Things that are Excellent

What we approve reflects who and what we are. This is more than weeding out explicitly sinful things, not only the appearance of black amongst the shades of gray, but also anything that smacks of impurity, of dullness in spirit, mind or body, of mediocrity … approving only what’s excellent. (Php 1:10)

We become what we behold (2Co 3:18): His excellency is excellent in every conceivable way. Perhaps it is only in feeding in the majesty, in pursuing His excellence that we learn to recognize the mediocrity within and about us, and to despise it as beneath the image of God.

Love One Another

When God tells us to love others as ourselves (Le 19:18), there’s an implicit command to love ourselves, to treat ourselves and each other with honor and respect as children of JEHOVAH; the command is empty otherwise.

Unless we love ourselves, how can we love others? And if we don’t love others, how can we love God? (1Jn 4:20)

This isn’t about putting ourselves first (2Ti 3:2); self-focus can be strangely twisted, fearing success, prosperity, blessing, and envying those who find it. It isn’t even about liking ourselves, or thinking we’re better than others; that’s pride.

At it’s root, love is benevolence: desiring the best, for ourselves and others (1Co 10:24), seeking the well-being of all, the harm of none. (Php 2:15) It’s rejoicing in another’s prosperity and grieving in their loss. (Ro 12:15) It’s being aware of others, of what they’re perceiving and valuing, ever seeking to help them become their very best selves. (Php 2:4)

Loving God is loving what He loves, hating what He hates. (Ps 97:10) If God so loves each one of us that He’ll become our sin and die in our place, placing infinite value on every single human soul, we certainly ought to seek each other’s welfare, including our own. (1Jn 4:11) Seeking God, cleaving to JEHOVAH with all our heart and encouraging others to do the same, is the beginning of love (2Jn 1:6); there is no welfare outside Him. (Re 22:15)

Growing in God is growing in benevolence (1Th 3:12), becoming more like Him. (Mt 5:44-45) When I find myself disinterested in the welfare of another, or neglecting my own, Father, remind me of Your heart; Your arms are always open, inviting us all to come, and always will be. (Re 22:17)

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Spirit, Soul and Body

Atheists tell us we’re just electro-chemical accidents, yet most of us instinctively know better, that our lives matter, that we have intrinsic value, that we’re made in God’s image. But what exactly is this image?

God describes us as a trinity: spirit, soul and body (1Th 5:23), comparable to the way He’s revealed Himself as Father, Son and Holy Ghost. (Mt 28:19) This should come as no surprise; an image is a likeness. But are we a soul with a spirit and a body, or a body with a spirit and a soul, or a spirit with a soul and a body? What, in essence, defines us?

Clearly, we’re not our body (Lk 12:4); we’re much more than this.

Are we then a spirit with a soul and a body? The Psalmist views his spirit as something within himself, distinct from his core self. (Ps 143:4) Stephen, upon his death, seems to view his spirit as something conveying him to Christ, but something he has, not what he is. (Act_7:59)

When God created Adam and breathed into him, man “became a living soul.” (Ge 2:7) The essence of our identify appears to be revealed here: we’re souls with bodies and spirits. Our spirit is evidently formed along with our soul and comprises our spiritual temple, being inseparably linked with our souls, through which we know and feel. (1Co_2:11)

It’s our souls that sin, not our bodies or spirits (Ez 18:4), so it’s our souls which need atonement. (Le 17:11)

We can speak to our souls as ourselves, the essence of who we are (Lk 12:19), the source of our motivations, thoughts and intentions. Death is requiring our soul to leave our body. (Lk 12:20) If we lose our soul (Mt 16:26), we lose our very selves. (Lk 9:25)

So, becoming, growing, improving ourselves, who we are, is in our souls, not our minds or bodies (1Ti 4:8); we evolve through our choices, which mold and reveal us. We’re eternal soul beings headed toward eternity, to only one of two possible ends. We’re designed to be gods (Ps 82:6), but we can make ourselves into fiends. (Jn 6:70) Choose wisely: every choice we make shapes us in eternity.

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He Was Sick

Some faith healers teach it’s always God’s will to heal deformity, sickness and disease immediately, that if we’re suffering physically in any way it’s due to sin and/or our lack of faith in God: in other words, our own fault.

