Agonizomai: May 2008

Friday, May 30, 2008

1Cor 9:1-3 - Cutting the Mustard

1-3 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? 2 If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. 3 This is my defense to those who would examine me.

This is the "practice what you preach" section. Paul has been making the point that the Corinthians - for example those in the meat-eating party - ought not to exercise their rights just because they have freedom. They are to control what they do outwardly and no longer be driven simply by what they desire - even if what they desire is, in and of itself, good. The question is not simply "is it OK for me?" but is also "will it harm a brother even if it is OK for me?" The guiding principle in the Spirit is the proper use of law in a context of love.

Paul uses himself as an example of the principle of proper self-denial for the sake of the souls of others. Firstly, he establishes his credentials. It seems that these credentials have been questioned by some. He wasn’t a companion of Jesus during His earthly lifetime, but he has seen the Lord with his own eyes. He has seen the resurrected Lord. He has seen the glorified Lord. For all their proximity to the Lord during the incarnation the other Apostles never really got the picture until after the resurrection. Thomas may serve as the example, but he is a typical example. They were all secreted away in fear and confusion until "suddenly" Jesus was among them.

So Paul had seen the risen Christ, and in this regard he was just as privileged and enlightened as the other Apostles. And it was more than a mere sighting - it was a specific, personal, purposeful appearance that was meant to utterly change Paul’s reason for living. And it did. He became the Apostle to the Gentiles. As such, he was demonstrably "free" of all the ceremonial and civil encumbrances of Judaism and free from keeping the moral law as a means of self-justification before God. He was free from keeping the letter of the law and free to keep its spirit, by the grace of God.

And his particular calling, spelled out by the Lord Himself, had been partially fulfilled in the Corinthians - as he points out here. They are what Christ called him to. They are fruit of the ministry that Christ Himself gave to Paul. Indeed, their faith, their salvation and the demonstrations of the power of God among them by the gift of the Holy Spirit, are proofs positive of Paul’s calling and his authority as coming from the highest source. They need look no further than the reality of their own redeemed lives if they would see by what authority Paul acted.

[I want to be careful here because a similar argument is used today by all manner of false preachers and prophets, namely - "the end justifies the means" or "it’s right because it works" - it brings ’results’. Paul is not pointing to results in order to justify himself before them. They are, in fact, for the most part, a miserable example of Christian living. They are schismatic, proud, boastful, factious and even vain. In many ways they are the poster boy for what a Christian community ought not to look like. But they could not deny that the power of God had come to them in the preaching of Paul, for their lives, no matter how weak and confused now, had been turned from great immorality and wickedness to newness of life in Christ Jesus. Sure "it worked" and sure Paul is using that truth here - but it is based not upon their experiences alone, but upon the Word of God when He commissioned Paul. Where there is a discrepancy between the word of God and our personal subjective experience, even our experience must bow to the Word.]

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

When the Snake Bites

When the snake bites, its toxin finds its way to the vulnerable places in the body where it does its destructive and debilitating work. The timely administration of anti-venin is all that can save the victim. And that antidote is fashioned from the very poison that the snake injected.

This is also God’s way. When the snake seeded his poison into mankind in the garden, that poison found its way into every nook and cranny of man’s being. But it is by the means of the poison itself that deliverance is administered. God has taken the venom of Satan and removed its sting, and He now applies the cure through the very means that the devil employs. Satan’s own weapon is turned against him.

This shows up in many different ways. For instance, a person may have been injured by rejection so badly that his whole behaviour is crippled - bringing depression, unsociability, suspicion, withdrawal and mistrust. Will God therefore work to ensure that this person is insulated from further hurt of that type? On the contrary, He will bring more rejection.

It is by taking what has harmed and killed, what has poisoned and crippled and making it the very means of a person’s healing that the Father glorifies the Son. Who else could do such a thing? For men it would be impossible, but not so for God. He delights in doing the impossible to the praise of His glory in showing forth the futility of His enemies.

Am I rejected? That new rejection flies like an arrow to the very place in me that was hurt so long ago. But because this new rejection is borne upon the wings of faith, because it trusts God to be at work in all things for my good, because God’s every thought towards me is good and so that I may prosper – then the sting of this new hurt becomes the balm of Gilead to my wounds.

It is in the very midst of this fiery furnace that Jesus guards me so that not even the smell of smoke will taint my clothes. Am I tempted to hate or despise the rejecter? It is forbidden. For both rejecter and rejected alike are infected with the same poison, though it shows in different ways. The rejecter is now the very instrument of God for my own good, and His grace is sufficient for me.

This precious cure, born in the blood and body of Jesus Christ, is now borne in my own body through suffering, to set at nothing the works of the devil in me. Without faith it might destroy me. It would certainly maim me more. But God’s gift of Jesus and of faith in Him brings healing out of harm, cure out of cursedness and life out of death.

But that faith must be exercised in the face of the spitting snake, who is anxious that the potency of his toxin should not be neutralized. He will spare no slithering effort, nor leave any stone unturned to bring about doubt in the cure that God has provided.

Yet simply abiding is enough. Standing fast. Not being moved. For it is trust in the healer and His medicine that releases its power. The blood of Christ cleanses us from all sin – but the instrumentality of that cure is our steadfast faith.

My moniker - that's John Hancock to Americans

Monday, May 26, 2008

1Cor 8:11-13 - The "Bigger" We Are....

11-13 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

But back to the example at hand. My knowledge - the knowledge from which I enjoy freedom in Christ regarding some matter indifferent to salvation and holy living - is not to become a matter of pride. I can never go down the path of thinking that I am something more than a weaker brother on account of my knowledge. If I have been given light to see, and he has not yet received that light, we still both answer to the same Lord. He must act as his conscience before God dictates - and so must I, even if the outward actions are quite different.

And the greater responsibility in the kingdom of God always rests with the person with the greater gift or the better understanding. Teachers and pastors are held to a higher standard. The one who has the light was given the light not for self-aggrandizement, but for body ministry. And that ministry can include having the light of freedom and not flaunting it. This glorifies God even though it may not be seen of men. For I do not make great fanfare out of my abstention for the sake of a brother because, as the Lord said, "Verily, verily they that do such things have their reward...". But will I quietly and with sensitivity simply take into consideration the genuine health of a brother’s soul?

Sunday, May 25, 2008

1Cor 8:7-10 - Freedom and Tyranny

7-10 However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. 8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?

In this section, the lack of "knowledge" Paul speaks of is obviously not ignorance of the facts. It means something deeper. Lack of knowledge here refers to a failure to apprehend the spiritual truth of the facts presented. It is possible to understand the facts and even to teach or to preach them without a true grasp of them in the heart. Simply because I understand the workings of the internal combustion engine has no bearing upon whether or not I can actually drive a car. Something has to happen beyond mere apprehension of information. That information must be embraced, believed, used, lived out - or it is unfruitful data in my life.

