Unity and Glory

20 “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, 23 I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. 24 Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. 25 O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. 26 I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” John 17:20-26 ESV

The 11 disciples are being given the privilege of listening in as Jesus prays to the Father on their behalf. Overhearing this “private” conversation was providing them with a glimpse into the intimate relationship shared between Jesus and His Heavenly Father. But it also seems clear that Jesus meant for them to hear His prayer because He wanted to encourage them. He knew they were full of fear and struggling with doubt. The thought of losing their teacher and friend, whom they had believed to be their long-awaited Messiah, had left them confused. So, Jesus allowed them to eavesdrop in on His prayer so they would better understand what was about to happen.

The Good Shepherd was preparing to lay down His life for the sheep (John 10:11), but He was turning over the care of the flock to His Father. In His absence, they would find themselves in the highly capable hands of God Almighty. And Jesus requests the Father to “keep them from the evil one” (John 17:15 ESV) and that He “sanctify them in the truth” (John 17:16 ESV). When Jesus left, they would remain behind, but they would not find themselves alone and unprotected. Their sorrow would be turned to joy. Their devasted hope would be renewed as they witnessed Jesus in His resurrected state. And their confidence would soar as they experienced the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit.

Thanks to John, who recorded this prayer under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, generations of believers have been allowed to listen in as Jesus prayed to His Father on behalf of His disciples. And Jesus made sure that these future followers would also receive encouragement and insight from His private petition to the Father.

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word…” – John 17:20 ESV

Even before He has gone to the cross, Jesus prophetically proclaims the effectiveness of His mission. He will sacrifice His life on behalf of the sheep and His faithful undershepherds will carry the good news of His death, burial, and resurrection to the world. And the result will be the “ransom of many” (Matthew 20:28).

Jesus was fully confident that His sacrificial death would result in the salvation of all those who had been given to Him by His Heavenly Father. His death would be, as the theologians like to put it, efficacious or effective. Not a single drop of His atoning blood would go to waste. As the author of Hebrews puts it, the sacrifice of Jesus’ life would not be in vain.

Christ was offered once for all time as a sacrifice to take away the sins of many people. – Hebrews 9:28 NLT

His seemingly wasteful and meaningless death would end up producing a rich and bountiful harvest, just as He had told His disciples.

“…unless a kernel of wheat is planted in the soil and dies, it remains alone. But its death will produce many new kernels—a plentiful harvest of new lives.” – John 12:24 NLT

And as Jesus looks into the future, He prays on behalf of all those who would place their faith in His sacrificial, substitutionary death on their behalf. His desire is that they experience the joy of unity and the hope of future glorification.

His first request is for a spirit of unity among all of His followers. And He is very specific as to what He means.

“I pray that they will all be one, just as you and I are one—as you are in me, Father, and I am in you. And may they be in us so that the world will believe you sent me.” – John 17:21 NLT

Jesus is not describing some kind of monochromatic homogeneity where all believers look and sound the same. He is expressing that His followers reflect the same kind of unity that He shares with the Father. They are unified by their love for one another and by their commitment to redeem and restore the world they have made. They share a common mission to recreate and renovate what sin has marred. And Jesus, out of love for His Father, has faithfully carried out His commission and will soon complete the final task given to Him, setting in motion the final phase of God’s divine redemptive plan. And Jesus’ greatest desire is that His followers would share in that undistracted and unwavering commitment to the divine mission. And this request of Jesus would be fulfilled by the coming of the Holy Spirit, who by indwelling each believer would permanently unite them to God the Father and God the Son.

And it is this spiritual union with the Godhead that provides the proof or evidence of the effectiveness of Jesus’ sacrificial death. The ability of Jesus’ followers to live in unity, despite their many differences, will reflect the life-transforming nature of the Gospel.

Back in chapter 13, John recorded a message Jesus gave to His disciples.

“I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” – John 1334-35 NLT

But their ability to carry out this command would not be possible until Jesus had sent the Holy Spirit. It would be the indwelling and empowering presence of the Spirit of God that made mutual love and unity achievable among the increasingly diverse and disparate followers of Jesus. The unity for which Jesus prayed would come about through the work of God’s Spirit. And the result would be a miraculous ingathering and unifying of people from all walks of life and every conceivable background.

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:26-28 NLT

Jesus explains that this supernatural unity has been made possible because He has faithfully shared the glory given to Him by God.

“I have given them the glory you gave me, so they may be one as we are one.” – John 17:22 NLT

But what does this mean? How did Jesus share God’s glory and what does this have to do with the unity of His followers? Well, to understand what Jesus means we have to go all the way back to chapter one, where John describes the incarnation of Jesus.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14 ESV

By taking on human flesh, the Son of God made the glory of God visible. Through His miracles and messages, Jesus revealed Himself to be the Son of God and the Savior of the world. He made the glory of God known to men and, for all those who believed Him to be who He claimed to be, they were united to God through faith in Him. Their acceptance of Jesus as the manifested glory of the invisible God resulted in their restoration to a right relationship with God. And, as Jesus puts it, this reunion with God the Father is what makes it possible for His followers to live in unity and so prove to be His disciples.

“I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.” – John 17:23 NLT

The lives of the disciples would end up bringing glory to God on earth. And all those who would come to faith in Christ through their ministry and message would do the same. But Jesus fast-forwards and expresses His desire that all His disciples experience the future glorification that will result in their reuniting with Him in heaven.

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

The ultimate goal behind Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross was the justification of sinful men and women so that they might be restored to a right relationship with God the Father. But this wonderful truth will not be fully fulfilled until Jesus returns again and makes possible the future glorification of our mortal bodies so that we might spend eternity with He and the Father. The apostle Paul expresses this hope in clear and compelling terms.

