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Monday, August 27, 2012

Laying Down the Law

Laying Down the Law

Paul has asked Timothy to remain at Ephesus, to serve as pastor of the church. Timothy would be challenging an existing leadership that has swerved away from three pillars of genuine love:

  • a pure heart
  • a good conscience
  • a sincere faith

The crux of the crisis are teachers who are teaching without understanding the very law which they confidently assert they are upholding.

Paul accuses the religious leaders of using the law "unlawfully":

"Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted." 1 Timothy 1:8-11 (ESV)

What is "the law"?

LAW: nomos (law, regulation or principle); from nemo (to parcel out, especially food or grazing to animals)

At its core, the concept of "law" involves an person with authority to distribute essential goods to the community and livestock. From food and water, the concept expands to include all material goods and property in addition to social and community relationships. Under "law", all property, wealth, recreation, religion and relationships may be distributed, or regulated.

Jesus Christ defined "the law" as the writings of Moses and the prophets of Israel, including the writings in the Psalms:

"These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled." Luke 24:44 (ESV)

The Law contained in the Old Testament is not so much a regulation of "perfect" human behavior, as it is a description of God's original design:

"It is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified. For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus." Romans 2:13-16 (ESV)

The aim, or purpose, of the Law given by God to humanity through Moses and the prophets, is to define "holiness", setting a standard for righteous behavior and attitude:

"The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good." Romans 7:12 (ESV)

Every law, regulation and principle found in the Old Testament can be seen as supporting a single prime directive:

"Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, - You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet, - and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: - You shall love your neighbor as yourself. - Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law." Romans 13:8-10 (ESV)

The Old Testament includes many commands and regulations that seem outdated, obsolete and inapplicable to modern life.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What Old Testament laws seem especially obsolete? Can even these archaic regulations be traced back to a way of supporting God's "prime directive": love?

Paul says that the law is good, but only if used "lawfully".

LAWFULLY: nomimos (legitimately, specially agreeably to the rules of the lists); from nemo (to parcel out, especially food or grazing to animals)

"Rule of the lists" refers to the medieval contests of combat. The Society for Creative Anachronism published their own "Rules of the Lists", with an introduction that reads remarkably similar to that of Paul's writings regarding the Law of God:

"The basic rules for the SCA combat are contained in the Rules of the Lists. These Rules, however, do not specifically cover non-tourney field activities such as wars, combat archery, and period fencing. In practice, the Rules have been extended to cover these activities, with the observance of honor and chivalry being the overriding element, along with the safety of the combatants. The following is intended to bring together the appropriate rules for conducting both tourney field combat and other SCA combat activities." (mol.aethelmearc.net)

The contests of combat are regulated by overarching principles of honor, chivalry and safety, in the same way that life in God's Kingdom is regulated by laws that support holiness, righteousness and love.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What comparisons can be made between medieval battle and Kingdom living? What Old Testament laws seem especially similar to rules of martial art contests? What are the inevitable results of anarchy, the dissolution of all laws?

Paul later makes a direct reference to athletic contests:

"An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules." 2 Timothy 2:5 (ESV)

"According to the rules" is the translation of the same Greek word used earlier, translated in 1 Timothy 1:9 as "lawfully".

Imagine a contestant determines to gain victory, believing the ultimate goal to be that of striking a fatal blow against an opponent. Disregarding the rules of the lists and ignoring the overarching prime directives of honor, chivalry and safety, the contestant attacks from behind, before the starting signal is sounded, using a real sword.

The surprised opponent is killed.

The contestant is rewarded with arrest and punishment, eventually being publicly executed.

Ignoring the rules of the game and striving for the wrong goal will result in ultimate loss and self-destruction.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? How is it possible for the laws of the Old Testament to be used "unlawfully"? What experiences can you share concerning mis-use or abusive handling of God's Word?

Leaders can selectively enforce only specific laws, quietly allowing some to disappear. Leaders can ignore some laws for decades, pulling them out of the closet of justice only when needed, perhaps to suppress the success of a political opponent.