All saints, for reasons known to God, though they have been delivered from the kingdom of darkness and into His wonderful light - and though they are true children of the King - have, in one area or another, vestigial problems associated with their past sin. Some so-called deliverance ministries make much hay out of this situation and actually enslave people by purporting to cast out demons that aren’t there. They invent a whole range of spooks for every imaginable human flaw or personality trait. They preach twisted and unscriptural doctrines of generational sin, requiring Mormon-like digging into generational history to discover authorities given to demons by ancestors, the power of which can be broken only with the aid of the ministry in question.

It’s all poppycock, of course - and it would be comical if it didn’t actually lead people astray and get them focussed on the wrong thing. I’m sure some people are helped, and I’m equally sure that many people are harmed during the process. The fact that it "works" for some is used as the acid test for its viability and the negative effects for the many are often ignored or minimized. But the real standard for all teaching is scripturality. Not whether some of the words and concepts actually appear somewhere in the Bible (all perversions and heresies contain some truth and most start out with the Bible) - but whether the teaching is actually there, supported by the context, by the historical understanding of the saints, and by good contextual exegesis of the text. Generational sin as it is peddled by many today is simply not there when careful study is done - though the effects of the sins of prior generations obviously do bear upon present lives. Think of the FAS child, or inherited AIDS, and I think you’ll get the picture.

Now, if I happen to have light and deliverance unto a clear conscience regarding certain things that I participated in with a wrong heart in the past, it doesn’t mean everyone has that deliverance from the same thing at the same time. That is the wonder - and indeed, the purpose - of God. He has made each person unique, and He has allowed these differences to have a role in our sanctification and our fellowship.

Unless some had been weak then where could the strength that is in Christ be shown with love? Unless some had been strong, then how could the compassion, patience, forbearance and lovingkindness of God be manifested among the brethren? O the depths and the breadth of the wisdom of God! Though He is all of these things Himself, He nevertheless chooses to manifest them in His saints to His saints so that they will see the wonders of His grace.

The principle at work here is not to be found being the cause of a brother stumbling. If a brother thinks a thing is sin then that thing is sin to him, because he offends his conscience if he does it. But that thing is not sin to me if it is a so-called "thing indifferent" - which is a matter upon which the word of God does not speak, or which it does not specifically forbid - and I understand it correctly in the gospel context of freedom. But I am not free to flaunt my liberty in the face of someone who would sin against conscience by doing the very same thing - or who would wrongly fall into judgementalism against me, basing his thinking upon law and not grace.

The whole point is that I choose to regulate my behaviour on the principle of love for a brother, denying my own "rights" - giving up my freedom - so that my fellow believer, for whom Christ died, does not grieve the Holy Spirit and lose his way through my actions.

Now this can be taken too far and the principle can be misapplied or even misused. There is such a thing as the tyranny of the weak. In such a circumstance it would be an even greater error to allow a person to become a spiritual bigot or a legalistic bully under cover of the flag of Christian love. This passage presupposes that all parties are sincere believers who are anxious to follow the Lord and have no agenda of their own.

Thus, if by taking an alcoholic drink - which I am perfectly at liberty to do in Christ, giving thanks as He gave thanks for the wine - I would offend someone who was recently saved and delivered from alcohol, then I would be happy to refrain from partaking in that person’s presence. If, on the other hand, some supposedly mature Christian tried to introduce a rule in the church that forbade any minister or member from imbibing any alcohol on pain of disfellowshiping - or tried to make it a requirement for ministers to forswear ever taking a drink - I would personally oppose them with every ounce of my strength. Their motive is clearly not love, and their reasoning is patently not biblical. It is a legalistic tyranny designed to distract or to enslave. The sort of love that such persons need is the love that rebukes - not a false love that enables them to control others by dint of their own hang-ups.

Friday, May 23, 2008

1Cor 8:4-6 - The Everlasting Arms

4-6 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that "an idol has no real existence," and that "there is no God but one." 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many "gods" and many "lords" - 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

So, first Paul lays out the facts as they are. Idols are nothing in and of themselves. In other places we can learn that the true powers behind the making of idols are actually demons - but the idols themselves are blocks of stone or lumps of wood. An enlightened Christian knows this. To some it might seem patently obvious. Especially to some who have never actually seriously worshiped idols, the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit on the matter will seem as if God is agreeing with them when, in fact, they are agreeing with God.

Idols represented a concept of God to those who took them seriously. They were wrong, and they would have perished despite their sincerity, had they not been delivered from darkness by the power of God, through faith in Jesus Christ. But they were nevertheless sincere and therefore had a deeply rooted experiential history with these things. Having been delivered, they knew that they had been wrong.

But not all were idol worshipers. Some had been, perhaps, cynics or Epicureans or simply humanists or agnostics. Some may have been genuine idol worshipers who were, for some reason known only to God, completely delivered from them, instantly upon conversion, into a liberty that others can only seek to have. God knows and He is in charge of each separate life. And each Christian must work out his own salvation with fear and trembling.

No Christian, whether weak or so-called "strong" would deny the Oneness, the Supremacy, the reality and uniqueness of the True God. "I am God and there is none beside Me!" is what He speaks to our heart, and we know it to be true. But what we know and Who we know in any given circumstance are quite different. We can possess the facts and we can believe the facts after a fashion, but we are still fallen human beings with histories of experience, along with residual tendencies to sin and unbelief.

God has set us all (all believers) free with exactly the same freedom but we have not all grasped that freedom to the same degree. And the coming to it, or moving towards it, are the means of growth unto maturity, and the fostering an intimate dependency upon God. So the "strong" and the "weak" are utterly equal in God’s economy. All that matters is that they are in Christ. And the strong help the weak, even as the weak teach the strong about weakness. For weakness itself is a blessing simply because it keeps us close to God. It can be our own personal version of Paul’s thorn.

Anyone who fails to linger and meditate often on the truths expressed in verse 6, robs himself of understanding. So often we "assume" the word "God" without reflecting upon Who that word represents and what He is like. It is natural to us to think that He is altogether as we are - to take isolated expressions like "made in God’s image" - and to foist off on them some purely human-centred understanding of what they mean. As C. S. Lewis might express it, despite our yearnings and our attempts to be pious, God is still in the dock as far as some of the deep thoughts and reservations of our hearts are concerned. The pride of human nature puts Him on trial instead of agreeing that it actually is the other way round. He is the judge of all the earth, despite our pitiful self-delusion, and our attempts to usurp that fact.

So here, Paul takes a moment to reflect upon reality and to ponder and to acknowledge the fact that "God" means God. There is only one. He is the maker and sustainer of everything, including us, and we exist only for His purposes. We do not exist for our own purposes, or to please ourselves. Yet this is how the natural man lives out his entire life; and it is how we would live out our lives from the very next moment in time unless the grace of God was at work in us for Jesus sake, through our regenerate nature, by the Spirit - keeping us to the end in answer to the prayer of Jesus to the Father in John 17.

And Paul echoes the Apostle John here, affirming the deity of the Son by acknowledging His creative power. The very same Son Who took on human flesh in Jesus Christ, is the One through whom the universe and all that is in it, including us, came to be and continue to be. Mere knowledge - plain facts - just cannot do justice to this truth. We must start with knowledge, and the Christian faith is firmly rooted in historical fact, but the fallen human mind cannot grasp these facts unaided. The word "cannot" is not accidental - it is scriptural. But the inability is moral one, not something purely logical. Men cannot understand because they are corrupt, fallen and dead (to spiritual truth) in trespasses and sins - for which they are responsible because all men willingly embrace their sin.

