Be Strong

Weakness is something we all experience; it’s unavoidable. We’re born in weakness, and we’ll probably die in weakness. We get sick, injured, tired, eventually old. Weakness makes us feel vulnerable, unable to care for ourselves and others. Why would anyone deliberately choose weakness, choosing to be more vulnerable than necessary?

A couple possibilities are obvious. We might not love ourselves properly, abusing or neglecting ours minds, souls and bodies, thereby causing ourselves to deteriorate into weakness. Similarly, we might not love others, being resentful or envious, and might want to burden others with our physical, emotional or spiritual care. In any case, deliberately choosing weakness like this violates the 2nd Great Command, to love our neighbors as ourselves. (Mt 22:39) Love does not choose weakness, either for itself or others.

Yet, even if we love as we ought, we might confuse weakness with humility and find a little virtue in it, seeking to be inordinately dependent. Yet how could this be a virtue when God commands us to be strong? (1Co 16:13) Strength must be aligned with humility; we must strive to be strong and humble at the same time.

The Apostle Paul recognized that when he was weak in ways that were beyond his control, he found the strength he needed in God’s grace. (2Co 12:9-10) But though Paul gloried in scenarios that made him weak, he never deliberately weakened himself, or neglected to be as strong as he could possibly be. This is key.

Strength is the ability or power to act according to one’s potential; the closer we are to being able to live in our ultimate design, the stronger we are. This comprises the physical, emotional and spiritual dimensions of our being. To willfully neglect strength in any area of our lives is to despise our intrinsic design, our value, our Creator’s benevolent purposes for us.

God has designed us such that if we obey Him in exercising ourselves (1Ti 4:7), prayerfully and wisely pushing our current limits to try to improve  (2Pe 1:5-7), we will grow (1Ti 4:8) and He will gird us with strength. (Ps 18:32) Every part of our design is like this; we just have to be willing to discipline ourselves and honor Him, balancing our lives to care for ourselves so we can live according to His calling and election in us.

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Give Me this Power

Simon was a sorcerer, using witchcraft to promote himself as a godly man (Ac 8:9-11), until he believed on Christ and was saved. (13) But Simon’s thinking about the nature of spiritual power was still off, and it immediately got him into trouble.

When Simon observed the Holy Spirit falling on people, as Peter and John prayerfully laid hands on them, he offered to pay the apostles for this capability. (Act 8:18-19) But Peter rebuked Simon sharply (Ac 8:20-21) — Simon still had the witchcraft perspective: that we obtain spiritual power via ritual, not relationship.

This is the essence of witchcraft: trying to harness spiritual forces by following a formula or technique. “If I say in Jesus’ Name when I pray then God will answer me.” “If I pray the rosary 10 times and say 20 Hail Mary’s then God will forgive me.” “If I spend X hours in prayer then God will fill me with the Holy Spirit.” “If I stop thinking and start babbling then God will give me supernatural tongues.” All examples of the spirit of witchcraft, treating God like a machine rather than a Person.

Yet spiritual power doesn’t work like this. We don’t get our prayers answered by praying a lot, or by following a formula. (Mt 6:7) God answers prayer as we abide in Him, saturated with His word (Jn 15:7), praying according to God’s heart and will (1Jn 5:14-15) by faith. (Mk 11:22-24) God gives spiritual gifts according to His purposes (1Co 12:11), not to those with the right technique.

Seeking spiritual power apart from God Himself is actually very dangerous business; it’s wickedness that springs from bondage to iniquity. (Ac 8:22-23) The enemy lures us through our discontent, through lust for power and significance, in order to counterfeit God’s gifts in us, so he can wreck havoc in our lives, and in the lives of others, while we’re trying to exalt ourselves. It may seem spiritual on the surface, but it won’t be love, and it will be worse than nothing. (1Co 13:1-2)

Seeking spiritual gifts over the Giver Himself is to miss all. When we rightly understand God we’ll be perfectly satisfied in Him. Like Simon, we may not yet be content in God’s love and forgiveness in Christ, and that He’s given us particular gifts and callings according to His purpose. We may not yet know unspeakable joy in God, how to feed in His majesty. In our unrest, we may stoop to trying to impress others with our pseudo-spirituality, or to trying to manipulate circumstances for our convenience rather than waiting on God to glorify Himself.