Paul reminded Timothy that God laid down the Old Testament law because of the universal, fallen moral condition of humans.

"The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted." 1 Timothy 1:9-11 (ESV)

LAID DOWN: keimai (to lie outstretched, utterly protrate)

The Old Testament record of laws, regulations and commandments, including the foundational Ten Commandments, were laid out by God. The action of "laying out" implies making the law highly visible and widely applicable. "Laying down the law" implies that it was meant for all people and all times.

JUST: dikaios (equitable, innocent or holy according to human statutes and relations); from dike (right or justice); from deiknyo (to show)

"Just" does not properly describe natural human nature. Our history is one that is far removed from the ideals of equity, innocence or holiness as concerning how we have treated one another.

God laid down the law for those who were not just. He laid down the law for all of us normal, fallen people.

Teachers, leaders and judges use the Old Testament law in a good way only when they fully understand that they, as well as the ones they teach, lead and judge, are not naturally just.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? How does honest, humble self-awareness of one's sinful nature allow teachers, leaders and judges to use the law lawfully? What difference does it make for a leader to realize his moral weakness?

Image provided by David, Creative Commons License.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Miracle of Joy

The Miracle of Joy

In the violent turmoil caused by by Saul in Jerusalem, the apostle Philip saw opportunity for reaching out to an often-ignored people: Samaritans.

"Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the crowds with one accord paid attention to what was being said by Philip when they heard him and saw the signs that he did. For unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city." Acts 8:4-8 (ESV)

Sudden, miraculous cleansing from demons and disease is a powerful confirmation of words of preachers and prophets.

Jesus healed a man of blindness, describing it as a display of the works of God (John 9:1). Jewish Pharisees acknowledged His power, but called it satanic. Jesus revealed their blind, broken logic: How could Satan's kingdom stand if Satan casts out Satan's demons? By the Spirit of God Jesus cast out demons, proof of the nearness of the kingdom of God (Matthew 12:27).

God's Spirit manifests His power in a variety of ways: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, translation and interpretation. But each expression of God's power is by the same Spirit, intended always for good (1 Corinthians 12:10).

God's power, His spiritual gifts given to believers, vary from individual to individual, all under the control and appointment of God (1 Corinthians 12:30).

The Bible includes mention of many different ways that the Holy Spirit of God works through believers.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Review the following passages taken from Paul's writings. With which gifts do you connect with better than others? How has God used you to minister to others?

"Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness." Romans 12:6-8 (ESV)

"Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills." 1 Corinthians 12:4-11 (ESV)

"God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues." 1 Cor 12:28 (ESV)

"The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ." 1 Peter 4:7-11 (ESV)

Despite the power of miraculous signs and spiritual gifts, and the good for which God intends them, Jesus cautioned against the desire for sensational, emotional excitement, without corresponding faith.

"Some of the scribes and Pharisees answered him, saying, - Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you. - But he answered them, - An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign..." Matthew 12:38-39 (ESV)

It is possible, even common, for unbelievers to remain unconvinced by miracles, yet still hunger to see them. Perhaps some people hope to discover a trick or hoax. Perhaps some enjoy the miracle for the sake of interest or curiosity, with little desire to connect the miracle with their Maker and Lord.

Jesus refused to perform miracles for show-seekers. His response often was to offer only the "sign of Jonah." (Matthew 12:40)

Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a great fish. Jesus compared Jonah's entrapment with His own future burial and entombment. Both Jonah and Jesus were miraculously brought from certain death back to life.

Jonah preached to the people of Nineveh immediately upon being spit out by the great fish, and the entire city, from royalty to citizen, repented and turned in faith to God Almighty for mercy.

Jesus told the Pharisees that He had been doing the same preaching as Jonah, greater, in fact, than Jonah. Yet He knew they would reject Him, despite any sign, resurrection or not.

