An Alien and Undeserved Righteousness

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” – Luke 18:9-14 ESV

With His telling of the parable of the unrighteous judge, it appears that Jesus was taking a bit of a diversion from discussing the shortcomings of the Pharisees. But in many ways, the parable was just another in a long line of stinging indictments of these self-righteous men who had made a god out of their religion. While Jesus has begun to focus His attention on His disciples in an attempt to prepare them for what lies ahead, He has not stopped exposing the arrogant and uncaring nature of the Pharisees and their fellow religious leaders.

In His previous parable, Jesus told the story of “a judge who neither feared God nor respected man” (Luke 18:2 ESV). This man, by virtue of his role, was meant to be an unbiased arbiter, settling disputes between two parties. But how could he do so if he “neither feared God nor respected man?” And this man’s presence in the story was meant to reflect the attitude of the Jewish religious leaders. According to Jesus, they were guilty of the same thing. And by using the term “judge,” Jesus was not offering them a compliment. The Outline of Biblical Usage describes a judge as “one who passes or arrogates to himself, judgment on anything.”

The Pharisees were quick to judge, condemning others for their lack of religious zeal and their failure to keep all the man-made rules and regulations they had appended to the Mosaic Law. At one point Jesus had delivered a strong word of warning against these men.

“…what sorrow also awaits you experts in religious law! For you crush people with unbearable religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden.” – Luke 11:46 NLT

They had become self-appointed judges of the people who feared no repercussions from God. In fact, they actually thought they were doing God a favor by holding the people to such high moral and ethical standards. But like the widow in the parable, the poor and disenfranchised of Israel were longing for justice. They were seeking a judge who would act righteously and deliver justice on their behalf.

Consider closely verse 9 of this chapter. Luke records that Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Luke 18:9 ESV). It seems obvious that Jesus was focusing His attention of the Pharisees who were still lingering on the edges of the crowd that followed Him. Despite all He had said against them, they had not gone anywhere. But Jesus was not just addressing the Pharisees. Their longstanding attitude of spiritual superiority and self-righteousness had infected others.  They had gone out of their way to teach their flawed philosophy of religion to others, something for which Jesus held them accountable.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” – Matthew 23:15 NLT

As far as Jesus was concerned, self-righteousness was a dangerous and deadly heresy that led people to rely on their own efforts and merits to earn favor with God. It was a dead-end street that eventually terminated with eternal separation from God. As the prophet Isaiah wrote: “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6 NLT). The apostle Paul would later quote from the psalms in order to convey the same universal and inescapable reality:

“No one is righteous—
    not even one.
No one is truly wise;
    no one is seeking God.
All have turned away;
    all have become useless.
No one does good,
    not a single one.” – Romans 3:10-12 NLT

Self-righteousness is the greatest form of blasphemy because the one who practices it sets himself up as God. He elevates himself to the place of the Almighty, determining his eternal state based on his own biased judgment, rather than that of God. Anyone who believes he has earned a right standing before God has diminished the deadly nature of sin and devalued the righteous standards of God.

There is no way to get around the fact that in order for anyone to consider themselves to be righteous based on their own efforts, they must lower God’s standard for holiness. Which is really diminishing the holiness of God Himself, because He is the ultimate standard by which we are judged. So, rather than using God as the gold standard for holiness, men begin to compare themselves with one another. According to the apostle Paul, this horizontal matrix for measuring holiness is not only flawed but foolish.

…we wouldn’t dare say that we are as wonderful as these other men who tell you how important they are! But they are only comparing themselves with each other, using themselves as the standard of measurement. How ignorant! – 2 Corinthians 10:12 NLT

So, in His parable, Jesus relates the story of two men who have gone to the temple in Jerusalem to pray. One was a Pharisee, an icon of religious rectitude. The other was a tax collector, who represented the spiritual dregs of society. Yet, Jesus places both men in the temple courtyard where they are praying to God. But that is where the similarities end. Jesus portrays the Pharisee as a self-consumed man with an over-inflated sense of self-worth. He stands in the temple courtyard and boldly prays:

“‘I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” – Luke 18:11-12 NLT

His words are the epitome of arrogance and pride. In a blatant display of self-righteous self-congratulation, he declares his moral superiority to the God of the universe. And he does so by comparing himself to the tax collector who is standing nearby. To the Pharisee, the differences between the two men could not be more obvious. Based on his religious zeal and faithful adherence to the smallest requirement of the law, he holds the moral high ground. He has earned the right to be heard by God.

Yet, Jesus quickly moves the focus from the fictional Pharisee to the tax collector, who “stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow…” (Luke 18:13 NLT). In starks contrast to the Pharisee, the tax collector epitomizes humility and a high degree of self-awareness. He knows exactly what he is and what he justly deserves.

“O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.” – Luke 18:13 NLT

Fully aware that his sin separates him from a holy God, this man pleads for mercy. He confesses his sinful state and, in a sense, places himself at the mercy of the court. He is more than willing to let the Judge decide his fate but he longs for justice coupled with mercy and forgiveness.

And then, Jesus dropped the bombshell:

I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God.” – Luke 18:14 NLT

Don’t miss the significance of Jesus’ statement. He is declaring that the tax collector, a self-admitted sinner, is declared to be righteous by God. This is a judicial act by which God, in His sovereign authority, deems the unrighteous to be righteous in His eyes. The apostle Paul would expand on this marvelous thought in his letter to the believers in Rome.

But now God has shown us a way to be made right with him without keeping the requirements of the law, as was promised in the writings of Moses and the prophets long ago. We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. – Romans 3:21-25 NLT

Jesus was hinting at a reality to come. He was going to go to the cross and offer Himself as the sinless substitute for sinful mankind. And all those who were willing to recognize and confess their sins and place their faith in Him would be imputed His righteousness as a gift from God. Jesus would take on their sin and, in exchange, they would receive His righteousness. But this “great exchange” begins with the sinner’s willingness to confess his desperate need for a Savior. Like the widow who needed a judge to settle her case, sinners are dependent upon the Judge of the universe to rule in their favor. Not based on their own merit, but according to His mercy and grace.