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

Jesus had His eyes fixed on the far-distant future. His ability to face death was made possible by His understanding of its ultimate outcome. And the author of Hebrews used Jesus’ example of confident hope as an inspiration to all those who follow in His steps, so that we might remain steadfast to the end.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. – Hebrews 12:2-3 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

Don’t Grow Weary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building Up the Body

12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. 14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil. 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22 ESV

After providing the Thessalonians with some much-needed clarification and new information regarding the end times, Paul brings the focus of his letter back to the present day. The news he shared regarding the Rapture of the church and the Second Coming of Christ was intended to quell their fears and cause them to encourage and build up one another. For Paul, the unity and mutual edification of fellow believers were essential to the health and vitality of the church. He told 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

He encouraged the believers in Rome to “Live in harmony with each other” (Romans 12:16 NLT). And he wrote to the believers in Philippi, charging them to conduct themselves “in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ and to stand together “with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News” (Philippians 1:27 NLT).

And Paul knew that unity within the body of Christ began with the people showing respect and submitting themselves to those whom God had placed as leaders over the church. In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul referred to apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers as gifts from God, tasked with equipping “God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-12 NLT).

The author of the book of Hebrews adds his own admonition regarding respect for and submission to the God-appointed leaders in the church.

Obey your spiritual leaders, and do what they say. Their work is to watch over your souls, and they are accountable to God. Give them reason to do this with joy and not with sorrow. – Hebrews 13:17 NLT

Paul told the members of the church in Corinth to treat those who ministered among them with respect and “to submit to them and others like them who serve with such devotion” (1 Corinthians 16:16 NLT). So, when Paul tells the Thessalonians to “to respect those who labor among you” and “to esteem them very highly in love because of their work,” he is simply restating his strongly held belief in God’s authority structure for the local church.

It is important to remember that at the point Paul wrote this letter, the church of Jesus Christ was still in its infancy. Through the evangelistic efforts of Paul, Silas, Barnabas, Timothy, Peter and the other apostles, the Gospel had spread like wildfire throughout the Roman empire. And its rapid expansion had created a pressing need for leaders. The book of Acts records that, on one of their many missionary journeys, Paul and Barnabas made many disciples and “they strengthened the believers. They encouraged them to continue in the faith” (Acts 14:22 NLT). And Luke goes on to explain how “Paul and Barnabas also appointed elders in every church. With prayer and fasting, they turned the elders over to the care of the Lord, in whom they had put their trust” (Acts 14:23 NLT).

One of the primary responsibilities Paul gave to his young protégés, Titus and Timothy, was to appoint elders and leaders for the growing number of congregations springing up all over Macedonia, Asia Minor, Galatia, and Achaia. He told Titus, “I left you on the island of Crete so you could complete our work there and appoint elders in each town as I instructed you” (Titus 1:5 NLT). And Paul gave Timothy very specific characteristics to look for when seeking out men to lead the church.

…a church leader must be a man whose life is above reproach. He must be faithful to his wife. He must exercise self-control, live wisely, and have a good reputation. He must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must be able to teach. He must not be a heavy drinkerc or be violent. He must be gentle, not quarrelsome, and not love money. He must manage his own family well, having children who respect and obey him. For if a man cannot manage his own household, how can he take care of God’s church? – 1 Timothy 3:2-5 NLT

These men were not to be new converts to the faith. Their lives were to be characterized by a level of integrity that garnered the respect of those inside and outside of the church. As Paul told Titus, these individuals were God-appointed leaders who were to be held to a high standard.

A church leader is a manager of God’s household, so he must live a blameless life. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered; he must not be a heavy drinker, violent, or dishonest with money. – Titus 1:5 NLT

And when these men taught, led, fed, encouraged, or admonished the flock of God, they were to be treated with respect and love by those under their care.

But along with godly leadership, Paul knew there was a need for mutual accountability and compassionate care among the congregation. The church was the body of Christ. It was an organism, not an organization. And Paul wanted the Thessalonians to understand their mutual responsibility to care for and build up one another, which led him to write, “admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thessalonians 5:14 NLT).

In his letters to the churches in Rome and Corinth, Paul compared the church to the human body.

Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. – Romans 12:4-5 NLT

The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body. So it is with the body of Christ. – 1 Corinthians 12:12 NLT

And, as in the human body, the diversity of parts was part of God’s plan for maintaining unity and vitality. Each member of the body of Christ had a personal responsibility to use his or her gifts for the good of the whole. There was no place for selfishness or self-centeredness. God designed the body of Christ to operate in a spirit of solidarity, not solitariness.

So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.

Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. – 1 Corinthians 12:6-9 NLT

And Paul lets the Thessalonians know that the love God expected them to express toward one another was to consist of equal parts love, admonishment, comfort, help, and patience. They were to pursue what was best for one another, putting the needs of others ahead of their own. There was no place for disunity, dissension, lack of discipline, laziness, self-centeredness, or selfishness in the body of Christ.

In fact, as far as Paul was concerned, Christ’s church was to be characterized by continuous rejoicing, constant prayer, and contagious gratitude to God for all that He has done. And Paul makes it plain that these characteristics were in keeping with the will of God for the church. When the body of Christ operates outside those parameters, it runs the risk of extinguishing the work of the Spirit in their midst. Ungodly behavior among God’s people is unacceptable and has the same effect on the Spirit’s power as water being poured on an open flame. When members of the body of Christ fail to live in unity and refuse to minister to one another with a focus on community, the Spirit of God is grieved.

Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. And do not bring sorrow to God’s Holy Spirit by the way you live. – Ephesians 4:29-30 NLT

And, as if to illustrate all that he has just said, Paul warns the Thessalonians to “not treat prophecies with contempt” (1 Thessalonians 5:20 NET). This statement ties in Paul’s teaching on the end times and his admonition that the Thessalonians respect those who labor among them. Paul had provided them new teaching about the Rapture and the Second Coming of Christ. And, as difficult as these new revelations might be to understand, he expected them to receive them as coming from God. He invited them to “test everything” and to “hold fast what is good,” but they were not to treat the words of God contemptuously. The Greek word Paul uses means “to make of no account.” While they were free to examine and test these new teachings, they were not to throw them out just because they were difficult to understand or hard to accept.