There came a time when Jesus refused to give any sign, not even the sign of Jonah:

"The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in his spirit and said, - Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.- And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side." Mark 8:11-13 (ESV)

Signs, such as miraculous healings and exorcism of demons, can be convincing proof of God's power, persuading many to trust in the words of one through whom God works the miracle. However, there still remains the possibility that people will remain blind, seeing the miracle but not seeing God as the Miracle-Maker.

There must be a heart of faith created in a person before the miraculous sign will have any effect.

A heart of faith recognizes the hand of God in miracles.

Unbelief sees only a curious event.

"Many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man." John 2:23-25 (ESV)

"Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, - We have seen the Lord. - But he said to them, - Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe. - Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, - Peace be with you. - Then he said to Thomas, - Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe. -Thomas answered him, - My Lord and my God! - Jesus said to him, - Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." John 20:24-29 (ESV)

The gospel, even the miracle that confirms the truth of the gospel, is without effect unless God Himself creates within us first a heart that is open to the truth.

"The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, - I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart. - Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." 1 Corinthians 1:18-24 (ESV)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? How has your faith been influenced by miraculous signs, whether in a negative or positive way? What is your opinion of the prominent faith-healers in our country? Is there biblical support for, or against, faith-healing? What bothers you, or encourages you, when you hear of miraculous healings?

Philip spoke to the crowds in Samaria, proclaiming Christ, casting out demonic spirits and healing people who were paralyzed or lame.

The result was joy.

JOY: chara (cheerfulness, calm delight); from chairo (to be "cheer"ful, calmly happy or well-off)

Wise men from the east desired to worship the king of the Jews. Learning of the Old Testament prophecy that predicted the birthplace of the One they desired, they traveled to the small town of Behlehem of Judea. Following in the direction of the rising star that they had first discovered many miles to the east, they came upon the house in which Mary was holding her newborn Son.

"And they rejoiced exceedingly with joy.” (Matthew 2:1-12)

Joy comes when one's desire is fulfilled.

The emotion of joy depends upon one's desire. A brief, transitory desire is met easily yet quickly ends. An eternal, unchanging desire is difficult to fulfill, yet it will result in unending joy.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Was the desire, and the joy derived from fulfillment of the desire, fleeting or eternal for the wise men from the east? What about the joy experienced by the people healed in Samaria? What experiences have you had with both fleeting and everlasting joy?

The quality of one's desires, whether they be temporary or eternal, can be estimated by what one is willing to pay, or endure, in order to obtain that desire.

"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it." Matthew 13:44-46 (ESV)

Jesus told the story of a wealthy master who had three servants; they were stewards or managers of the master's property. As a test, or as training, he gave each of them a certain amount of money, a bit more to the more experienced stewards, a bit less to the less experienced ones. He left for a journey, giving them no instructions, other than reminding them that this money belonged to him, the master, and that he would collect it when he returned.

The master was away for a long while, much longer than any of the stewards expected.

The more experienced stewards invested the money given him, immediately after the master had left, doubling the value of what they had started with.

The third, inexperienced and cautious steward hid the small amount of money given him, anxious to show his master how well he could guard what was entrusted to him.

After a long time the master returned and had each servant give account of the money he'd left with them.

For the two investors, the stewards who had understood the master's desire for gain, the master had nothing but commendation and approval:

"Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master." Matthew 25:21 (ESV)

The third, timid servant presented his understanding of what the master had desired:

"Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours." Matthew 25:24-25 (ESV)

The master's response?

"You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness." Matthew 25:26-30 (ESV)

The worthless servant understood only on a very shallow level the desire of his master. He thought the master was little more than a thief or gangster, taking from others and expecting strict obedience from his servants. The servant expected the master to be a miser, one who selfishly guarded all that he had, always taking, never giving.

The servant had a poor understanding of his master's desires. More than simple misunderstanding, the servant was acting out of deeply held attitudes of wickedness, slothfulness and fear, and he expected the master to be much the same.

