Sunday, January 11, 2009

And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendor of his coming.

In reading the book of 2 Thessalonians, you will find an uncanny similarity to the subjects of Paul's first letter: Jesus' second coming, spiritual growth, idleness among certain non-workers. Obviously, they failed to listen well the first time, so a a sterner, more formal approach replaces the warm tenderness of Paul's first letter.

The controversy in Thessalonica actually traces back to a portion of Paul's first letter that answered his readers' questions about the afterlife. Will people who have already died miss out on the resurrection from the dead? That is more than an idle question for the Thessalonians, who live with the constant danger of persecution and the risk of martyrdom.

In his first letter, Paul assured them that people still living when Jesus returns to the earth will rejoin those who have died before them. Since receiving that letter, however, the Thessalonians have gone several steps beyond Paul's advice.

The expectation of Jesus' return evidently prompted some to quit their jobs and do nothing but sit around in anticipation of that day. They are becoming, in Paul's words, "idle...busy-bodies" (3:11). So, Paul writes mainly to correct this imbalance. In chapter 2 he tells of certain obscure events that must precede the second coming of Jesus. He also strongly warns against idleness. Some verses may prove confusing; indeed, no one can be certain of Paul's meaning in exact detail because he is building on a teaching he earlier gave the Thessalonians in private.

In preparing for Jesus' second coming, we should all take Paul's advice as he cautions us to be patient and steady. He urges us to simply trust the fact that Jesus will return and finally bring justice to earth. In the meantime, we need to live worthily for that day and to not tolerate idleness...but live our our lives as Christ would have us.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

And so we will be with the Lord forever. therefore encourage each other with these words.

One question seems to bother the Thessalonians: When will Jesus return to the earth as he promised? That question, still asked by Christians today, has troubled the church ever since Jesus' departure. The Thessalonians have some other, related questions as well. What about people who die before Jesus returns? Will they somehow miss out on life after death? Paul gives a direct and encouraging answer.

The Thessalonians have good reason to concern themselves with the future. Like some Christians in modern times, they live in constant danger of persecution by the authorities. On any night a knock on the door or the scrape of footsteps outside could mean imprisonment or death. Understandably, the young church looks forward to Jesus' second coming with longing and hope.

Paul assures its members that hope in the future is well-founded, whether or not they live to see Jesus' return. But he warns against an undue fixation on the future. Lead a quiet life and mind your own business, Paul advises.

The Thessalonians are merely one of the first in a long line of Christians concerned with future events. Whole generations-including many today- have been caught up in a frenzy over the exact time and place of the second coming, only to watch their predictions misfire. I believe the entire business world/ computer network was suppose to mysteriously shut down on January 1, 2000. In his letter here, Paul shrugs off such speculation (5:1-2). He presents the right way and the wrong way to prepare for Jesus' return.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things.

Don't be surprised if Colossians strikes you as vaguely familiar. More than half of its verses have close parallels in Ephesians. The cities of Colosse and Ephesus were neighbors in Paul's day, and one of the believers in Ephesus has taken the gospel message to Colosse. Paul, who has never visited Colosse, writes this letter to people who know him by reputation only. The letter opens on an optimistic note, with Paul thanking God for the Colossians' spiritual progress. Then he brings up a doctrinal flaw that has crept into their church.

Paul's letters tend to follow a pattern: a greeting, a prayer, some doctrine and a practical application of how Christians should live. Although Paul often launches out into deep water theologically, he always leads his readers back to practical issues: What difference does theology make in daily life?

One stately paragraph (verses 15-20) contains a compressed summary of the absolute supremacy of Christ. Then Paul brings it down to the practical: Christ's supreme power does not distance us from God, but brings us closer. Christ alone has the ability to span the vast gap between God and humanity.

Because Jesus bridges the gap between God and us, we don't have to approach God indirectly, through a "ladder" of angels, saints, or other deities. Before Christ, a mystery was kept hidden for many centuries. But with Christ, everything broke out into the open. We can come to know God directly because of his son, Jesus.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Philippians 4: Paul’s Favorite Church

Not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only.