So much of what they were hearing was new to them. The Bible as we know it did not yet exist. Like many of the other letters Paul wrote, this one would eventually become part of the Canon of Scripture. But at this point in the history of the church, the doctrines and theology with which we are intimately familiar were still in the process of being determined and disseminated. This meant that the members of the local churches were going to have to trust leaders like Paul, whom God had placed over them. And, as Paul concludes in this section, it also meant that they were going to have to avoid “every form of evil.”

Paul expands on this thought in his letter to the church in Rome.

Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying. When God’s people are in need, be ready to help them. Always be eager to practice hospitality. – Romans 12:9-13 NLT

The body of Christ is to be a wonderful demonstration of unity, community, love, and mutual care, empowered by the Spirit of God and for the building up of the people 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

Faith in Action

I always thank my God when I pray for you, Philemon, because I keep hearing about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all of God’s people. And I am praying that you will put into action the generosity that comes from your faith as you understand and experience all the good things we have in Christ. Your love has given me much joy and comfort, my brother, for your kindness has often refreshed the hearts of God’s people. – Philemon 1:4-7 ESV

It’s not hard to recognize Paul’s intense and sincere love for Philemon. These are not the pious-sounding platitudes of a pastor, but they are legitimate expressions of love from a close friend. And Paul tells his friend that news of his faith and love causes him to offer up prayers of thanksgiving to God. Paul is grateful for the tangible expressions of life change that have become evident in Philemon’s life. His faith in Jesus Christ’s love for him has resulted in visible displays of selfless love for the people of God.

The apostle John used this same combination of faith in Jesus and love for others in his first letter.

And this is his commandment: We must believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, just as he commanded us. – 1 John 3:23 NLT

And John went on to call for a consistent and persistent kind of love that would reflect the believer’s new relationship with their gracious and loving Father, who is the source of all love.

Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love. – 1 John 4:7-8 NLT

John emphasized that the believer’s capacity to love others was evidence of their newfound relationship with God and was made possible because God had loved them enough to send His Son to die in their place as the payment for their sins.

We love each other because he loved us first. – 1 John 4:19 NLT

Paul complimented Philemon for his love of others. But you can sense that Paul is setting Philemon up. He is lovingly preparing his friend to hear some news that will likely prove difficult to receive. It will involve Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus.

Paul begins by explaining to Philemon the content of his ongoing prayers for him: “I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ” (Philemon 1:6 NLT). Paul has already complimented Philemon for his love for others. But he wanted Philemon to know and experience the full impact of the Gospel in his life. Paul deeply desired that his friend’s faith would grow in depth and intensity so that he might know and experience all the fulness of joy promised to him in Christ. Jesus had told His disciples:

“Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:9-13 ESV

Paul wanted more for Philemon. He was not content to allow his friend to rest on his laurels or to become complacent in his faith. While there was obvious evidence of fruit in Philemon’s life, there would always be room for further growth. And Paul wanted Philemon to understand that God’s transformative work in his life would never be complete in this life. It would be ongoing and never-ending. And Paul made it a habit to pray for the continual spiritual enlightenment of all those he loved and to whom he ministered.

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.

I also pray that you will understand the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. – Ephesians 1:18-20 NLT

Paul wanted Philemon to know that his love for others was contagious, having spread far beyond the confines of their local faith community. News of Philemon’s love had reached the ears of Paul, as he sat under house arrest in Rome. And Paul told him, “I have derived much joy and comfort from your love” (Philemon 1:7 ESV). But why? What was it about Philemon’s actions that caused Paul to rejoice and be encouraged? Paul provides the answer:  “because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you” (Philemon 1:7 ESV).

As an apostle, teacher, and fellow Christ-follower, Paul found great joy in watching believers live out their faith in the power of the Holy Spirit. When he was able to witness the body of Christ functioning as intended, he couldn’t help but be encouraged. Unity and true community within Christ’s church was important to Paul. That’s why he told the church in Philippi:

…complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. – Philippians 2:2-4 ESV

Philemon had no idea what was coming. As he, Apphia, and Archippus read this letter together, he must have been deeply encouraged. But the other shoe was about to drop. Paul was preparing to test Philemon’s faith in a profound way. His concept of what it means to love others was going to be stretched. His ideas regarding justice and mercy were going to be challenged as never before. His secular and sacred worlds were about to collide, causing him to reconsider his faith in a whole new light.

Philemon had a blind spot. But he was not alone, and this is probably the reason Paul had included Apphia and Archippus as recipients of his letter. The topic Paul was about to bring up was going to be controversial for each and every member of the local congregation who met in Philemon’s home. They would have known about Philemon’s runaway slave. And most, if not all of them, would have been familiar with and agreeable to Philemon’s legal rights as a master. But Paul was about to rock their collective world.

While the early church seemed to have no problem with slaves coming to faith in Christ and even attending their local fellowships, a social stigma remained. There was a lingering sense of separation and segregation. And Paul addressed this issue repeatedly in his letters to the churches. He was out to tear down the societal standards of his day that were creating division within the body of Christ. In their place, he called for a sense of oneness in Christ.

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

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus. And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:26-28 NLT

In this new life, it doesn’t matter if you are a Jew or a Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbaric, uncivilized, slave, or free. Christ is all that matters, and he lives in all of us. – Colossians 3:11 NLT

While the world outside the doors of the church was practicing segregation, enslavement, and every conceivable form of social prejudice, Paul was calling the body of Christ to practice “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 3:3 ESV). There was no place for division and disunity in God’s family. Everyone stands as equals at the foot of the cross. And as Paul reminded the believers in Rome: “For God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:11 NLT).