Investing money is the polar opposite of theft and avarice. Investing means wisely trading money for things that can be re-traded with others who value those things higher than the original owners. The original owner is glad to rid of something they don't highly value, and the new owner is glad to have something which might be in rare supply in his region, and the investor in the middle gains profit for facilitating the trade! Everyone wins!

The point in this story for us, in our study of Philip's ministry in Samaria, is this question: What brings joy? What brings joy that lasts for more than just a day?

WHAT DO YOU THINK? How does the story of the master and his three servants help explain the joy experienced in Samaria?

WhiteFoundry by Andres Rodriguez, , Creative Commons License

Monday, August 20, 2012

Anger and Glory

Anger and Glory

Stephen concluded his counter-accusation against the religious rulers who had arrested him.

Their immediate reaction was anger.

"Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him." Acts 7:54 (ESV)

"These things" encapsulates all of Stephen's defensive argument, beginning with the second verse of Chapter 7.

God promised land to the descendents of Abraham. More than only land, God's promise included a relationship of faith and worship, sealed by the covenant of circumcision.

Despite jealous betrayal, slavery, wealth, famine, oppression, murder, and persecution, some of the descendents of Abraham held faith with the covenant, although not all.

God formed Moses into His great Deliverer and Lawgiver, bringing the Israelites out of the oppression of Egypt.

God raised David to be His Warrior King, defeating all enemies and securing for Israel their own land.

God sat Solomon on a throne that reigned over one of the greatest kingdoms of the world, wealthy above all reckoning, building a temple of worship second only to that in Heaven.

But every step of the way the nation acted stiff-necked, killing prophet after prophet, betraying and murdering, even until the coming of Christ.

They had received the law of God, delivered miraculously, yet did not keep it.

It was at "these things" that they raged, grinding their teeth at the one who dared throw their own history back into their faces.

It seems an expected reaction. We've all felt on the defensive when someone criticizes us, bringing up our past, confronting repeated failures and offenses.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Do you support Stephen's methods? When faced with controversy or conflict, is it wise to counter-attack, to bring up "ancient history", to count past offenses? What seems to be Stephen's goal or purpose?

ENRAGED: diaprio (to saw asunder, to exasperate) and kardia (the heart, the thoughts or feelings, the mind); from dia (through) and prizo (to saw in two); from prio (to saw)

Rage is an outward response to inward assault. Anger reveals inner hurt, as if a violent assault has occurred inside, and the response is outward rage.

Stephen's experience closely follows the pattern of the other apostles. Arrested, imprisoned and brought to trial for preaching heresy, Peter spoke for the apostles in self-defense:

"We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him." Acts 5:29-32 (ESV)

The religious leaders felt inwardly assaulted and responded angrily:

"When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them." Acts 5:33 (ESV)

Stephen's accusers "ground their teeth" at him.

GROUND: brycho (to grate the teeth in pain or rage)

The New Testament has no other references to "teeth gnashing", but the Old Testament has others. The Book of Lamentations describes the hopeless hounding experienced by the nation of Israel during a dark time of despair, seemingly forsaken by God:

"All who pass along the way clap their hands at you; they hiss and wag their heads at the daughter of Jerusalem: - Is this the city that was called the perfection of beauty, the joy of all the earth? - All your enemies rail against you; they hiss, they gnash their teeth, they cry - We have swallowed her! Ah, this is the day we longed for; now we have it; we see it!" Lamentations 2:15-16 (ESV)

To gnash or grind the teeth seems almost an animal response, an outward revealing of an inward desire to devour, to attack with brutality and violence. The enemies of Jerusalem gnashed their teeth, not from their own personal inner pain, but from a driving desire to destroy.

Stephen's accusers were not in their right mind. No longer were they in a court of law, or a trial of justice. They were not debating or discussing. They were engorged with inward pain and outward malice. They were reacting as animals, snapping their jaws in anticipation of violent rending of flesh and utter destruction of hated and feared enemies.