Fulfillment and peace is only found in humbling ourselves under the mighty hand of God, enjoying every moment as His perfect gift, casting all our care upon Him, knowing He cares for us. (1Pe 5:6-7)

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The Keys of the Kingdom

When Simon Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God (Mt 16:16), Christ acknowledges that God the Father has revealed this precious truth to him. (17) Christ then proclaims that He will build His church upon this bedrock truth, that He Himself is the Messiah sent from God as the essence of God, and does a word-play with Peter’s name, which also means rock. (18)

Christ then promises Peter the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, declaring that whatever Peter binds or looses on Earth will be accordingly bound or loosed in Heaven. (19) Roman Catholics derive their doctrine of Apostolic Secession from this, that Peter was the first Pope, with authority to make up the rules as he goes.

But Peter was clearly not given such authority, for moments later Peter asserts himself so badly that Christ calls him Satan (23), and years later Peter is still blundering so profoundly that Paul has to rebuke him publicly for not living uprightly according to the Gospel. (Ga 2:11,14) Peter didn’t do so well when left to himself; neither would any of the rest of us.

So, it appears that the keys of the kingdom are not given to Peter as an isolated believer, but as part of a spiritual brotherhood, calling upon God in unison for Him to glorify Himself on Earth as He does in Heaven. (Mt 6:10) This is confirmed when Christ repeats this same promise to the Church: whatever they agree together to ask the Father He will do for them. (Mt 18:18-19)

This implies that the kind of alignment which moves God is a supernatural gift of mutual faith as believers seek His glory together in community. God gives no one the freedom to channel His power at their whim; He promises to live through His people as they pursue His heart in supernatural unity. (2Co 6:16) For such community, grounding all truth-claims and motives in the reality of God (1Ti 3:15), nothing is impossible. (Mt 17:20)

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I Will Have Mercy

One Sabbath day the disciples were hungry, so Jesus went through some corn fields so they could eat. (Mt 12:1) This was part of God’s social safety net (De 23:25), but the Pharisees began accusing them of breaking the Sabbath, looking for a way to find fault. (2)

In reply, Christ asks the Pharisees what they thought of David eating the shewbread as he was escaping from Saul (3-4), something they’d never allow. Why hadn’t God called David out on this? And why had God commanded the priests to continue their priestly duties on the Sabbath, something the Pharisees would consider profane in others? (5)

Christ concludes by noting that He’s greater than the temple (6), as reality is greater than its shadow (Col 2:17), and Master of the Sabbath, being its Author and knowing perfectly well how to apply it. (8)

Further, Christ declares the disciples formally innocent; they’d not actually broken Sabbath at all, only burdensome Pharisaical extrapolations of sabbatarian precepts, and identifies the root cause of the Pharisees’ error in their ignorance of a very basic principle of Torah: God prefers a merciful heart to overly strict ceremonial observance. (7)

If the Pharisees had honored the spirit of Torah, loving mercy and humility as well as justice (Mi 6:8), they’d not have been adding burdensome regulations to Torah, and passing off their man-made doctrine as if it were God’s. (Mt 15:9)

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The Office of a Bishop

God describes two offices in His Church to which a man might be chosen: bishop (1Ti 3:1) and deacon. (1Ti 3:13) Each role serves the congregation as a representative, acting on its behalf.

Deacons oversee temporal concerns (Ac 6:2), and bishops provide spiritual care. (1Ti 3:5) Each role requires a solid, godly character, known by the saints and verified by experience over time in close community. (1Ti 3:2, 10)

Conspicuously absent are the roles of pastor and elder; neither term describes a church role or office. A pastor is spiritually gifted in caring for others, shepherding and nurturing saints to spiritual maturity. (Ep 4:11-12) An elder is simply an older man. (1Ti 5:1-2) Neither of these terms identifies a formal leadership role to which one might be chosen; no moral qualifications are ever mentioned for either one.

A unified brotherhood is the only valid leadership model in Christ’s church; any other is a corruption of the biblical pattern. Bishops and deacons are first and foremost brothers (Mt 23:8), acknowledged by the brotherhood as equipped to represent the congregation in specific ways.