The apostle Paul, who in his former life was a dedicated and zealous Pharisee, offered his radically altered understanding of how one is made right with God.

I no longer count on my own righteousness through obeying the law; rather, I become righteous through faith in Christ. For God’s way of making us right with himself depends on faith. – Philippians 3:9 NLT

At one time, Paul would have been that self-righteous Pharisee standing in the courtyard singing his own praises. But, mercifully, Jesus had appeared to him on the road to Damascus, blinding his eyes, but helping him see for the first time the sin that separated him from a holy God. He went from being a self-righteous Pharisee facing an eternity separated from God to a self-confessing sinner who received the righteousness of Christ and the assurance of eternal life.

So, Jesus wrapped up His little parable with the sobering statement:

“…those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Luke 18:14 NLT

The apostle Peter would reiterate the words of Jesus in his first letter:

“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. – 1 Peter 5:5-6 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

A New Standard

37 “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you.”

39 He also told them a parable: “Can a blind man lead a blind man? Will they not both fall into a pit? 40 A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher. 41 Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? 42 How can you say to your brother, ‘Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,’ when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye.” Luke 6:37-42 ESV

Today’s passage contains some of the most misunderstood and misapplied verses in the Bible. And our failure to interpret them properly has produced damaging results. The first eight words found in verse 37 form one of the most well-known and oft-quoted verses in all of Scripture: “Judge not, and you will not be judged.”

And this verse is most commonly quoted by someone who has had some flaw or moral failure in their life pointed out by a friend or acquaintance. These words from Jesus get used as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card that allows the accused party to save face. Rather than acknowledge their fault, the accused simply points their finger back at their accuser and uses the words of Jesus against them. In a sense, they are saying, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” Or, in other words, “Who are you to judge?”

But as always, context is key to understanding and interpreting Scripture. This statement from Jesus is part of His sermon on the mount. It is contained within a much larger section of teaching that was aimed at Jesus’ newly appointed disciples. He is sharing with them some never-before-heard insights into life in the Kingdom of God. And much of what Jesus states in this message from the mount runs completely counter to their preconceived concepts of the Kingdom and life in general. Jesus has told them that they must love their enemies. He has declared that the poor, the hungry, and those who weep are the truly blessed ones – those who have found favor with God. And, not only that, those who have a relationship with Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, will be blessed because they will be hated and despised. To the 12 disciples and everyone in the audience that day, these words from Jesus had to have sounded like complete madness. When the Messiah showed up and established His Kingdom on earth, it was supposed to be a time of great joy and abundance. The long-anticipated Son of David would rule and reign in power from His throne in Jerusalem, having conquered the Roman oppressors and ushered in the glorious Kingdom of God on earth.

So, all of Jesus’ talk of poverty, hunger, hatred, and love for enemies made no sense. It seemed out of place and illogical. But Jesus was speaking of a different kind of revolution that was going to come about. He had come to renovate hearts and lives, not to realign the chess pieces on the political playing board. Jesus’ mission was to conquer sin and death, not the Roman Empire. And His message was meant to convey what life would look like in the spiritual Kingdom He was going to establish on earth. As He would later tell the Roman governor, Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36 ESV). Jesus was not interested in setting up an earthly Kingdom that consisted of vast tracts of land, opulent palaces, a well-equipped army, and a population of happy and fully satisfied citizens. He was out to redeem those who were spiritually enslaved and condemned to a life of eternal separation from His Heavenly Father.

With Jesus’ arrival, the Kingdom of God had come to earth in the form of its King. But the physical Kingdom itself would not come until later. With His first advent, Jesus had come to recruit citizens for His future earthly Kingdom. But in order to live in that Kingdom, these people would have to be radically changed. Their old sinful natures would have to be eradicated and replaced. There would have to be a complete transformation in their character in order for them to live in the Kingdom to come. As Paul told the believers in Corinth:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. – 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 ESV

So, as Jesus was teaching His disciples, He was attempting to get them to understand the new criteria for holiness and righteousness that would determine inclusion in His Kingdom. And it was radically different than what they had always understood. When Jesus told them, “Judge not, and you will not be judged,” He was not suggesting that they refrain from all forms of judgment. He was warning that they must use the right standard when judging one another. That’s why He went on to say, “Do not condemn others, or it will all come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven. Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full—pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back” (Luke 6:37-38 NLT). 

Jesus was letting His disciples know that if they chose to judge and condemn others by their own set of standards, God would turn around and use those same standards to judge them. If they chose to withhold forgiveness from others, they would find themselves unforgiven by God. And if they failed to be generous to others, God would withhold his blessings from them. That’s why Jesus said, “the amount you give will determine the amount you get back.”

This was all going to require heart change. The natural man is inherently judgmental. He is condemning and unforgiving. His character is marked by selfishness and self-centeredness. And the standard he uses to determine his relationship with others is usually weighted in his own favor. But Jesus is calling His disciples to a completely different way of life that is governed by a different set of standards.

And to ensure that His disciples understood His meaning, Jesus gave them a series of illustrations in the form of a parable. He presented the comical image of a blind man leading another blind man. Because both men lack sight, they will end up in the same place: the ditch. One of the men must have his eyes opened in order to properly guide the other. Then Jesus applies this image to His disciples, encouraging them to take advantage of their relationship with Him as their teacher. Jesus could see things they couldn’t see. He had insights to which they were blind. They were going to have to have their eyes opened to the truth if they were going to be able to lead others in the future.

And Jesus wanted these men to understand that they were going to have to grasp and apply these truths before they could teach them to others. Their criteria for judgment were going to have to change. That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?” (Luke 6:41 NLT). Jesus was going to expose and extract the logs in His disciples’ eyes. They had all kinds of spiritual baggage they were carrying around with them. Their understanding regarding the Kingdom, God, righteousness, forgiveness, holiness, and redemption was going to have to change. At this point, their eyes were effectively blind and their spiritual sight was obscured by the logs of legalism and self-righteousness.

