Church as Temple and Priesthood (1 Peter 2:4-10)

Viewing Time: Approximately 26 minutes (Text below.)

Melissa Highsmith was kidnapped by a babysitter when she was just 22 months old. Her kidnapper changed her name and raised her as her own in the city where she was born, but Melissa never had an inkling about her true identity. For 51 years, she thought her name was Melanie and that her kidnapper was her m other.

Late last year, her biological parents, who had never given up searching for her, located her and then proved to her through DNA testing that she was their daughter. For fifty-one years, Melissa lived a lie and didn’t know it. If you had asked her who she was, she would have answered with confidence, but she would have been wrong.

Melissa was part of a family she knew nothing about. She had younger siblings, a mother, and a dad. She shared their DNA, their blood ran in her veins, she belonged to and with them. But because of the abduction, she was not able to share their lives.

Like Melissa, we might be confused about our true identity. We might not realize who we are and to whom we belong. The human race has been abducted and raised to believe that we are someone we are not. We have missed out on our family heritage, family gatherings, and our place in the family business.

When Melissa Highsmith found her parents, or rather, was found by them, she began to live out of her true identity. There is something like this in our text. We who belong to Jesus have a defined identity and a family business, and yet we may not know it. Peter uses the Old Testament like a DNA test to prove our identity and establish our role.

Let’s read our text, 1 Peter 2:4-10. As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious Cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”

Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and, “A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

It is almost impossible to get across how dependent this passage is on the Old Testament. In the seven verses I just read, I counted 15 Old Testament citations and allusions That first phrase in verse 4 probably comes from Psalm 34, where the word we have translated “As you come” is used for coming to God in worship. As we come to the Living Stone – the resurrected Jesus, in whom the eternal life of God is bursting forth – we become living stones in God’s final temple building project.

In our Western, individualist way of thinking, we might read over that and yet miss its significance: you cannot come to Christ without coming to his church. There is no “just Jesus and me” mindset in Scripture. If you are united to him, you are united to us. “The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”

Peter makes ample use of singular corporate nouns throughout this passage: priesthood (not priest), people (not person), nation (not individual) to bring out the truth that our identity is wrapped up in the family we belong to, the group of which we are members. We are what we are not because we are outstanding individuals, or even lucky ones, but because we are connected to Christ and his church.

And it is in that connection that we discover our identity and our role. We will look first at our identity and then we will come back to the special role that God has assigned to us in the world.

It is important that we understand our identity, and that for two reasons: First, so that we don’t end up like Melissa Highsmith, living a life that is not our own, missing out on our family, and failing to fulfill the role God has given us in the world; and second, so that we don’t mistreat others by failing to recognize their place in God’s people.

In the middle of the last century, a man was traveling overnight by train to Baltimore for an important business meeting. He told the porter that he was a heavy sleeper and would need to be awakened before they reached Baltimore at 4:00 AM. He said, “I’ll be completely out of it. I may even argue with you. But, whatever it takes, make sure I get off at my station. I can’t afford to miss this meeting.”

When he awoke the next morning, the sun was already up, and he knew at once he had missed his stop. He found the porter, yelled at him for three minutes, then got off at the next stop. A bystander said to the porter, “That was the most shameful display I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve never seen anyone so angry.”

The porter replied, “You should have seen the guy I forced off the train in Baltimore at four o’clock this morning!”

It is not just our identity that is at stake. We mustn’t misidentify others who are members of Christ. They belong to God’s family too and have a role in the family business.

Melissa Highsmith discovered her true identity through a DNA match. The genetic markers that showed up confirmed that she was part of the family. In the church, our spiritual DNA has markers too. Look at verse 9, where we see that those who belong to Jesus are a chosen people. That is an identity marker: we are chosen.  

We need to remember to whom Peter is writing: Christians living as aliens and exiles. They don’t fit in the communities where they find themselves. Worse than that, they are persecuted. They are going through what Peter calls a “fiery trial” (4:12) They are distressed by various trials (1:6). Ongoing pain isolates people and can make them feel worthless. No wonder Peter reminds them at the very beginning of the letter, then here again in the middle section, and then once more at the end of the letter that they are chosen.

This is part of our DNA. We are chosen. We are wanted. But there is more to it than that. We are chosen like Christ and in Christ. Peter reminds these struggling believers that Christ is the chosen of God, yet he (like them) was discriminated against. He was (verse 7) “the stone the builders rejected.”

The background is this. When major building projects were undertaken – like a palace or temple – the stones used were inspected by the builders before being placed. Peter pictures the builders (Israel’s leaders) inspecting Jesus and rejecting him as inadequate. But it is not the builders’ opinion that matters; it is the architect’s. He overrules them and makes the stone they rejected the keystone of the whole building. Likewise, it is not the opinion of the Christian’s persecutors that matters. It is God’s, and he has chosen them in Christ.

Not only are they a chosen people, but they are also a royal priesthood. That is an identity marker. In Israel, only people who were from the tribe of Levi could be priests. That eliminated about 90 percent of the nation. But eligibility was narrowed down again. Only Levites descended from Aaron himself could be priests. And then it was narrowed down ever further. Only people from the tribe of Levi and the family of Aaron, who were men could be priests.

But every man, woman, and child who belongs to Christ, whatever their race or sex or ancestry, belongs to Christ’s royal priesthood. The distinguishing mark of a priest is that he or she has access to God. Christians have unique access to God through their relationship with Christ. We belong to the priesthood. It is part of our spiritual DNA.

The next identifier is holiness; we are a holy nation. This holiness is not first of all about how we act: what we do and what we do not do. That is secondary. It is first about who we belong to. If we get that out of order, we will try to conform our behavior to a set of rules (at least when people are watching) rather than live out of our sense of identity. That way leads to legalism and joylessness and failure.

God has set us apart for himself and for his purposes, just as he did ancient Israel. When we understand this holiness to be a part of our identity, we can start using the “rules” as helpful guides rather than depending on them for motive power.

Think of rules as the bumper rails bowling alleys offer for the inexperienced. The rails don’t make the ball go; they just keep it in the lane. And no one wants to use the rails if they can help it. The better you get at bowling, the less often you need them.

People whose identity is in their connection to Jesus and whose motive power is God’s Spirit will gradually have less need of the rails (the rules) as they grow in Christ. It’s not that they resent the rules. They love them and are grateful for them. They come to realize how wonderful they are. But they don’t rely on them – they’d never mature that way. They rely on Christ.

A fourth important identity marker (still verse 9) is that we are God’s special possession. Peter borrowed the term from Exodus 19:6 and Isaiah 43:20-21. The word translated as “special possession” in the NIV 2011 indicates something a person protects and treasures.

In the summer of 2021, we held a classic car show on the grounds here at Lockwood. The car that took high honors was a 1966 International Scout. When the show was over, I closed the hood of that scout, lowered it to within three or four inches of the latch, and let it go, and it slammed shut.

You would have thought I had mugged an old woman or spanked someone else’s two-year-old. A classic car owner – not even the owner of the Scout – looked at me like I was a two-headed monster. This was someone’s “special possession.” It needed to be treated that way.