They were insanely, uncontrollably wild with anger.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What is happening here, spiritually. From what power or essence are the religious leaders acting? Are they all possessed by a demon, controlled by Satan? Have the words of Stephen somehow stripped away all of their self-control and rationality? The circumstance should be one of simple disagreement, a conflict between religious views, or a political debate. Why are they responding in physical rage, almost out of control with emotion?

With the conclusion of his defense argument, at the height of his accuser's blood-red rage, Stephen realized that his time on earth was finished...his immediate future is in heaven:

"But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, - Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." Acts 7:55-56 (ESV)

Stephen's words are not meant for those around him...he's not attempting to bolster his argument or divert attention or pacify his enemies. Stephen is aware only of the glory of God revealed in a vision of Jesus. His words are between him and the Holy Spirit alone.

"Glory" refers to a specific manifestation of God.

GLORY: doxa (glory, praise, honor or distinction that is very apparent); from doko (to think, to seem); related to deiknyo (to show)

The concept contained in the word "glory" is that which can be seen, that quality of something that is most strikingly visible.

The glory of kingdoms is seen in their expansive height and bright decorations (Matthew 4:8). The shepherds experienced the glory of the Lord as a frighteningly bright light (Luke 2:9). The glory of King Solomon was his richly beautiful crown and robe, outshined only by the lilies of the field (Luke 12:27). The disciples saw the glory of Jesus in the powerful miracles He performed (John 2:11).

Human, earthly glory depends upon the praise and admiration gained from being popular:

"How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?" John 5:44 (ESV)

Here, Jesus is distinguishing between the glory of popularity from the divine glory of God.

It is very common for humans to seek, and be satisfied with, the glory gained from admiration by crowds of people:

"My teaching is not mine, but his who sent me. If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority. The one who speaks on his own authority seeks his own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and in him there is no falsehood." John 7:16-18 (ESV)

The glory of God is contained in what God alone can do:

"Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, - He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them. - Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God." John 12:38-43 (ESV)

Those who reject God reject His glory. They ignore or discount His power and ability to heal. There are even those who recognize God's power and glory, but they esteem it as less valuable, less satisfying, than the power and glory of other humans.

If we define "the glory of God" as the visible manifestations of His power, it seems clear that Stephen had already seen God's glory many times.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Before his arrest and trial, what manifestations of God's power had Stephen probably already experienced? What does this final vision, this opening of heaven, add to Stephen's relationship with Jesus? Does the thought of your experiencing a similar vision thrill you, or frighten you?

Image provided by Dineshraj Goomany, Creative Commons License.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Three Pillars of Love

Three Pillars of Love

Paul urged Timothy to preach against three harmful pursuits:

  • Different doctrine
  • Myths
  • Endless genealogies

He gave two immediate reasons for the warning:

  • They promote speculations
  • They erode faithful stewardship from God

Beyond the immediate harmful effects of heretical, manipulative myths and endless genealogies is the ultimate goal of love, expressed in three ways:

  • From a pure heart
  • From a good conscience
  • From a sincere faith

What happens when Christians lose sight of love?

"Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions." 1 Timothy 1:6-7 (ESV)

SWERVING: astocheo (to miss the mark, to deviate from truth); from a (not) and stoichos (an aim)

There is another Greek word Paul could have used that appears to have the same meaning:

SIN: hamartia (sin); from a (not) and meros (a division or share); from meiromai (to get as a section or allotment)

The difference is in the implied intention. "Astocheo", or swerving, implies a deliberate choice to mis-aim. If truth were the target, "astocheo" means to aim at something other than the center of truth.

"Hamartia", or sinning, implies a failure to win a prize. If truth were the target, and eternal life were the prize, "hamartia" means to aim at, but miss, truth, and lose the prize. "Hamartia implies inadequate skill or equipment.

"Astocheo" occurs only three times in The Bible, all of the instances being found in Paul's letters to Timothy. Paul will end this first letter with a concluding charge to Timothy:

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What part of your daily life is ruined by missing the mark, and is it the result of swerving or sinning?