No, in God’s Kingdom, all share the unique and undeserved privilege of adoption as His sons and daughters, regardless of race, creed, color, or social standing.

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. – Ephesians 3:4-6 ESV

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

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

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

One For All and All For One

“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. 

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” –  Matthew 18:7-14 ESV

Jesus is in the middle of what began as a lesson on humility and its non-negotiable requirement for entrance into the kingdom of heaven. The disciples had been arguing about which of them was the greatest when Jesus intervened and, using a small child as a visual prompt, began to teach them about the need for humility, not hubris. But it’s important to understand that Jesus was not placing children in a higher position than adults. And it is unlikely that He was teaching that it’s easier for a child to be saved than an adult. His emphasis was the innocence, trust and natural humility found in a child.

When Jesus referred to “these little ones,” He was talking about those who willingly place their faith in Him, trusting Him as a child would – without guile, not driven by ego, or motivated by self-indulgence.

Jesus, knowing that His disciples were obsessed with status, reminded them that they were to accept these innocent believers in His name. They were not to categorize or rank them by outward signs of worth or treat some as more important than others. James, the half-brother of Jesus, had some strong words regarding this kind of prejudice practiced in the church.

My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others?

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

Listen to me, dear brothers and sisters. Hasn’t God chosen the poor in this world to be rich in faith? Aren’t they the ones who will inherit the Kingdom he promised to those who love him? But you dishonor the poor! Isn’t it the rich who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t they the ones who slander Jesus Christ, whose noble name you bear? – James 2:1-7 NLT

Don’t judge a book by its cover. Don’t allow status or worldly signs of significance to deceive you. Christ’s kingdom was not going to be populated by the powerful, pretentious, the popular, or the prosperous. It isn’t that these people could not have a place in His kingdom, but they would first have to become as little children: Full of humility rather than being full of themselves.

The world is full of stumbling blocks. There are all kinds of natural impediments designed to keep people from coming to Christ. And for those who do place their faith in Christ, there would be no shortage of barriers along the way, intended to keep them from growing in their faith. So, Jesus warns His disciples about the danger of becoming a source of discouragement to another believer. By arguing over who was the greatest, the disciples were inadvertently discouraging one another. It had not escaped the other nine disciples that Peter, James, and John were favored by Jesus. They had been included in His trip to the mountaintop, while the others had been left behind. Peter had received a blessing from Jesus because he had been the first to speak up and declare Jesus as the Son of God. A natural and normal competitive factor had developed between the disciples, and it left some feeling less significant than others.

This led Jesus to stress the need for mutual care and concern. And He used hyperbole to drive home the seriousness of His point. Anyone who caused a fellow believer to stumble in their walk would be better off dead. Jesus is not teaching that someone can lose their salvation for tempting another believer to falter in their faith. He is simply stressing how serious we should take our role in another person’s faith journey. Anything we do to discourage another believer by looking down on them or making them feel inferior will have destructive consequences. And Jesus stresses the seriousness of this offense by saying, “it would be better for him to have a huge millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the open sea” (Matthew 18:6 NLT). 

Jesus does not want His disciples to be sources of stumbling for other believers. So, He warns them to set aside their pride and to humbly serve any and all who place their faith in Him, regardless of their status in life. Again, Jesus uses hyperbole to make His point. He warns His disciples that anything in their life that might cause a brother to stumble should be eliminated at all costs. That includes their pride.

It’s interesting to note that Jesus uses hands, feet, and eyes as examples. It is with our hands that we grasp the things of this world. It is with our feet that we stray from the path that God has set for us. And it is our eyes that cause us to lust after the things of this world. The apostle John provides us with a strong word of warning concerning these things.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. – 1 John 2:15-16 NLT

It’s important to remember that this entire exchange between Jesus and His disciples began with their argument over who was the greatest. The very fact that they were debating this topic reveals that they saw themselves as somehow superior to one another. So, Jesus told them, “See that you do not disdain one of these little ones” (Matthew 18:10 NLT). The Greek word Jesus used means “to think little or nothing of.” They were devaluing one another. They were assessing worth based on outward attributes. But Jesus stressed that God views all equally. He shows no partiality. Paul reminds us, “God does not show favoritism” (Romans 2:11 NLT). So, why should we? God cares for each and every one of His children. If one strays, He seeks them out. And when He finds them, He rejoices. So should we.

The sin-based pride of the disciples was destructive. Their obsession with self-importance and their need for recognition and status had no place in the kingdom of heaven. They were going to learn that the plight of the believer would be difficult enough in this world without having fellow believers placing roadblocks in the way. Unity was going to be essential to the success of the church. Mutual care and concern were going to be essential characteristics of the body of Christ. And the New Testament is filled with admonitions to model humility and to serve one another selflessly and sacrificially.

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. – 1 Thessalonians 5:11 ESV

Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them. – Ephesians 4:29 NLT

So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up… – Romans 14:19 NLT

We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord. – Romans 15:2 NLT

Mutual edification, not self-glorification. Building up others, not pumping up ourselves. Putting others first and ourselves last. That is life in the kingdom. We are in this together. We are the body of Christ and each of us needs the other.

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

Not What God Intended

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. – Matthew 5:31-32 ESV

Jesus follows up his radical statements regarding lust and adultery with a clarification about what the law actually says regarding the topic of divorce. Once again, He opens His remarks with the words, “It was also said.” What follows was not intended to be a restatement of the law, but a clarification of the Jewish peoples’ misunderstanding of what the law actually taught. Jesus was showing them that they had misconstrued the meaning and intent of what was written in the book of Deuteronomy. Here are the actual words:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ESV

Divorce was a problem in Israel. And the reason was that the people had been taught to minimize the moral aspect regarding divorce. Their interpretation of this passage in Deuteronomy centered solely on one thing: The certificate of divorce. In other words, they read this law and saw it as a license for a man to divorce his wife.