The Christian church hasn’t had a perfect record throughout history. If you take a random sampling of adjectives people us to describe the church, the list will likely include such labels as racist, judgmental, narrow, divided, and pompous.

The church of Jesus Christ has fallen far short of the ideals he entrusted to it- so far short that we may sometimes forget what the church is supposed to look like. Problems existed from the beginning: Paul’s letters to Galatia, Corinth, and Colosse flame with indignation against defects in the early church. Occasionally, however, a church came along that worked, against all odds. Philippi was one of those rare congregations.

From its birth, the church in Philippi had two strikes against it. Its first recorded converts were an Asiatic Jewish merchant, a Greek slave girl employed as a sideshow fortune-teller and a gruff Roman jailer (Acts 16). Yet more than a decade later, when Paul wrote the church, he could hardly find words warm enough to express his pride and affection.

Paul turned down money gifts from other churches, out of fear that his enemies might twist the facts and accuse him of being a crook. But he trusted the Philippians. At least four separate times they sacrificed to meet his needs. And they also sent Epaphroditus on an arduous journey to care for Paul in prison.

Paul wrote Philippians, in fact, mainly as a thank-you for all that his friends had done. Its bright, happy tone reflects the fondness he felt for his favorite church. Nevertheless, Paul couldn’t resist an opportunity to give some fatherly advice. In a fireside-chat tone, he warned of encroaching dangers: divisions, a strain of perfectionism and inroads by those who wished to turn Christians back to a legalistic faith. Always, though, he returned to his underlying theme of joy, an emotion that seemed to come easily when Paul remembered the Philippians.

It’s interesting to note that Philippians uses the word joy or rejoice every few paragraphs, but the joy it describes is a bit different from what we normally associate with the word. Rejoice, says Paul, when someone selfishly tries to steal the limelight from you. And when you meet persecution for your faith…and even when you are facing death. Paul certainly had a different understanding of the word, and it’s our responsibility as followers of the faith to take up this challenge.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.

Paul has suffered much in the ten years since founding the church at Philippi: beatings, imprisonment, shipwreck, hostility from jealous competitors. Surely he must have sometimes wondered, is it worth all this pain? Even as he writes this letter, he is under arrest, “in chains for Christ” (1:13). But whenever Paul’s thoughts turn to Philippi, the elderly apostle’s spirits lift.

If someone had bluntly asked him, “Paul, tell me, what keeps you going through hard times?” he likely would have answered with words straight out of this chapter. In Philippians 2, Paul reveals the source of his irrepressible drive. First, he gives the example of Jesus. In a stately hymn-like paragraph, he marvels that Jesus gave up all the glory of heaven to take on the form of man- and not just any man, but a servant, one who pours out his life for others. Paul takes on that pattern for himself.

Then, in a seeming paradox, Paul describes a kind of teamwork with God: While God is working within, we must “work out” our salvation with fear and trembling. A later spiritual giant named Saint Teresa of Avila would express the paradox this way: “I pray as if all depends on God; I work as if all depends on me.” Her formula aptly summarizes Paul’s spiritual style.

While Philippians gives an occasional glimpse of the apostle Paul’s fatigue, it also shows flashes of what keeps him from burnout. To him, the converts in Philippi shine “like stars in the universe.” Joy in his converts’ progress is what keeps Paul going.

The cheerful sounds that we hear from Paul while he is sitting in a jail cell can be unexpected, to say the least. He proclaims to us in chapter 3 to “rejoice in the Lord”- all the while chained to a Roman guard. Is this guy for real? Paul probably wrote Philippians in Rome just about the time Nero began tossing Christians to ravenous lions and burning them as torches to illuminate his banquets. How could a rational man devote a letter to the topic of joy while his survival was in jeopardy? FAITH. God can take even the darkest moment in history and turn it into good. The cross, and Jesus’ triumph over death, prove that nothing is powerful enough to stamp out a reason for joy- joy in the Lord.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Ephesians 3: Success Story

And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep the love of Christ.