That, Peter says, is how God feels about us. We are his special possession, and he takes care of us. You may not feel like God has taken care of you: maybe you lost your retirement savings in the stock market, or have contracted a serious illness, or got hurt in a bad relationship. But God is preserving you for something bigger than comfort or ease. He is preserving you for glory and inexpressible joy (to borrow Peter’s words). Even when you suffer, even when you die, he will keep you for himself.  

Once we know who we are, we can understand what we are to do. Our responsibility comes out of our identity. Peter looks at our role from various angles. So, in verse 5, he says that we are being built into a spiritual house – a temple. We, not as individuals but together as the people of Christ, are being built into a temple.

What does that mean? To answer that question, we need to understand what a temple is. A temple is a place where a god manifests himself, a place where people come to meet a god and connect to him. In the Old Testament, people came there from all over the world to Solomon’s temple to worship God, inquire of him, and seek his blessing.

But in 586 BC, Babylonian troops breached the walls of Jerusalem, killed untold numbers of people, and razed the temple to the ground. The Jews rebuilt it (the final phase alone took 46 years to complete), and then the same thing happened in 70 AD. A physical temple has limitations. It is localized; people must come to it; it cannot come to them. A physical temple can be destroyed, can cease to exist.

So, God had a radically different plan in mind. The first two temples were built with dead stones. God intended to build the new temple out of living people. In this way, the temple could go to people rather than waiting for people to come to it. Instead of being local, it would be universal. And since it was not localized, it could not be destroyed.

As God’s temple, our role is to be the meeting place between God and people. We become – not primarily as individuals but together as a group – the place where God manifests himself. When we gather in Jesus’s name, God is among us and people can encounter him. (Perhaps you have encountered him today.)

But our role (still v. 5) is not only to be God’s new, moveable, indestructible temple but to be King Jesus’s priesthood. Priests have a two-part role: they represent God to humans and humans to God. Christopher Wright summed it up this way: “We are called to be the living proof of the living God, to bring God to people and to bring people to God.”[1]

Because a priest has access to God, he or she can offer sacrifices. You may object: “But Christ ‘offered one sacrifice for sins for all time’ (Hebrews 10:12), ending the sacrificial system.” But you are mistaken. It’s true that there need be no further sacrifice for sin: Christ’s sacrifice is eternally sufficient. But God’s people have always offered other sacrifices besides sin offerings. There were fellowship offerings and thank offerings.

Peter describes the offerings we make as spiritual sacrifices. We may offer a sacrifice of praise, as the author of Hebrews describes it (Hebrews 13:15). When I am discouraged, or hurt, and everything is wrong, but I nevertheless praise God as the One who is right – that is a costly sacrifice that is pleasing to God. Some of you offered that very sacrifice this morning during our time of praise and worship.

Doing good to others is another type of spiritual sacrifice (Hebrews 13:16). When I see the opportunity to help someone and do so, that is a sacrifice, and it pleases God. And when I share what I have with them – my time, my money, my car (by driving them to a doctor’s appointment) or a meal, or even a listening ear, God receives that as a sacrifice to himself and our fellowship with him is real.

As priests, we also have the duty of blessing people in the name of the Lord. I have met Christians who seem to think it is their duty to criticize people in the name of the Lord. But criticizing is satan’s role, not ours. We better leave that to his priesthood. We bless people.

Criticizing can be easier than blessing. Yet blessing people is central to who we are, and it is right at the heart of God’s plan for the world. We must not forget that we, by the grace of Christ, are the children of Abraham, and it is through Abaham and his seed that God still intends to bless all peoples on earth.

As the chosen people, royal priesthood, holy nation that is God’s special possession, we have yet another role (this is verse 9): to “declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” We are in advertising. Our role is to announce to everyone the great things about God. We tell people who’ve never heard, and we tell people who’ve stopped listening. We tell people who don’t believe a word of it, and we tell them in a way that evokes interest.

But we don’t just tell them. We tell them against the background music of a beautiful life of good deeds (verse 12). Everyone in advertising knows a good musical score can capture people’s attention and open their hearts. When persuasive words and beautiful music combine, the effect is powerful. God has already written the musical score for your life – the good deeds he has prepared beforehand for you to walk in (Ephesians 2:10). When that beautiful life provides the musical backdrop for your words about God, your advertising hits home.

But remember that this is not all about you as an individual, but rather about us as a group – God’s group, his family, his temple, his priesthood. The beautiful music is not a sonata for solo instrument, but a symphony for a large orchestra. In this way, the church itself becomes part of the advertising. Our relationships with each other and our good deeds toward each other add to the beauty and give our words credibility. If the soundtrack of loving deeds plays between us while we declare the praises of the One who called us out of darkness, people will glorify God on the day he visits us.

The application is simple: Love the church of Jesus Christ and take your rightful place in it.

[1] Christopher J. H. Wright, Biblical Theology for Life: The Mission of God’s People, © 2010 by Langham Partnership International

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Church, Church Life, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Next Great Awakening: From a “Me Society” to an “Us Community”

In 1976, Tom Wolfe published, “The Me Decade and the Third Great Awakening,” in New York Magazine. I find Wolfe’s style painful to read (there are 103 exclamation points in this article) but his cultural analysis was impressive. He detected a religious impulse behind many of the cultural movements of the sixties and seventies.

He labeled the seventies “the Me Decade” because he saw “considerable narcissism” as the cultural constant behind a variety of emerging movements: sexual liberation, church renewal programs, Scientology, and various psychological therapies. A newly divinized deity had arrived in the pantheon of gods: “Me.”

Wolfe ends the article by noting that common people were now doing “something that only aristocrats (and intellectuals and artists) were supposed to do—they discovered and started doting on Me!” Of all America’s religious awakenings, Wolfe says, this one “has the mightiest holiest roll of all, the beat that goes … Me … Me … Me … Me …”

Wolfe’s phrase, “the Me Decade” was quickly taken up by journalists and intellectuals and soon broadened into the “the Me Generation.” In 2013, Time Magazine labeled millennials as “the Me Me Generation.” But narcissism cannot be limited to a decade or a generation. A recent poll found that 84 percent of Americans said that “enjoying yourself is the highest goal of life.” If those findings are accurate, we are a “Me Society.”

Jean Twenge, of San Diego State, teamed up with Keith Campbell of the University of Georgia to write, “The Narcissism Epidemic” in 2010. At the time, they found that narcissistic personality traits have, since the 1980s, been rising as quickly as obesity and that the rate of increase was accelerating.

The CDC regards obesity, which is ranked as the top threat to personal wellbeing in the United States, as a risk factor for hypertension, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, and sleep apnea. Twenge and Campbell believe that the dramatic rise in narcissistic traits also pose a threat to American’s wellbeing.

America’s focus on self-admiration, they claim, has set off a cultural flight from reality. “We have phony rich people (with interest-only mortgages and piles of debt), phony beauty (with plastic surgery and cosmetic procedures), phony athletes (with performance-enhancing drugs), phony celebrities (via reality TV and YouTube), phony genius students (with grade inflation), a phony national economy,” which is now approaching 32 trillion dollars in debt.

When reality reasserts itself, as it is bound to do, and phoniness is revealed for what it is, what happens then? But perhaps that is already occurring. Suicide rates have increased each decade since the 1950s. Between 1950 and 2018, the suicide rate for older teens has increased just under 400 percent. Almost 5 percent of the adult population experiences depressive episodes and 11 percent of physician office visits deal with depression.