Bishops, in particular, are typically chosen from among the elder brothers (Tit 1:5), being recognized by the brothers as God’s representatives of the congregation to those outside it. (1Ti 3:7) No specific duties or responsibilities are ever detailed for bishops; they evidently have no specific function to fulfill within the church itself, apart from their roles as older, more influential and respected brothers. (1Pe 5:1-3)

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Zealous of the Law

If we could go back to the early days of the Church, and observe the followers of Christ during the time of the Apostles, most of us would be surprised by their passion for Torah, the Mosaic Law. The early Christians were zealous of Torah and we’re keeping all of it diligently, as well as they possibly could. (Ac 21:20)

According to the Bible, the original twelve Apostles who lived with Christ, walked with Him in Person and heard His teachings for three precious years, whom He commissioned to make disciples of the nations (Mt 28:19), never understood that any part of Torah, the Law of Moses, was abolished. (Mt_5:18)

These devout men, who walked in intimate fellowship with God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ, declaring unto us God’s way so that our joy might be full (1Jn 1:3-4), continued keeping Torah their entire lives, as if our duty to obey Torah was perfectly consistent with the redemptive work of Christ. (Acts 21:24)

These spirit-filled men were also deeply familiar with the ministry (Ac 21:18-19) and writings (2Pe 3:15-16) of the Apostle Paul, and were convinced that he also kept Torah as well as he could, and that he believed, practiced, and taught men to follow Christ the same way they did. (Acts 21:24)

Further, both historians and theologians verify that the idea of Christian’s having liberty to ignore certain kinds of Mosaic Laws was contrary to the beliefs of the early Church, only becoming common several decades after these early leaders passed on to glory.

So, the early Jewish believers, under the constant guidance and instruction of these original, spirit-filled Apostles (Ac 2:42), were all zealous of Torah, and the Twelve Apostles as well as the Apostle Paul were encouraging them in this. (Acts 21:24)

They weren’t keeping Torah in order to be saved, trying to establish their own righteousness as their unbelieving Jewish brothers were (Ro 10:3); they understood that faith in Christ establishes the Law (Ro 3:31), affirming its centrality in our walk with God. (Mt_5:19)

In other words, the thought of Christ abolishing Torah, and relieving His followers of their obligation to obey any part of it, was rejected by the early Church: this was considered heresy by the men who were the first-hand witnesses and custodians of the teachings of Christ Himself, and also by their direct disciples. Further, aware that Paul was often accused of promoting this specific, anti-Torah mindset, being very familiar with Paul’s writings and ministry, the Twelve Apostles concluded that these accusations were false, and that Paul’s beliefs and practices were perfectly consistent with their own. They held to the Law as the very definition of sin (Ro 7:7), a blessing to all who keep it. (Ja 1:25)

How can these things be?

There is only one reasonable way to interpret these facts and remain consistent with both scripture and history: admit that Christ did not abolish Torah, concede that He explicitly tells us not to think this way (Mt 5:17), and acknowledge that the Apostle Paul did not believe or teach this either. (1Ti 1:8) This fundamental error was introduced by ungodly men seeking to corrupt the Christian faith, and they did so very early in Church history.

The Apostle Paul himself warns us that this will happen (1Ti 4:1) shortly after he completes his ministry, spreading deception and infecting the churches. (Ac 20:29-30)

And at the end of his life, the Apostle Peter himself, whom Christ especially commissioned to care for His sheep (Jn 21:16), precisely describes what we find here: some things Paul writes are very hard to understand, which the unlearned and unstable wrest to their own destruction. (2Pe_3:16)

So, those who aren’t zealous of God’s Law (Ps 119:20), who aren’t meditating in it day and night (Ps 1:2) and trying to obey all of it that they can (Ps 119:6), thinking Paul teaches us to live any other way, dismissing any part of Torah, are not rightly dividing the Word; they’re missing God’s heart, and why He gave His Law to us (1Ti 1:5): the Spirit of Christ in every true believer delights in Torah. (Ro 7:22)

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God Is Not Mocked

We’re constantly making choices, moment by moment, in a continuous flow of sowing and reaping. A universal law governs this: whatever we sow, we reap. (Ga 6:7b) If we invest primarily in our physical, temporal nature, in our own comfort and pleasure, we reap corruption and death (Php 3:18-19); if we choose life and walk in the light as a manner of life, we reap everlasting life. (Ro 2:6)

The law of sowing and reaping: we reap what we sow, we reap more than we sow, and we reap later than we sow. It’s a universal truth; no one escapes it, not even through the Gospel. So, the apostle Paul warns us: “Be not deceived, God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.” (Ga 6:7-8)

So, how does this work in Christ? When God forgives us, does He deliver us from the consequences of our choices? No; even those in Christ are subject to this law: no one is exempt. (Col 3:23 -25) Why must this be?