It is essential to realize that, in Israel’s ancient culture, women had no rights. They were not free to divorce their husbands. So, this law was aimed at men. And it was not intended as some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, providing men with an easy exit strategy from an unhappy marriage. But that is what it had become. Divorce had become commonplace. All it required was a written piece of paper, a certificate of divorce. There were no lawyers, courts, or judges involved. And the action was taken with little or no thought as to any spiritual or moral ramifications the decision might entail.

These verses are directly tied to the ones preceding them, where Jesus talked about adultery. Every Jew knew that adultery was wrong. But they had divorced the idea of adultery from divorce. And Jesus wasn’t going to allow them to do so. This is why He states, “I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32 ESV).

In just a few short sentences, Jesus drops the hammer on the Jewish concept of divorce. All the way back in the book of Genesis, at the very point in time when God had made Eve from the rib of Adam, He had said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 ESV). God’s intention had been that a man and woman would be joined together as one, for life. There had been no provision for divorce. And, at a later point in Jesus’ ministry, this issue would be raised by the Pharisees, when they asked Him, “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2 NLT).

The context of the passage makes it clear that they were attempting to trap Jesus with this question. It was designed to be a no-win scenario. If Jesus said a man was not allowed to divorce his wife, the crowds would turn on Him. A hard-line view on marriage and divorce had gotten John the Baptist beheaded by Herod. So the Pharisees wanted to see what Jesus was going to say, and His response was simple, yet direct. He did what He was so often prone to do. He answered a question with a question: “What did Moses say in the law about divorce?” (Mark 10:3 NLT). And they responded, “Well, he permitted it. He said a man can give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away” (Mark 10:4 NLT). Now, notice closely what Jesus said to them:

“He [Moses} wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts. But ‘God made them male and female’ from the beginning of creation. ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.” – Mark 10:5-9 NLT

C. E. B. Cranfield, in his commentary of the Gospel of Mark, clarifies that the Deuteronomy passage to which Jesus refers…

…is a divine provision to deal with situations brought about by men’s sklerokardia [hardness of heart] and to protect from its worst effects those who would suffer as a result of it. – C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Saint Mark

In other words, this was a concession, and not to be confused with some form of divine sanctioning of divorce. It was intended to keep men from following up one sin with another. The certificate of divorce was a legal document that was based on one thing and one thing only: Some proof of “indecency” in the life of the wife. The Hebrew word used in the Deuteronomy passage had to do with actions related to indecency, shamefulness, or dishonor. A man couldn’t just grow tired of his wife and send her packing. He wasn’t free to “fall out of love” with her and produce a piece of paper to get rid of her. There had to be moral reasons for him to divorce her. And, if he did divorce her, he had to deal with the moral ramifications of his decision.

Jesus makes it perfectly clear that, unless the man’s wife was guilty of unfaithfulness, in the form of sexual immorality, he had no right to divorce her. If he did, he was causing her to commit adultery with the next man she married. Because, in God’s eyes, she and her first husband were still one. And if she did remarry and was given divorce papers a second time, the first husband was not free to remarry her, without being guilty of adultery as well. And any husband, after having divorced his wife, who decided to marry a woman who had also been divorced without proper cause, would be guilty of adultery.

Why is Jesus belaboring this point? What is the real issue He is addressing? It is faithfulness. It all gets back to the perception/reality problem. For the Jews, their perception regarding divorce was that divorce was possible under certain conditions. You just had to follow the rules. But with the help of the religious leaders, the rules had been redefined. Divorce had become an accepted norm. But Jesus was out to deal with reality. He blatantly countered that divorce results in adultery. Marriage was intended to be a covenant, a binding relationship between two people, and sealed before God Almighty. And Jesus clarifies the significance of that reality, when He says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9 ESV).

Divorce was never God’s intention for mankind. Marriage was designed to be a permanent union, creating a divine bond between two individuals. Divorce was a breaking of the marriage covenant. It was an act of unfaithfulness. And God had stated that the only legitimate grounds for divorce would be based on unfaithfulness. And yet, He was not prescribing divorce as the solution to the problem of unfaithfulness. Jesus made it painfully clear that there was only one reason God made a provision for divorce: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8 ESV).

One of the things God has always looked for in His people is faithfulness. God expected the people of Israel, His chosen people, to remain faithful to Him. But He often accused them of spiritual adultery.

“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 3:6-10 ESV

Israel had a track record of unfaithfulness to God. They couldn’t keep from wandering after other “lovers.” And the whole point Jesus seems to be making is our unfaithfulness on a horizontal level is a reflection of our unfaithfulness on a vertical level. How are we to remain faithful to God if we can’t remain faithful to our spouse? Our lack of commitment reveals a heart problem, not a compatibility issue.

God’s greatest concern is man’s relationship with Him. Sinful man is divorced or separated from God. Unfaithfulness has created a barrier between man and God. All men and women have proven themselves unfaithful to God. We have gone after other lovers, pursued other gods, and sought other relationships to meet our needs and satisfy our desires. But God, in His grace and mercy, sent His Son as the means by which we might be restored to a right relationship with Him. He wants to end our spiritual adultery and put a stop to our unfaithfulness. And it will only take place if we allow Him to renew our hearts and redeem us from our love affair with sin, self, and Satan.

Jesus is calling the people of God back to God. I love the way the apostle Paul puts it:

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!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 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

Hard Words Concerning Hard Hearts

1 “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ESV

Divorce. It’s a controversial topic among Christians that not only destroys marriages but that can do serious damage to a wide range of relationships. The loss of long-term friendships can be an unfortunate byproduct of divorce. Children can be forced to take sides in a divorce, leaving them alienated and estranged from one of their own parents.  Churches have found themselves divided over how to properly handle the divorces taking place among their congregations.