Relationships are also challenging in a Me Society. From the time I was born until the time I went to college, divorce rates more than doubled. The number of Americans who never marry has risen by 14 percent in less than twenty years. The Survey Center on American Life reports that since 1990, the number of men with at least six close friends has decreased by half. The number of men who say they have no friends has risen by a factor of five.

A couple of things must happen if we are to move from a “Me Society” to an “Us Community.” We must stop allowing the broader culture to define success for us. More does not equal success, as Jesus plainly taught. The 85-year-long Harvard Study of Adult Development has come to the same conclusion: Happiness is found in healthy, intimate relationships.

Because the “me first” mindset is rooted in insecurity, we will only be able to move out of it if we feel secure. A vibrant and assured faith is critical at this point. If we know, in St. Paul’s words, that “God is for us” and “will graciously give us” everything we need, we can entrust ourselves to his care and cultivate those healthy, intimate relationships.

But it is impossible to live this life alone. We need others who will join us. We need community.

Posted in Lifestyle, Marriage and Family, relationships, Worldview and Culture | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Me Generation (What the Bible Has to Say to American Culture)

Tom Wolfe coined the phrase “The Me Decade.” That quickly evolved into “the Me Generation.” Time Magazine referred to millennials as “The Me, Me Generation.” Let’s face it: we are now a “Me Society.” In this class, we think about what the Bible, and especially Jesus, have to say to the Me Society.

Posted in Bible, Christianity, relationships, What the Bible Has to Say to American Culture, Worldview and Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Alien Residents (1 Peter 2:11-12)

Approximately 27 minutes (text below)

In 1 Peter 2:11, Peter calls the people of Jesus “foreigners and exiles.” They have green cards. They’re here on work and student visas. It is not their ambition to settle down, though if they can make this a better place, they should. Like the exiles in Babylon, God wants them to earnestly seek the welfare of the city and country where he has placed them (Jer. 29:7).

If we are Christians, we are alien residents. We probably don’t quite fit in. We talk the way other people do; we sound different. Some of the things the people around us value most, we don’t care about at all. The things that fascinate them – the hobbies they love, the things they expend time and money on – are things we don’t get into and can’t understand.

As alien residents and exiles, we have a longing for a better country (Hebrews 11:16). We are wired for it – or, I should say, are being rewired for it. Before God transferred us into his kingdom and issued us citizenship, we stayed current on the latest fads and styles. When our only citizenship was here, we spoke the same language – used all the popular buzzwords, epithets, and insults. We shared the same hope as everyone else: to live hassle-free, build financial security, and enjoy the things that money can buy. What else is there?

But then something happened to us. The Bible describes it in various ways: God called us. We were converted – or better, we entered the conversion process. We received God’s Spirit, were made alive, rescued out of darkness, and transferred into the kingdom His beloved Son (Col. 1:13 NASB).

Now, we are in the process of being rewired. The Bible also describes that in various ways. We are being sanctified. We are being conformed to the likeness of God’s Son. We are being renovated in the image of our creator (Colossians 3:10 NASB). We are being metamorphosed – turned into a new kind of being – through the renewal of our minds (Romans 12:2).

As I just said, we are in process, which means we are unfinished. We are somewhere between fleshly and spiritual, between Christlikeness and Adam-likeness. We are in between, which is an uncomfortable place to be. Our desires are changing, but the old desires still have influence—sometimes too much influence. It is still too easy to go back, settle in, and be like everyone else.

Unless we nurture these new desires, we will not grow up in our salvation (1 Peter 2: 2), and if we regularly gratify the old desires, they will hang around. Karen and I feed birds, and they hang around as long as they have any hope of being fed. Desires, like those birds, only go away when we stop feeding them. They only stay away when new desires take their place.

This is why St. Peter urges these alien residents to “abstain,” that is, keep away from “sinful desires” (or “fleshly lusts” as the NASB more literally translates), “that wage war against” our souls. I suspect the NIV opted for “sinful desires” rather than “fleshly lusts” because they feared readers would think only of sexual desire, and Peter has more in mind than that. Any desire is sinful that can only be fulfilled outside of God’s ways and apart from love.

Peter’s wants us to keep such things at a distance. Don’t get too close to them; they wage war against your soul. “Wage war” translates a verb that gives us the word “strategize.” These desires strategize their fulfillment. That explains how we can end up doing something we didn’t intend to do. There was a behind-the-scenes, covert strategy– a strategy whose presence we were almost, but not quite, unaware of – at work inside us.

Now, let’s recap. We have seen saw that our resident status changed when we trusted Christ and were granted citizenship in God’s kingdom. Even though we were born and raised here, we became alien residents – and we are becoming more alien by the day. We also saw that if we continue to feed our pre-conversion desires, they will continue seeking satisfaction. Unless those desires are being replaced and rewired, we will get stuck in the uncomfortable in-between place.

The thing for the follower of Jesus is not to get stuck but to keep moving into God’s kingdom. We must increasingly identify with the people of that country, especially its king, Jesus.

The second keyword in this verse, “exiles,” addresses that. If there is a difference between the two words (and there must be—why else would Peter use both?), it is that this word stresses the transitoriness of our stay here. We are living here, but we’ve not settled here. We are planning a move. In fact, we are moving further up and further into the kingdom of God.

This is a hopeful word. But our hope is not to escape hassles but to become like Christ and live under his rule in a new heaven and earth. We mustn’t let our present circumstances rob us of that hope. We are, in the words of the author of Hebrews, “aliens and strangers” (Hebrews 11:13) here – we don’t deny it – but we “are longing for a better country,” a “country of our own.”

Resident aliens – wherever you find them – tend to stick together. They understand each other, but other people don’t understand them. They feel most at home when they are with each other. They appreciate the people who share their story, customs, and values. Some people treat them as unwanted intruders, but there is a place where they know they’ll be accepted. It’s not that they don’t enjoy other people – they do. But they are most comfortable with other resident aliens.

Now, look at verse 12. “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

Peter was not the only person to warn against sinful desires in the first century. Many contemporary philosophers did too. Their reason for avoiding such desires was to free the soul from earthly distractions.[1] That was not what Peter had in mind. He wanted Jesus’s people to avoid sinful desires so that could live good lives among the pagans, or as the New American Standard Bible put it, so they could “keep their behavior excellent among the Gentiles.”

The word the NASB rendered “behavior” is most often translated as “way of life” in the NIV. Peter wants Christians to have a distinctive way of life that is distinguishable from their neighbors. There really is a Christian way to live.

Our former elder Dave Knapp and I once met with two young Muslim men who had come to a worship service at Lockwood and then stomped out in protest. We got in touch with them afterward and set up a meeting at a local restaurant. As we talked, it became clear that they held numerous misconceptions about Christians and the Christian faith.

At one point, the more outspoken of the two said to us: “There is a Muslim way to do everything.” He gave several examples, ending with, “There is a Muslim way to tie your shoes.” I took advantage of that comment to say, “There is a Christian way to do everything too.” He looked at me inquiringly. Then I added, “The Christian way is to do everything in love.” (That, by the way, is 1 Corinthians 16:14).

