God’s Will: Your Holiness

1 Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one transgress and wrong his brother in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, as we told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness. Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. – 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 ESV

The chapter and verse designations found in our English translations were not In the original letter sent by Paul to the Thessalonians. So, the rather abrupt break we find between the close of chapter 3 and the beginning of chapter four would not have been there. And that artificially imposed structure on the letter can cause some unnecessary confusion when trying to determine Paul’s intent and meaning.

Chapter three ends with Paul expressing his strong desire that God increase the love of Thessalonian believers for one another and for those outside their fellowship. And his prayer is that God would “establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thessalonians 3:13 ESV). Paul’s concern is that they live loves marked by love and godliness. He longs to see their inner heart transformation manifest itself through external expressions that give evidence to their holiness.

And Paul carries that thought into the next paragraph. The word “finally” is translated from the Greek word loipon, which can have a wide range of meanings, depending upon the context. It could be translated, “in addition” or “moreover.” Paul is expanding on what he has just said. He’s adding to his thoughts by providing his readers with further counsel regarding the link between their status as believers in Jesus Christ and the behavior that marks their lives. Paul had previously provided them with instructions in how “to walk and to please God,” and he commends them for having done so. But he also encourages them to “do so more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV). They were not to grow complacent or content. This was no time to rest on their laurels or to become satisfied with the current condition of their spiritual lives. 

And it must be noted how Paul weaves together two very important aspects regarding the Christian’s spiritual maturity. At the close of chapter three, he expressed his firm belief that it was God alone who could increase the level of their love and cause it to overflow. And only God could make their hearts strong, blameless, and holy. The inner transformation of their lives was totally dependent upon divine power, not human effort. It was impossible for them to manufacture, through human means, the kind of love God demanded. There is no way that they could repair the sin-damaged condition of their own hearts through self-renovation. Man is incapable of seeing the true state of his inner life. As the prophet Jeremiah put it, “The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is?” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT). And even if he could see how wicked his heart is, man is powerless to do anything about it. That’s the meaning behind a comment made by God regarding the people of Judah and recorded in the book of Jeremiah.

“Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin? Can a leopard take away its spots? Neither can you start doing good, for you have always done evil.” – Jeremiah 13:23 NLT

God asked two rhetorical questions that shared the same obvious answer: No. The people of God were powerless to change their behavior because they couldn’t change their hearts. Their actions were nothing more than an outer expression of their inner condition.

So, Paul reminds the Thessalonian believers that it is the power of God that has transformed them and made them His children. Their newfound status as sons and daughters of God was His doing. But that didn’t mean God was finished with them. Otherwise, Paul would not have prayed for God to increase their love to make their hearts strong, blameless, and holy. They were works in process. Which is what Paul meant when he wrote to the believers in Philippi:

God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns. – Philippians 1:6 NLT

But Paul’s reference to God’s work in them doesn’t mean that God expects no work from them. And he makes that point perfectly clear when he states, “this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV). This little verse packs a punch and yet is easily overlooked or ignored by most Christians. It provides a remarkable glimpse into God’s divine will for the life of the believer, and it is all summed up in the one word, sanctification.

The Greek word Paul used is hagiasmos and, like most Greek words, it is rich in meaning. It is sometimes translated as holiness, consecration, and purification. And it can be used to signify a position (a holy nation) and a process (be holy). In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul provides them with a list that describes the unrighteous, or those outside of Christ. It includes the sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, men who practice homosexuality, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, and swindlers. Then Paul makes an interesting statement.  

…such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Corinthians 6:11 ESV

Notice that he lists the Corinthian believers as having been sanctified. In this case, he is referring to their having been set apart by God. In the process of their salvation, their sinful condition was cleansed by the righteous blood of Christ, making them pure and acceptable before God and able to be set apart for His use. Like the utensils used in temple worship, they had to be cleansed and purified before they could be deemed worthy of use for God. Which is what Peter meant when he wrote:

you are a chosen people. You are royal priests, a holy [hagios] nation, God’s very own possession. – 1 Peter 2:9 NLT

Don’t miss what Peter is saying. He tells his readers that they are a holy nation. They have been chosen by God and set apart as His very own possession. They belong to Him. Which is exactly what Paul told the believers in Corinth.

You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price. So you must honor God with your body. – 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 NLT

They had been declared holy by God and set apart for His use. Which meant that they were to honor God with the entirety of their lives. And that is the whole point behind Paul’s admonitions to the believers in Thessalonica and Corinth. Notice the similarities between his comments in the two letters.

He tells the Thessalonians, “stay away from all sexual sin. Then each of you will control his own body and live in holiness and honor—not in lustful passion like the pagans who do not know God and his ways” (Thessalonians 4:3-5 NLT). And his words to the Corinthians were similar.

Run from sexual sin! No other sin so clearly affects the body as this one does. For sexual immorality is a sin against your own body. Don’t you realize that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in you and was given to you by God? – 1 Corinthians 18-19 NLT

In a sense, Paul is commanding both groups to live their lives in a manner that matches their calling. They have been set apart by God for His use, and their lives were to reflect it. They were not free to live according to their own desires anymore. They had been bought with a price and belonged to God. And it was His will that they live sanctified, set apart lives.