Divorce is divisive and destructive. And it was never intended as an option by God. The book of Genesis clearly reveals the will of God concerning marriage.

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. – Genesis 2:24 ESV

There was to be a unity and permanency to marriage. The very fact that God created Eve from the rib of Adam conveys the intimacy and indissolubility of their union. In God’s eyes, the man and the woman were one, inseparable whole.

But sin eventually entered the scene and damaged everything God had made, including the marriage union. It would not be long before the sanctity of marriage would be destroyed by the selfishness and self-centeredness of sin-prone human hearts. Marriages would continue to take place but, far too often, they would be driven by lust, not love; and marked by an egocentric, what’s-in-it-for-me attitude that puts self-interest ahead of God’s will.

In this section of Deuteronomy, Moses finds himself having to deal with the topic of divorce yet again. Sadly, divorce had become a real-life issue among the Israelites. Their marriages were just as susceptible to brokenness and division as those of the pagan nations around them. The Jews were just as prone to falling in and out of love as anyone else. But Moses wanted them to remember that God had very strong feelings about marriage and divorce. The prophet Malachi would later articulate God’s view concerning divorce:

“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” – Malachi 2:16 ESV

And this is the very issue Moses deals with in this passage. Moses describes a case where a husband has “found some indecency” in his wife that has caused her to lose favor in his eyes. In essence, he has fallen out of love with her. Moses does not elaborate on the nature of the indecency committed by the wife, but the Hebrew word is `ervah, which can literally be translated as “nakedness.” The context seems to indicate that the wife has been found guilty of sexual sin, as in adultery. And, as a result, the husband has chosen to issue her a certificate of divorce.

This brings up an important question. Does this passage condone or sanction divorce in the case of unfaithfulness or adultery? Jesus addressed this very question in His Sermon on the Mount.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:31-32 ESV

Jesus seems to support the idea that divorce is acceptable when sexual immorality is involved. But he also makes it clear that anyone who divorces his wife for any other reason will ultimately be held guilty of adultery – his own and that of his ex-wife. If they divorce for any reason other that sexual immorality and end up marrying other individuals, they will be committing adultery in God’s eyes.

Later on in His earthly ministry, Jesus would have to address this issue again. A group of Pharisees approached Him with a question regarding divorce. “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Matthew 19:3 ESV). This was a hot topic among the Jews and they were attempting to get Jesus to share His opinion on the matter. If He came down on the side of those advocating divorce, He would alienate the conservative hardliners. If He stood opposed to divorce under any circumstances, He would find Himself losing favor among the common people. So, Jesus answered them:

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” – Matthew 19:3-6 ESV

Jesus went back to the book of Genesis and the creation account. He reminded them what God had done to set apart a man and woman as one. And He clarified that no one had the right to separate what God had joined together.

This answer prompted the Pharisees to ask a second question. They sensed that they had Jesus in a predicament, because it appeared that He was contradicting the Mosaic Law. So, the crafted a question based on the words of Moses found in Deuteronomy 24:1: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” (Matthew 19:7 ESV).

They had Him, or so they thought. According to their interpretation of the Mosaic Law, Moses had clearly given a get-out-of-jail-free card when it came to sexual immorality on the part of a spouse. But Jesus took the opportunity to explain the underlying motivation for Moses’ words.

He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”– Matthew 19:7-9 ESV

Yes, Moses had provided sexual immorality as the single circumstance under which divorce could be sought. But it had never been God’s will. Sin had left mankind with permanent heart-damage and this had produced the need for this exemption clause concerning marriage. But none of this was what God had wanted.

Sin never produces anything of value. It is always damaging and destructive. And while Moses had provided a means by which a man could divorce his unfaithful wife, it was going to result in the potential for further sin. Take a look at the scenario that Moses paints. A man divorces his wife for marital unfaithfulness, then she goes and marries another man. That man ends up divorcing her as well. And Moses has to go out of his way to explain that the first husband is not free to remarry his wife. Why would he have to bring that up? Because of the wickedness of the human heart.

This whole convoluted scene illustrates just how twisted things can get when man does things his own way. Moses is having to paint every conceivable scenario that can come about as a result of divorce. He even describes that woman remarrying and her second husband dying. Even in that case, the first husband is not free to remarry his ex-wife.

You almost need a program to keep up with all the various permutations Moses paints. But why did he go into such great detail? Because he knew the hearts of his own people. He knew what Jesus knew: that their hearts were hard and they would find themselves following one sin with another one. So, he had to cover every conceivable scenario, providing the people of Israel with precise instructions designed to prevent further sin in the camp.

When all was said and done, this had less to do with divorce than it had to do with holiness. Moses had an ulterior motive behind these regulations regarding divorce and remarriage.

“…you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” – Deuteronomy 24:4 ESV

It is a non-debatable fact that one sin tends to lead to another. While Moses had provided the Israelites with the certificate of divorce as a means of dealing with sexual immorality within the marriage union, it was going to produce further problems. The very fact that Moses describes the husband as willing to remarry his ex-wife reveals that he had not really fallen out of love with her. Her unfaithfulness had angered and hurt him, and caused him to seek a divorce from her. But as the old saying goes, time heals all wounds. Eventually, he would find himself missing his wife and tempted to remarry her when the opportunity presented itself. But Moses had to restrict his behavior. One sin could not be followed by another. Two wrongs do not make a right.

It would seem that God would prefer that the husband and wife not divorce, even in the case of unfaithfulness. Forgiveness and restoration would take precedence over divorce and the destruction of the marriage. But as Jesus said, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives.”