Though it’s true that sin can cause physical weakness, disease and sickness (1Co_11:30), Scripture never presumes sin is the sole cause, or even a typical one. Nor does it teach that being sick for a season is necessarily our fault; it does not teach that it’s always God’s will to heal us immediately. For the innocent, presuming sin is the reason for affliction, or even a lack of faith, adds insult to injury. (Jn 9:3)

Case in point is Epaphras, a dear man of God who became sick while serving Christ. (Php 2:30) He didn’t have authority to heal himself immediately, nor did Paul. His healing came at the last minute, and it was undeserved: God had mercy on him. (Php 2:30) If his state had anything to do with a lack of faith, Paul wouldn’t have tolerated it.

Trophimus, who ministered with Paul, became so sick Paul had to leave him behind. (2Ti 4:20) And Timothy had such physical problems Paul suggested a dietary change. (1Ti 5:23) Again, if a lack of faith were the sole cause of seasons of weakness and sickness, these texts would not be written as they are.

At times, Paul himself took pleasure in being afflicted with various infirmities as a way to reveal the sufficiency of God’s grace in his life (2Co 12:10); he didn’t presume it was always God’s will to heal immediately.

Granted, at times, God may be willing to heal instantly and miraculously, and we might, in fact, forego healing due to our lack of faith (Mt 17:19-20): anything we ask in faith, we receive. (Mt 21:22) We often suffer because we don’t pray, and even when we do pray it’s selfish, and so in vain. (Ja 4:2-3)

But God is no man’s servant; He isn’t this giant, cosmic vending machine dolling out gifts to those who have the right feelings or speak the right words. There’s nothing we can do to manipulate Him, and presuming we know His will in a situation can lead to tremendous pain and frustration. His ways are often mysterious, and His will in any given situation is not, in my experience, obvious. I think the key is in understanding what it means to ask in faith, and how this works.

To pray in faith is to pray knowing the will of God (1Jn 5:14) for the glory of God. (Php 1:21) Faith isn’t about trying to make ourselves believe something, it’s about walking so closely with God that we sense what He’s doing to glorify Himself. (Jn 5:20) Thinking faith is something else is misguided.

Trying to manipulate the physical world through our will or technique is the essence of witchcraft. The human soul in itself is exceedingly powerful; we must carefully distinguish between godly faith and presumption. The slightest twist of God’s truths can make them poisonous; if we aren’t careful we may, like faith healers often do, use them like knives to wound the innocent. (Pr 12:18)

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My Servant Job

Job … the ultimate case study in longsuffering and patience, a story most of us know. It reveals the tender mercy of God in suffering (Ja 5:11), yet perhaps we’ve missed something else that’s precious here, a key to understanding God, Man and Satan.

The action begins with a provocation; God challenges Satan with an anomaly: in a world of ungodly men, there’s a uniquely righteous one. (Job 1:8) Satan retorts that it’s not righteousness at all, just selfishness getting what it wants. (Job 1:9-11) Game on. (Job 1:12)

But why such a challenge, when God Himself says there are no righteous men, that no one seeks Him? (Ps 14:2-3) And why is Satan agreeing with God’s claim that all men are depraved, rather than inferring God’s unique claim to holiness is illegitimate? (Mk 10:18)

In other words, if this is a merely test of Job’s character, as it’s so commonly understood, aren’t God and Satan each arguing what the other should be? Based on the relentless nature of fallen Man, shouldn’t God expect Job to fail in his own strength? (Jn 15:5) Yet He bets the farm on the outcome, and gives Satan free reign to do whatever he likes to Job. If Job does happen to pass the test, how does this glorify God? Wouldn’t it simply exalt Job? What’s the value in that? Why would God initiate such a thing, and be so interested in it?