"O Timothy, guard the deposit entrusted to you. Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called - knowledge, - for by professing it some have swerved from the faith. Grace be with you." 1 Timothy 6:20-21 (ESV)

Exchanging love for "irreverent babble and contradictions" inevitably results in missing the mark of faith.

The third instance of "astocheo" is in Paul's second letter to Timothy:

"Avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness, and their talk will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth, saying that the resurrection has already happened. They are upsetting the faith of some." 2 Timothy 2:16-18 (ESV)

Love rests upon three pillars:

  • a pure heart
  • a good conscience
  • a sincere faith

Paul points directly to two men in the church who have eroded at least one of those pillars by swerving from the truth of the resurrection.

Hymenaeus and Philetus directly contradicted the teaching of Jesus, saying that the resurrection of the dead in Christ has come and gone.

"I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die." John 11:25-26 (ESV)

Jesus emphasized "everyone" who lives and believes in Him shall never die.

Paul remained firm in his faith in a future resurrection of all who believe:

"I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust." Acts 24:14-15 (ESV)

Paul makes a strong connection between love and faith in the resurrection of all who are in Christ.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? How is love connected to faith? In what way does false teaching erode love? Can only Christians truly love? Is love demonstrated by people who are truly Christians?

Paul saw "vain discussion" as the first indication of a Christian who is swerving away from love.

VAIN DISCUSSION: mataiologia (random talk or babble); from mataiologos (an idle talker, talking out our idleness or mischievousness; a wrangler); from mataios (empty, profitless) and lego (to "lay" forth, to relate); from maten (folly, to no purpose); from masaomai (to chew); from masso (to handle or squeeze)

"Wrangle" is from a word meaning to struggle, related to "wring".

Paul clearly defines "vain discussion" in his letter to Titus:

"Avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless." Titus 3:9 (ESV)

Paul is not condemning talkative people. We all have different capacities for conversation. Some of us are reticent, requiring much thought and consideration before committing ourselves to spoken words. Others of us are effusive, able to rapidly connect speech with thought, flowing effortlessly with verbal communication. Few words does not always mean profound wisdom, nor does a fountain of words always mean foolish babbling.

Paul is taking aim at the intent or consequence of our words. If we intend our conversation to gain supremacy over others, or create division and discontent, or to allow us to feel busy or worthwhile, we are eroding the essence of genuine love.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Can you share with the group how you think of yourself in terms of "talkative"? What helpful tips have you experienced that assist you in avoiding "vain discussion"? In what situations or circumstances do you find it most difficult to stay "on target" in your conversations?

Paul describes the inner desire that drives "certain persons" to use spoken words as a tool for gaining supremacy over others and elevating themselves:

The desire to be "teachers of the law", without the desire to understand the law, is the root cause of swerving away from love and rejecting the importance of having a pure heart, a good conscience and a sincere faith.

TEACHERS OF THE LAW: nomodidaskalos (an expounder of the law, a Rabbi); from nomos (law, regulation or principle) and didaskalos (an instructor); from nemo (to parcel out, especially food or grazing to animals) and didasko (to teach); from dao (to learn)

It requires four words of English to adequately translate one word of Greek. "Nomodidaskalos" was the Greek term for a teacher of the law, literally "one who distributed laws and regulations as if parceling out food and water".

Desiring to be a teacher is a noble goal. Paul described teaching as a gift of God, a ministry that equips and builds up Christians. Paul himself believed God had appointed him specifically to be a teacher. The writer of Hebrews rebukes the church for failing to grow as teachers. (see 1 Corinthians 12:28, Ephesians 4:11-12, 1 Timothy 2:7, and Hebrews 5:12)

However, James recognized the great responsibility laid upon teachers:

"Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways." James 3:1-2 (ESV)

The spiritual hazard of being a teacher is the temptation to seek the power, influence and wealth that rewards a popular teacher. The root meaning of "teachers of the law" is that of power and authority. Only the powerful have the privilege of parceling out food and grazing to animals. Only the ones in authority have the privilege of dispensing rules and regulations.