Hardened, sin-filled hearts rarely produce wise decisions. The heat of the moment can produce unhealthy outcomes that bring little more than regret and further heartache. God designed marriage to be permanent, not perfect. Two sin-prone people make a perfect marriage impossible. But when Christ is part of that marriage, and the Spirit of God indwells the two people who make up that marriage, unity and permanency is achievable – even in the face of unfaithfulness.

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

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

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

The Power of the Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this extraordinary phenomena did not go unnoticed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Think First

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:5-11 ESV

Let’s face it. We tend to act first and think later. Far too often we allow ourselves to be driven by our emotions and controlled by our sin nature. Even when we try to do the right thing, we tend to focus on the behavior, while giving little or no thought to the motivation driving that behavior. For instance, we know that the Bible tells us to “Count it all joy…when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2 ESV). So, we feel the need to display an outward facade of joy, when on the inside we are full of anger and resentment over our circumstances. We act first and think later. And sometimes, we fail to think at all.

When James wrote that famous and somewhat infamous verse he was attempting to get his readers to see and understand their suffering from a different perspective. James went on to qualify his statement by adding, “for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:3 ESV). The Greek word translated by the three English words, “for you know” is ginōskō and it describes an understanding of a matter derived from personal experience. It was commonly used as a Hebrew idiom for sexual intercourse between a man and a woman. So, it conveys the idea of knowledge based on intimacy.

James is saying that we all know, from intimate experience, that trials produce  endurance. They make us stronger. They test us and force us to develop spiritual muscles we didn’t even know we had. But James is stressing the knowledge of that reality. He is suggesting that we think about the benefits of the trial rather than focusing on the trial itself. In the midst of the trial, we are to stop long enough to consider past trials we have experienced and how we came out the other end of the despair and darkness with a greater reliance upon God and a stronger faith in His love for us.

In the Philippians passage above, Paul has just finished challenging the believers in Philippi to “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27 ESV). He has encouraged them to stand “firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:27 ESV). And in the face of the opposition they faced, he told them to remain unafraid. Paul then drops the bombshell that their suffering for the sake of Christ was to be seen as a natural outcome of their faith in Christ. And Paul’s own life was a glaring example. He had written this letter to them while under house arrest in Rome where he was awaiting trial before the emperor, Nero. He had spent the last four-plus years in some form of confinement, starting in Philippi, then in Caesarea Philippi, and eventually in Rome. And he told his brothers and sisters in Philippi that they could expect more of the same.

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. – Philippians 1:29-30 ESV

But after mentioning suffering and conflict, Paul opens up chapter two with a surprisingly upbeat collection of words: Encouragement, comfort, affection, sympathy, and joy. They seem out of place. But are they?

Paul tells the Philippians that his joy will be made complete if he hears that they are “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Philippians 2:2 ESV). Notice how many times Paul uses the word, “mind.” You have to go back to verse 27 of chapter one, where he uses it for the first time. But then, in the first 11 verses of chapter two he uses it three more times. And it all comes to a head with his statement: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:4 ESV).

It is vitally important that we understand the full implication of Paul’s words. As essential as it is to grasp what Paul is saying, it is equally important to hear what he is not saying. He doesn’t say, “have this behavior among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” Now, he could have said that. After all, Jesus Himself told His disciples, “I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you” (John 13:15 NLT). And the apostle Peter wrote, “For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21 NLT).

So clearly, Paul is not suggesting that we think like Christ, but not emulate the example of Christ. In this verses, Paul is providing us with an essential ingredient to our faith walk that often gets overlooked and left out. To attempt to follow the example of Christ without understanding the mind of Christ will inevitably result in failure and frustration. And that seems to be Paul’s point. But what does he mean when he says, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus”? What kind of mind did Jesus have? And is this something we have to manufacture on our own?

The Greek word for “mind” is phroneō and it means “to think” or “to have understanding.” It can also mean “to have an opinion of one’s self, think of one’s self.” Essentially, Paul is telling the Philippian believers to consider or think about themselves the same way Jesus understood Himself. Jesus was the Son of God and yet He “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6 ESV). He was fully aware of His deity and never doubted His role as a member of the Trinity. Yet, he was willing to take “the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7 ESV). 

This is all about identity. Jesus knew who He was and He knew the role He had come to fulfill. Jesus had no problem assuming the lowly status of an infant, born into a poor Jewish family and in relative obscurity. His incarnation did nothing to alter His divine identity. And at no time in His earthly ministry did Jesus forget who He was. That’s why the temptations He endured in the wilderness had no impact on Him. Satan had nothing he could offer Jesus that was not already His by right. As the Son of God, Jesus could not be tempted by earthly rewards. The accolades of men meant nothing to Him. The promise of power was not an allure for Him.

The mind that Jesus had was one of complete awareness of who He was and what He had come to do. He was on a mission. He was not out to earn favor with God. He already had it. He wasn’t attempting to prove His righteousness to God. He was God. From Jesus’ way of thinking, the things He had to suffer were part of His job description and an extension of His identity. As John the Baptist stated when he saw Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).

Paul emphasizes that Jesus, because of who He was and what He had come to do, was “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8 ESV). And when Jesus had fulfilled His role, having given His life as a ransom for many, He was resurrected and restored to His rightful place at His Father’s side. Jesus knew His death would be temporary. He knew His identity as God’s Son was not in jeopardy. And the author of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus was able to endure the cross because He knew what God had in store for Him.

…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. – Hebrews 12:1-2 ESV

But what does this have to do with us? Everything. Paul’s whole point is that we need to have the same attitude that Christ had. Which means we need to recognize our true identity in Christ. It is because we don’t realize who we are and what we have become in Christ that we end up wrestling with disunity, selfish ambition, conceit, and pride. Yet, Paul would have us understand that, because of our union with Christ, we are seated with God in the heavenly places.