It’s as if God’s pointing out an ongoing miracle in Job that’s not so easily observed, that He’s doing something in Job that’s impossible for fallen Man on his own (Php 2:13), even when everything’s going his way. (Mt 19:24-26) And it’s as if Satan can’t even begin to bear the thought of it, the very idea that God moves in the hearts of fallen, depraved Man as He pleases. (Pr 21:1)

And if God works in Man as He sees fit, doing according to His own will on Earth as well as in Heaven (Da 4:35), could it be that He also controls fallen angels (1Ti 5:21), even Satan himself? (Ep 1:11) How can darkness tolerate being the unwitting servant of Light? Wouldn’t Satan be driven to prove that God isn’t in control of Job, or anyone else? “I’ll show the universe: he’ll curse you!”

Maybe this isn’t merely an arbitrary trial for Job; perhaps it’s a challenge of God, a throw down before the heavenly hosts, an ultimate test of Jehovah’s sovereignty, which He Himself invites. Perhaps this explains why God publicly initiates it, and why Satan accepts, and is given all the ammo he wants. Yet there’s no chance of failure, not the slightest, no matter what Satan throws at Job, because this doesn’t depend on Job’s holiness, or on Satan’s power, if the absolute sovereignty of God is on display, and determines the outcome.

When understood like this, I think the narrative magnifies God immensely, and comforts us exceedingly. If God be for us, who can be against us? (Ro 8:31) The good work He’s begun in us, He’ll continue to perform in us, no matter what lies ahead. (Php 1:6) We’ll have trouble in this world, but He’s overcome the world, and He’ll overcome it again in us. (Jn 16:33) We’re His workmanship, not our own, created in Christ unto good works, which God has preordained for us to walk in. (Ep 2:10) Every difficulty that lies ahead is more precious than gold; in the end, it will all glorify Him, in and through us. (1Pe 1:7)

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Her Perfect Work

Patience is one of those traits of godliness that’s easy to miss; yet we’re to be adding this to our faith with all diligence. (2Pe 1:5-7) It’s like longsuffering, the fruit of the Spirit working in us to endure without becoming bitter (Ga 5:22-23), but it’s translated from a different Greek word, and has a different connotation.

God tells us to rejoice as He stretches and grows us through various kinds of trials, producing patience in us. (Ja 1:3) He exhorts us to work with Him during this process, allowing patience to have its way, her perfect work, to come to fullness so that we will be perfect and complete. (Ja 1:5)

This suggests that patience is more than longsuffering, not giving up; it’s continuing to trust in God’s goodness and faithfulness in the midst of suffering, enduring in hope and confidence in God.

The patience of Job is not merely refusing to despair (Job 2:10), it’s persevering trust in God (Job 13:15), a case study in God’s way. (Ja 5:11):

As we begin to see more of God’s purpose in our suffering, we begin rejoicing in the midst of it; repeatedly watching God work things out in our lives gives us practical, hands-on, experience with God’s heart, and this produces hope (Ro 5:3-4), an expectation of glorious purpose in all of our suffering, well before it’s apparent to others.

Let’s add patience to our faith, purposing to hope in God in the midst of trial; counting Him faithful before we can see the outcome, honoring Him when all looks lost and broken, when all we have left are His precious promises. (2Pe 1:4) Since we’ll eventually look back from eternity on our light affliction, exulting in God with joy unspeakable and full of glory, might as well start now. (1Pe 1:8)

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Asleep in Christ

What happens when we die? Do we go directly to Heaven or Hell, or do we fall asleep and lie unconscious in our bodies until the resurrection? This latter view, called “soul sleep,” might appear scriptural (Da 12:2), and is commonly taught by Christians, but there are problems with it.

For example, as Christ was being crucified He said to one of the thieves, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” (Lk 23:43) Evidently, a better place awaits those who die in Christ, which we enjoy before we’re raised from the dead.

Similarly, Christ describes how Lazarus, a poor beggar, and an unnamed rich man, are both transported from their bodies at death; Lazarus is carried by the angels to meet Abraham (Lk 16:22a) and the rich man appears in hell. (Lk 16:22b-23) Both men are conscious in death, interacting with others in visible, tangible bodies. The rich man recognizes Abraham, who’s been dead for hundreds of years, and pleads with Him to send Lazarus to fetch some water to ease his suffering. (Lk 16:24) As Abraham refuses, he pleads to have Lazarus sent back to warn his brothers to live for God so they won’t suffer the same fate. (Lk 16:28) Abraham’s final words, closing the narrative, are indeed profoundly thought provoking. (Lk 16:31)

The details of this amazing story are entirely inconsistent with soul sleep, contradicting it at every turn. If this is merely metaphorical, and soul sleep is true, then why does Christ use proper names, focus on a prominent historical figure like Abraham, and misrepresent reality so profoundly? Nothing in the narrative indicates it’s a parable; it cannot be thoughtfully dismissed.