God chastens and scourges every child He receives (He 12:6) to break the pattern of selfishness and disobedience, and work righteousness in us. (He 12:10) God’s law is for our good (Ro 7:12), and when we break it, or sin, this is bad for us. God is intent on delivering us from the power of sin as well as from its penalty; so, if we’re sowing in the wrong place, God will often use this law of sowing and reaping to help straighten us out. The natural consequences of our choices are often our best teachers.

Certainly, God is merciful to all of us (La 3:39): we never reap the full consequences of our sin in this life. (Ps 103:10) For those who fear Him, His mercy is infinite. (Ps 103:11)

But those who commit themselves to a life of sin, sin of any kind, show themselves to be alienated from God, subject to His wrath and indignation (Ro 2:8); it reveals that they’re not God’s children. (1Jn 3:9) God transforms His elect such that they live to please Him. (Ep 2:10)

Thinking anyone can sin without consequence is to deny the justice of God, making a mockery of His dignity and His eternal Word. It makes Him out to be a liar. For anyone who tries this, it will not end well. God does not tolerate being mocked like this; His fiery indignation will silence every rebellious tongue, terrify every arrogant heart, and devour every adversary. (He 10:27)

Let’s serve the Almighty with fear, and rejoice with trembling (Ps 2:11), working out our deliverance from sin by sowing in truth unto obedience.  (Php 2:12)

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Dividing the Word

Words are weak – sounds which convey meaning only when both speaker and hearer understand them similarly. But words often convey different meanings in different contexts, and can be interpreted in multiple ways even when immediate context is understood. If either speaker or hearer is inept, ignorant, careless or biased, communication becomes very difficult.

The Bible comprises the most significant words ever composed: God’s Word, revealing the nature of God and Man, detailing how to walk with God. As important as this is, few people appear to understand it in exactly the same way. This isn’t a problem with the Bible; it’s a problem with us.

The Bible is evidently written in such a way that only the virtuous will understand it (2Pe 1:5); the self-seeking are unable to find the truth. (2Ti 3:7)

So, if we come to the Bible dishonestly, with a bias or false presupposition, we invariably find verses to support our view and remain in error. (2Co 2:17) We’re untroubled by verses which appear to contradict us and simply ignore them, handling the word of God deceitfully. (2Co 4:2) In this way, the unlearned and unstable wrest scripture, taking it out of the whole biblical context, unto their own destruction (2Pe 3:16), and remain in darkness. (Is 8:20)

But when we’re seeking truth, we don’t presume to know a given claim is true until we can honestly interpret every relevant text of scripture in a manner that’s consistent with that claim. (Ps 119:6) Since most biblical texts can be interpreted in multiple ways without doing them injustice, we start with texts which are the most difficult to interpret honestly in any other way, and seek to understand the rest of scripture in light of them, in a manner that’s entirely consistent with all of scripture. Only in this way can we rightly divide the Word of Truth. (2Ti 2:15)

We trust that God doesn’t contradict Himself, and that He has inspired the Bible in such a manner that if we rightly divide His Word consistently and prayerfully, He will help us find the truth we need to walk with Him and serve Him well. (2Ti 3:16)

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Jesus Stooped Down

As Jesus is teaching in the temple early one morning, the scribes and Pharisees bring a woman to Him that they’ve captured in the very act of adultery. (Jn 8:2-3a) They set her down before the crowd, and start asking Christ if He’ll honor the Mosaic Law (Jn 8:4-5), which requires her to be stoned to death. (De 22:22)

Their motive in doing so is to accuse Him (Jn 8:6a); they’re setting a trap: if He sides with the woman, then the people will recognize He can’t be their Messiah (Is 8:20); yet if He sides with Moses, He’ll be in trouble with Rome. (Jn 18:31) No matter what Christ does, they think they have Him.