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—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus… – Ephesians 2:4-6 ESV

We are as good as there. Our place is reserved. We are sons and daughters of God, joint-heirs with Christ, and guaranteed the reality of our future glorification. But we need to believe it. We need to constantly think about it. So that when the enemy tells us we are not enough or that we don’t measure up, we can reject the lie and live in the truth of who we are. Like Christ, we don’t need the accolades of men. There are no earthly rewards that can compare with what God has in store for us. So, like Christ, we find ourselves willing to serve and love others selflessly and sacrificially. We knew who we are and we know why we’re here. And best of all, we know what God has in store for us.

Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him. – James 1:12 ESV

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

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

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

 

Christ in You

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 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. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. – Romans 6:3-5 ESV

17 But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. – 1 Corinthians 6:17 ESV

1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. – Romans 8:1 ESV

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. – Romans 8:9-11 ESV

In our last post, we discussed the incredible reality that the Holy Spirit dwells within each and every Christ-follower. At the point of salvation, the Spirit of God takes up residence within the life of the believer, signifying their new righteous standing and full acceptance by God as clean and worthy vessels. The blood of Christ has cleansed them from sin and transformed them into a pure and worthy dwelling place for God’s Spirit.

But there is another important change that takes place when the believer comes to faith in Christ. He or she is immediately united with Christ. This is a familiar phrase to most of us, but it tends to lack any real sense of meaning for us. When we read the words of Paul found in Romans 6, we are hard-pressed to understand the true significance of what he is trying to tell us. He states that we have been baptized into Christ. But not only that, we have been baptized into His death. And then Paul adds that we have been buried and raised with Christ. When Christ died, so did we. And because He was raised back to life, so were we, because we are united with Him. Our union with Him in His death ties us directly to Him in His resurrection. He died and rose to new life and, by virtue of our relationship with Him, so did we.

We died to sin and were raised so “we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4 ESV). And it is our inseparable union with Christ that makes us acceptable to a holy God. When God looks at us, He sees His resurrected, fully righteous, and completely sinless Son. Because Christ conquered sin and the grave, we are no longer slaves to sin (Romans 6:6). No longer dead in our trespasses and sins, we are spiritually alive and fully capable of producing the fruit of righteousness (Philippians 1:11). And it all because of “…our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:10 ESV).

This union with Christ is what brought us new life (Ephesians 2:5). We became a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). We received release from the sentence of condemnation that hung over our heads as sinners and were given the ability to live in the power of the indwelling Spirit of God (Romans 8:1). We became a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), received “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 1:3 ESV), and “everything we need for living a godly life” (2 Peter 1:3 NLT).

That’s quite a list. But do we believe it? If so, do our lives reflect that we do? Most of us have no trouble accepting the fact that our salvation was completely dependent upon Christ and His sacrifice on the cross in our place. But Paul would have us understand that far more happened at the point of our salvation than we know or appreciate. We didn’t just benefit from Christ’s sacrifice, we took part in it. We were there with Him. It was our sins that he bore.

He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed. – 1 Peter 2:24 ESV

…he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5 ESV

And as Paul makes clear, while Jesus took our sins upon Himself, He graciously shares His new life with us. That’s quite a deal. He takes our sin and death, while we get His righteousness and a new life. The amazing reality is that the believer in Christ enjoys an undeserved and unlimited union with Him.

It is his relation to Christ (and that alone) which qualified him to enter the Father’s House; and it is his relation with Christ (and that alone) which gives him the right to now draw nigh within the veil. True, the believer still carries around with him “this body fo death (a depraved nature), but that affects not his perfect standing, his completeness in Christ, his acceptance, his justification and sanctification before God. – A. W. Pink, The Doctrine of Sanctification

As stated earlier, the believer receives the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation. And as Paul points out, the believer becomes one spirit with Christ by virtue of the presence of the Spirit of God (2 Corinthians 6:17). John Owen puts it this way:

Believers are united to Christ in God by the Spirit. This unions is a unilateral action by God, in which those who were dead are made alive, those who lived in darkness begin to see the light, and those who were enslaved to sin are set free to be loved and to love. When one speaks of “union,” it must be clear that the human person is merely receptive, being the object of God’s gracious action. This is the state and condition fo all true saints. – John Owen, Communion With the Triune God

To a certain degree, all of us struggle with the idea of our union with Christ. After all, we are told that “he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us” (Romans 8:34 NLT). That seems to indicate quite a distance between Jesus and those of us who claim to be His followers. How can we be united with Him if He is seemingly so far away? But remember what Jesus told His disciples, just prior to His death.

“…be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” – Matthew 28:20 NLT

He had also assured them, “where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20 NLT). And Jesus let them know that He was not going to leave them alone or on their own. He was going to send help in the form of the Holy Spirit.

“…it is best for you that I go away, because if I don’t, the Advocate won’t come. If I do go away, then I will send him to you…” – John 16:7 NLT

Jesus remains united with His followers through the presence of the Spirit of God. He has not left us or forsaken us but has simply passed on the responsibility for us to the third Person of the Trinity.

“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own but will tell you what he has heard. He will tell you about the future. He will bring me glory by telling you whatever he receives from me. All that belongs to the Father is mine; this is why I said, ‘The Spirit will tell you whatever he receives from me.’” – John 16:13-15 NLT

And through the Spirit, we still enjoy unbroken union with Christ and the Father. All that Christ is, we are. All the power He has at His possession is available to us – in full. His righteousness is ours. His wisdom is at our disposal. His sanctification and redemption also belong to us. All that we are and all that we possess as children of God is because of union with Jesus Christ.

And because of him [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” – 1 Corinthians 1:30-31 ESV

Paul describes this marvelous reality as a mystery. It makes no sense and is difficult to comprehend, but it is true nonetheless. “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27 ESV).

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

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

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