Peter would have agreed, but here he states it differently. He says, “Live such good lives among the pagans…” “Good” is how the NIV translates the Greek word καλός, which is one of two New Testament words routinely translated that way. This one carries the connotation of a good that is attractive.

Peter wants his Christian friends to lead lives that are attractive to outsiders. Let’s pause right there to ask if our way of life is attractive to family members, friends, and co-workers who are not Christians. If our way of life is just like theirs, they will not find it attractive, for most people are discontented with their lives. Peter assumes, as does every biblical author, that a Christian’s life will differ from a non-Christian’s.

What kinds of differences might prove attractive? Hope, for one. Our society is increasingly hopeless. When people encounter genuine hope, it piques their interest. That is why Peter will, in the next part of this letter, counsel Christians: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Does hope characterize your life? Are you increasingly hopeful?

Contentment is another. People who are richly contented and vocally grateful are attractive. People who complain constantly are not. In St. Paul’s words, we must learn the secret of contentment. We owe it to ourselves, our non-Christian friends, but, most of all, our Redeemer to find contentment in our lives.

Our relationships in the church should also be attractive to others. That will only be true if we give them priority. Our relationships need to be genuine, honest, and richly rewarding. A natural give-and-take and an atmosphere of family-like love should characterize them. For that to happen, we must give more time to our church family relationships than just the hour or two we spend here on Sunday mornings.

But even if our way of life is attractive and good, Peter sees trouble coming. This is verse 12: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong ….” Let’s pause there for a moment. Peter expects people to say negative things about Christians even though they live good lives.

The NIV’s “accuse” translates a Greek compound word comprised of the prefix “against” and the root “to speak.” They speak against you, Peter says, as evildoers. Does that sound at all familiar? Christians are routinely being accused of evildoing these days. NBC reported that racism is higher among white Christians than among the general public. Blaming Christians for the suicides of gay and transgender students is almost a reflex action on the part of some. Politico recently ran an article titled “It’s Time to Talk About Violent Christian Extremism.” 

The same kind of thing was going on in Peter’s day. Christians were accused of causing political turmoil (see Acts 17:6 for one example.) People said that Christians were sexually perverted, accused them of cannibalism, and blamed natural disasters (like the famine of the late 40s) on their atheism. (Christians were called atheists because they did not acknowledge the gods of the Greek and Roman pantheon.) Even the reputable historian Tacitus reported that Christians were “hated because of their vices.” Because of these wild accusations, more and more Christians were finding themselves in the court system.

We should not be surprised when people call us the bad guys. Jesus told us it was coming. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.” Let’s just make sure that when they accuse us of evil, their accusations are false. Let’s ensure that no gay or trans student ever despairs because of some flippant or caustic remark we made on social media. Let’s never say anything that might inspire hatred or violence. We can speak confidently about what the Bible affirms without speaking negatively about the people who disagree. If we can’t, we’d do well to keep our mouths shut.

And let’s not whine. People will (sometimes willfully) misunderstand us, impugn our character, question our motives, and falsely accuse us. If that happens, let’s not follow social media norms by attacking them on Twitter or throwing tantrums on Facebook. The good and beautiful life that Peter describes is not a whiner’s life. No one is attracted to that.

But it is a life of good deeds. Let’s pick back up with verse 12: “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” Peter knows that the negative reviews that were bandied about the social media of his day would not be stopped by whining or verbal counterattacks.

So, he takes the long view. Nothing short of a good life will change people’s minds, and some people will not be convinced even by that. Good lives are comprised of many good deeds, not just one or two, so this project will take time. Peter uses an unusual word here (it only appears twice in the New Testament, and both are in this letter). The NIV translates it as “see your good deeds,” but it might better be translated as “oversee” (in a sense similar to “overhear”). People can’t help but notice “your good deeds.”

In the other place this word is used, a non-Christian husband can’t help but notice the difference that faith in Christ makes in his wife’s life. Something like that doesn’t happen overnight. It can take years. In the same way, we need to know that the good life/good deeds project Peter advocates will take time.

The hope is that they – non-Christian neighbors, friends, and even enemies – may glorify God on the day he visits us. A literal translation runs: “…may glorify God on the day of visitation.” That phrase is used one other time in the New Testament and four times in the Old. It can refer to the day God visits with salvation or, as in Isaiah 10:3, when he comes to judge. Either way, people will glorify God and admit he is right, but what if we could help neighbors, friends, and even enemies experience his coming as the day of their salvation?

We need to take the long view. We must not get impatient, lash out, or whine. Jesus told us this would happen, and Peter gave us a plan for dealing with it. But we will need each other – it is hard to be criticized – so we’d better have some encouraging friends helping us stick to the plan. We need to be the family we discussed two weeks ago.

How can we apply what we’ve seen in the ancient past to our contemporary situation? The place to begin is with an honest look – we’ll need God’s help with that – at ourselves. Is there anything in our lives that would attract an unbeliever to Christ? Are there things in our lives that might keep them from faith: a judgmental spirit, anger, pride, or hypocrisy? If there are, we need to admit that to God, and we may need to ask for forgiveness from people.

If we have been accused of wrongdoing, the first thing to do is make sure that the accusation is false. We should confide in a friend or pastor and pray together about the accusation. We must be careful (these are St. Paul’s words) that “nobody pays back wrong for wrong” (1 Thessalonians 5:15). This is so easy to do, especially in our day when even our highest officials publicly engage in verbal attacks and counterattacks. They may do so; we may not. Whether we are on Twitter or not, we are in Christ; let’s act like it.

Peter’s plan involves doing good deeds that non-Christians can observe. The implication is that we are out where people can see us. That may be as simple as praying before a meal at a restaurant. Or it may mean volunteering at the free health clinic, the food pantry, or Beginnings Care for Life. It may mean sticking up for the teenage cashier when someone insults her for taking too long. We don’t do these things to be seen but to love, to “live a life of love,” as the Apostle puts it.

Nevertheless, we know that we are being observed. That is true whether people notice our good deeds or not. Our Father is watching, and he will be pleased.

Jesus’s word in John 15 struck me this week. In verses 12 and 17, he restates his central command to his followers: Love each other. What I noticed this week is the context in which he gave that command. In verses 12 and 17, he tells his disciples to love each other. Then in verse 18, he warns them that the world may hate them.

Do you see the connection? When the world hates us, we love each other. We don’t go into hiding, and we don’t throw tantrums. We love. We love the people that hate us, as Jesus taught us to do, and we love each other. Jesus knew that our love and support for each other would be vital. When society speaks against us, we speak for each other. When society condemns us, we accept each other. When people we know walk away from us, our brothers and sisters walk beside us.

If you don’t have that kind of relationship with people at church, I encourage you to begin to develop it. It is not too late. It is right on time.

[1] Keener

Posted in Bible, Church, Encouragement, Lifestyle, relationships, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Finding the Right Pastor: Insights from the Bible

In 2023, I will finish my work at the church I have served for decades. My wife and I love our church and want it to flourish after we move on. So, of course, we want the next pastor to be someone God has approved for this role. But how will the church recognize that person?