All this sovereign exclusivity Paul implies in order to agree with the enlightened brethren and to put the true facts into the mix. But he will go on from here to explain that facts alone aren’t the whole story.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

1Cor 8:1-3 - Will the Real Idol Please Stand?

1-3 Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that "all of us possess knowledge." This "knowledge" puffs up, but love builds up. 2 If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.

Paul is about to answer another question that was probably put to him by letter preceding his visit. He seems to be aware that there is a faction that is outwardly centred around the question of eating meat offered to idols. It looks like a perfect example of where being right is not enough of itself. It’s not good to be wrong, but it’s also not good to be right in the wrong way, or for the wrong reasons over matters "indifferent".

Yet it is not hard to imagine the spiritually "informed" snorting at the dumbness of the idea that things offered to idols are actually unclean. Of course they aren’t, because we all "know" that idols are just the inanimate creations of men’s hands. But we don’t actually all know that fact in the same way. To have knowledge and to hold that knowledge in a clear conscience do not always coincide. Information itself is not understanding. The concept that idols are nothing is a long way from believing that they are nothing.

But human nature is such that pride is always waiting at the door. The moment we think we know anything then that very knowledge is liable to become an idol in its own right to us. So people enlightened enough to have freedom in the area of certain things are always only a hair’s breadth away from thinking themselves superior to those who have not yet realized such freedom.

But before going on we ought to make a sharp distinction in order to avoid falling off the other side of Luther’s horse on the question of knowledge. Nowhere in the Bible, and especially not here, is it even suggested that knowledge itself is a bad thing. Knowledge is, in fact, a very desirable thing if it forms the basis of wisdom. Without knowledge we cannot know or relate to God at all. So when the Bible states that "knowledge puffs up" it doesn’t imply that there is an inherent quality in knowledge that is damaging to the soul. Quite the contrary, there is an inherent quality in the soul that is damaging to knowledge. We can misinterpret, misapply, twist and even alter information to suit our own purposes.

Humility is the rarest and hardest learned of all the virtues. That is because it must ultimately be unaware of itself. So humility does not come by thinking of acquiring it, or striving to become less - it comes in a quite unexpected way - by utter forgetfulness. A mind occupied with serving others in Truth for Christ’s sake is humble in the moments when that is happening. Which is why Paul is drawing this dichotomy right up front between mere knowledge and the appropriate use of knowledge.

If we deceive ourselves into thinking we know something that we can impart to other people - something that makes us better than them (even if they later come to the same understanding as we because, after all, didn’t we know it before they did?) - we are likely to go about things in entirely the wrong way. And that is probably our first instinct. We can deceive ourselves in all kinds of ways into thinking we are speaking or acting for the good of our hearers (or, should we say, victims) when we are, in truth, merely bragging or moralizing or posturing in subtle ways.

Like Paul, we should be as harmless as doves when it comes to those with a profession of faith - as those for whom Christ died - and treat them gently with regard to working out their salvation. But when it comes to a matter of the undeniable truths of the gospel we should be fierce and uncompromising lions, ready to rebuke and correct with all dispatch at the first sign of corruption.

So here, Paul is about to embark upon the resolution of a pastoral issue and not a doctrine related to the fundamentals of the gospel. And the resolution lies not in the waving of mere knowledge in the face of those with a problem, but in the recognition of them as people who are working through an issue in the fullness of God’s time. The answer in such a case is not browbeating, but a love that gives room for the Spirit to educate the mind and change the disposition on a matter.

And thus the over arching principle of love is brought into the discussion by Paul. Love must be the underlying motivation for resolving problems and for imparting instruction and correction in the church. So long as it is equally understood that love can bend over backwards or it can rebuke, according to the situation. Both forbearance and discipline can be expressions of love; both patience and rebuke can have the best interest of the receiver in mind.

Knowledge is not what we think it is. It is not something we possess as an asset that gives credit to our person for diligence or effort or simply for innate intelligence. To put it this way is counter intuitive, but it is true. We must be diligent in pursuing knowledge; we must expend effort in order to do so - and we alone are culpable if we fail in these respects. But when knowledge comes as a result of these things we do not take credit for the information itself just because we have grasped it. All truth comes from God who is the Truth - and information or knowledge is, in its most perfect form, simply the truth about what is.

This is why Paul speaks of us "not knowing as we ought to know" as soon as we think we know. There is One who knows and that is God. He knows all things exhaustively and perfectly - including us. We do not even know ourselves. But God knows not only us, but Himself with infinite and unblemished clarity. The point is that, next to God’s perfect understanding, our light is limited, derivative and dependant upon Him.

So what does it mean that "if anyone loves God, he is known by God?" Obviously it cannot mean that God does not have perfect knowledge of those who do not love Him. And it does not mean that we somehow imbue or enable or permit God to have perfect knowledge of us when we "deign" to love Him. No! What comes first? Is it love for God or is it being known by God?

Could we not more properly take this to say that "if anyone is known by God, He loves God?" How can I say this when the Bible puts the words the other way round? I can because the Bible uses the word "knows" in a very special way when it relates to God’s people. In their case the "knowing" (or Greek ginosko) carries the sense of intimacy. For the believer, to be "known" by God is similar to the way Adam "knew" his wife. It doesn’t just mean that they were acquainted, but there was an intimate relationship of the very deepest and most personal sort.

Thus God both foreknows (proginosko) and knows (ginosko) His people. He loves them first. Before they are even born He has loved them with an everlasting love, knowing all that they will be and do from the moment of their birth to their physical death. He has covenanted to a union with them in His Son, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. And it is because of this covenant that His people ultimately come to love Him. "All that the Father gives to me shall come to me..." {Joh 6:37, 44} Thus, "if anyone loves God, he is known by Him."

Monday, May 19, 2008

Martin, Hadassah and Jello Feet

"I am so great an enemy to the second book of Maccabees, and to Esther, that I wish they had not come to us at all, for they have too many heathen unnaturalities. The Jews much more esteemed the book of Esther than any of the prophets; though they were forbidden to read it before they had attained the age of thirty, by reason of the mystic matters it contains." - Martin Luther "God's Word and God's Work"

Ooops! Brother Martin didn't have much use for James, as we all know, but it seems he wasn't too fond of Esther, either. It just shows to go you that even the greatest of saints had feet of clay. And if they did, then of what are my feet made? Jello?

Any ways, I just finished up five months in Hebrews and am about to return to the book of Esther for the first really close look in 8 years. Eight years ago I read the book in a state of grace - by which I mean that I was so overcome by the power of the Spirit through the Word that I had to keep on putting it down in order to prevent overload. I wish Luther had experienced Esther in the same way. For a book that nowhere contains the word "God" it is rife with soteriological imagery. And it is a book so clearly all about the providence of God that it seems hard to miss.