On the mount of Transfiguration, before the resurrection, Moses and Elijah discuss the redemption plan with Christ, so Moses isn’t asleep or with the physical remains of his body. (Lk 9:30-31) Yet Moses has a body, and interacts with both Christ and Elijah, prior to either of them dying.

Paul, nearing death, spoke of his imminent departure (2Ti 4:6), after which he planned to be with Christ. (Php 1:23) Yet this was a struggle for Him, which to choose: serving Christ longer on Earth or going on to be with Him. If Paul believes in soul sleep there can be no struggle, he only adds value by staying here to serve.

Paul tells us that God will continue to transform us beyond death, up until the day of Christ (Php 1:6), which is problematic if we’re unconscious most of that time, in the long expanse between our death and resurrection.

Enoch’s prophesy, when God comes to execute judgement on the living, before the final resurrection, is that He will bring many saints with Him (Jud 1:14-15), confirming Paul’s view of the 2nd coming of Christ (1Th 3:13), that His elect will already be with Him when He comes to judge the world. (1Th 4:14)

In Revelation, John sees under the altar of God many souls slain for their testimony, appealing to God to avenge their blood on those still living on Earth. (Re 6:9-10) This is evidently well before the resurrection and judgement, since God tells them to wait until the rest of their brothers are also killed. (Re 6:11)

The problems with soul sleep abound, and appear insurmountable; we could list many more. How do we reconcile them with the texts used to teach soul sleep? (Ps 115:17) An honest approach looks at the whole of Scripture, for a way to reconcile all of it into one, coherent, unified view which does no injustice to any text. This is our challenge.

The only way I can see to reconcile the whole is to understand the passages referring to sleep and inactivity in the grave to be merely from the physical perspective, how it appears to us who are still alive on Earth: the dead look like they are asleep and inactive. It is not an unreasonable way to understand these texts; it does them no real injustice, in my opinion, given all the evidence of soul and spirit activity between death and resurrection. There are many texts which we must take poetically in order retain our integrity (Is 55:12), why not these?

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To Be Sin

In seeking God, to know Him and walk with Him, we face an immediate obstacle: He’s holy (1Jn 1:5) and we’re sinful. (1Jn 1:8) Rather than facing our sin, it’s tempting to try to disassociate ourselves from it, to pretend that our actions don’t define us, that our bad actions don’t reveal that we’re bad people … as if just any kind of tree can produce apples, not just an apple tree.

But God tells us that we are, in fact, known by what we do: our behavior reveals the kind of people we are (Lk 6:44), whether we’re good or evil. (Lk 6:45) This isn’t like saying a tree is an apple tree because it produces apples; but rather that a tree produces apples because it’s an apple tree.

In this analogy, there are only two kinds of fruit: edible and inedible (Mt 12:33), analogous to two sorts of behavior: love (keeping God’s Law 2Jn 1:6) and sin (breaking God’s law 1Jn 3:4), revealing two kinds of people: good and evil. (Jn 5:28-29) As we are in the core of our being, obedient or disobedient, holy or sinful, so we do. Our motives don’t make us what we are, they reveal who we are: we live in love or sin, obedience or rebellion, because of our inner nature. 

So, if God identifies and classifies us by our behavior, God’s redemptive plan, to redeem from fallen Man a people for Himself (Tit 2:14), cannot merely be theoretical, it must be practical. In other words, salvation cannot merely be the bestowal of a positional righteousness, there must also be fundamental change in our nature (Ga 6:15), from evil to good. To walk with God we must be transformed, regenerated, born again

As we are made new creatures in Christ, our inward behavior invariably begins to reflect Christ’s nature. (2Co 5:17) As God delivers His elect from sin’s penalty, He frees us as well from sin’s dominion. (Ro 6:14) Regeneration is thus always accompanied by a growing, practical holiness. (He 6:9) This is a miracle; only God can do this in us. (Je 13:23)

In other words, since we are what we do, to redeem us, God deals not merely with our actions, He deals directly with us; He does not merely forgive our sinful ways, He becomes our sinful selves (2Co 5:21), not only by suffering the penalty we deserve, but also in becoming what we are.

