience the grace and peace that are rightfully theirs because of God’s loving sacrifice of His Son. For Paul, grace (charis) was the undeserved expression of God’s favor that allowed them to partake in the blessing of salvation provided for them through faith in Jesus Christ. God had shown them grace, His unmerited favor, by opening their eyes to the reality of Jesus’ atoning work on their behalf. And because they had believed in the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ death, they now enjoyed peace with God the Father. They had been reconciled and restored to a right relationship with God because of their faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ.

And Paul will spend the rest of his letter expounding on the incredible nature of their new relationship with God and the influence it should have on their everyday lives.

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