I still have a summary of impressions from my old visit to Esther. I don't think it will speak to me in quite the same way this time around but, for what its worth, I'm posting the summary below, purely for interest's sake.

God in Esther (2000)

I once heard or read that the word "God" does not appear in this book. I have just read the book and, to be quite honest, I can’t remember whether the word appears or not. But the book itself is so filled with the images of God and salvation that it amazes me to read it.

The symbols of God’s wisdom in the plan of salvation are so clearly represented in the storyline that they make for a clearer understanding of reality of Christ. There is the king, Artaxerxes, or Ahaseurus, a Medo-Persian emperor of absolute power. His word is law. If it is declared and written by the king it must be done. It is the law of the Medes and the Persians. He symbolizes the Almighty God who dwells in unapproachable light and whom no one dares to disobey on pain of severe punishment. The King is bound by the nature of His office to follow certain rules in the dispensation of justice, as evidenced by his dealings with Queen Vashti who, though a member of the royal household, is banished for her disobedience.

There is Haman, an Agagite (Agag was a descendant of Amalek), who is the mortal and sworn enemy of Mordecai and all his people. I think he represents the evil one, appointed by God, restrained by His power, but under God’s economy, one who may accuse and destroy if given leave. He seeks and plots the demise of both Mordecai and all his people. He exults in the apparent success of his schemes which, up until the very last moment seem to have been successful.

Mordecai is a symbol of Christ the Son of Man, and Esther a symbol of Christ the Son of God. In Mordecai we see the one who refuses to bow to the "ruler" Haman who has, it seems, virtually unlimited power in the kingdom. His refusal leads to great enmity and Haman’s desire to see Mordecai dead. In much the same way, Jesus stood up to Satan when all others bowed before him and Satan purposed to kill Christ out of an absolute hatred for Him. Plans are laid, not only to kill Mordecai/Christ - but in killing him to also kill all the chosen people by declaring them enemies of the state. If Christ had been defeated (an impossibility - but that's for another time) then so should the chosen ones have perished.

Esther is one with the King, for she is married to him, just as Christ is one with the Father. She alone is ready to approach the judgement seat of the King and plead for the lives of her people. She is prepared to be killed in the process. The king’s great love for her, despite her breaking his law, results in him holding out the golden sceptre of acceptance to grant her pleas on behalf of all her people. Christ was numbered among the transgressors for our sake. Yet the Father, who loved Him, held out the golden sceptre of acceptance for His sake and granted Him a peculiar people for His own.

Mordecai, exonerated and honoured by the king, is led in triumphal procession and in kingly robes through the streets by the very devil who plotted to kill him. As Christ was glorified by the Father and put to shame the evil one. And Mordecai was given all of Haman’s possessions and estates by Esther who had received them from the king himself. Thus the whole of Satan’s dominion was given to Christ in heaven by the Father and the governance of them is now in the hands of Christ on earth.

And the chosen people were given power by the king at Esther’s request, to avenge themselves upon their enemies and so to live in peace - yet they did not take the loot - preferring not to pollute themselves but to rejoice only in their deliverance. This power is akin to the power the elect receive to triumph over their enemies so that they may be victors in this life over the enemies of their souls - only in the power of the King.

The rich symbolism of this book, despite its lack of direct reference to God, is so stunning as to almost challenge credulity. For it seems that it could have been written as a morality play based on the gospel after the advent instead of hundreds of years before.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

1Cor 7:36-40 - Freedom to be a Slave

36-40 If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. 37 But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. 38 So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better. 39 A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. 40 Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.

And here again is the key to it all again. Note verse 37; it is a heart matter and not a question of law. And heart matters are based upon love, not compulsion. Not very Calvinistic, I know - but there you are. It’s the gospel again in a slightly different guise. Same gospel - seen in application. A saved person, through faith, acts in response to the love of God towards him in Christ Jesus, and not in order to merit, cause, engender or even to repay it. To do the latter would be to subscribe to another gospel and to become anathema.

What a great breadth and scope of freedom belongs to the Christian! And yet, though we are not constrained by law we are nevertheless constrained by love. See - there is still constraint but, Oh, what a difference! This enables the issues of life to be worked out, for progress to be made, for failure to be taken into account, for the believer to seek after God with what he may sometimes believe is a whole heart, but which always, in retrospect, is seen to be imperfect. Accepted the way we are, but not left that way.

The Christian is free, but he is not free to do as he pleases. That was the way he once lived, obeying the passions of his flesh and being taken captive by them. No, the Christian is free to seek after God, to follow, to obey - even to fear God. He has a new heart and a new principle at work in him. It must be fed, it must grow, and it must produce the fruit of righteousness - and it will, if it is truly a work of God and not something born of, and sustained by, man.

This is why Paul can seem to be so ambivalent. It’s not ambivalence, of course. It’s an explanation of the freedom that is in Christ. It’s an illustration of how grace, faith, the Holy Spirit and the will of the believer are all involved in the directions we take in life. And it shows that there may be so-called "wrong" decisions, but that decisions made as unto the Lord - even if they are not "right" - are born of a good conscience in faith - and will nevertheless bear fruit.

Marry, don’t marry; re-marry, don’t remarry - only in all things seek the Lord. And this is illustrated by the constraints mentioned. A spouse is married only so long as the other party lives, and may marry another upon the death of the partner. But that widowed Christian must marry a believer. Marriage or not is a matter indifferent, but joining together with an unbeliever is not. Let those who think law passed away with the gospel come to grips with this admonition. It is a matter of something forbidden - and if that’s not law then I don’t know what is. And here it is right slap dab in the Apostolic teaching in the gospel age.

It is law, but it is not legalism. Legalism is the attempt to justify oneself to God and/or before others through the performance of acts of piety. The Christian is already justified through faith in Christ.

Friday, May 16, 2008

1Cor 7:29-35 - The Eternal View - Reflections

29 This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, 30 and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, 31 and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away. 32 I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. 33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, 34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. 35 I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.

A lot of this was covered in comments on the last section. But worth noting is Paul’s point may have been that the end of the age was imminent - that Christ was returning at any moment, but certainly within the foreseeable future. But the fact that he looks at each person’s time as precious, along with his use of the Greek word "kairos" rather than "kronos" for "time" makes his drift akin to the saying, "Now is the hour of your salvation." He believes that Christians ought to be unencumbered with worldly concerns. They must be in the world (and therefore must work and eat and sleep and dress and so on) but these things were to be regarded only as necessary means, and they were not to be regarded as ends in themselves. They are seen as mere secondary concerns, paling into insignificance next to service to the Lord in the work of the gospel.

He doesn’t actually say, for example, "Don’t have a wife," or, "Don’t mourn," or, "Don’t rejoice," - or even, "Don’t have goods." To understand it that way would be to fall into the error of certain of the Gnostics or the ascetics. Jesus wept. Jesus mourned. Jesus rejoiced. Jesus owned stuff - albeit only the clothes on His back. Notice Paul says that these things are to be experienced under the umbrella of eternity - an eternity made sure in the love of God by the gift of His grace in Jesus Christ. An eternity starting in this life, in the body, in which there is peace with God, freedom from judgement and condemnation and the certain prospect of eventual freedom from even the presence of sin.