But Christ doesn’t answer them; He stoops down, ignoring their question, and begins writing with His finger in the dust on the temple pavement. (Jn 8:6b) His enemies, evidently energized by the thought of finally stumping Him, begin pressing Him for an answer (Jn 8:7a)

But then Christ does something striking: He rises up, publicly invites anyone who is sinless to go ahead and throw the first stone, and then He returns to writing in the dust. (Jn 8:7b-8)

Christ honors the Law, but in a way that’s fitting for their circumstance: lawful subjects of a foreign civil power. God gave the Law to Israel to enforce as a sovereign community, not as individuals living under pagan rule. But a sinless person acting on God’s behalf should be able to call on God to rescue them when the Roman soldiers storm the place. So, Christ effectively says, “If you feel you’ve got God on your side enough to defy Roman law, be My guest: go for it.”

As the accusers begin contemplating what He’s just invited them to do, and also noticing what kinds of things He’s writing in the dust, they scatter, every last one of them, being convicted by their own conscience. (Jn 8:9)

Exactly what Christ writes on the ground is a mystery, but the narrative suggests that He’s exposing the sins of the accusers, how they’re all presumptuously breaking God’s Law, and are worthy of death. (Nu 15:30) After all, they aren’t even following this particular law that they’re asking Christ to honor: in their ploy, they hadn’t incriminated the adulterous man, as the Law requires. (De 22:22)

The fact that Christ doesn’t enforce Mosaic Law here tempts many to claim this as evidence that He came to abolish it and give us a better one. Nothing could be farther from the truth: He Himself says so, explicitly. (Mt 5:17-19) Court is adjourned, not because God’s Law is obsolete, but because the community has opted out: there’s no one left to carry out the sentence. (Jn 8:10-11a)

Christ’s wisdom here lies in the fact that lawful punishment must only be carried out by recognized civil authority. Christ Himself is not obligated, as a single individual under Roman civil law, to enforce it, and He chooses not to. (Jn 8:11b) It’s the prudent choice, a testament to His infinite wisdom and discernment.

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Salvation Is of the Jews

When Jesus Christ challenges Nicodemus, a Jewish Pharisee, in  relating with God, He says, “Ye must be born again.” (Jn 3:7)

Since this is in the New Testament, and we never hear it taught from the Old, it’s easy to think that being born again is relatively novel, something Moses, David and Abraham knew nothing about.

But Christ is speaking before the Cross, before He dies and rises again, so nothing has actually changed since Mount Sinai, when God revealed His Law, or really even since Adam. There’s no New Testament scripture at this point in time, yet Christ acts as if Nicodemus should already know about being born again, as if it’s obvious from the Old Testament. (Jn 3:10) How significant! If we don’t see being born again in the Old Testament like Jesus expects, what makes us think we understand it?

In a similar encounter, Christ challenges a woman and says something just as striking. “Ye worship ye know not what: we know what we worship: for salvation is of the Jews.” (Jn 4:22) He’s saying that if we don’t understand the salvation presented in the Old Testament, the oracles of God committed to the Jews (Ro 3:1-2), then we don’t understand salvation at all; we’re worshiping in ignorance. Not a good place to be.

In a third encounter, Christ tells an equivalently insightful story of a rich man suffering in Hell, concerned that his family will follow after him into its flames. He asks Abraham to send an acquaintance back from the dead to warn them. Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.” (Lk 16:29) The claim is that Old Testament scriptures are a sufficient witness of the gospel. But the rich man pleads, convinced that the Old Testament is insufficient; if someone they knew rose from the dead to warn them, then they would repent and be saved. But Abraham is firm: “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.”

Not only is the Old Testament a sufficient witness of the gospel, it is so overwhelmingly sufficient that if one isn’t convinced through it, then nothing will convince them.

Salvation is of the Jews: accomplished by Christ, a Jew, and revealed by and through Jews, God’s chosen people, in the scriptures God has transmitted to us all through them. This doesn’t mean we have to become Jewish in order to be right with God (1Co 7:18-20), but it does mean that the gospel of the New Testament is exactly the same as the gospel of the Old Testament. If the gospel we believe in isn’t an Old Testament gospel, then it’s a false one. (Ga 1:8)

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