And, as it to make sure the don’t miss his point, Paul states, “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:7 ESV). There’s that Greek word, hagiasmos again. It is the very same word that is translated as “sanctification” in verse 3. Paul is emphasizing that the believer’s calling by God is for the purpose of holiness or sanctification, not impurity.

There is a very important truth revealed in this verse that is easily overlooked and underappreciated. Paul says that God has not called us for impurity but in holiness. Those two prepositions are critical. The first one conveys a destination or activity. The second has to do with status or position. Holiness is not to be viewed as a process, but a positional reality. Holiness or sanctification is not to be viewed as a progression towards something as much as a revelation of something. We are already holy in God’s eyes. So, we are to live as what we are. We have been set apart by God in holiness. That is our new status or condition. We have been set apart by God for His will.

But there is going to be a constant war between our will and that of God. And one of the areas of life where the battle will rage the hottest is in regards to sexual sin. It was obviously a problem among the Thessalonian believers, or Paul would not have addressed it. While they enjoyed status as sanctified saints, they were going to have to live lives that gave evidence of who there were. And Paul reminds them that they had the indwelling power of the Spirit of God available to them. This was not about will power and self-effort. But it was about a willingness to make God’s will for them their highest priority. And Paul minces no words when he tells them, “this is the will of God, your sanctification.”

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

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

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

Advertisements

Devoted to Good Works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fellowship of Faith

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus. And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:3-11 ESV

When reading the letters of Paul it is essential to remember that, in most cases, he was writing to a community of believers, not a single individual. There are those cases where he wrote personal letters addressed to individuals, such as Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. But the majority of his correspondence was addressed to a corporate body of believers located in a specific city or community. This letters are usually referred to as his pastoral epistles. In them, we get a glimpse of Paul’s strong sense of calling as a shepherd over the flock of Jesus Christ.

At one point in his ministry, Paul told the elders of the church in Ephesus:

“I have done the Lord’s work humbly and with many tears. I have endured the trials that came to me from the plots of the Jews. I never shrank back from telling you what you needed to hear, either publicly or in your homes. I have had one message for Jews and Greeks alike—the necessity of repenting from sin and turning to God, and of having faith in our Lord Jesus.” – Acts 20:19-21 NLT

He wasn’t boasting, but simply reminding these men that he had made their spiritual well-being his highest priority. Without an ounce of pride or arrogance, Paul was able to say to them:

“I declare today that I have been faithful. If anyone suffers eternal death, it’s not my fault, for I didn’t shrink from declaring all that God wants you to know.” – Acts 20:26-27 NLT

And then he challenged to follow his example.

“So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders.” – Acts 20:28 NLT

Paul had a deep and abiding sense of love for the church, the body of Christ. Yes, he cared for each individual Christian, but he knew that the strength of the church lie in the overall health of its constituency. While the body of Christ was made up of individual believers, God had chosen to place them within a single unit where their spiritual gifts, talents, and mutual love for one another could have the greatest impact. Paul made this point clear when writing to the church in Corinth:

“For the body does not consist of one member but of many.” – 1 Corinthians 12:14 NLT

“Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” – I Corinthians 12:27 NLT

His emphasis was always on unity and community.

“But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” – 1 Corinthians 12:24-26 NLT

So, as we read the opening lines of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, we must keep in mind that he is writing to a group of people. Even their reading of his letter would have taken place in a group context. But typically, we tend to read Paul’s letters as part of our personal devotionals. And, in doing so, we make the mistake of reading the letters as if they are addressed to us as individuals. We take every personal pronoun personally. When we see the word “you,”  we assume Paul is somehow speaking to us as an individual. So, when we read, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ,” we apply it to ourselves. When Paul states, “I pray that your love will overflow more and more, and that you will keep on growing in knowledge and understanding,” we read it as if he is addressing us individually, and by name.

But each of these personal pronouns used by Paul are plural in nature. He is addressing the body, not the individual. You could almost read them as, “you all.” So, as you make your way through this letter, imagine it is being read to you as you sit alongside your brothers and sisters in Christ from your local fellowship. Yes, his admonitions most certainly apply on an individual basis, but we miss the point of his letter if we fail to see them as messages to the corporate body of believers.

With all that in mind, look at how Paul opens his letter to the church in Philippi. He expresses his thanks to God for their very existence. He is grateful that God has allowed him to play a part in the establishment of this local fellowship. Remember, it all began with the conversion of a woman named Lydia, who came to faith in Christ after hearing the gospel from Paul and Silas. This wealthy and influential Gentile woman became a key leader in the new faith community there in Philippi, even hosting the fledgling church in her home.