He’s saying that we ought to set our minds on things above, for where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also. {Mt 6:21} It is the sojourner theme again. And it is repeated because we have so little faith and the world so much attraction to our flesh that it is easy to be side tracked. Everything in the world can be an enemy of the Christian life - a spouse, a feeling (even a legitimate feeling), material goods such as houses, cars, tech stuff, food, sex and even religion. Whatever does not come from faith cannot be from and to the Lord in our own hearts, and is of no avail. Whatever does not come from faith is sin. {Ro 14:23}

Since all things are a potential trap for the believer then the less encumbrance a person engages in the more he is able to devote his life solely to Christ. We will all fail daily, no matter what - but those who are able to eschew things without turning that self denial into sin ought to consider the advantages of increased devotion to God.

Gnostic denial, through belief that material things are inherently evil - and ascetic denial, through the belief that the punishment of the body makes us closer to God are both heresies that contradict the Bible and run contrary to the true faith. Yet people in every age are led astray by them in one form or another. Paul is not preaching, nor is he encouraging such error here; neither ought we to impose such things on the text. Paul is constantly pointing his audience to the freedom they have in Christ to seek God in the midst of their circumstances.

For the Christian it is never about what we do. It is all about what God has done, is doing and will do in and through and for us. Christ is the One who has worked the work that justified us, and that will bring us to completion. We are to believe in these facts. Consequently, calling material things which God made and declared good to be evil is a distortion of the truth, and a distraction from the power of God in Christ. And doing severe things to the body as a means of gaining or keeping God’s favour is a blind alley, a lie and the express roadway to hell.

On the other hand, the thrust of Paul’s argument cannot be ignored, however much we might disdain the idea of nunneries and monasteries. Undoubtedly such institutions have been the nests for all kinds of error about Christian living, but some of the best Christian minds and the most godly and faithful people have also lived in such places. Anselm and Luther were both monks, for example. What matters is not only the situation, but the heart that leads one into it, or that keeps a person there. It is equally as possible for a monk to be a legalistic self-justifier as it is for him to be a godly man of faith.

We shall all give account one day for the deeds done in the body. But only those who trust in the finished work of Christ for their justification and life with God will be saved. And God knows those who are His.

If a person can be dedicated to God and married, dedicated to God and a slave owner, dedicated to God and have great possessions then more grace to them, for they have been given great grace. All things work together for our good when we love God and are (truly) the called according to His purposes. Even our bad decisions become opportunities to learn from God without bringing us condemnation. And God will guide, uphold, keep and fellowship with us in all circumstances so long as we are looking to Him in Christ.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

1Cor 7:25-28 - Estate Keeping - Part 6
Exhortations to the Engaged

25 Now concerning the betrothed, I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26 I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. 27 Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. 28 But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that.

The word "betrothed" is translated "virgins" in other versions. That is a fair translation since the original Greek word is "parthenos". Remember, "Behold the (or a) virgin will conceive..." - well, in the Septuagint translation of Isaiah the exact same Greek word is used. And the Septuagint is the version often cited by Apostles.

What the text is addressing is people who are betrothed but not married. People who are committed but not consummated. Today we might refer to them as "engaged" but, sadly, in much of society we could not rightly call many of them "virgins". For these people, if they have become believers, Paul again has practical advice related to their circumstances. These are not ordinances, but matters of "indifference" or of conscience. Each person must seek God’s leading through prayer, study and cogitation.

In purely practical terms Paul refers engaged people to the same advice he had for singles or even for those divorced by unbelieving spouses after conversion; whatever condition you find yourself in then why not stay in it? Why divide your affections? Why complicate your loyalties? Why seek to alter the situation in which God called you?

Well, I can think of lots of reasons why one might do any one of those things. And Paul understands both human nature and his own limitations, bents, preferences and even inherent biases. This is why he is quick to point out that what he thinks best is not an ordinance from God, and that people are quite free to follow other courses according to the dictates of conscience, and in faith.

It is extremely important, I think, to take note of the fact that Paul says that marrying is not sin for those people who are committed to each other. It is not a matter of law, but of expediency. Being joined to another is a complicated business that can divide the affections and challenge the faculties. There are dangers in it, especially when times are difficult.

But what Paul does not speak to is the incredible spiritual rewards that attend a godly married relationship, regardless (or even as a result of) circumstances. I can quite see that a person who loves a spouse deeply by living a self-denying, partner-supporting life of faithfulness and truth will have learned great things about God’s Own nature. And he/she will have done so through the sort of death that Christ spoke about and that He lived to the ultimate.

So Paul is right not to be dogmatic here. His considerations are motivated by the desire to clear the decks so that people can serve the Lord without distraction.

Monday, May 12, 2008

1Cor 7:21-24 - Estate Keeping - Part 5
Freedom From Slavery to Sin is the Greatest Form of Freedom

21 Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. 22 For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. 23 You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. 24 So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.

By way of illustration of Paul’s point he takes the example of slavery. He doesn’t do what many people in our age would be tempted to do. He doesn’t start a crusade against slavery. He doesn’t organize the Christians to hold protest rallies. He doesn’t moralize to the rich Christians and try to get them to give up having slaves and to lobby for some sort of democratic state. Why? Why is there no definitive condemnation of slavery?

The answer is because it would lead to the very legalism that Paul has just been opposing. Don’t get me wrong - slavery is an abomination and men ought not to enslave others. But the best means of overcoming slavery is not law (civil or religious) - it is the gospel of Jesus Christ. When men’s hearts are changed then they will no longer enslave others and those who are enslaved in outward ways will nevertheless be free in their spirit.

What, then, is one to make of Newton, Wilberforce and Martin Luther King Jr. and other believers who have pioneered social rights and equality? Were they wrong? If so, why did they succeed? What’s wrong with social action?

Good questions all. And the answer is that there is nothing wrong with social action per se. I would say that the Bible refers to such people when it says, "Leave them alone, for whoever is not against us is on our part." Such things do not fall outside the purview, nor the will of God. They happen for a reason and, because they may ultimately bring grace and mercy and light and relief of suffering in some measure, they can be readily understood as things that the common grace of God brings to the world.

But the greatest expression of God’s love is found in the gospel itself and the message must not be diverted or subverted by turning it primarily into a means of changing society in general. It is first and foremost the means of saving men’s souls, by which they will be transformed, and will take the light of Christ into that society so that more will hear the good news.

But make no mistake - only a relative few will be saved. Evil men will wax worse and worse and God will eventually come to judge the world with fire. The gate is strait and the way is narrow, and few there be that find it. {Mt 7:13-14} Indeed, it is all in God’s plan - for how could we be brothers of Jesus and children of God unless we were called to do good not only those of the household of faith, but also those who may never belong to it, but remain its inveterate enemies until the bitter end? Isn’t this Jesus? He warns and admonishes and chastises not because he desires the lost to perish, but because He has no pleasure in their death and would that they all repent and believe the gospel.