The Bible’s so-called “pastoral epistles” offer helpful guidance. The third chapter of Paul’s first letter to Timothy highlights fifteen qualities of a church “overseer.” These include both character and behavioral traits, which can be seen in the overseer’s relationships.

For example, the overseer is to be a “one woman man.” This verse might lead to an argument for or against women clergy, but it is important to remember that was not in question in the first century. What was in question was the character of the pastor. Was he a “one woman man” or was he a flirt? Did he have roving eyes? Did he objectify women? If so, he was not the man for the job, whatever talents he might possess.

Another desired trait is gentleness. The pastor must not be a “my way or the highway” kind of guy. He can yield in matters of preference and opinion. He is not a bully. He does not strike out at people who disagree with him. He does not have to win every argument.

The overseer/pastor is “able to teach.” This means more than he is able to speak well or even eloquently. He is able to teach because he is always learning. He not only takes in information, but he also uses it in his own life and is able to help others do the same.

Our church, and any church, will do well to form interview questions for the prospective pastor and his references to determine whether or not the fifteen character and behavioral traits are in place. This will require careful thinking and prayerful conversations.

Many churches are aware of the leadership requirements listed in 1 Timothy 3, but the next chapter also offers valuable insights into what makes a good pastor. There the Apostle Paul offers personal guidance to his protégé Timothy on how to be “a good minister of Christ Jesus.”

The pastor’s speech should be exemplary. Preaching is critical, but how he speaks when he is not behind the pulpit is even more important. Does his speech align with biblical standards? Are his conversations true, loving, gentle, worthwhile, free of gossip, manipulation, and deceit?

A pastor’s speech is important, but he mustn’t be all talk. His “life and doctrine” must match. He should never resort to telling his family or his congregation to “Do as I say, not as I do.”

What does the pastor consider important? How does he spend his time? Does he value people more than money, character more than fashion? Is he willing to do menial labor? If church members all patterned their lifestyle after their pastor, would the church be a better or worse place?

The old apostle specifically instructs the young pastor to model a life of love. Love may be taught from the pulpit, but it is caught through personal interactions. In a world that is often loveless, the church offers a place where people know they are loved. The pastor should take the lead in demonstrating that love.

A pastor ought to be devoted to Scripture. When my youngest son was in graduate school, he told me that he had been to many churches but had not yet found a pastor who really knew the Bible. That should not be. The pastor must know the Bible, love the Bible, and read it privately as well as publicly. He should have a devotional life outside his Sunday preparations, otherwise he will teach his opinions, not the Scriptures.

It is essential that the pastor is growing as a person and as a disciple of Jesus. Paul wants Timothy’s growth to be so evident “that everyone may see your progress.” People will not follow a pastor who has already arrived because he is not going anywhere. They will follow a pastor who can say, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”

Posted in Bible, Church, relationships | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The Sexual Rip Current (What the Bible Has to Say to American Culture

Viewing Time: 45:37
Posted in Bible, Christianity, Theology, What the Bible Has to Say to American Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Crossing (John 5:19-30)

“I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” – Jesus

Viewing time: 31 minutes (approx.)

The Crossing (John 5:20-30)

Today, we celebrate the biggest – and best – thing that ever happened. Its impact far exceeds that made by the invention of the wheel or writing. The discovery of the new world cannot compare. We are celebrating the victory of God, the salvation of humanity, and the conquest of death! Today, we remember the pioneer who blazed the trail out of the grave. He laid his life down of his own accord, entered the realm of the dead, and then broke out

That changed everything. Jesus made it possible for the rest of us to go into death unafraid, knowing that death will not have the last word. He can infuse his kind of life into us, the life over which death has no power. Through Christ, God has rolled the stone from all our graves! 

But we must have the kind of life that outlives death. We must receive it. A little later, we will give you a chance to do just that, but first, I will do my best to explain what the Bible says about this kind of life and how we come into possession of it. Then we will ask you, if you haven’t done so already, to accept God’s unique gift of life. And if that resonates with you, if that is what you want, we will ask you to get out of your seat and cross the room from wherever you are, and come to the front, as a symbol of crossing into a new life.

A new life. What does that mean? What does it have to do with Jesus? What will happen to me if I open myself up to it? Those are all good questions. We’re going to look at John 5 to find some answers.

But first, let me give you a little background, and for that, we need to go back to the beginning, to the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden. It is not just their story; it is our story, too, and we want to try to understand it. God created Adam and Eve to live with him and serve as his regents on earth. But he also designed them to be choosing creatures. They could choose to live with him as their God or set out to be their own gods. They chose the latter.

God had warned them: “On the day you eat that fruit – the day you choose against me – you will surely die.” You remember the story: They ate the fruit and kept living. They were exiled from the Garden, but they didn’t die. In fact, they had children; they propagated the race. So how could God say that they would die? Was that just an empty threat? Did he lie? 

No. When our parents ate the fruit, they cut off their connection to God, and the spiritual part of them, which is as essential to humanity as the physical part, died. Their relationship with God, each other, and the world was spoilt. Jealousy, competitiveness, hatred, and selfishness became part of life. The humans were disjointed. The biological, animal part survived, but the spiritual part withered. The biological part still needed nourishment, which it got from plants and now, animals. But the spiritual part, which was sustained by a connection to God, was no longer capable of receiving nourishment. 

The story of the human race has been the long, sad story of something missing. Sometimes the feeling is unmistakable and inescapable. At other times it is drowned out by the noise and busyness of everyday life, but it is always there, day in and day out, through all the seasons of life. We try to find a substitute for what is missing in pleasures and possessions, in houses and cars, or in spouses and kids. But no matter how many of these things we obtain, something is still missing. Or rather, it is not a thing that is missing; it is us. We are missing in action, missing a part of ourselves – the spiritual part – and we need it to be whole. 

Jesus lived and died and rose from the dead so that we could be whole. God sent his Son to give us what we were missing, or as St. John puts it: “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” We are born missing the kind of life that died in Adam. But he can have what Adam lost—because of Jesus.

Now let us look at our passage. Verse 20: “Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so, the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.” He gives the kind of life that Adam lost; there is no other place to find it. 

The Greek New Testament has two words for life: bios and zoe. Bios is the life we are familiar with; it is biological life (that is where the word comes from). It is a life of pulse rates and heartbeats, and brain waves. After Adam sinned, he and Eve retained biological life for a while. Their hearts went on beating. Their brains went on conducting electrical currents. 

The other word for life, zoe, is the kind that Adam and Eve lost. It is the word Jesus uses here. It is the word used in John 3:16, “But have everlasting zoe.” Bios wears out in about seventy or eighty years. Zoe never wears out. The heart stops, brain waves cease, and bios is gone, but zoe keeps going. You and I were made for both bios and zoe. 

In verse 21, Jesus says that the Son (he is speaking about himself) “gives life (zoe) to whom he is pleased to give it.” There are a couple of words here that we must not miss. The first is the word “gives.” Throughout the Bible, the message is the same: zoe – the eternal kind of life – is a gift. You cannot earn it, buy it, or generate it. If God doesn’t give it to you, you can do nothing to obtain it.