Paul is grateful to God, because he realizes that the ministry he played a part in establishing was continuing without him. Paul was under house arrest in Rome and unable to visit the many churches he had helped to plant. But he was encouraged to know that the believers in Philippi were his partners in the gospel. In his absence, the message of the good news of Jesus Christ was being spread throughout the city. The Greek word that is translated as “partnership” is koinōnia, and it can also be translated as “fellowship.” Even though they were separated by many miles, Paul shared a sense of unity and mutual commitment to spreading the gospel throughout Philippi.

But while Paul was concerned about the good news of Jesus Christ be taken to every corner of Philippi, he knew that the success of that enterprise hinged on the spiritual health of the faith community to whom he wrote. Paul always maintained a balance between his desire for salvation and sanctification. He greatly desired to see people come to faith in Christ, but was equally concerned that they grow in their knowledge of and likeness to Christ. That is why he told the believers in Philippi that he was confident that God “who began a good work in you will bring it to completion.” God would finish what He started – in the church there at Philippi, but also in the lives of each individual believer.

Yet, it is essential that we see Paul’s emphasis on spiritual growth within its corporate context. Any increase in Christ-likeness we may experience is not for our own benefit. The gifts of the Spirit we have been given are not meant for us, but are intended to benefit and bless the body of Christ. Our salvation is not meant to be myopic and self-centered, but other-oriented and selfless in its focus.

When Paul states that his prayer is that their “love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment,” he is speaking to the entire body of believers there in Philippi. He desires that their love for one another grow exponentially. He longs that their knowledge and discernment increase steadily. But knowledge and discernment of what? The will of God. What is excellent or, as the New Living Translation puts it, “what really matters.” And, later on in this same letter, Paul will summarize exactly what he means.

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. Keep putting into practice all you learned and received from me—everything you heard from me and saw me doing.” – Philippians 4:8-9 NLT

And as their love, knowledge and discernment grows, they will become “pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:1-11 ESV).

The fruit of righteousness. That’s an interesting phrase that can be easily overlooked. Paul is letting his audience know that their corporate increase in righteousness will have benefits. It will produce fruit. And if you think about it, a tree that produces fruit does so, not for its own benefit, but for the benefit of others. And when Paul discusses the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5, the list of attributes he provides are all outwardly-focused: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

None of these things are meant to benefit the individual. Love is meant to share, not hoard. Joy is something we give away, not greedily pursue for own satisfaction. Peace is something we enjoy with others, not in isolation. Patience is impossible without the presence of others in our lives who put it to the test. All of these things are meant to be mutually shared and enjoyed as a faith community. As Paul told the believers in Corinth: “A spiritual gift is given to each of us so we can help each other” (1 Corinthians 12:7 NLT).

So, Paul begins his letter to the believers in Philippi by reminding them that they are in partnership with him and with one another for the cause of Christ. They were in this together. Christianity is a team sport, not an individual event. Our salvation is meant to be lived out in community, not isolation. Our sanctification is intended to be a group activity, not an individual pursuit done in secrecy and seclusion.

The fellowship of faith is powerful. The community of faith is transformational. The greatest impact any believer will have will be in proportion to his or her connection to and reliance upon the faith community into which God has placed them.

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

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

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

Acting Like Infants.

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. – 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 ESV

There is nothing particularly wrong with acting like a child – if you are one. But we all know how awkward it is to be around someone who refuses to act their age. Watching a grown man behave like a teenager is painful and extremely disappointing. It’s obvious to all that something is wrong with his behavior. He has refused to grow up and own up to the responsibilities that come with adulthood. And his immature actions usually end up impacting every area of his life. The same can be said for spiritual immaturity. It’s not it’s wrong. Every believer starts out as a spiritual infant in Christ. We begin the journey of faith as metaphorical newborns who require what Paul refers to as the “milk” of God’s Word. This is normal and natural. It is to be expected. It was Peter who wrote, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:2 ESV). There is a time in every believer’s life when their spiritual diet must be simple and easily digestible. But as they grow, they are to move on to the “meat” of the Word. They are to grow up into salvation, learning to grasp the depth of God’s love, the significance of His grace, their complete dependence upon His strength, and the full weight of His call to holiness. The author of the book of Hebrews had some strong words to say to the recipients of is letter:

You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. – Hebrews 5:12-13 NLT

They were stuck on the basics, the elemental principles of God’s Word. They knew that Jesus was the Son of God and that He had died for their sins. They understood that they were completely dependent upon Him for salvation. They had believed that by placing their faith in Him they would be restored to a right relationship with God. But their knowledge of God’s Word had not gone beyond that point. Their grasp of all that God had done and all that He had in store for them remained limited and so their behavior remained so as well. Paul had given the Ephesian believers a goal to “be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13 NLT). They were to grow in Christ-likeness, becoming increasingly more like Him in their daily conduct. And the result of this spiritual growth would be clearly evident.

Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. – Ephesians 4:14-15 NLT

The problem with the believers in Corinth was that their behavior was revealing their spiritual immaturity. They were bickering and boasting, fighting and fuming over who was more spiritual and who had the best leader. Paul said, “there is jealousy and strife among you” and that was proof that they were “of the flesh and behaving only in a human way” (1 Corinthians 3:3 ESV). They were acting like children, arguing over things that didn’t matter and that only revealed their lack of understanding of the ways of God. They were making much of men rather than much of God. They misunderstood that these men were merely messengers, acting on behalf of God. This led Paul to ask them, “who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us” (1 Corinthians 3:5 ESV). They were nothing more than instruments in the hand of God. Any value they had came from God’s decision to use them to accomplish His will. In a subsequent letter to the Corinthians, Paul would state:

You see, we don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. – 2 Corinthians 4:5-7 NLT

A more mature believer has a growing awareness that God is the source of all that we enjoy regarding our faith. It was He who called us, not a man. It was His Son who died for us. It was His Spirit who opened our eyes so that we could understand the truth of the gospel. It is His Word that provides us with insight into His nature and daily guidance for our journey of faith. And it is God who gave us apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers “to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT). And Paul reminded the believers in Corinth that he, Cephas and Apollos were nothing more than “God’s fellow workers” and they were “God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:9 ESV). Growing believers have a growing understanding of and appreciation for God’s work in their lives. They grow in their appreciation for His love and mercy. They grow in their gratitude for His unfailing forgiveness. They grow in their desire to please Him, not in order to earn His love, but because they are loved. They grow in their dependence upon Him. They grow in their desire for Him. They grow in their hunger for His Word. They grow in their trust in His promises. They grow into their salvation. And all this growth shows up in their behavior.

A Different Gospel.

Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— and all the brothers who are with me,

To the churches of Galatia: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. – Galatians 1:1-9 ESV

As is usual with all of Paul’s letters, he began this one with his normal salutation. He introduced himself as the author of the letter and affirmed his authority as an apostle of God, commissioned by Jesus Himself. He then offered them his normal greeting of grace and peace. But then he somewhat uncharacteristically went from pleasantries to a stinging denunciation of his audience, accusing them of having deserted the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul wasted no time getting to his main point for writing the letter. This was a serious matter that needed to be addressed boldly and immediately. Paul knew there was no room for complacency or compromise. The spiritual well-being of the entire congregation was at stake.

It is likely that the church or churches to which Paul wrote were located in the southern region of Galatian, a Roman province in Asia Minor. It is believed that Paul helped bring the gospel to this area during his first missionary journey.

Now at Iconium they entered together into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a great number of both Jews and Greeks believed. But the unbelieving Jews stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles. When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, and there they continued to preach the gospel. – Acts 14:1-7 ESV

Paul and Barnabas had helped to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to this area and had immediately run into opposition. First, the Jews who lived there saw them as a threat. In their minds, Paul and Barnabas represented a dangerous sect called “The Way” that was propagating heresy and leading many Jews astray. Before coming to faith in Christ, Paul was a God-fearing Jew whose life mission was to persecute the followers of The Way. AFter his arrest outside the temple in Jerusalem, Paul addressed the crowd and said, “And I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arresting both men and women and throwing them in prison” (Acts 22:4 NLT). But after His face-to-face encounter with the resurrected Christ while on his way to Damascus, Paul had been transformed from persecutor to proclaimer. He went from trying to destroy the gospel to serving as its greatest missionary and zealous defender. And it was his passion for the gospel that led him to write this letter.

Paul’s main complaint against the believers in Galatia was that they were deserting the gospel. The Greek word Paul used is μετατίθημι (metatithēmi) and it means “to fall away or desert from one person or thing to another” (“G3346 – metatithēmi – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). They were being persuaded to turn away from the gospel that Paul and Barnabas had preached and were accepting “different” gospel. There were those who had infiltrated the congregations in Galatia and were preaching a ἕτερος (heteros) gospel. It was “another” gospel – different, altered, not of the same nature (“G2087 – heteros – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). And it was this alternative gospel that Paul so vehemently attacks in his letter.

It is believed that Paul was dealing with the influence of a group called the Judaizers. These were Jews who had converted to Christianity, but who were propagating the belief that circumcision and adherence to the Mosaic Law were necessary for Gentiles to be truly saved. “‘Judaizers’ refers to Jewish Christians who sought to induce Gentiles to observe Jewish religious customs: to ‘judaize’” (Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology). These individuals seemed to follow Paul wherever he went, bringing their message of law or human effort and mixing it with the grace that Paul preached. In doing so, they brought confusion to the new converts in Galatia and earned the wrath of Paul. But before Paul addressed the proponents of this other gospel, he admonished those who had so quickly bought into it. He was astonished at how quickly they had turned from grace to works. “I am shocked that you are turning away so soon from God, who called you to himself through the loving mercy of Christ” (Galatians 1:6 NLT). “The Greek word thaumazo (“I am amazed”) was a conventional expression in Greek letters that signaled astonishment, rebuke, disapproval, and disappointment” (Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes of Galatians, 2007 Edition). Paul was dumbfounded. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. And he wasn’t willing to sit back and ignore what was happening in Galatia. He knew just how dangerous and insidious this alternative gospel could be, and he was not going to tolerate it.

Paul will spend the rest of his letter defending the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is good news because it is based solely on grace. The good news is not opposed to effort, but it must always be relegated to its proper place. Human effort plays no part in salvation. But it is an essential after-effect of coming to faith in Christ. Paul told the believers in Philippi, “Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear” (Philippians 2:12 NLT). Effort has its place, but not when it comes to salvation. Paul makes this important distinction clear in his letter to the Ephesians:

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:8-9 NLT

Dallas Willard puts it well: “The path of spiritual growth in the riches of Christ is not a passive one. Grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning. Effort is action. Earning is attitude” (Dallas Willard, “Live Life To the Full”).

Truth and Love.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. – Ephesians 4:15-16 ESV

Some Christians thoroughly enjoy speaking the truth. They get a sort of perverse sense of joy out of correcting others and showing them they’re wrong. These kinds of people can use the Bible like a baseball bat to pound the truth into the lives of those with whom they disagree or deem errant in their views. And while the Scriptures are “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV), they are not meant to be wielded like a weapon. Yes, Paul will later on in this same letter describe the Word of God as “the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17 ESV), he intended it to be used against “the schemes of the devil”, not one another.

The truth is vital to the life of the church. In fact, Paul told his young protege, Timothy, “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:14-15 ESV). The church of God is to be a defender and champion of the truth. In a world mired in relativity and immersed in the lies of the enemy, the church is to be the bastion of truth, based on the Word of God. It was Jesus who said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32 ESV). The truth as it pertains to sin can be painful and difficult to hear. But God has revealed the antidote or remedy to mankind’s sin problem: Jesus. The Bible reveals the truth about man, sin, God, and the means of being justified with Him. As the church, we have the truth regarding God’s plan of salvation wrapped up in the gospel of Jesus Christ. And we have the Scriptures, which contain all the truth we need regarding everything from how we got here to where we are going. It is the sole source of truth regarding life and death, sin and salvation, God and man, meaning and hopelessness, right and wrong, and every other issue relevant to our existence as human beings.

But the truth must always be accompanied by love. Truth without love can be hurtful and harmful. One of my favorite passages in the Scriptures is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. He told them, “Be watchful, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:13-14 ESV). For years, I only focused on verse 13. I loved its blunt, direct way of commanding men to step up and act like men. It was an in-your-face sort of verse that had a testosterone-laden feel to it. Then one day I happened to notice verse 14: “Let all that you do be done in love.” Oops. I had conveniently overlooked that vital part of Paul’s command. If I attempt to stand firm in the faith without love, I will tend to come across as dogmatic and prideful. I will care more about how I am perceived by others than how much I care for others.

I love how The Message paraphrases 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s great chapter on love:

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing. If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. – 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 MSG

Even good and seemingly godly things, done without love, are worthless. Which is why Peter warned, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8 ESV). Telling someone who is lost that they are a sinner might be true, but it could also be harmful and hurtful. Revealing their sinful state without lovingly introducing them to the hope of the Savior would be nothing short of cruel. In the body of Christ, we are to speak truth to one another, but always in love. Our motivation should not just be for conviction and correction, but redemption and restoration. Which is why Paul told the Galatian believers, “Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path” (Galatians 6:1 NLT).

Paul’s goal for the churches to which he ministered was their growth – not just numerical growth, but spiritual. Certainly, he wanted to see more and more people come to faith in Christ, but he also wanted to see all those who did so grow in their knowledge of and relationship to Christ. And there is really no way for a believer to grow outside the context of the body of Christ. It is together that we make up the body of Christ, with Him as our head. And Paul emphasized that when each part of the body is working properly, according to the Spirit’s gifting, the body grows and builds itself up in love. Love isn’t a feeling. It’s an attitude. It is a relationally-based, God-given power to impact the life and spiritual well-being of another person. Neither truth or love are relative or subjective. God has not left either one up to us to define. We are to speak His truth, not ours. We are to love according to His terms, not our own. And when we blend His truth with His kind of love, the body of Christ grows. Like sun and rain, truth and love are vital to the spiritual well-being of the church.

 

Gifted For Growth.

But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. – Ephesians 4:7-14 ESV

Paul has stressed that the believers in Ephesus live together in unity, recognizing their shared faith and common bond in Christ. They had each been called by God. They had been placed in the body of Christ by God. And together, they were to live their lives in such a way as to bring glory and honor to God. And to make that possible, Paul reminded them that God had given them gifts. Paraphrasing from Psalm 68:18, Paul emphasized that when Jesus ascended back to heaven, He gave gifts to men. This happened as a result of the coming of the Holy Spirit, and was first made evident at Pentecost. When the Holy Spirit indwells a believer at their salvation, He gives them a gift – a supernatural enablement designed to build up the body of Christ. Paul described the nature of the gifts in his letter to the Corinthians.

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.  All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. – 1 Corinthians 12:7-11 ESV

The gifts of the Spirit are God-given, Spirit-empowered, and not man-made. They are not talents or natural capabilities. You are not born with these gifts.

Here in his letter to the believers in Ephesus, Paul talks about God’s gift of individuals to the church. These are divinely appointed and equipped leaders whom God has chosen for the task of leading His people. Just as God chose and appointed Moses to lead the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and just as He chose David to provide the people of Israel with leadership as they moved from a kingdom of former slaves to prominence as one of the greatest nations in the world. God provided the church with leaders. Paul describes them as apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. An apostle was literally a “sent one” or messenger. The original 11 disciples had been commissioned and sent by Jesus to take the gospel message to the world. Paul, though not one of the twelve disciples who had been chosen by Jesus, viewed himself as an apostle because he had been commissioned by the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. The primary role of the apostles was to spread the gospel and establish churches throughout the known world.

Prophets were “forth-tellers.” They had the divinely enabled ability to speak forth truth as based on the Word of God. They seemed to be responsible for building up the body of Christ, especially the local churches. Paul provides us with some insight into their role in his letter to the Corinthian believers: “the one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Corinthians 14:3 ESV).

Evangelists were “heralds of salvation.” They were gifted by the Spirit to share the gospel. Their role was essential, in that they played a significant part in leading others to Christ. It seems that some evangelists stayed close to home, ministering in their local communities, while others itinerant, traveling from city to city in order to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.

When Paul refers to pastors and teachers, it is believed that he is speaking of one function, not two. It could be translated as “pastor-teacher” – referring to a single role within the church. Regardless of whether Paul speaking of one or two gifts, these individuals were essential in shepherding and teaching the body of Christ. The term “pastor” literally means “shepherd.” His role was to minister to the needs of the flock of Jesus Christ. He was to care for them, protect them, guide and feed them. A teacher was given the responsibility to teach the people of God. He was to instruct them in the Word of God and ensure that they understood sound doctrine. This particular role was essential to the well-being of the church because of the growing problem of false teaching and errant doctrine.

Together, these gifted individuals were to minister to God’s people, equipping them for the work of the ministry. It seems quite clear that Paul did not have in mind a professional clergy who did all the work of the ministry on behalf of the people of God. They were to be equippers and trainers, ensuring that the believers under their care were able to do the work of ministry within the local congregation. It was as individual believers were properly taught, trained, and equipped, that they were able to minister to one another and build up the body of Christ. Just a few verses later in this chapter, Paul describes the outcome of a well-equipped church: “when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16 ESV).

The goal is growth. The objective is spiritual health and doctrinal soundness. Jesus did not leave His flock defenseless or alone. He provided us with the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit has given the church gifted individuals to lead, guide and equip the body of Christ. Paul has in mind spiritual maturity. There was no place for spiritual stagnation or immaturity. God expected His people to grow and so did Paul. But it was a team effort. Each was expected to do his or her job, selflessly and sacrificially. For how long? “…until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13 ESV).

Knowing God.

For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 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, 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, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 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. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. – Ephesians 1:15-23 ESV

Paul was grateful to God for the believers in Ephesus. He was thankful to God that they had heard the word of truth, the gospel, and had believed. As a result, they had received the Holy Spirit, as a guarantee of their future inheritance of eternal salvation. And Paul gave God all the glory. But he also gave God his thanks. He thanked God for the news he had received about the believers in Ephesus regarding their faith in Christ and their love for one another. They were growing. Their relationship with Christ was maturing and the presence of the Spirit within them was bearing visible fruit. And Paul knew that it was all due to the gracious work of God in their lives. He had made it possible. He was the one who had called them and He was the one who was sanctifying them. And one day, He would be the one who would glorify them, “to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:14 ESV).

But Paul didn’t just express gratitude to God for all that He had done. He let his readers know that he regularly petitioned God for their ongoing spiritual well-being. And he was very specific as to what he asked God for. This was not so much a prayer as it was an outline of his how he prayed for them. It seems that Paul wanted them to know just exactly what he viewed as necessary and of highest priority for their spiritual health. The first thing He asked God to do for them is quite revealing.

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… – Ephesians 1:17 ESV

Here Paul is asking God to give the believers in Ephesus the capacity to know Him better. God, the transcendent, holy, unapproachable God of the universe has chosen to make Himself known to men. Had God not chosen to reveal Himself, no man or woman would ever be able to comprehend Him or hope to have a relationship with Him. In his letter to the Romans, Paul expressed the “otherness” of God.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!

“For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counselor?”

“Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?” – Romans 11:33-35 ESV

Yet he told the believers in Corinth…

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”—

these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. – 1 Corinthians 2:9-12 ESV

Because we have the Spirit of God living within us, we have the capacity to know the mind of God. We have been given the privilege of understanding the things of God. And it is primarily through the Word of God that He has chosen to reveal Himself to us. Paul was not praying for a mere intellectual knowledge of God, but an experiential, personal and intimate understanding of who He was and all that He was doing in their lives and in the world around them.

But Paul’s prayer for a growing knowledge of God had an ulterior motive. He wanted to see their hearts enlightened. For Paul, the heart was representative of the individual’s entire inner being. He knew that as they grew to know God better, they would be radically and totally transformed from the inside out. It is as we come to know God, that we truly come to know ourselves and the world around us. A clearer and more concise understanding of God gives allows us to comprehend truth and of view the world as it really is. It is as we have our understanding enlightened that we begin to see that this world is not all there is. There is more. Much more.

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 – Ephesians 1:18 ESV

…and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe… – Ephesians 1:19 ESV

Paul wanted them to know the hope to which God had called them. He knew that they were going to experience difficulties in this life. He knew that their faith journey was going to be rough at times. So he wanted them to fully understand that God’s divine plan for them included their future glorification. He wanted them to know that God’s power was great enough and His promise reliable enough to see them through any circumstance they may encounter in this life. God’s “immeasurable greatness” was working on their behalf at all times. And just so they would know how immeasurable that greatness really way, Paul described it for them.

…according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places… – Ephesians 1:19-20 ESV

The very power that raised Jesus from the dead and allowed Him to return to His rightful place at His Father’s side, is the power working on behalf of every believer. It is the power that will one day make possible our own glorification and the redemption of our bodies. What God did for Jesus, He will do for us. And He is already sanctifying us, transforming us into the likeness of His Son, day by day, through the power of His Spirit and according to His divine redemptive plan. Paul wanted his readers to know that God was in complete control. His Son was at His side and interceding on behalf of His body, the church.

And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. – Ephesians 1:22-23 ESV

As we come to know God better, we come to trust Him more fully. We grow in our understanding of His sovereignty and His Son’s work on our behalf. We are His people. We are the temple of His Spirit. And as Peter reminds us, “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5 ESV). God is at work in us. He is doing great work through us. He has great plans for us. And the better we know Him, the more we will trust Him to do what He has promised.

 

We Don’t Grow Alone.

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load. – Galatians 6:1-5 ESV

The two extremes of legalism and license both tend to encourage lifestyles of self-centeredness and selfishness. Law-keeping becomes a competition, where we compare our “spirituality” with others. The measure of our worthiness becomes a somewhat subjective determination based on our success compared to that of others. A lifestyle of license is inherently self-absorbed, where the individual’s wants and desires come first and others become tools or pawns to get what you want. Legalism and license are both flesh-based and produce harmful and hateful outcomes.

Yet Paul wants his readers to know that a life based on the power of the indwelling Spirit of God is something different altogether. It produces fruit that is beneficial to all those around us. It is anything but self-centered and self-absorbed. An apple tree does not produce fruit for itself. It is for the benefit of others. And in the same way, the Christian’s life is to be lived selflessly, focused on meeting the needs of those around them, including other believers as well as the lost. And Paul provides a practical, everyday life example. He describes a situation where a fellow believer is overcome by some sin. The word Paul used to describe this individual’s situation refers to someone being overtaken or surprised by sin. It would be like a slower runner suddenly being overtaken or caught by a much faster runner. The idea is of a believer’s sin suddenly catching up with him. He didn’t see it coming. Rather than being premeditated and planned, it caught him completely by surprise. This is not describing someone dealing with an ongoing, unrepentant sin issue, but an individual who suddenly and unexpectedly sins. In a case like that, we are to “restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” There is a humility and tenderness that must accompany our confrontation. Pride has no place in a situation like this. Exposing the other believer’s failure should produce no joy or create any sense of self-satisfaction in us. We are not the holier Christian confronting the less-spiritual brother in Christ. When Paul says, “you who are spiritual,” he is simply referring to someone who has the Spirit living within them. The Greek word he uses is πνευματικός (pneumatikos) and it refers to “one who is filled with and governed by the Spirit of God” (“G4152 – pneumatikos – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible).

Those who are living according to the Holy Spirit within them will naturally care about those around them. They will have a supernatural sensitivity to the spiritual condition of their fellow believers and a Spirit-led desire to get involved in their lives. If we see a fellow believer suddenly caught up in sin, we are to loving lead them back on to the right path. The confrontation is to be done lovingly and constructively. The goal is repentance and restoration. But Paul warns us to be cautious and careful, “lest you too be tempted.” This is a reminder to not forget our own sin natures and susceptibility to falling into the same trap. It was John Bradford who said, “There but for the grace of God, go I.” That needs to be our approach when coming alongside a struggling brother or sister in Christ.

Paul tells us that if we share one another’s burdens, we are fulfilling the law of Christ. Paul most likely is referring to the words of Jesus when He described the greatest commandment as: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40 ESV). Christianity is not about a lengthy list of dos and dont’s. It is also not about a lifestyle of self-absorbed freedom to do what you want. It is about loving God and loving others. It is about living in the grace of God and extending that same grace to all those around you. We are fools if we think we are somehow better than someone else. Our right standing before God is due to His Son’s work on our behalf, not our own self-effort. We have no right to think ourselves better than another human being. If we do, we are self-deceived. Christianity is not about comparison or competition. It is not about how spiritual I am compared with another believer. I am not to compare my sin with anyone else. As a believer, I am called to examine my own life, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and allow Him to show me my sin. If I do so, I will find I have no reason to boast or be prideful. But if I look for others to compare myself with, I can always find someone who appears to be a worse sinner than I am, and that ultimately leads to pride. Each of us is responsible for our own sin. It is not a competition. But we have a God-given responsibility to come alongside one another and encourage godliness. Christianity is a community activity. It is a team sport. We don’t grow alone. Which is why Paul told the believers in Thessalonica, “So encourage each other and build each other up, just as you are already doing” (1 Thessalonians 5:11 NLT).

Stay the Course.

Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. – 2 Peter 3:14-18

Peter wraps up his letter by encouraging his readers to stay diligent and dedicated to the truth they have been taught. Peter understands that the delay in Christ’s return can be difficult to understand and cause many to begin to doubt whether it is really going to happen. He also knows that living a godly life is not easy, and that watching the lost sin and not only get away with it, but thoroughly enjoy it, can be frustrating. But he wants his readers to stay committed and to continue to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18 ESV). As Peter has already stated, God’s seeming delay in sending back His Son is purposeful. He has a reason and His timing is perfect. Peter reminds them to “count the patience of our Lord as salvation” (2 Peter 3:15 ESV). In other words, rather than mistakenly concluding that there is no judgment at all, as the false teachers were doing, Peter wants them to see God’s delay from a different perspective. The longer God waited, the more time there was for people to come to faith in Christ. Not only that, it provided believers with more time to grow in the grace and knowledge of their Lord and Savior. In other words, it provided ample time for the divine process of sanctification to take place. If Jesus had died simply to take us to heaven, He would have done so the minute we placed our faith in Him. But our salvation was to be followed by our sanctification, our growth into Christ-likeness. That meant that we were to remain behind.

When Peter tells his readers to “count the patience of our Lord as salvation,” he is echoing the words of Paul. He even admits so. In his letter to the Romans, Paul warns his audience, “Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?” (Romans 2:4 NLT). Paul was writing to believers. He wanted them to understand just how patient God was, how gracious He was being with them, giving them time to continue the process of salvation. Part of what God is doing, through the work of the Holy Spirit, is exposing those areas of sin in our lives that need to be confessed. He is constantly saving us from ourselves and redeeming us from the vestiges of the sin-filled lives we once lived. He is in the process of transforming us into the likeness of His Son. He has already justified us, declaring us positionally righteous in His sight. But now He is sanctifying us, making us practically righteous, by removing our old nature and replacing it with a new nature. Paul puts it this way: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18 ESV).

So Peter tells his readers to “be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace” (2 Peter 3:14 ESV). He wanted them to know that Christ was coming again, contrary to popular opinion and the teaching of “the ignorant and unstable.” The false teachers twisted the Scriptures to make them say what they wanted to hear. But Peter warned that God was faithful and His Word was reliable. So they were to live their lives without spot or blemish, unlike the false teachers who he describes as being “blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions” (2 Peter 2:13 ESV). Peter didn’t want to see believers carried away by the tempting promises and slick sounding words of the false teachers. He wanted to prevent them from being “carried away with the error of lawless people” (2 Peter 3:17 ESV). And the antidote for spiritual error has always been spiritual growth. That is why he told them to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

When we first come to know Christ, our understanding of Him is minimal at best. We accept Him as our Savior, but there is probably little else that we know about Him. We do not fully understand the magnitude of what He has done. We have a minimal understanding of and appreciation for grace. Our knowledge and awareness of all that He accomplished for us on the cross is nominal at best. That is why Paul told the Colossian believers:

…we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. – Colossians 1:9-10 ESV

We are to grow up in our salvation. We are to increase in our understanding of who Christ is and what He has done. We are to constantly expand our understanding of God’s will for us as we read His Word and listen to the inner promptings of His Holy Spirit within us. Spiritual growth is non-optional for believers. We find admonitions to grow all throughout the New Testament.

I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. – 1 Corinthians 3:2-3 ESV

You have been believers so long now that you ought to be teaching others. Instead, you need someone to teach you again the basic things about God’s word. You are like babies who need milk and cannot eat solid food. – Hebrew 5:12 NLT

So let us stop going over the basic teachings about Christ again and again. Let us go on instead and become mature in our understanding. Surely we don’t need to start again with the fundamental importance of repenting from evil deeds and placing our faith in God. – Hebrews 6:1 NLT

Dear brothers and sisters, don’t be childish in your understanding of these things. Be innocent as babies when it comes to evil, but be mature in understanding matters of this kind. – 1 Corinthians 14:20 NLT

We must stay the course. We must run the race to win. We must complete the task set before us. We must finish strong. As Peter stated earlier in this same letter, “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life” (2 Peter 1:3 ESV). We can live godly lives in the midst of ungodliness. We can live righteous lives while surrounded by unrighteousness. We can live Christ-like lives among those who deny Him. But it requires growth. It requires constant dependence upon the One who saved us and a trust that He is continually sanctifying us.