And so - this is the commission given to the disciples by Christ Himself: "Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature." Not "Go and change the way the world works." Not "Go and make the world a place suitable for My return." The church is supposed to take the gospel to the world, through which God will call out His people so that they may be salt and light in the place where he finds them. Some will be slavers, like Newton, and will be salt and light in that milieu. Some will be the downtrodden and abused, like Martin Luther King Jr. - and they will be light where they are found. But nobody - nobody - can be salt and light unless and until they are regenerated by receiving Christ through the gospel. "Apart from Me," He said, "You can do nothing." {Joh 15:5}

Notice again the indifference of Paul to the social issue as contrasted to the issue of salvation and sanctification in Christ. His exact words are, "Do not be concerned." If, in the providence of God and the unfolding of their lives in obedience to God, the circumstances arise by which they can (legally) gain their freedom, then all well and good. He does not tell them to remain slaves and he does not tell them to take up arms against their "oppressive" masters. That is not the point of this instruction, nor of the gospel about which it speaks.

But, unless a person has entered into eternal life, his world-centred, here-and-now, view of life will cloud his personal perspective of what Paul is talking about here. We are sojourners on the earth. We are citizens of heaven right now. We don’t belong here any more but we stay just as long as it pleases our new Master to keep us here - and then we are content to go. More than that, we yearn to go. Matthew Henry put it nicely when he stated:
"For the unbeliever, death is the end of all joys, whereas for the believer, death is the end of all griefs".
To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, which is far preferable. Yet while we are here we accept by faith that He is preparing a place for us this very moment; and it will be a place where there are no more tears, pain or death and where we are once and for all fully reconciled to God, to each other and to ourselves. No more temptation to guilt, or the fear of condemnation. Just perfect peace and joy in His presence - the earnest of which we experience through faith in the interim.

Paul’s point diverts the attention of individuals from a mindset where they define themselves by their circumstances, and towards the definition of their being in the context of their relationship to God in Christ. All of these other issues pale by comparison to the salvation that is in Christ Jesus. Resting in Him in any and all circumstances of life helps us to see those circumstances as not only bearable, but as something brought by the sovereign, loving hand of God for our good and for His glory. We may not see it that way at first, but we can come to see it in time, if God chooses not to change our situation.

The slave owner who comes to Christ is no better and no different than the slave himself. In God’s kingdom there are no ranks. There is one Master of all, one General - and all the rest are slaves or soldiers together. Thus, the slave owner is not even admonished to set his slaves free (though it is not forbidden either). What matters is not the station in life but the treatment of others under the Lordship of Christ. If I might be permitted to quote John Kenneth Gailbraith once more, on inequities:
"Under communism man exploits man. Under capitalism, its exactly the reverse."
If we truly believe our Bibles then we ought to give great consideration to the implications of statements such as verse 24, in the contexts in which they are given. Yes, there are social and cultural contexts - but I primarily refer to the textual context, through which the Spirit of Life and living teaches us about the things of the kingdom. "So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God."

Sunday, May 11, 2008

1Cor 7:17-20 - Estate Keeping - Part 4
Staying Right Where God Put You

17 Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. 18 Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. 19 For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. 20 Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called.

This section underlines the point made earlier. Our circumstances are ordained for us. It is God’s providence. While we do not blindly become fatalists and sit in a corner unwilling to engage our circumstances, we will often come to that place where saints in the past have come - having done all, having sought God’s help and grace and still being faced with a difficulty - the place found is the one where the saint says, "It is the Lord, let Him do what seems good to Him." {1Sa 3:18}

No saint can believe that God works all things together for his good and not accept the overarching sovereign providence of God. He either causes directly or indirectly, through nature or through the freely exercised wills of human beings, every single detail of our lives for a precise purpose. I suppose some who subscribe to Open Theology or to post-Wesleyan Arminianism might have the sort of God Who is continually and infinitely recalculating and re-ordering things according to the whims of his creatures; a reactive God; a God-on-a-string; a less-than-sovereign God. This is not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible knows the end from the beginning not because He has a supernatural "looking into the future to see what His creatures will do - and then adjusting accordingly" approach, but because He had a purpose in mind when He created the universe and He is carrying that purpose out.

This is why believers, faced with and alienated from the world they once loved, must accept that their very immediate circumstances are God’s will for them in Christ Jesus. What they do about those circumstances is relational and not legal. They work it out with God. They have changed sides in a war. They have had their eyes opened to a universal deception. They are faced on all sides with the results of the fall in themselves, their families, their neighbourhoods. It doesn’t go away just because they are saved. And clearly, they are not to run away from these things. They were, in all likelihood, saved for the specific purpose of being salt and light right where they are. The greater the difficulty, the greater the need for grace and the brighter the light can shine. That’s not how the world thinks, is it?

The world says something that sounds the same, but that is a deception. The world says, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going," or, "God helps those who help themselves." The Christian says, "God helps those who are totally helpless." Not that Christians don’t buckle down in the direst of circumstances and produce amazing, even supernatural feats of endurance, courage and resiliency. They have always done so throughout history. But if you ask a true Christian how they did it they will always point to God and His upholding, sustaining grace - and not to their own effort. Christians go to God for grace in all things and give all the glory to Him.

Some of these 1st century Corinthian converts faced difficulties, just as we all do - similar difficulties - those tribulations which are common to man and those peculiar to Christians. God does not remove us from our circumstances - He uses them in order to grow us in the faith and the personal, relational, experiential knowledge of Him.

In the early church two of the most prominent heresies - and therefore two of the greatest dangers - were legalism (particularly residual Jewish legalism) and gnosticism. They were often intertwined because they both sought ultimately to deny or add to the absolutely free grace of God in Jesus Christ. They are, in fact, expression of humanism or of humanistic religiosity.

Corinth was not immune from these influences. Some insisted that Christianity should include elements of Judaism - by which is meant observing certain ritual aspects of Judaism as a requisite for true holiness. Nothing was guaranteed to make Paul madder than such an assertion because it elevated the outward observance over inward reality. Circumcision was, for example, an outward sign of a previously existent covenant relationship between Abraham and God. {Ro 4:3} It was a harbinger of the grace that would come full-fledged, historically and effectually in Jesus Christ; the New Covenant. And it was not called "new" for nothing. It was new because it replaced the old - it fulfilled in reality what the old represented in typology.

Thus Paul taught what God intended him to teach - that Christ is the end of the law for righteousness (as a means of justification) for those that believe. {Ro 10:4} Jesus kept the law perfectly on our behalf so that we would be justified through faith in Him and His finished work. Neither should Christians seek to justify themselves after they are saved, which many of us do. We are not justified by grace in order that we may then go on to sanctify ourselves through works righteousness. But it is a well accepted tenet of Christian theology that "we are saved by faith alone, but that faith that saves is never alone." Meaning that true faith is evident in spiritual fruit, including deeds of righteousness.

The requirement for obedience is not dispensed with for the Christian. It is magnified. Because grace is free he does not say, "Let us sin the more that grace may abound!" He is more likely to say, "Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord." He will look into the perfect law of God (which has not been abrogated, but rather fulfilled on our behalf in Christ) and, beholding himself as in a mirror, will run to Christ for grace an power to live as he ought to live. And this "ought" is clearer and deeper and more cutting and more impossible to keep the closer the believer comes to God. Dependency upon God multiplies exponentially as the light gets brighter.