God has never sinned, and He never will; but JEHOVAH so identifies with us as sinners that He treats Himself as if He has, as if He has committed all our sins. God, the perfectly holy one, doing this for us, becoming our sin … this is infinite love. (Ep 3:19)

But God doesn’t stop here; as He becomes our sin, He makes us His righteousness. (2Co 5:21) As He becomes who we are, He is also making us as He is. He does not merely atone for our sinful behavior, He also replaces our old carnal nature with His own holy nature. He does not just forgive our sin, He begins to eradicate it, making us who were born desperately wicked, holy and righteous in thought, word and deed … this is infinite power.

The sacrifice of God, as He gives Himself for us (Ga 2:20), is real and personal: it costs Him everything … to give us everything. (Ro 8:32)

Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another(1Jn 4:11)

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Superfluity of Naughtiness

Once God has begotten us by His word (Ja 1:18), He tells us to “lay apart all filthiness,” moral uncleanness, and “superfluity of naughtiness.” (Ja 1:21a)

My dad and me

An overflow of badness spills out when we’re wanton, living without discipline or concern for holiness. Rather, we’re to “receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save our souls.” (Ja 1:21b)

Living carefully, soberly, working out our own deliverance with fear and trembling (Php 2:12), trying our best (2Pe 1:5), no matter how bad our best is, it’s simply common sense, once we’ve chosen the fear of God.

There’s no pretending we’re good, in ourselves (Ga 6:3); even on our best day (Is 6:5) we’re abominable and filthy, guzzling down iniquity like water. (Job 15:16)

But even so, there’s no giving ourselves over to sin on purpose, presumptuously(Ps 19:13), Give it no place (Ep 4:27), no quarter (De 17:2,5); lay it all aside, everything you can that isn’t Christ (Php 1:21), and then ask Him to take what’s left. (Ps 119:29)

Let’s cleanse ourselves of all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. (2Co 7:1). Without holiness, no one will see God. (He 12:14)

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Ask in Faith

If we lack wisdom, God invites us to ask Him for more; He gives to all liberally, and doesn’t scold us for asking. (Ja 1:5) In believing God will help us, as we ask Him for good things, we honor Him by acknowledging His faithfulness and goodness, and trusting Him. It shows we understand His character, and expect Him to act accordingly.

But if we don’t ask in faith, confidently knowing He’ll help us (Ja 1:6), we shouldn’t expect anything from Him (Ja 1:7); we’re acting as if God isn’t good or faithful, which exposes a double-mindedness, an instability at the core of who we are. (Ja 1:8) How so?

Being unsure of God’s willingness to help us with wisdom, when He’s told us wisdom is the most important thing in all the world, and that with all of our getting we’re to be getting understanding (Pr 4:7), is to treat Him as if He is malicious, arbitrary and fickle. This is doubting His goodness and love at the core. If we don’t trust the faithfulness of God, if we don’t even know Him, we need His help here first.

Doubting Him on His willingness to give us wisdom, or any obviously good thing, is like thinking He’d refuse to help us find Him (He 11:6), or to help us follow and serve Him. (2Th 3:3) It’s to reject everything He’s told us about Himself; it’s calling Him a liar (1Jn 5:10) and denying His name. At the core of our own being, we know better than this — God isn’t evil — which makes us double-minded.

If we’re content to dishonor God like this, believing lies about Him rather than seeking His grace to believe rightly in Him, He just might let us. (Pr 14:12) And it would be our own fault. (Jn_3:19)

But if we humble ourselves and come to Him (Mt 11:28), seeking His face, casting our insufficiency upon Him (1Pe 5:7) and begging Him to quicken us (Ps 119:156), to give us His life (Jn 1:4), to help us find Him and walk worthy of Him, He most certainly will. (Mt 7:8) That’s just Who He is.

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