Sabbatical 2017

Sabbatical 2017
Thames River, London

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Canonical Reading Plan for Dec 11, Php 1-4

Today's readings are Php 1-4.

Philippians was written during Paul's house arrest In Rome.

Philippi was in Macedonia, about 125 miles East of Thessalonica.

Strategically located, populated and heavily fortified by retired and semi-retired Roman soldiers, Philippi was the first city in Europe where Paul established a church. Paul also spent some time in prison there. The church at Philippi supported Paul in his journeys and was a source of constant encouragement to him.

Paul wants to let the Philippians know that he is well and fine, even though he is imprisoned. The gospel is advancing, though he is confined (Php 1:12-16). This is, as always, Paul's ultimate goal and primary concern, the spread of the gospel.

He wants to encourage the Philippians to continue growing in their faith. Even though there is some tension in the congregation (Php 4:2), they seem to be doing well compared to the struggling churches in Galatia and Corinth. Rather than rest on their success and past achievement, Paul wants them to "press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus!" Paul wants to make sure the Philippians do not get too comfortable in their spiritual maturity and become complacent (Php 3:12-14).

Already there are signs that some over-spiritualizing may be creeping in. Paul cautions that their growing maturity will not come through mysticism but through the patient practice of love and service to others and each other. They are to imitate Christ in all they do. This will reap eternal blessings and benefits. They can be confident that God will finish what He has started among them (Php 3:1-11).

There are profound lessons for us in Philippians. Spiritual pride and arrogance are to be avoided. We should never allow ourselves to think we "have arrived." We should constantly strive to go deeper and gain a better understanding of the Scriptures while pursuing a deeper relationship with the Lord. We should be cautious about thinking our maturity gives us "spiritual superpowers" that others may not have. Humility and service, not aloofness and false piety, should be the hallmarks of our spiritual growth.

An encouragement in Paul's letter is that the church seems to be getting most of this right. Paul does not necessarily write to chastise them but to encourage them and caution them along the way. Likewise, there are things that we, as believers, can be doing well in. Self-examination is an excellent and productive way to monitor our walk with the Lord. Too much self-examination or being hesitant to give honor to God for the progress He makes in our sanctification while we spend too much time and emotional capital on our faults and stumbles can bog us down and stunt our spiritual growth. God has granted us the gift of repentance to deal with our occasional failures (Act 5:31; Act 11:18; 2 Tim 2:25). We should use it. There is a delicate balance between spiritual arrogance and self-condemnation. We should pray that the Spirit leads us away from both.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Canonical Reading Plan for Dec 10, Eph 4-6

Today’s readings are Eph 4-6.

In Eph 4, we see that God has given various spiritual gifts. These gifts are for the edification of the body. But, they’re also a testimony to its unity. Everyone has, at least, one gift. Christians should lead lifestyles that are marked by edification of each other and holiness. The primary way they express their unity is by becoming imitators of Christ.

Eph 5 tells us we have new life in His love and should put the things of our old life behind us. The evidence of our new lives will show up in how we submit one to another (Eph 5:20). The marriage relationship (Eph 5:22-33) is a primary example of what this submission looks like, it being a model of the relationship Christ has with His church. There is structure in marriage. But it is a structure of equals with each called to serve the other. The husband is the head. But both husband and wife are to treat each other as more important than themselves. So, it is with the church. The church is a witness to the world of the oneness we have in Christ.

In Eph 6:1-9 we see the same principles apply to children and parents, slaves and masters. In other words, these principles for living permeate every area of our lives.

Eph 6:10-18 is the familiar "Armor of God" passage. Many people see this as a passage about spiritual warfare. In truth, the only active part we are encouraged to play is to "stand firm." The passage is about becoming more like Christ to more effectively live in and work out the unity mentioned in the previous chapters. We're told to "put on and keep putting on" (the verbs imply continuous action) truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, the word of God and unceasing prayer, all to resist the evil that would drag us back into our previous lifestyles and ruin our testimonies.

Ephesians is a powerful letter encouraging the church to walk in the unity it has in Christ while emulating Him in all things as a mark of the all-powerful God who sits in sovereign authority over all creation. Ephesians portrays a maturing church, well on its way toward being more like Christ, working together for the sake of the gospel and for the edification and nourishment of its members.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Canonical Reading Plan for Dec 9, Eph 1-3

Today's readings are Eph 1-3.

There are two primary themes in Paul's letter to the Ephesians: (1) In Christ all creation is reconciled to Himself and to God. (2) Christ has united people of all nations into Himself and each other. This is not to imply that all people in creation are reconciled to God, only those in Christ. One of the points Paul wants to clarify is that salvation through Christ and His work on the cross is available to all kinds of people.

Ephesians was written around 60 AD and shows that the new church is beginning to mature in its doctrine and theology but will continue to struggle with outside influences. Nonetheless, Paul’s teaching is deep and rich, intended for a congregation that may have its challenges but is growing spiritually.

Ephesus was a vast and incredibly prosperous port city dominated by temples to a broad variety of gods. The city struggled with mysticism, magic and the occult. Paul's letter established Christ's supremacy over all things and God's sovereign authority over not just creation but all things in this age and the next. Apparently, the church at Ephesus needed to be reminded of their allegiance to an all-powerful God and their union with Him and each other through Christ. The draw on them to worship other gods was formidable. They lived in a culture that minimized the one true God by offering a multitude of alternatives.

Paul starts out by establishing that all blessings come through Christ through whom we are saved by grace through faith. Our hope is in Him, and we are helpless without Him. In Him, also, we are united with all types of people. This is a mystery revealed in Christ; namely, the gospel is for Jews and Gentiles. This should be a blessing for God’s people in Ephesus who may feel pulled in a variety of directions and become divided by a culture that teaches many and diverse spiritual paths. Christ is the only one way toward a relationship with God. He brings not only salvation but unity (Eph 1-3).
Ephesus today. The remains of numerous temples and meetings places are still evident.
This is Main Street looking down toward the great library.
Paul respects his readers and expresses his great love for them. He knows the power of peer pressure. He knows it would be easy for the people of the church at Ephesus to compromise their faith to fit in with their neighbors and friends. So, instead of watering down the gospel and sending them a feel-good letter, Paul takes them deeper into their faith with a strong doctrinal emphasis. This is a letter motivated by love, respect and compassion. Paul doesn’t want to coddle them, he wants to stretch them and to see them grow. 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Canonical Reading Plan for Dec 8, Gal 4-6

Today's readings are Gal 4-6.

Gal 4 reveals that the false teachers mentioned in the first three chapters have turned the Galatians against Paul and, more importantly, his teaching. The church has returned to the teaching of the world and legalism, embracing teachers who "make much of them (the Galatians)" in order that they might "make much" of those false teachers (Gal 4:16). Apparently, this has worked because Paul has become the enemy for telling them the truth. One of the great lessons in Galatians is that the church can be seduced by teaching that "tickles the ears" and is man-focused instead of being centered on Christ and the gospel.

The primary issue, as we see in Gal 5:1-3, is, once again, circumcision. The false teachers are teaching the need for circumcision as a way of satisfying the law. Paul encourages the church to "walk by the Spirit". Through the false teaching, they have been led to "gratify the desires of the flesh (Gal 5:16)." In other words, the primary focus of the Galatian church has become getting their desires and needs met. These false teachers have presented a man-focused gospel that says, "There are things you can do (circumcision and such) to become a good person and get what you're looking for out of this Christian life! It's all about you and getting what you want out of your relationship with Christ and the church."

The result of the false teaching is contention with the truth and tension against the Spirit (Gal 5:17). The Galatians are now bickering over minor things while the truth is abandoned. Paul wants to expose legalism for what it is, a man-centered, self-righteous teaching that is divisive. Paul contrasts these results of a legalistic approach to the Christian walk with how the Spirit should impact the church in love, joy, peace, patience, etc. (Gal 3:22).

The solution to the problem afflicting the Galatians is to "bear one another's burdens (Gal 6:2) instead of anyone thinking they are something when they are not (Gal 6:3). The church is to share the load, not demand that their burden be carried by someone else (Gal 6:5). This “burden” Paul speaks of is the legalism the false teachers are trying to impose on others.

Paul encourages them to "share all good things with the one who teaches". The implication is "with the one who teaches the truth". This is followed by a warning that what one sows, one will reap. If one sows the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.), those blessings will be reaped. If one sows the works of the flesh (legalism, self-righteousness, etc.), those trials will be reaped.

This is an ancient example of how easy it is to come to church expecting your needs to be met. This can become a demand to be satisfied and served. Paul urges the church to come to serve rather than be served, to come to carry someone's burden rather than to demand someone carry yours.

The real reason the Galatian church has slipped back into legalism is that they are looking for a fast and easy way to satisfy the desires of the flesh. Nothing is quicker or easier than a list of "how-to" items designed to get what we want. Some folks have begun teaching the "how-to". The church has embraced it. The net result? The gospel is lost in meeting the desires of the people in the pews instead of meeting the need for the lost world to hear the gospel. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Canonical Reading Plan for Dec 7, Gal 1-3

Today's readings are Gal 1-3.

Galatians is the earliest letter we have from Paul. It was written shortly after the book of James appeared. In Acts 15-16, we saw the beginning of doctrinal teaching in the new church. That teaching arose because some were trying to teach a false doctrine about the need for circumcision. Galatians also addresses false teaching. While the overall emphasis of Galatians is justification by faith, a radically new teaching in its day, we see Paul’s wisdom in laying it out concisely as a rebuttal to the false teaching that was beginning to permeate the church.

James, Acts 15-16, Galatians and the fact that they all appear early in the new church’s formation make it clear that the church struggled with two unceasing obstacles from its inception -- persecution and errant teaching. Paul makes the point, in his first epistle, that a focus on the gospel in its purest form is the remedy to the false teaching.

In Gal 1, along with the admonition to hold tight to the gospel as they learned it, Paul addresses the fact that even firm believers can be led astray and, at times, lose their focus (Gal 1:11-14).

From the tone of Gal 2-3, it seems the false gospel being taught is one of works. This is very similar to the problem James was addressing, the idea that there was something that a believer needs to do to achieve true salvation. Paul tells the Galatians that they are "justified," reconciled to God and declared righteous. This occurs by faith, not works (Gal 2:16).

Paul contends that works without faith are dead (Gal 2:16). They accomplish nothing. James says faith without works is dead (Jam 2:17). At a casual glance, Paul and James seem to be contradicting each other. But a closer examination reveals as astounding biblical principle.

Both are true.

Our works mean nothing without our faith (Paul). But, if we have faith, the evidence will show in our works (James). Our faith will manifest itself in how we interact with the world we live in. Our works become the tangible testimony of our faith. We shouldn’t have to conjure up good things to do. They should come flowing from us as the natural outcome of our transformation from people who were dead into those who are alive in Christ.