St. Paul says that it is God who will “give eternal life,”[1] and that “the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”[2] Jesus says, “I give them eternal life.” St. Peter says, “He has given us everything we need for life (for zoe).”[3] 

Right here lies the difference between so much religion on the one hand and the relationship God wants to have with us on the other. Religion tries to pay for eternal life. Go to church, give money, sacrifice the things you want, pray enough, do a sufficient number of good deeds, and maybe – just maybe – you will earn a place. But the kind of life we need isn’t earned; it’s given.

But if God must give this kind of life, and we can do nothing to earn or deserve it, isn’t that a little scary? If it is not in our power, how can we be sure of obtaining it? That question brings us to the second word in this verse we must consider: the word pleased. “The Son gives life to whom he is pleased (or wills) to give it” (John 5:21). But if the Son of God only gives this zoe life to those to whom he is pleased to give it, where does that leave me? I cannot earn it. I am entirely dependent upon God to provide it. And I have done some bad things in my life. What if he is not pleased to give it to me?

But he is pleased to give it—that is the point; it is why Jesus died. The Bible describes God as “God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved…” (1 Tim. 2:4). “He is not willing,” says St. Peter, “for any to perish” (2 Peter 3:9) – and that includes you. “Our God is in heaven,” sings the Psalmist. “He does whatever pleases him” (Psalm 115:3). What pleased him was to give his only Son for us so that we would not perish but have everlasting life.

That sounds great. Now, what is the catch? There is no catch, but there are conditions. Now, please don’t misunderstand. Everything about this eternal kind of life is good. It is what we are made for. It fulfills us and makes us whom we were created to be. But some people still don’t want it. Why?

Why would anybody not want this kind of life, the kind that goes on forever? I’ll be candid: they don’t want it because there is no way to postpone its onset. Eternal life doesn’t start at the grave. You cannot purchase it on the layaway plan (sounds like a mortician’s joke). Some people wish they could. But when you accept the eternal kind of life (zoe), it begins immediately. Not everyone wants that.

Take St. Augustine. He prayed earnestly, “Lord give me chastity” – make me sexually pure  – “but not yet.”

Years ago, I talked to a friend about trusting Jesus and receiving this life, but he said, “Look, when I’m old and done having fun, then I’ll look into religion. But not yet.” He did not want to change his life. Now that he is old, I wonder if there is anything still in him that wants to “look into religion”? Perhaps that interest died years ago – that happens to people like my friend.

Someone once asked the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler why he had never become a Christian when he admitted to believing that Jesus was the Son of God. His answer was blunt: “I don’t want to have to change my life.”

Those men realized something you need to know. If you receive the eternal kind of life, it will change you, and the change starts now, not when you die, not at some far-off date in the future. Jesus said in verse 24, “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.” He has it. Present tense. Eternal life starts when we hear and believe, not when we die. 

You may be thinking, “But you said, ‘There is nothing we can do to earn it – going to church, giving money, and all that religious stuff.” Exactly. We cannot earn it, buy it, or delay it; but we must receive it. We must hear – and people can be very good at not hearing what they don’t want to hear – and believe. But if we do, it will change us.

Imagine that I offer you a pup from the litter of last year’s American Kennel Club’s Grand National Champion English Mastiff. Some people would pay thousands of dollars for a pup like that, but I will give it to you for free. But you need to know that pup is going to grow into a dog the size of Rhode Island. It is going to eat you out of house and home. Is it free? Yes. But it is not cheap.

It is that way with the eternal kind of life. When you accept God’s gift of life, it starts small. But it grows. And as it grows, it begins to change you. It seeks nourishment. (That means taking time to read the Bible and pray.) It wants to be around others with the same life. (That means church and Christian friends.) It wants to please God. (That means getting rid of selfish habits.) It loves. (That means vulnerability and self-sacrifice.) It changes you, and if a person does not want to change – like my friend – then the last thing he’ll want to do is let this eternal kind of life get into him. He’ll be sure not to listen for Jesus’s voice and will fill his life with noise to drown it out. 

So, you need to ask yourself: is my life so fine that I don’t want to change? I’m not talking about circumstances – everyone wants to change those at times; I am talking about you, about your life. If you are satisfied with yourself, you probably won’t feel the need to move toward God. But before you conclude that you don’t need this life, there are other factors to consider. One of those is represented by the word “death.” “He has,” verse 24, “crossed over from death to life.” 

The word translated “crossed over” is the same word used elsewhere for moving from one house to another. Although we have biological life in our fallen state, we live in the house of spiritual death. St. Paul puts it this way: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins…” (Eph. 2:1). Transgressions and sins grow like weeds in the decomposition that accompanies spiritual death. What’s worse: when the spirit is not alive, we cannot connect to God. We are dead to him. Nietzsche famously said that God was dead, but he was mistaken. He was, as usual, confusing himself with God. 

Another factor to consider: without this zoe life, we are also dead to heaven. People frequently object to the doctrine of hell on the grounds that a loving God would never send anyone there, but they are looking at the thing upside-down. If God could put a person whose spirit is not alive in heaven (and I don’t know if that is even possible), it would still be hell to him. He would not appreciate it, understand it, or feel it. He is spiritually dead. You might as well seat a corpse at your table for Easter dinner. He wouldn’t enjoy it any more than someone without zoe life would enjoy heaven.

We accept the fact that when a person experiences biological death, something needs to be done with the corpse. The dinner table is not a suitable place for it, so we bury or cremate them. Well, heaven is not a suitable place for the spiritually dead – for those not alive to God. If you choose to be dead to God, you cannot choose to be alive to heaven. You cannot have it both ways. And if you won’t have heaven, there is only one alternative.

There is another factor to be considered. Jesus goes on to say that everyone who has ever been biologically alive will eventually face judgment: Verse 28: “… he [the Father] has given him [Jesus] authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.”

The last book of the Bible speaks about this judgment. In Revelation chapter 20, verse 11, we read: “I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life (zoe). The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.

Everyone will be judged according to what they have done, but no one will be condemned on that basis. Only those whose names are not found in the book of life are condemned. “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Cremated.

Do you see? In the judgment, God is looking for life, for zoe. Whoever has it will be received into heaven. But if someone doesn’t have it – how would putting that person in heaven help him? It is like seating the corpse at the dinner table: unhelpful to him and unpleasant to everyone else.

People sometimes turn to God because they want to go to heaven when they die; I did, and that is a sensible motive. But I am inviting you to turn to God so you can get heaven into you while you live. I am inviting you to a different kind of life, which just happens to be forever. So, if you are ready to change, if you are prepared to begin a new life, today is the day.

Notice what Jesus says in verse 24: “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me…” Does that describe you? Have you heard the voice of Jesus speaking to your soul, saying: This is your time? Come to me. Believe in me. If so, I will ask you to make a definite response by slipping out of your row and coming to the front at the close of this service. 

If you have already moved toward God – you have believed in Jesus – but you haven’t been living out of your connection with God – perhaps you don’t know how – you come, too. 

[1]Romans 2:7

[2]Romans 6:23

[3]2 Peter 1:4

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Faith, Holy Week, Peace with God, Theology | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Why the Church is Essential to God’s Plan for Humanity

The church is more important than is generally understood, even by church members. It is crucial to the future, for it lies at the center of God’s plan for humanity. Without the church, the world could never be right, and individual lives would always be incomplete.