Note then that Paul, in admonishing the Corinthians not to fall into legalistic observances, also does not tell the Corinthians to ignore the commandments of God. God’s laws are not legalism - what we make of them and how we respond to them often is. God’s laws are the schoolmaster that brings us to Christ - and that keep us there. For it is only in Christ that we found an alien and perfect righteousness that was pleasing to God for eternity - and it is only in Him that we shall learn how to appropriate that righteousness as our own.

So, God saves us where He finds us - and He does so exclusively by grace. Nothing of our lives up until the point where we are ushered into the kingdom counts for anything because if any man is in Christ he is a new creation - old things are passed away and everything is become new. It may not feel like it, but that is the reality that is waiting to be discovered and experienced by the newborn as he grows in grace. Paul is conveying this truth here to the specific circumstances that are present in the Corinthian church at the time.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Message Filtering in Email
My email is set up to vigorously cull and delete spam. Unfortunately, this means that some legitimate emails might be misidentified. It is possible that a reader of my blog recently sent me an email that was deleted. I suspect this to be the case. If you have emailed me recently and have not received a response, please resend your original and put the word "Agonizomai" in the subject line. My filter will not automatically delete such a message.

Friday, May 09, 2008

1Cor 7:15-16 - Estate Keeping - Part 3
Living With the Mess That Sin Creates

15 But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. 16 Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife?

Now, if the pagan partner found under these circumstances is simply unwilling to accept their spouse on account of their faith in Christ, no blame attaches to the Christian involved. Not only may he let the partner go, but he is presumably also free to marry another if he so desires, only in the faith.

This is no formulaic, legalistic, straight-jacket approach designed to give a strict set of rules for every conceivable situation. These words are spirit and are intended to bring about obedience to the spirit of God’s law, within the providential circumstances of real lives as they are affected by this gargantuan paradigm shift from law to gospel. This is not a putting off of the law, but a putting off of the keeping of law as the justification of the believer. The believer is already justified by faith in the finished work of Christ. He already has an alien righteousness that makes God to be at peace with him.

And so it is a putting on of the gospel of peace with God and reconciliation through faith and a new heart. There is no condemnation now and forever. The believer is free to obey from a renewed heart and, as such, is free to seek the will of God in all circumstances not under threat of punishment, but under the umbrella of a love that wants only good for them.

Some might worry that this introduces a certain fuzziness and relativity to spiritual matters where people may act as they think fit, like they did at the end of the book of Judges. Quite the contrary is true. The believer is constrained by a far higher standard than the law itself could bring about. Adultery, for example, is not simply the physical act, but is now known to be the thought from which the act springs, whether performed or not.

On the other hand, a pagan who, by the grace of God comes to faith in Christ while married to a pagan who refuses to live with him afterwards, has absolutely no heart-born intention to divorce or to adulterate the marriage. One assumes, though it is not in the text, that the believing partner has real attachment to the unwilling spouse and tries as much as conscience dictates to keep the marriage alive - all the more so if there are non-adult children. All this having failed, the Christian is free from blame even though there is a divorce, and is free from sin in the matter even if he remarries, providing it is to a believer.

Undoubtedly, some people will have difficulty here. Some might not feel free to remarry - or might think it preferable to remain single. That is something for them and for their consciences before God - but it is a personal matter of conscience and not a regulation for the church. God does not condemn remarriage under such circumstances and neither should any mere human.

Nothing is said of any pre-existing children in this scenario. But the practical implications can be no different even if there are children present. Their existence cannot negate the decision of a pagan unwilling to live with a newly converted believer. They will leave no matter what. And the question of what happens to the children must be worked out between the parents. The Christian will realize that it is better to rear children in a Christian home, but is not entitled to force this upon an departing spouse. It is one of the messy details that sinful human lives gives to us. God must be sought and decisions made in the light of scripture. Mistakes may happen but God is always working for good in the life of the saint.

The far more preferable situation, as said previously and as is about to be repeated in the next section, is that each new convert remain in the estate he enjoyed when God called him. Inasmuch as it depends upon the Christian, this is his preferred course of action. Stay married to the unbeliever if they are willing. And the reason is not some mystical thought about union, but as an opportunity for evangelism.

Two things are at work here, as they always are. The first is to recognize the providence of God. He ordained the salvation of the one and the willingness of the other to remain; He ordained the circumstances for a purpose that is good for the believer. The second is that the believer has a responsibility and a duty of love to God and to the spouse. And, because we cannot know the future - as the Calvinists keep on pointing out, though only the elect will be saved we must preach to everyone because we don’t know who they are until they come to Christ - because God is in charge and doesn’t tell us everything in advance, then the hope remains that the unbelieving spouse will be so influenced by the godly life of the one they share a family with that they will be moved to seek God. Ya never can tell!

But whether they do or not, the whole interactive life, with all of its pain and difficulty, will be God’s will for the believer in Christ Jesus for their ultimate good, and for God’s glory.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

1Cor 7:12-14 - Estate Keeping - Part 2
The Duty of the Unequally Yoked Couple

12-14 To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. 13 If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

What does Paul mean by the phrase "to the rest...?" There must be some distinction being made between those to whom the previous admonition and this latest is made. To this group I say thus, and to that group I say this other thing. Since all truth applies to all people he is not making something true for one group and not for another. But he is distinguishing them by their circumstances.

The unique circumstances of this latest group is their unequally yoked position. It is not that they unequally yoked themselves - quite the contrary! When they were pagan they had married pagans. But now some had become Christians, while their spouses had not. It was an unequal yoke. Jesus had nothing we know of to say about this sort of situation, unlike that of the divorce of professing believers.

Thus, Paul says, "I, not the Lord" when giving direction on the topic. I don’t think this means that this direction carries a lesser authority than the admonitions of the Lord Himself. This is still inspired scripture, and Paul is still an Apostle appointed by God. He may simply be distinguishing the fact that Jesus never spoke directly on the subject. There are lots of things like this that Christ left for the church to work out under the guidance of the Holy Spirit - that is to say, under the guidance of God, the Holy Spirit who is of the same substance as God the Son.

Simply put here, it is best to stay in the estate you were when you became a Christian unless the unbelieving partner actually wants to split. In Paul’s age, and in Corinth’s milieu, there would be any number of reasons why a person married to someone who became a Christian would want to bail out. Change in lifestyle, possibility of persecution, loss of friends - the list is similar to what many face in various societies today. It is still relevant teaching today. If they want to go and they cannot be persuaded to stay then let them go and no guilt will attach to the believer.

Now, as to the supposed sacerdotal, sacramental, Lutheran, Catholic elements of this teaching... How can an unbelieving partner be made holy simply by being married to a Christian? Does this mean that these people, unbelievers and destined for the abyss unless they repent, are actually in a different class from the rest of lost mankind? Similar questions arise regarding children born into a Christian home. Are they made regenerate or somehow put into a different class from pagans simply by their familial circumstances?

Well, it’s not a easy as it looks. Good people have different views on what these things mean. Historical Lutherans and Reformers have always had a more corporate view of family and church than the Johnny-Come-Lately Baptists, where individualism carries a stronger influence. Both sides can quote scriptures to support their viewpoints but both cannot be right. On the other hand, is the opposing viewpoint a hanging offence to either party?

One thing both sides would agree on is that salvation itself is personal. Each individual must come to saving faith in Christ. We cannot be saved by association. So the concept of an unbeliever being made holy, and of children born to converts (or household where one partner becomes a convert) cannot possibly mean that they are saved simply by being in the family. This would contradict so many other scriptures calling all individuals to repentance, making all responsible for their own sin and, indeed, speaking to their very conception and birth as the source of their inner corruption.

No - the idea here is not that this holiness or sanctification is an actual inward renewal, but that these people are declared separated by God on account of their union with the believer. Their parenting, supporting, providing, caring - willingly given - is like the foods on the cloth in Peter’s dream - declared holy by God Himself. As Charles Hodge put it...
"A lamb consecrated as a sacrifice, and therefore holy, did not differ in its nature from any other lamb. The priests or people, holy in the sense of set apart to the service of God, were in their inward state the same as other men. Children born within the theocracy, and therefore holy, were none the less conceived in sin, and brought forth in iniquity. They were by nature the children of wrath, even as others."
So - there is no soteriological effect to this holiness. It is a holiness declared by God for the sake of the believer - so that he/she may live with peace of mind and a clear conscience - and so that they may have their very real needs and duties met in intensely practical ways without wrecking their faith.

But there is more. In addition to the benefits for the believer there may also be great blessings for the unbeliever for which, see the next verses.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

1Cor 7:10-11 - Estate Keeping - Part 1
The Duty of Christian Couples.

10 To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband 11 (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.

This is addressed to those in relationships where both parties are believers. The next verses deal with imbalanced relationships, where one party comes to faith while the other remains a pagan.

Those couples who both become Christians should keep to their estate. If they were married when they converted then they should remain married. In our day and age this might seem a tad obvious. Why even make the point? I can think of three reasons right off the bat:

1) Conversion can be a powerful experience. People can get so full of zeal that they utterly marginalize the considerations of physical life. They fall so in love with Jesus that they cannot immediately contextualize Him in the daily routine of living. They are captivated. It is not a bad thing. Nor is it a good thing for everyone. Most people are called to Christ in order to bring Him into those aspects of everyday life that are uniquely assigned to them - their work and their families and their circle of acquaintances and friends. But new converts sometimes think that they are called to a life which is not their own - a life of missions and ministry in some far-off place, instead of in the place where they are already found.

For most of these people time, good fellowship and support help them to channel their zeal closer to home. It is, after all, most often the one who is not looking for it to whom the call comes.

2) A part of initially misplaced zeal in the early church arose from the belief in the imminent return of Christ. People sold their goods and shared them in common because they honestly believed that Jesus was coming back at any moment. We can argue all we like about the implications of that, and about the necessity of belief in the imminent return for all believers in all ages, but the point here is that these people actually believed it to the point where they acted to rid themselves of encumbrances. (Oh, how very un-American!)

Some considered the commitment and duties of marriage to be encumbrances. Some who were already married thought this way so they were separating from each other in order to devote themselves more completely to Christ in what little time remained before the parousia. Perhaps some did so out of genuine (but misplaced) devotion and others out of the seeds of monastic, legalistic asceticism. Who but God knows for sure?

Paul, however, is quick to point out the honourable institution of marriage as confirmed by the Lord Jesus Christ Himself during His ministry. One man married for life to one woman. Faithful, lifelong monogamy. This is what Paul means when he reminds us that this ordinance is from the Lord.

3) The most commonly accepted and most likely explanation, however, is that the Corinthians themselves have simply asked Paul a question, or a series of questions, about marriage for Christians, which Paul’s discourse is answering, point by point. So it could be a straightforward reiteration of God’s revealed will for adult human relationships. Is divorce allowed? This is hardly a foolish question for people raised in and living in an immoral society. And Paul reminds them that Jesus Himself said that it was not, except on account of adultery.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

1Cor 7:6-9 - The Marriage-Go-Round - Part 2

6 Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. 7 I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. 8 To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am. 9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

This reference to a "concession" is Paul’s habitual way of distinguishing between the inspired authoritarian will of God and his own personal choices within the framework of God’s overarching will. God’s will is not given to us as a set of detailed dos and don’ts for every imaginable situation. That sort of scenario would lend itself to robots or to legalists. It is the basis of every religion but Christianity. It was where the Pharisees went instead of pursuing a personal, spiritual interactive knowledge of God on His terms.

God has revealed to us in His Word all that is necessary for us to understand His perfect will for our own life. The point is that it is a life, and not a straight-jacket. Once we have been justified by God through faith in His Son, we are free to be diligent to pursue after God in all things. Whenever we fail (and we all fail in many ways every day) we know that we are still accepted in the Beloved for His sake. Acknowledging and confessing our failure reveals our freedom to keep pressing on. We are not free to fail to press on for fear of failure, simply because there is now no longer any condemnation for us when we fail. No excuses.

The law of God is good and it will never change. It is the standard now and forever. But we cannot meet that standard and so Christ did it for us. This frees us to follow after the spirit of the law, following the law of life received through the grace of God. Spiritual life follows the spirit of the law even though the flesh serves the law of death.

So Paul is not laying down a detailed list of legal minutiae here. He is demonstrating the freedom we have in Christ to live according to our consciences in the light of the Word and the Spirit of God. Such convictions may lead one person not to marry and another to enter into marriage, and both are good - so long as the revealed will of God is not violated. God has made it clear that immorality, fornication, lasciviousness and all sexual activity outside of monogamous marriage is contrary to His will for us. Therefore, a person ought to choose according not only to the dictates of conscience and the revealed will of God, but that choice ought to be informed by practical considerations. Is my constitution such that I am unable to restrain my impulses and therefore effectively tempting myself to commit acts of sin? Then I must choose a wise course that will keep me from it. And if I do, there is no blame or condemnation that attaches. I am no worse and no better than a brother or sister who is able to remain single.

Paul’s regards his single status, and the ability to remain in it without violating God’s greater ordinances, as a gift from God. This ought not to be overlooked. Neither should the gift of marriage and sexual union be overlooked for those so moved by God through providence, prayer and reflection.

Celibacy is not a rule for faith, nor is it a requirement for ministry. Paul nowhere here advocates such a course, but is always pointing to conscience and choice within the revealed will of God. We are not legalists, though we accept the perfection of the law itself. We are not robots, though we accept the overarching will of God in all things and the inevitable outworking of His perfect purposes. Should we marry? Go to college? Take a new job? Get out of bed in the morning? Its no use looking for revelations, inner voices or signs in the sky. God gave us His Word, His Spirit and a sound mind to apply them in the life He providentially unfolds for each one of us. And He also made sure that we would need to cast ourselves upon Him for wisdom and power to make right choices and to live them out, knowing that we shall all give account to Him one day of the stewardship we have received.