Jesus lets them know that they are going to have to do some serious soul-searching and spiritual surgery before they are ready to lead others.

“First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” – Luke 6:42 NLT

But even that would prove impossible if they attempted to do it on their own. The disciples were just beginning their 3-year journey with Jesus that was going to expose their lack of faith, their misunderstandings regarding the Kingdom, their selfishness, and their desperate need for “power from on high” (Luke 24:4). They had so much to learn and just as much to unlearn. But they were on the verge of a life-transformative mission that none of them could have foreseen.

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

Never Give Up On Growing Up

23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

25 Brothers, pray for us.

26 Greet all the brothers with a holy kiss.

27 I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.

28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. 1 Thessalonians 5:23-28 ESV

Like Peter and the other apostles, Paul had a strong expectation that the believers to whom he wrote would grow up in their salvation (1 Peter 2:2). Spiritual immaturity or stagnancy in their faith was unacceptable. He told the believers in Colossae that his preaching of Christ was intended to bring about salvation and sanctification.

Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. – Colossians 1:28 ESV

In his letter to the church in Ephesus, he told them that his responsibility as an apostle was to “to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12 NLT). And then he added that this work of building up the body of Christ had a lofty end goal or objective:

This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. – Ephesians 4:13 NLT

The work would never be done. Full spiritual maturity would never be achieved – at least, not in this lifetime. And Paul expressed to the Galatians his intention to keep pouring into them until they bore the likeness of Christ.

Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives. – Galatians 4:19 NLT

You might say that Paul was a man possessed. He could not bear the thought of any believer failing to experience the fulness of salvation offered to them in Jesus Christ. And this included their sanctification, the divine process by which believers are transformed into the likeness of Christ through the power of God’s indwelling Spirit.

So, as he begins to wrap up his letter to the believers in Thessalonica, Paul let’s them know of his desire for their holiness. It was his life’s passion and his constant prayer to God on their behalf.

Now may the God of peace himself make you completely holy… – 1 Thessalonians 5:23 NET

Paul knew that spiritual maturity was the work of God, not men. That does not mean we do not play a part, but that the work of sanctification is impossible without divine assistance. Paul has already told the Thessalonians that their sanctification was God’s will for them (1 Thessalonians 4:3), but now he reminds them that it is also God’s work. Only God can transform sinners into saints. Only He can replace their hearts of stone with hearts of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26).  Only He can radically alter their old natures, transforming them into new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17).

That is why Paul was constantly asking God to do what only He could do to bring about the spiritual maturity of His children.

I pray for you constantly, asking God, the glorious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, to give you spiritual wisdom and insight so that you might grow in your knowledge of God. I pray that your hearts will be flooded with light so that you can understand the confident hope he has given to those he called—his holy people who are his rich and glorious inheritance. – Ephesians 1:16-18 NLT

Only God has the power to save and sanctify. And only God is capable of securing the spirits, souls, and bodies of His saints, so that they might remain “blameless until our Lord Jesus Christ comes again” (1 Thessalonians 5:23 NLT). By his use of the word “blameless,” Paul is not suggesting the possibility of achieving a state of sinless perfection in this life. He is simply reiterating a point he had made earlier in his letter. Their ability to one day stand before God “without fault” or “free from blame” would be the work of God.

May he…make your hearts strong, blameless, and holy as you stand before God our Father when our Lord Jesus comes again with all his holy people. – 1 Thessalonians 3:13 NLT

The ability to maintain a life marked by righteousness and holiness is a gift from God, just as salvation is. No one can save themselves and no one can preserve their saved state through self-effort. It is the work of God. And Paul assures the Thessalonians that God can be trusted to do what only He can do.

God will make this happen, for he who calls you is faithful. – 1 Thessalonians 5:24 NLT

God could be counted on to do His part. But they had a role to play as well. Paul has made that point perfectly clear throughout his letter. They would need to maintain their commitment to “serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9 ESV). They must continue to “walk in a manner worthy of God” (1 Thessalonians 2:12 ESV). He expected to hear that they were “standing fast in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 3:8 ESV). And they could not afford to let up on their commitment to “live in holiness and honor—not in lustful passion like the pagans” (1 Thessalonians 4:4 ESV).

Their sanctification was a joint effort, powered by God, but requiring their willing and eager participation. If God’s will was their sanctification, they were going to have to adopt His will as their very own. It was essential that they make Christlikeness their primary passion and lifelong objective. And there was to be no goal less than full maturity in Christ. This meant that their sanctification would not be complete until they died and went to be with the Lord, or they lived long enough to see Him return at the Rapture for His church. Either way, the commitment to spiritual maturity and their ongoing transformation into the likeness of Christ was to remain their highest priority.

The apostle Peter reminds us that, because of our faith in Christ, we have been given all that we need to live godly lives. We lack nothing.

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. And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires. – 1 Peter 1:3-4 NLT

And the apostle John provides us with further assurance of our completed transformation into the likeness of Christ.

…we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. – 1 John 3:2 NLT

Paul closes his letter with a request. He asks the Thessalonians for their prayers of intercession on the behalf of himself and the rest of his ministry partners. The work of sharing the Gospel required divine assistance. Paul coveted their prayer because he knew that he was in the midst of a spiritual battle “against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NLT).

Finally, Paul asks that they express his love to all the members of the congregation and to make sure that his letter is read to everyone. And then he closes with a final blessing, asking that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be upon them. For Paul, the unmerited favor of God was a truly remarkable gift that never ceased to amaze and delight him. It was the key to salvation, sanctification and, ultimately, the glorification of all believers.

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

More and More

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

Paul had an overwhelming desire to see the Thessalonian believers face-to-face. But this was about far more than a chance to reconnect and get reacquainted with old friends. Paul had something far more important in mind. As he told them in the previous section of his letter, the motivation behind his desire to see them again was that he “might supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:10 ESV). He had sent Timothy “to establish and exhort” them in their faith (1 Thessalonians 3:2 ESV). 

And while Paul has confessed that Timothy’s good news regarding their faith and love had brought him comfort, he still felt the pressing need to see them so that he might “fill in the gaps” of their faith (1 Thessalonians 3:10 NLT).

It seems quite obvious that Paul loved these people. He had a pastor’s heart that cared for their spiritual well-being. And while their faith was strong, even in the midst of trying circumstances, Paul knew that there was much they needed to know if they were going to remain strong in the days ahead. The battle was far from over. The enemy had not thrown in the towel. The opposition had not given up their efforts to demoralize the sheep and discredit the shepherd.

So, Paul feels compelled to share with them one final word of counsel. He has complimented them on their faith and love. He has described them as “standing fast in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 3:8 ESV). But there is one more thing they need to hear him say.

we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God. – 1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV

Paul was not admonishing these people or demanding that they correct their sinful behavior. In fact, he added the statement, “…just as you are doing” (1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV). They were already living in a way that pleased God. But Paul wants them to know that they were going to need to do so “more and more” (1 Thessalonians 4:1 ESV).

In the short time Paul and Silas had spent in Thessalonica, they had instructed them how they ought to walk and please God. The Greek word translated as “walk” is peripateo, and it was a favorite term of Paul’s. It could be used to refer to the physical act of walking, but Paul commonly used it as a metaphor for spiritual life. When he used the term “walk,” he was referring to the daily conduct of one’s life. In those days, the average person went from place to place by walking. It was the primary mode of transportation. You couldn’t go anywhere or conduct your life without utilizing walking. So, Paul used this normal, everyday means of mobility as an analogy for living the Christian life. And he used it often.

who walk (peripateo) not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit… – Romans 8:4 ESV

Let us walk (peripateo) properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. – Romans 13:13 ESV

Only let each person lead the life (peripateo) that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. – 1 Corinthians 7:17 ESV

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk (peripateo) in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called – Ephesians 4:1 ESV

walk (peripateo) in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.  – Colossians 1:10 ESV

As followers of Christ, their spiritual walk or manner of life was to be distinctively different than that of their lost friends and family members. They were to live set-apart lives, marked by holiness and righteousness. But their spirituality was never meant to remain in a static state. Being saved was never meant to be a one-time event but was to be an ongoing, regularly occurring, and lifelong transformational process. The apostle Peter referred to it as growing up in salvation (1 Peter 2:2).  Paul told the Ephesians believers to “grow up in every way into him” (Ephesians 4:15 ESV) – referring to Christ.

There is no place for complacency in the Christian life. At no point are we to become satisfied with the status quo. We are not the ones who get to determine whether we have successively achieved spiritual maturity. And Paul makes that point perfectly clear to his brothers and sisters in Thessalonica.

For this is the will of God, your sanctification – 1 Thessalonians 4:3 ESV

Paul put it in blunt terms. What God wanted of them and for them was simple: Their sanctification. But what did he mean by this? The Greek word he used is hagiasmos, and it can be translated as “holiness.” It derives from another Greek word, hagiazo, which means “to separate from profane things and dedicate to God.” To be holy was to be set apart or consecrated for a specific purpose. In the case of a believer, they were set apart to God. To be sanctified is the process of being constantly and consistently set apart for God’s use. It involves a separation from all that is ungodly or unrighteous. Or as Paul liked to put it, it involves putting off the old and putting on the new.

 …put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires…put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:22, 24 ESV

Just a few verses earlier in his letter to the Ephesian believers, Paul challenged them: “you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do…” (Ephesians 4:17 ESV). They were not to conduct their lives in the same way they had before. In fact, in chapter two of Ephesians, Paul pointed out the stark difference between their new life in Christ and that of their old, pre-salvation nature.

…you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked (peripateo), following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. – Ephesians 2:2-3 ESV

But Paul stressed the change that had taken place in their lives.

But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved… – Ephesians 2:4-5 ESV

The lives of the Ephesians believers had been radically changed when they placed their faith in Christ. The same thing was true of the believers in Thessalonica. And that change was to be tangible and visible. It was to be evident in their behavior and in every facet of their daily lives. And just to make sure they understood the non-negotiable and all-pervasive nature of this change, Paul provided them with the details.

God’s will is for you to be holy, so 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. – 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 NLT

There was to be no compromising of their faith. There was no place for their old habits in their new life in Christ. Or as Paul put it to the Corinthian believers:

…anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun! – 2 Corinthians 5:17 NLT

The old adage, “something old, something new” wasn’t going to cut it with God. He expected life transformation and had provided His Holy Spirit to make it possible. A life marked by sexual sin and immorality was unacceptable for the Christ-follower. It violated the will of God and failed to model a life of holiness. In the Greek culture of that day, sexual promiscuity was an accepted way of life. It was Demosthenes, a Greek statesman and orator who wrote:

“We keep prostitutes for pleasure; we keep mistresses for the day to day needs of the body; we keep wives for the begetting of children and for the faithful guardianship of our homes.” – Demosthenes

In a culture marked by self-indulgence and the willful gratification of all sexual desires, the Christian was to live in such a way that distinguished them as having been set apart or consecrated to God – separated from the profane and dedicated to His glory. To do so, Paul states would require self-control. They would need to control their physical passions and desires, choosing instead to “live in holiness and honor—not in lustful passion like the pagans who do not know God and his ways” (1 Thessalonians 4:4-5 ESV).

And, once again, Paul puts his thoughts in simple, easy-to-understand terms:

God has called us to live holy lives, not impure lives. – 1 Thessalonians 4:7 NLT

Not a lot of wiggle room there. Paul leaves no room for negotiation or debate. God’s will was their sanctification. His expectation was holiness, not impurity. He was interested in set-apartness, not sameness. And if anyone rejected this idea was not rejecting the teachings of Paul, they were actually disobeying and, ultimately, denying the will of God Almighty.

Therefore whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God, who gives his Holy Spirit to you. – 1 Thessalonians 4:8 ESV

Paul was teaching the need for ongoing life transformation. The Thessalonian believers were to walk and please God – more and more. There was to be no end to their spiritual journey. At no point were they to assume that they had arrived. Salvation was to result in ongoing sanctification – a never-ending, Spirit-empowered conformity to the image of Christ.

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

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

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

Reconciled to God

For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. 1 Thessalonians 1:8-10 ESV

The church at Thessalonica may have been small, but it had been effective. They were suffering persecution for their faith, but they were not allowing it to diminish their joy in the Lord. Paul compares their lives to an instrument “sounded forth…everywhere” (1 Thessalonians 8 ESV). The Greek word he used is exēcheō, and it means “to sound forth, to echo forth.” Their actions and attitudes, outward expressions of their faith in Christ, had traveled well beyond the borders of their city and into the surrounding regions.

There is no indication that the Thessalonian church had sent out actual missionaries to carry “the word of the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 1:8 ESV), but their lives were witness to the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In spite of their less-than-satisfactory circumstances, they were exhibiting the sanctifying power of the Spirit in their daily lives. And because it was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia, and it stood on the Via Egnatia, the Roman highway to the East, it hosted countless travelers who would have heard the news of this fledgling religious community and their faith in God.

Paul makes a somewhat hyperbolic statement in order to indicate the powerful nature of their witness.

…your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything… – 1 Thessalonians 1:8 ESV

Obviously, Paul and his traveling companions were still having to share the Gospel wherever they went, but they were hearing more and more stories of those who had come to faith because of the witness of the Thessalonians believers. And Paul provides details regarding the exact nature of their testimony.

For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God… – 1 Thessalonians 1:9 ESV

The Thessalonian believers were living proof of the power of the Gospel, providing irrefutable evidence that God could transform idol-worshiping, sin-enslaved people into Spirit-filled, faith-empowered disciples of Jesus Christ. And their lives were in direct keeping with the transformative power of the Gospel as Paul described it to Titus.

For the grace of God has been revealed, bringing salvation to all people. And we are instructed to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures. We should live in this evil world with wisdom, righteousness, and devotion to God… – Titus 2:11-12 NLT

In the first part of verse 9 Paul mentions “the kind of reception” he and Silas had experienced when they arrived in Thessalonica on their second missionary journey. It’s interesting to note that the New Living Translation renders Paul’s words as “the wonderful welcome.” But that seems a bit of a reach when you consider the actual facts surrounding those fateful days nearly a year earlier. As Luke records in Acts 17, Paul and Silas had initially found a somewhat receptive audience to their message.

…some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. – Acts 17:4 ESV

But this handful of eager converts were not the only ones to “welcome” Paul and Silas to Thessalonica.

But the Jews were jealous, and taking some wicked men of the rabble, they formed a mob, set the city in an uproar… – Acts 17:4 ESV

When Paul describes those events, he uses the Greek phrase, hopoios veisodos, which can be translated “what manner of entering in.” He seems to be emphasizing the harsh nature of their “welcome.” They were met with strong resistance from a group of Jews whom Luke describes as “wicked men.” And yet, a great many devout Greeks and not a few leading women in the city had chosen to hear and receive Paul’s message regarding salvation through faith alone in Christ alone.

And it was this unwelcoming welcome coupled with the decision of the Thessalonian believers to accept Christ that gave their witness its power. They had come to faith under extremely difficult circumstances. And they had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9 ESV). Their decision to follow Christ had not been made in a stress-free environment full of encouraging friends and family members. Each of the individuals who placed their faith in Christ had done so at great risk to their lives and livelihoods. When they had chosen “to turn from godless living and sinful pleasures” (Titus 2:12 NLT) and accept Paul’s message concerning the Messiah, they had placed themselves in direct opposition to the Jews and Gentiles in their community. They had become outcasts and targets for persecution.

Paul reminds them of the decisive nature of their decision:

you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God. – 1 Thessalonians 1:9 ESV)

They had chosen to leave behind a lifestyle of idolatry. They had turned their backs on the pagan practices of their past and had “turned to” God. The Greek word Paul uses is epistrephō, and it conveys the idea of returning or reverting. It can be translated “to come again.” These people were experiencing the joy of coming back to God, having been cleansed from their sins and made righteous in His eyes because of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ on their behalf. They had been reconciled to God, a powerful reality that Paul described to the believers in Colossae.

You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. Yet now he has reconciled you to himself through the death of Christ in his physical body. As a result, he has brought you into his own presence, and you are holy and blameless as you stand before him without a single fault. – Colossians 1:21-22 NLT

This image of lost, sin-enslaved people returning to God with full access into His presence and their sins fully forgiven is what the Gospel is all about. Paul provides us with a powerful reminder of the reconciling nature of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection in his second letter to the church at Corinth.

“…anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” – 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 NLT

The Thessalonian believers had come back to God. And now they were serving the living God, not a man-made, lifeless idol with no capacity to provide help or hope. And they were serving the one true God, not one of many false gods whose statues could be found all over the city of Thessalonica.

And as part of their reconciliation to God, they had confidence that He would one day send His Son back to earth to redeem and rescue them from this sin-marred world. God had not only transformed their lives in the here-and-now, He had promised them eternal life in the hereafter. And they were willing to suffer now in order to gain what God had in store for them in the future.

And their belief in the one true God came with a guarantee of His Son’s ultimate return, which is why Paul encouraged them “to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10 ESV). They might suffer for their faith in this life, but they would be delivered from the wrath of God to come. All because they had placed their hope in the gracious gift of God made possible by the sacrifice of the sinless Son of God.

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 Heart of the Issue

Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you—I, Paul, an old man and now a prisoner also for Christ Jesus— 10 I appeal to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I became in my imprisonment. 11 (Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me.) – Philemon 1:8-11 ESV

Bringing up a difficult topic with someone you care about can be tricky. An attempt to point out someone else’s faults, failures, or blind spots, even if done with the best of intentions, can turn out poorly. Confrontation is risky. That’s why, more often than not, most of us choose to avoid the conflict altogether. But Paul loved Philemon too much to remain silent. And he knew that this particular issue had far greater implications than just the relationship between Philemon and his runaway slave, Onesimus.

For Paul, this was all about the body of Christ. Yes, he had strong affections for the two men mired in the middle of this situation, but he also had a heart for the spiritual well-being of the church. The relationships between believers within the local body of Christ were vital to the spread of the Gospel because they were evidence of its life-transformative power. There was no place for division or disunity among believers, a message he communicated to the church in Corinth.

I appeal to you, dear brothers and sisters, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, to live in harmony with each other. Let there be no divisions in the church. Rather, be of one mind, united in thought and purpose. – 1 Corinthians 1:10 NLT

So, as Paul prepared to bring up a potentially controversial issue with Philemon, he had the greater good of the body of Christ in mind. He knew that Philemon’s treatment of Onesimus would have a ripple effect on the church. Because of his leadership role in the church, Philemon was admired by its members and his actions carried great influence.

It’s essential that we understand the nature of the problem that Paul was about to address with his friend. Philemon was a believer but also a slaveholder. This was not uncommon in those days. In fact, it was quite normal because slavery was a vital part of the Roman economy. In the early days of the church, as the Gospel spread throughout the Roman Empire, people from all walks of life were coming to faith in Christ, including slaves. The message of faith in Jesus was non-discriminatory. It was not reserved for the rich or religious, the upper class or the highly educated. As Paul pointed out to the believers in Corinth, the Gospel was for the foolish, the powerless, and the despised.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NLT

It would appear that Philemon was a relatively wealthy individual, with a home large enough to host the local fellowship of believers. He also had the financial resources to purchase bondslaves. But, while Philemon was well-resourced, he had not been purchased his salvation. It had been a gift, a point that Peter makes perfectly clear.

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. – 1 Peter 1:18-19 NLT

But Philemon, like every other individual who had come to faith in Christ, was having to deal with the impact of the Gospel message on his daily life. He was a Christ-follower, but he also remained a businessman with financial obligations. He was also a citizen of the Roman Empire with certain legal rights and responsibilities. And as a slaveholder who had recently suffered a financial loss when one of his slaves had run away, he would have known his rights concerning redress and legal recourse.

But little did Philemon know that his runaway slave had just happened to run into his friend, the apostle Paul. One of the things I love about this story is the way it so subtly portrays the sovereign will of God. The last thing Philemon expected to hear from Paul was an update on his runaway slave. And yet, here was Paul getting ready to announce the news that, not only did he know Onesimus, he considered him his child in the faith. Philemon’s runaway slave had become a fellow follower of Christ and a personal friend of Paul’s, ministering to him during his imprisonment in Rome. What a bizarre turn of events. And one can only imagine the look on Philemon’s face as he read this surprising news from Paul.

But don’t miss the sovereign hand of God in all of this. At some point, Philemon had made the conscious decision to purchase Philemon as a slave. It had been a fully legal transaction based on sound financial planning. But then, somewhere along the way, Onesimus had come up with a plan of his own. He ran away. He had taken the risk of seeking his freedom, knowing that, if caught, he would face severe punishment or even death. And hundreds of miles away, Paul had made a plea to have his case tried before the emperor in Rome, where he was then taken and placed under house arrest.

Each of these decisions was made by a man, but as the book of Proverbs points out, their plans were orchestrated by God. He was operating behind the scenes in ways they could not see or know.

We can make our plans, but the LORD determines our steps. – Proverbs 16:9 NLT

You can make many plans, but the LORD’s purpose will prevail. – Proverbs 19:21 NLT

We have no details concerning how Onesimus met Paul. But he did. And we can rest in the knowledge that God was directing the steps of this young runaway slave so that his path would cross that of Paul’s. God had fully intended for the slave of Philemon to encounter the prisoner of Nero. And the life of Onesimus would never be the same. But Philemon’s life was also about to undergo a radical realignment as Paul presented him with a paradigm-shifting request.

As an apostle, Paul knew that he had the authority to force Philemon to do the right thing. But instead, he appealed to Philemon’s heart. Paul wanted Philemon to act out of love, not out of obligation or duty. So, he let Philemon know that it was “for love’s sake” that he was making his request. Paul knew that love would be the only thing that could heal the broken relationship between Philemon and Onesimus. It was going to take a miracle for this slaveholder to forgive his former slave. But for Paul, forgiveness was not going to be enough. He was out to change the relationship between these two men in ways that neither one of them could imagine.

Paul makes an interesting side comment to Philemon, stating that Onesimus “was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful to you and to me” (Philemon 1:11 ESV). The Greek word Paul used is achrēstos, which means “unprofitable.” It’s not exactly clear what Paul in inferring by this statement, but he could simply be implying that, as long as Onesimus was on the run, he had been no use to Philemon. But his absence had proved extremely beneficial to Paul. This young man had been ministering to Paul during his house arrest. But I think there is a more significant meaning behind Paul’s use of this term. As a slave, Onesimus had been little more than property to Philemon. His value was based solely on the work he did for Philemon or the price he could bring at auction.

But now, as a brother in Christ, Onesimus was a valuable member of the faith community and an asset to the Kingdom of Christ. At one time, Philemon had considered Onesimus to be foolish, powerless, and despised. But Christ had changed all that. Now, Onesimus was a joint-heir with Jesus Christ. He was a valuable and valued member of the body of Christ. He had gifts to share and a part to play in the ongoing spread of the Gospel.

Paul wanted Philemon to view his former slave through the lens of the Gospel. God was going to use Onesimus, someone the world once “counted as nothing at all…to bring to nothing what the world considers important” (1 Corinthians 1:28 NLT). In the world in which Philemon lived, slavery was an important part of his livelihood. It was a powerful force in the local economy. It was a common practice that few questioned and virtually all had learned to accept as the status quo. But Jesus had come to replace man’s ways with God’s ways. The Gospel was meant to be a game-changer, shining the light of God’s love into the darkness of a fallen world.

And Philemon was about to have the light of God’s truth illuminate the recesses of his own heart, revealing yet one more hidden area of sin that needed to be exposed and expelled by the love of Christ.

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

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

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

Imitate Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Will Be Like Him

Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure. – 1 John 3:2-3 ESV

Christlikeness. That is or should be, the quest of each and every follower of Christ. The very phrase, “follower of Christ” suggests a form of imitation or emulation of the one being followed. In his first letter, the apostle Peter encourages his audience to endure suffering well, following the example of Jesus.

But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. – 1 Peter 2:20-22 NLT

The Greek word for “example” is hypogrammos, and according to The Outline of Biblical Usage, it refers to “a writing copy, including all the letters of the alphabet, given to beginners as an aid in learning to draw them.” Jesus’ life of humility, servanthood, suffering, and sacrifice was intended to provide us with a model for living the Christian life this side of the resurrection. As Peter says, we are to follow in his steps, emulating His example of righteousness in the face of suffering.

The apostle Paul took this call to emulate Jesus a step further. He was so confident in his efforts to follow the example provided by Jesus that he could tell the Corinthians, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1 ESV). Paul had no problem telling the Corinthians believers to follow his example because he knew he was following in the steps of Jesus Himself. This is not a case of Paul bragging about his spirituality or setting himself up as some icon of religious virtue. He was simply stating that his life was worthy of emulation only because he was following the example left to him by Jesus.

The apostle John provides yet another call to live a life marked by Christlikeness.

But those who obey God’s word truly show how completely they love him. That is how we know we are living in him. Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did. – 1 John 2:5-6 NLT

John provides an inseparable link between the worship of God and a life lived like that of Jesus. In fact, in his gospel, John records the words of Jesus when He boldly claimed, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 NLT). And Jesus went on to say to the Jewish religious leaders, “If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is” (John 14:7 NLT). He was claiming that these highly respected scribes and Pharisees, who were revered for their outward displays of religious zeal, were actually ignorant of God. They didn’t know God because they refused to recognize Jesus as His Son.

Unlike Jesus, these men were full of pride and convinced of their own inherent righteousness. They refused to see themselves as sinners in need of a Savior. But Paul paints a dramatically different picture of Jesus, presenting Him as the humble servant who willingly obeyed His Father, even to the point of death.

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

But Paul goes on to describe what happened after Jesus died on the cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names. – Philippians 2:9 NLT

Jesus died and was buried in a borrowed tomb, but He rose again. He was resurrected from the dead, given a glorified body, and restored to His rightful place at His Father’s side in heaven. And this is a big part of the example that Jesus left us to follow. He lived His earthly life with His eyes set on the heavenly prize.  He never forgot what God had in store for Him. It was what motivated His actions. Yes, He died because He loved us. But as the author of Hebrews makes clear, Jesus also knew that His death was not the end. He also knew that His death would be insufficient if it was not followed by His resurrection and glorification. And we are to live our lives with the same confidence in our future glorification.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. Think of all the hostility he endured from sinful people; then you won’t become weary and give up. – Hebrews 12:1-3 NLT

Don’t miss the weight of this passage. The author states that it was because of the joy set before Him that Jesus endured the pain, shame, and suffering of the cross. He knew that His death would not be the end. He was fully confident in His resurrection and glorification.

Over in the book of Philippians, the apostle Paul makes an interesting statement that I believe is often misunderstood and misapplied. He writes rather cryptically: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 2:12 ESV).

We tend to read this passage and all our attention focuses on the words, “press on.” This is an action statement and we hear Paul calling us to do something, to pursue after something. In the very next verse, Paul describes himself as “straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13 ESV). But what is it that lies ahead? What is Paul pressing on toward and straining after?

We fail to consider what Paul means when he talks about “this” and “it.” And we run the risk of misunderstanding what Paul means by “what lies ahead.” So, to grasp the significance of Paul’s words, we have to back up to the preceding verses where he states, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11 ESV).

What’s the “it” that Paul is pressing on toward? What is the thing that lies ahead to which Paul is straining forward? It is the resurrection of the dead. And Paul makes that perfectly clear in verse 14.

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:14 ESV

Paul is looking forward to the return of Christ. He even says so just a few verses later.

…we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body. – Philippians 3:14 ESV

But don’t miss why Paul is awaiting the return of Christ. It is so he will experience the transformation of his lowly body into its new and glorious version. Paul expands on this remarkable event in his first letter to the Corinthians. And he describes it to them in order to encourage them.

But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies. – 1 Corinthians 15:51-53 NLT

And Paul’s point is not just that we get new bodies, but that we get fully redeemed, glorified bodies just like that of Jesus. And that means those bodies will be without sin. Which is why he joyfully shouts, “thank God! He gives us victory over sin and death through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57 ESV). And with the promise of future glorification in mind, he tells the Corinthians, “So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless” (1 Corinthians 15:58 ESV).

The knowledge of their future glorification was to make an impact on their everyday lives. They were to live with the ultimate goal in mind, pressing on, straining forward to what lies ahead. And, in his second letter, Paul provides them with further encouragement to keep on keeping on.

So all of us who have had that veil removed can see and reflect the glory of the Lord. And the Lord—who is the Spirit—makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. – 2 Corinthians 3:18 NLT

Even in this life, we can experience the transformation of these “lowly bodies” into the likeness of Christ. But our full transformation will not take place until He returns. That is why John reminds us, “we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is” (1 John 3:2 ESV). The day is coming when we will be like Him – in all His glory. We will share His glorified nature, completely free from all sin, sorrow, pain, and suffering. And just hours before His death, Jesus prayed to the Father, sharing His desire that all those who would follow Him in this life, would eventually join Him in the life to come.

“Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am. Then they can see all the glory you gave me because you loved me even before the world began!” – John 17:24 NLT

It is the eager expectation of this future reality that should influence our present outlook and behavior.

And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure. – 1 John 3 ESV

One day, we will be just like Him. So, why wouldn’t we want to live with that end in mind? If that is God’s preferred future for us, why wouldn’t we make it our life’s focus and objective?

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 New Has Come

14 For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; 15 and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 ESV

4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. – Romans 6:4 ESV

22 …put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, 23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, 24 and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. – Ephesians 4:22-24 ESV

Paul emphatically claims that those who are in Christ are new creations. Their old way of life, what Paul refers to as the life “according to the flesh” is gone, having been crucified with Christ on the cross. And, according to Paul, this former life of the flesh was marked by a focus on self, but the new life, made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection, is to be focused on His glory.

But what does all this really mean? What’s the practical reality of all this talk of new creations, new life, and the new self? Because as good as it sounds, the fact is, every Christian still wrestles daily with the very real presence of their old self. Paul even commands us to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life” (Ephesians 4:22 ESV). Yet, he told the Corinthian believers that “the old has passed away” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV). Which is it? Is the old self gone or do I have to put it off? If my old self died with Christ on the cross, why does it seem so very much alive and active in my life?

We tend to read passages like this with a black-and-white, either-or mindset. We hear Paul saying we are new creations and we expect to be able to live like it. When he tells us that the old is gone, we take him at his word and then wonder why it doesn’t seem to be true in our own lives. Which leads us to either question the reliability of Paul’s words or the veracity of our own salvation.

But there’s an important distinction that Paul makes in his letter to the Corinthians. In verse 16 he states, “we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view” (2 Corinthians 5:16 NLT). The Net Bible translates that verse this way: “from now on we acknowledge no one from an outward human point of view.”

Much of what Paul is saying in these verses has to do with our perspective, the way we view things. As Christians, we are to view life through a different lens than we did before. We have a new, Spirit-enabled way of looking at life, because we have had our spiritual eyes opened to the truth. Prior to coming to faith in Christ, each of us suffered from spiritual blindness, and were incapable of seeing things from a spiritual perspective. Back in chapter four, Paul described the sad state of those outside of Christ.

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT

Not only are they unable to see the glorious light of the Good News, they can’t see the reality of their own spiritual darkness. They are stuck on a physical plane where all their attention becomes focused on what they can see with their physical eyes. They are relegated to judging life and one another by external criteria alone. But when the Holy Spirit takes up residence in the life of the believer, it’s as if he or she receives the spiritual equivalent of Lasik surgery. Paul describes this spiritual eye surgery this way:

…people who aren’t spiritual can’t receive these truths from God’s Spirit. It all sounds foolish to them and they can’t understand it, for only those who are spiritual can understand what the Spirit means. – 1 Corinthians 2:14 NLT

The Spirit of God allows us to see life the way God does, and God sees us as new creations, because we have been born again. This is the gist of the conversation that took place between Jesus and Nicodemus, a Pharisee. Jesus dropped the somewhat cryptic bombshell on Nicodemus: “unless you are born again, you cannot see the Kingdom of God” (John 3:3 NLT). And when Nicodemus expressed his confusion over Jesus’s words, Jesus responded, “Humans can reproduce only human life, but the Holy Spirit gives birth to spiritual life. So don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again’” (John 3:6-7 NLT).

Being born again is another way of expressing the new life to which Paul refers. With the new birth comes a new nature that allows a Christ-follower to see life with eyes wide open. No more blindness. No spiritual cataracts blurring our vision and giving us a distorted view of ourselves and the world around us. The Spirit of God gives us new eyes and a capacity to see things the way God does. That is why Paul says, “from now on we acknowledge no one from an outward human point of view.” We aren’t deceived or distracted by the outer manifestations of religious behavior or self-manufactured displays of righteousness – in ourselves or others. We aren’t impressed by the superficial signs of religious achievement that are really nothing more than dirty rags in the eyes of God. Instead, we see ourselves as God does: As new creatures. Like Paul, we are able to say, “The old has passed away—look, what is new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NET).

That doesn’t mean our old nature is dead and gone. But it does mean that it no longer holds sway over us. We are no longer slaves to our old way of living. And we are no longer blind to worthless nature of that old nature. It has no value. It brings nothing good to the table. And Paul is stressing that by focusing on our new nature – who we are in Christ – we’re able to treat our old nature with the disdain it deserves.

We’re able to recognize and believe that walking in newness of life is not only possible, but unavoidable. But we have to constantly remind ourselves that we are new creatures. We have new natures. We have a new power within us that makes a new way of living possible for us. Paul encourages us to remember that our new self has been “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness{ (Ephesians 4:24 ESV). That is the essence of our new nature. 

You are not a slightly new-and-improved version of the old you. Becoming a believer wasn’t a case of God whitewashing over your old sinful nature. No, He put that old nature to death on the cross. And Paul describes that unbelievable reality in very powerful terms.

My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. – Galatains 2:20 NLT

A big part of understanding what Paul is saying comes with a change in our perspective. We have been trained to think of ourselves as works in process. We are always viewing ourselves as unfinished and incomplete. Most of us have grown up on a steady diet of achievement-based messaging. We’re never good enough, smart enough, thin enough, athletic enough, rich enough, popular enough, or even spiritual enough. So, we do more. We study harder. We exercise more often. We eat less. We attend more Bible studies.

But Paul would have us think before we act. He would encourage us to see ourselves as God sees us. We are new creations. As Paul told the believers in Ephesus:

…we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:10 NLT

This is not about us doing everything in our power to become what God desires for us to be. It is about us accepting the reality of who He has already made us in Christ. He has already created us anew. We are already new creations. We are not flawed creatures trying to improve ourselves so God will accept us. We are children of God, fully acceptable to God because of what Jesus Christ had done for us. He “died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves” (2 Corinthians 5:15 ESV).

His death made our new life possible. We live new lives, not so we can be accepted by God, but because we have been accepted by God. As Paul put it, the life we live, we live by faith in the Son of God. Living according to our new nature begins with believing that we really do have new natures. It is resting in the knowledge that newness of life is not some kind of unachievable goal to be pursued, but a status to be embraced and believed.

That is why Paul so strongly emphasizes our relationship with Christ. It is not about us and all that we have to do. It is about Him and all that He has done on our behalf.

…just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. – Romans 6:4 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

 

Fruitful Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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