Doubts on this matter are understandable. “The church? It is enamored with political power. Its people mess up as much as anyone else. They can’t get along. They can be revoltingly self-righteous.”

No one denies these criticisms – not even Jesus. He once rebuked a church for being lukewarm and told them bluntly that they were wretched and pitiful. St. Paul accused one of his churches of worldliness because they were filled with jealousy and quarreling. He told another church that he feared he had wasted his efforts on them. The church is not and has never been the home base for those who have it all together.

If that is true, why even bother with the church? Because there is a power at work in the church that comes from outside the church and is capable of transformative change. Because the church is integral to God’s restoration plan for the world. Because the church is in contact with a life outside the range of ordinary human experience: God’s own life, which He shares with people through His Spirit.

It is necessary to state that this is only true of the church as it is biblically, not culturally, defined. Just because a building has a sign on its front lawn that says “church” does not make it, or the people in it, a church. It may have a pastor with the title “Reverend” before their name, a 5013(c) (3) tax status, and hold religious services, but none of that makes it a church.

A group of people is only a church when they confess Jesus Christ as Lord and share God’s life between them. When a church gathers, God is present in a way He is not present when the Kiwanis gather, Congress convenes, or the university’s religion department holds a conference.

The church comprises individuals who have been brought to God through the instrumentality of Christ and are connected to God and each other through one Spirit. They form a kind of network, sharing a distinctive type of life. That means a person can attend a church meeting yet not be part of the church because they are not on the network. They lack that distinctive kind of life.

Without this life, a person cannot reach their potential; doing so requires both kinds of life, biological and (for lack of a better word) spiritual. Think of a balloon that is made of the finest rubber. It is dyed the most beautiful color. It is a perfect balloon, yet it only reaches its potential when the magician fills it with air and shapes it into a flower or a bunny.

We have biological life. Perhaps we are healthy, strong, and intelligent. But unless the Divine Magician breathes spiritual life into us and shapes us into something beautiful, we live beneath our potential. Without God, we cannot experience the richness of human life as the Creator intended.

This illustration, like all illustrations, cannot be pressed. God is not a Magician. He doesn’t do tricks; he performs miracles. He shapes us into something that is both beautiful and valuable. He does not breathe his divine life into us to leave us isolated but to combine us with others: not a lone flower but a bouquet; not a piston, but an engine; not a soldier, but an army. That bouquet, that engine, that army is the church of Jesus Christ.

In Ephesians, St. Paul describes the church as the “new humanity” powered by love, not fear. It is the nexus linking the creator with his beloved creation and is a principal instrument of God’s activity on earth.

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Church, Theology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What Does the Resurrection Say to American Culture?

America does not believe in resurrection. At least, that appears to be the case from what America does believe. In this class, we clarify what the Bible means by resurrection and then examine American culture’s competing beliefs.

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Theology, What the Bible Has to Say to American Culture, Worldview and Culture | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Family of God (Series on the Church)

Viewing Time: Approximately 24 minutes (Text below)

You are a young man in first century Israel (though what I am about to say would have been true of men almost anywhere in the first century). You got married on Sunday. Your family, your bride’s family, your friends, and pretty much the entire village showed up. The celebration went on for a long time.

Now you have a wife. You have your own home, which is physically connected to your old home, where your parents and siblings live. Of course, the most important person in your world now is your wife. She is the apple of your eye. She has first place, top priority in your life.

Except … that is not how things worked in and around the Mediterranean in the first century – or the tenth. It was not how things have worked in most of the world. Even after a man was married, his highest priority relationships were with his brothers, not his wife. If a man had to choose between his brother and his wife, of course he would choose his brother. Everyone knew that.

Herod the Great was well-known, and perhaps even ridiculed, for being head-over-heels in love with his wife Mariamne. But after Herod had a falling out with Marc Antony that involved her brother Aristobulus, he had Mariamne executed. Herod understood that, when push came to shove, his wife’s loyalty to her brother would outweigh her loyalty to him. Loyalty to siblings came first.

This is hard for us to grasp. The idealization – even idolization – of Romantic Love is part of our culture. It was not part of theirs, or of any culture until medieval times, more than a millennium after Christ. We take it for granted that our spouse is (or at least should be) the most important person in our lives. Children grow up and move out. Friends retire and go to Florida. Our spouse comes first.

We assume that it was always this way, so when we read Scripture, we tend to miss the extraordinary nature of early Christian relationships. They called each other, and thought of each other, as brothers and sisters. That means they placed each other at the top of their relationship priority list.

We cannot imagine how topsy-turvy that must have seemed to onlookers. Everyone knew that a person’s family of origin, especially siblings, especially brothers, held the top spots on the priority list. It was scandalous to suggest otherwise. Yet here were followers of Jesus elevating outsiders to the status of family, of brothers and sisters. They would have thought a man absurd or henpecked who elevated his wife to that level, but to raise outsiders to that level was shocking.

Where did the Jesus-followers get this crazy notion that people outside their bloodline could be inside their family? They got it from Jesus. And this crazy notion turned the Roman empire upside down. People wanted to be part of a family that accepted them, loved them, and shared life with them. Much of the gospel’s appeal in the ancient world was sourced in how the church treated its members like family.

Mark 3 details a very busy time in Jesus’s ministry. His popularity was soaring. He was working long, jam-packed days. The crowds that gathered around him were so large that they nearly swallowed him up. As soon as people found out where Jesus was staying, they came to him in droves. In verse 20 we learn that there were days when he and his disciples didn’t even get a chance to eat.

Now look at verse 21. “When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” Mark interrupts this story with a second narrative but comes back to it in verse 31. This is a technique he often employs. You can find the same kind of thing in chapters 5, 6, and 11. He starts a story, interrupts it, then returns to it. When he does that, you can be sure that the story on the inside is connected to the stories that sandwich it. We’ll come back and see what that connection is before we’re finished.

This first story is fascinating all by itself. Jesus’s family went to take charge of him. The Greek word for “take charge of” can mean “to seize” or “to arrest.” Do you know what is happening here? This is an intervention. Jesus’s family thinks that he “is out of his mind,” or, more literally, “is beside himself.”

This strange story supports the early biblical interpreters who claimed that Jesus had older stepsiblings. In this society, it would be unthinkable for younger brothers to attempt an “intervention” on their oldest brother – especially an older brother who enjoyed the social standing of Jesus. Those old interpreters held that Joseph had been married previously, that his first wife died, and that he brought older children into his marriage with Mary.

So, Jesus’s family thinks that he is out of his mind. They do not understand him. We see this misunderstanding replayed in John 7, where his brothers taunt, “You can’t become famous if you hide like this! If you can do such wonderful things, show yourself to the world!” (John 7:4 NLT) They didn’t get Jesus. They didn’t understand him at all.

Mark resumes the story down in verse 31: Jesus’s mother and brothers have arrived. I suspect it was the brothers, not his mother, who were behind the idea of an intervention. They want Jesus but cannot get into the house because of the crowd. One of the brothers, probably the oldest, is asking the crowd to tell Jesus that his family wants him, and the word is passed from person to person and finally to Jesus.