And there lies the danger.

A teacher may easily become successful and popular by conforming the rules and regulations to benefit the rich and powerful. Popular teaching is often without threats or demands. Successful teachers often entertain and tantalize the masses, rather than edify and train.

Paul will later caution Timothy to remain patient and faithful in the face of popular rejection:

"The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths." 2 Timothy 4:3-4 (ESV)

How can a teacher hope to avoid falling into the temptation of pleasing the public rather than preaching the gospel?

The faithful teacher must always understand what they are teaching.

UNDERSTANDING: noeo (to exercise the mind, to observe, comprehend or heed); from nous (the intellect or mind); from ginosko (to "know")

Understanding requires a soft heart:

"Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see, and having ears do you not hear? And do you not remember?" Mark 8:17-18 (ESV)

Along with a soft heart, understanding requires alert eyes and open ears. Understanding requires memory, connecting the past with the present and considering the future.

Understanding requires the strength of God, given as a gift to those who desire to know Him as He truly is:

"I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." Ephesians 3:14-19 (ESV)

Finally, understanding requires faith in a Creator with power that is beyond what we can see or imagine:

"By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible." Hebrews 11:3 (ESV)

It is possible, even probable, that a person can be known as a great teacher yet have little understanding of what they teach and how it should affect their heart, mind and body.

A teacher without understanding will swerve inevitably away from a desire for a pure heart, a good conscience and sincere faith. Their lives will become empty of love and they will become devoted to heresy, mythology and endless genealogies. They will promote controversy and reject faith in God, striving to do all they can to elevate themselves and gain supremacy over others.

Their lives will become worthless.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Who, in your opinion, is a currently popular teacher or leader? What evidence have you seen that presents their lives as worthwhile? What evidence leads you to see their lives as empty? On a scale of zero to 100, how would you rank your own personal desire and ability as a teacher? Can you share with the group what needs to change in your own life?

Image provided by JD Lafontaine, Creative Commons License.

Temple d'Aphrodite, Delphe (JD Lafontaine) / CC BY-SA 2.0

Monday, August 6, 2012

A Stiff-Necked People

A Stiff-Necked People

After an overview of Jewish history, emphasizing the faith of Abraham, Jacob, Isaac, Joseph and Moses, Stephen points an accusing finger at the religious rulers who have arrested him for heresy and blasphemy:

"You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you." Acts 7:51 (ESV)

Moses had delivered their forefathers from oppressive enslavement in Egypt, through powerfully miraculous demonstrations of God's power. They had been guided through the desert by God Almighty Himself, with a representation of His presence in the form of a richly furnished witness tent, the Tabernacle of Meeting.

And they had repeatedly resisted God's rule over their life.

They had repeatedly rejected Moses as God's appointed judge over them.

As they had repeatedly rejected Christ.

STIFF-NECKED: sklerotrachelos (hardnaped, obstinate); from skleros (dry, hard or tough; harsh or severe) and trachelos (the throat or neck, figurative of life, through the idea of mobility); from skeolos (the leg, as being lank) and trecho (to run or walk hastily); from skello (to parch, through the idea of leanness)

Stephen was quoting God Himself when he described dry, hardened and immoveable necks:

"The Lord said to Moses, - I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people." Exodus 32:9 (ESV)

STIFF-NECKED: qasheh (severe) and orep (the nape or back of the neck, as declining downward); from qasha (to be dense) and arap (to bend downward, to break the neck or to destroy)

Frustrated, fearful and impatient, the people of Israel gathered together and demanded a god of their own making, a golden calf. They had turned so quickly out of the way commanded by God Almighty. Filled with wrath against them, on the verge of destroying them, God described them as stiff-necked.

The biblical context of a stiff neck is that of disobedience. A proverb warns of the result of repeated disobedience:

"He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing." Proverbs 29:1 (ESV)

At the heart of stiff-necked disobedience is idolatry:

"The former things I declared of old; they went out from my mouth, and I announced them; then suddenly I did them, and they came to pass. Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass, I declared them to you from of old, before they came to pass I announced them to you, lest you should say, - My idol did them, my carved image and my metal image commanded them." Isaiah 48:3-5 (ESV)

The people of Israel, for generations, had turned to idols of wood, stone and metal, trusting them to provide and protect them. Their idolatry continued despite powerful miracles of God Almighty, delivering them from oppression and preserving them in the desert. God spoke prophetic words to them, declaring things that would happen many years in the future, so that when they did happen, there would be no doubt that they were by the hand of God Almighty, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David...and Stephen.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What sin do we share with the people of Israel who worshipped carved images of wood, stone or metal? Is idolatry a consequence of sinful behavior, or the cause of sinful behavior? What defines "worship of idols"?

Stephen also described his accusers as "uncircumcised in heart".

UNCIRCUMCISED: aperitmetos (not circumcised); from peritemno (to cut around); from peri (through, all over or around) and tomos (sharper, more keen); from peran (through or across) and temno (to cut by a single stroke); from peiro (to "pierce")

The "heart" was not the literal object of Old Testament circumcision:

"God said to Abraham, - As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you." Genesis 17:9-11 (ESV)

FORESKINS: orla (the prepuce or foreskin, the covering of the end of the penis or clitoris); from arel (exposed, projecting loose); from aral (to strip, to expose or remove the prepuce, to go naked)

Circumcision was not an abstract spiritual concept and it was not a trivial alteration of the body. It was the removal of a part of the body that everyone is born with. It was the painful separation of natural protection for one of the most sensitive parts of our body.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? What message did Stephen intend to communicate by saying that the leaders of the people of Israel were "uncircumcised in heart and ears"? Why is circumcision an appropriate figure of speech for this situation?

A simple six-word statement of Stephen's rebuke against the religious rulers would be,

"You always resist the Holy Spirit." (Acts 7:8)

RESIST: antipipto (to oppose); from anti (opposite, instead, because of; often used to denote contrast) and pipto (to fall); related to petomai (to fly)

"Pipto", meaning to fall, occurs often in The Bible. The wise men fell to their knees in worship of the Baby Jesus (Matthew 2:11). The house foolishly built on sand fell in ruin during the storm (Matthew 7:27) Jesus fell on His face and prayed the night in which He was betrayed and arrested (Matthew 26:39). Eutychus fell from a third-story window, nearly killing him (Acts 20:9).

"Anti" is often used to describe a trade:

"An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Matthew 5:38 (ESV)

"The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." Matthew 20:28 (ESV)

"For" is translated from "anti", the same word elsewhere translated as "opposite" or "instead of".

"Anti-pipto", meaning to oppose, occurs only once, in Acts 7:8. Literally, the word appears to mean "to fall opposite". Stephen is saying that the religious rulers resisted by falling or flying away from the Holy Spirit, or falling in a way that fought against His promptings. Rather than falling in prayer or worship, they fell against in rebellious self-defense.

Stephen accused the religious rulers of resisting the Holy Spirit in the same way as their fathers did:

"You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it." Acts 7:51-53 (ESV)

The prophets who wrote the very books of the Old Testament, the holy Book to which the religious rulers claimed devotion, were persecuted and killed by Jewish religious rulers. The very ones who foresaw the coming of Jesus as Lord and Savior were executed by the forefathers of those who betrayed and murdered that Righteous One, Jesus the Christ.

The very last Book of the Old Testament, Israel's final prophet accuses the people of resisting the Holy Spirit, relaying God's own words:

"From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, - How shall we return?" Malachi 3:7 (ESV)

WHAT DO YOU THINK? In what ways are we today guilty of the same sin as Israel: uncircumcised in heart and ears, always resisting the Holy Spirit? What is the biblical answer to Malachi's question of "How shall we return?"

Image provided by Tom Browne comics - Touch (Frederic Humbert) / CC BY-SA 2.0