The Ephesus of Paul’s day is renowned for its religion- but not the apostle’s kind of religion. Worship of the Roman goddess Diana centers in Ephesus, and its residents take great pride in the temple devoted to her. The building ranks among the seven wonders of the ancient world, and inside it hundreds of professional prostitute-priestesses assist the “worshipers.”

In this unlikely city, Paul discovers a tiny Christian community already in existence. They know something about John the Baptist, not much about Jesus, and they have never even heard of the Holy Spirit. For the next two years Paul preaches, a church takes root, and soon word spreads throughout the entire province of Asia.

Miraculous signs and wonders mark Paul’s ministry in Ephesus, so impressing local sorcerers and magicians that they spontaneously hold a public burning of their valuable scrolls. In the face of such zeal, the Ephesian merchants who profit from the sale of idols chase Paul out of town. (See Acts 19)

Like most of the early churches, Ephesus struggles with ethnic and religious differences. Believers with a Jewish background have huge obstacles to overcome in accepting former idol-worshipers into their church. This section of Ephesians addresses the unity issues head-on.
To Paul, the new community composed of both Jews and Gentiles is one of the great mysteries of the ages, a culmination of god’s original plan kept secret for many centuries but now made known. He can hardly contain his soaring language as he marvels at God’s plan being fulfilled at that moment. He urges his readers to think through what it means to represent Christ in the world. When people look at Christians, do they see the qualities of Christ on display?

In Paul’s time, Jews and Gentiles were the two factions most given to quarreling and division. From your perspective, what groups divide Christians today? Legalism certainly has played a role in dissention. Too often, Christian denominations get caught up in the “politics” of the church and lose sight of the Word. Staying true to scripture and keeping Christ’s two “key” commandments…love your God and love your neighbor…should keep us all on track with our journey.

Monday, November 10, 2008

And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Some of the world’s most famous literature originated in, of all places, a prison cell. John Bunyan wrote his Pilgrim’s Progress there. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s vast output had its conception behind barbed wire, as did Dostoyevsky’s. Parts of the Bible were written in prison as well, including Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon.

Perhaps surprisingly, these books represent some of the brightest, most hopeful books of the Bible. There’s a good reason: Prison offers Paul the precious commodity of time. He is no longer journeying from town to town, stamping out fires set by his enemies. He can devote attention to lofty thoughts about the meaning of life.

The letter to the Ephesians gives a hint as to what the apostle Paul “sees” when he lets his mind wander beyond the monotony of his place of confinement. First, he visualizes the spiritual growth in the churches he has left behind. Most of his prison letters begin with a burst of thanksgiving for the vitality of the church he is addressing. Then, as he spells out in Ephesians, he seeks to open the eyes of their hearts (1:18) to even more exalted sights.

Ephesians is full of sensational good news. Unlike Paul’s other letters, Ephesians does not address any urgent problems. With a sigh of relief, the apostle turns to the grandest question of all: What is God’s overall purpose for this world? Paul answers the question this way: “to bring all things in heaven and on Earth together under one head, even Christ” (1:10) He raises the sights far above his own circumstances to bigger issues, cosmic issues.

Ironically, it takes a stint in prison to free Paul up for this happy endeavor. The book of Ephesians can hardly introduce a new thought without bursting into a song or a prayer. It is no wonder the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge would later call the book ‘the divinest composition of man.”

Throughout his writings, Paul insisted on one fact of the gospel: Eternal life comes not by any ritual of rule-keeping (good works), but by the grace of God. Yet in this paragraph he notes that God intends for us to do “good works.” Conflicting message? Not really. Paul makes a clear distinction that good works do nothing to help us obtain God's favor, but they should follow naturally in our lives as we experience the love of Christ.