His surprising response is significant. He asks, verse 33, “Who are my mother and brothers?” I wonder what flashed through people’s minds at that moment. “His brothers are James, Joseph, Simon and Judas…” But Jesus pauses, perhaps gesturing to take in the crowd around him, and said: “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”

What a remarkable thing to say! Who has top priority in the relationship hierarchy? Brothers in the family of origin. But Jesus looks past them to his new family. This would have sounded to James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas like it would sound to you if your brother was telling people that his family is the Heaven’s Gate cult or the Order of the Solar Temple.

Now take note of who Jesus’s family is. They are not those who attend church or those who read the Bible. They are not those who believe a particular doctrine regarding Christ’s atonement. They are those who do God’s will. They are the Brothers and Sisters of the Obedience of Faith.

Jesus’s followers were listening. They took him at his word when he told them, “You are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8), and they treated each other that way. The intimacy and commitment among the early church was well-known.

In the highly stratified society of the first century Mediterranean, the church was radically countercultural. Nowhere in the Roman Empire could a freedman call a patrician, “Brother”– except in the church. Slaves called their masters, “Brother,” and, more surprising still, masters called their slaves “Brother.” The church was startlingly different.

James, one of the family members who came to take charge of Jesus, eventually joined the brotherhood of faith. When he wrote to his fellow Christ-followers, “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food,” he knew that his readers would understand he was talking about the brotherhood and sisterhood of Jesus.

Listen to what the Apostle Paul wrote Pastor Timothy (from 1 Tim. 5:1-2): “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as a father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.” The church is a family.

Of course, in every family there are problems, and the church is no exception. The biblical writers were not naïve about this. They knew the “kids” would sometimes behave badly – and so would the “adults.” When that happened, a reprimand might be needed or even a time out. That is what 2 Thessalonians 3:15 is about: “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed.” But even this is done in the context of family, so Paul hastens to add: “Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother.”

We see the family dynamic again in Romans 14. This time, the family is having an argument. Some in the family are eating – and think that everyone should eat – meat butchered in a pagan temple, ritually offered to its god, and then sold at a reduced price at the market. Their argument goes like this: “The ‘god’ of that temple is a fiction – Apollo is a myth. It is all a sham. So why not eat it – especially when you can get the meat on sale!”

Other family members – ones who until recently worshiped in the Temple of Apollo – are horrified: “Everyone knows that eating the meat of a sacrifice joins a person to the god to whom the sacrifice was made. I just came out of that life. I don’t want my friends to think I’ve gone back. Is getting a good price on meat so important to you that you are willing to destroy your testimony?”

Paul conceded that each side has a point. It is a “disputable matter,” he says, and insists there is room for disagreement. But, more importantly, it is a family matter. What they need to do is look out for each other and love each other. He tells them not “to put any stumbling block in [their] brother’s way” (Romans 14:13) and reminds them that everyone in the family answers to Father: “…why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (Romans 14:10).

There are many other examples. I’ll mention one more from 1 Corinthians 7. While answering questions about marriage, Paul addresses the husband who has become a Christian but whose wife has not. This is verse 12: “If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her.”

Notice that the husband is a brother – he’s part of the family – but the wife is not yet a sister. She may be valued and much loved, but she is not part of the family since she does not share the family’s spiritual DNA. She does not have the Spirit of Jesus. She may go to church gatherings with her husband, but she will not be in the church until the Spirit of Christ is in her. She may critique the church, enjoy the church, have valued friends in the church, but she will not become a sister until she entrusts herself to God through faith in Jesus.

I’ve already mentioned how countercultural the family nature of the church was in the first century. It still is. But it is not only countercultural; it is also appealing. In different eras, various benefits of Christ’s atoning death have had special appeal. In Martin Luther’s time, the possibility of justification and forgiveness was powerful among people who were profoundly aware of their sins. In John Wesley’s time, the possibility of being redeemed from sin’s slavery – freed from its addictive power – was a great draw.

In contemporary society, the hope of reconciliation catches our attention. The idea that relationships can be restored – to God and to others – has immense appeal. We are living through the disintegration of embodied relationships on a massive scale. The growth of digital technology has hastened the breakdown of intimacy, even in families. 55 percent of married people in a recent survey said that their spouse spends too much time on their phone. 60 percent of parents believe that technology has interfered – it is called technoference – in their relationship with their kids.

According to the medical doctor and political philosopher Ronald Dworkin, the United States has seen a hundredfold increase in the number of professional caregivers since 1950. The U.S. has 77,000 clinical psychologists, 192,000 clinical social workers, 105,000 mental health counselors, 50,000 marriage and family therapists, 17,000 nurse psychotherapists, and 30,000 life coaches—not to mention hundreds of thousands of nonclinical social workers and substance abuse counselors. Dworkin writes that “under our very noses a revolution has occurred in the personal dimension of life, such that millions of Americans must now pay professionals to listen to their everyday life problems.”[1] That role used to be filled by family.

People – people we know – are primed for satisfying relationships. When the church is living as a family, as Jesus intended, they can find them here. We can be the portal through which people pass into relationships with God and his family.

But how? By intentionally nurturing our relationships in the church. By spending time with the family – certainly on Sunday mornings but at other times as well. There is no substitute for spending time together. This is a rule of thumb: people who have the most satisfying church experience are the ones who spend the most time with their church family. The person who attends a worship service once a month does not have a very satisfying church experience. The one who attends weekly will be more satisfied. The one who sees brother and sister Christians during the week, who does life with them, will be most satisfied.

That is not to say that their life is sourced in the church, or that they have to be on campus three times a week, or anything like that. Their life is in God, but they share that life with their church family. They go out to eat together. Play games together. Start businesses together. They help each other with projects, both at home and at church. They go to concerts and plays. They fish together. They waste time together.

If you are a Christian – you have come over to God by entrusting your life to Jesus – but you are not satisfied with church and you don’t have the kinds of relationships I have been describing, then the ball is in your court. Jesus wants us to live as family. Take steps to make it so. Invite someone out for lunch today. Come and celebrate the baptism. Join a project at church with a few others. Start a church golf league or bowling league. Have a game night at your house. Become part of the care ministry team. Invite people over to watch the college final four games. Join a D-Group. Do life together with Jesus’s family.

Now, back to Mark 3. Remember that Jesus’s family came to take charge of him, to stage an intervention. His family thought he was “out of his mind,” was “beside himself.” They didn’t understand Jesus at all.

In verses 22-30, Mark pivots from what Jesus’s family thought about him to what the teachers of the law were thinking. His family said he was out of his mind. The teachers of the law said that he was possessed by a demon. They did not understand Jesus at all.

In verse 31, Mark pivots back to Jesus’s family, and in verse 34 we hear these words: “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” They were the ones who “got” Jesus. You’ll never get Jesus just by attending church services. You’ll not get him by reading books. You’ll get him when you intend to obey God.

In St. Paul, we read (more than once) of the obedience that comes from faith. From Jesus we learn of the perception that comes from obedience. He said, “Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own” (John 7:17). The people who have resolved to do the will of God are the one who grow in the grace and the knowledge of Jesus. They get him. Will you be one of those people?

[1] Quoted by Ross Douthat in Bad Religion (Free Press, 2012), pp. 240-241

Posted in Bible, Church, Encouragement, Sermons | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment