Spiritual Gifts and the Church

(from the Sermon: Body of Christ -pt. 1, 1 Cor. 12. Starts at 24:34 – 50:00.)

When it comes to the use of spiritual gifts, we often think in terms of serving the church. We talk about serving the church by teaching Sunday School or becoming a trustee, which promotes the idea that God gives us gifts so we can serve the church.

Well, yes; that’s true. But we mustn’t miss the more important reason God gave us gifts: to serve the Lord Jesus. The gifts are not, first of all, so that individuals can serve the church but so that the church can serve the savior. The purpose of the gifts, as we will see in the coming weeks, is to make possible through us the actions of the Son by the Spirit to fulfill the intentions of the Father.

When people think solely in terms of serving the church, they often feel their part is small and not especially important. Or they think that their part goes unnoticed and start feeling they are being taken for granted. Either way, that kind of thing is hard to avoid when we think that what we are doing is all for the church.

It is better (and more in line with Scripture) not to think we are doing something for the church but that we are the church doing something for the Lord. We are not functioning for the body, as if we were not a part of it. We are the body.

Third, notice the wording of verse 7: “Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Paul does not say that each gift – whether prophecy or tongues or service or teaching – is given for the common good, but the “manifestation of the Spirit” is given for the common good. What blesses a church, transforms an individual, makes a Sunday School class life-changing, encourages the discouraged and upholds the floundering is not the gift but the God who gives it. The gift is given so that the manifestation of the Spirit can occur; that is, so that God can show up among us. That’s why our focus shouldn’t be on the gift but on the Giver.

Finally, this passage (and the sum of the teaching on the Body of Christ) makes it abundantly clear that we are part of something much bigger than ourselves. It is not all up to you or to me. But by design at least one thing is up to you and up to me. We can’t do everything. We needn’t do everything. We shouldn’t do everything. But we can do something, need to do something, and ought to do something. Verse 11 teaches that the Spirit has given a gift to each of us. Each of us. And each gift is given for a purpose. Each gift counts. Each has a place in Jesus’s operation through the church.

On a July night in 1969, our family was finishing out a vacation. I came in from a motel pool just in time to watch – can you guess (July 1969)? – Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step out of the lunar module and walk – and jump – across the surface of the moon.

The pilot for that historic flight was Michael Collins. He said, “All this is possible only through the blood, sweat, and tears of thousands of people… All you see are the three of us, but underneath the surface are thousands and thousands of others.” It’s been estimated that there were about 400,000 people who helped in some way on the Apollo 11 mission.

There were radio telescope operators and parachute designers. There were 17,000 engineers. There were mechanics, soldiers, and contractors who set up the missile for launch. There were guys in Houston monitoring how much fuel the lunar module was using during descent. There was a 24-year-old “computer whiz kid” who worked through software glitches in real time. There were programmers who wrote the code. Approximately 500 people worked on the space suits, including a seamstress who said, “We didn’t worry too much until the guys on the moon started jumping up and down.”

All those people. No wonder Neil Armstrong said that when he stepped onto the moon he thought about the thousands of people who made that step possible.

None of us can do it all, any more than Neil Armstrong could fly to the moon on his own. But we do need to do our part, just like that seamstress. (Imagine if she hadn’t done her part!) When we do our part, something amazing happens, which Paul calls “the manifestation of the Spirit.” God shows up. And when he does, good things happen.

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Is Your Soul Healthy? Take the Test

Jesus was constantly saying things that undermined society’s norms and made people uncomfortable. This was never truer than when he spoke of money.  

Jesus once said: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” We’ve been taught to see money as power. Jesus saw it as a test of character.

When people suddenly come into money, whether a half-a-billion dollars or a few thousand, it is like they have walked into the hospital for a battery of tests: X-rays, CT Scans, MRIs, blood work. Only this is a soul hospital. Money tests the health of the soul.

When Jesus spoke about trusting someone with “very little,” the little thing he was talking about was money. He considered it a trifle. Money, in his mind, is just a little thing – but it’s a little thing like taking an X-ray or getting a C.T. scan is a little thing. When exposed to it, the state of a person’s soul is revealed.

The translation, “Whoever can be trusted” is misleading. Jesus was not speaking about future possibilities but about present realities. The verse should be rendered: “Whoever is trustworthy with very little is trustworthy with much and whoever is unrighteous with very little is unrighteous with much.” In each case, present tense verbs are used.

I’ve heard people say, “If I won the lottery, I’d give it all away.” I wonder. Would they really? Or would they stop taking calls from friends and family and start spending every spare minute with lawyers and accountants? Would they tell themselves that God had given them the money for a reason, so they must be wise about it and not make any quick decisions?

Who knows what we would do were we to win the lottery? But what we do with our take-home pay is also a test, and there is nothing hypothetical about that. It is a matter of record. For followers of Jesus (like myself), the use of money ought to reflect God’s in-breaking kingdom and the outworking of our salvation. If it doesn’t, we’ve failed the test. Our soul is sick. We’ve got the disease.

According to Jesus, the money test has consequences. If we fail, we will not be entrusted with true riches. But how do we pass the test? It’s simple: by using the money in our possession as a trust and not as discretionary funds. Like every other resource, money belongs to God. We have been entrusted with its use as his representatives.

That doesn’t mean we must account for every nickel in our expense accounts. It doesn’t mean we are OCD about our budget. It does mean that we think about and pray about how to use the money entrusted to us in a God-honoring way.

The almost breathtaking possibility here is that if we are trustworthy in this little thing – money – God will give us (literally, entrust us with) the true thing. Money amounts to training wheels for tots. Money is a preliminary, get-your-feet-wet trial run. If we do well with it, we are in a position to receive the real thing.

The real thing, as compared to the “very little thing,” is influence with the God of heaven. Authority in his kingdom. Only a fool would choose money over that.

Once a person has proved trustworthy with the money entrusted to him, he will be given “property of his own.” God trusts such a person with resources and authority in a measure equal to his faithfulness.

Augustine had this kind of thing in mind when he said, “Love God and do what you will.” When someone is loving God, they will do what is good and God will trust them. But no one can love money and love God at the same time., They are mutually exclusive.

Money-love is a spiritual illness, and it is progressive. It spreads through a person’s life and affects all their relationships, including the relationship with God. But God-love is also progressive. It too spreads through a person’s life and affects and enhances all their relationships.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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Going to Church: Entering Foreign Territory?

Photo by ev on Unsplash

Stepping into a church can seem like entering a foreign country. The natives, for example, speak their own language: “Stop by the welcome table in the narthex.” What’s a narthex?

Newcomers do not know what is expected of them. Where is the entrance? Where do they sit? Is everyone intended to stand? Is participation in Holy Communion expected? Is it even allowed?

I experienced this sense of being in a foreign place when I attended a conference on worship. It was being held in a large church with a campus that looked like a shopping mall. I found my way to an already crowded room and took an aisle seat.

People all around the room were chatting amiably, just as they do before any conference. As the band and choir took the stage, the flow of conversation continued unabated. Then the worship leader came to the mic, spoke a few words and everything changed. The room was electrified. People were on their feet.

The band struck the first chords. Shouts and applause accompanied them. A woman stepped into the aisle next to me and used it as a dance floor. I had registered for a Pentecostal worship conference without knowing it. I think back on it as a good conference, but I experienced it as a stranger in a foreign land.

My wife and I worship with other churches when we are on vacation. One year, we were trying to get to a particular church, but road work blocked us at every turn. We were running out of time and had still not discovered a way through the construction maze, so we made the decision to return to a large church we had passed on the highway. We rushed in, minutes before the service began.

I was carrying an NIV Worship Bible. It was a very “charismatic” looking Bible, with a picture of two hands stretched toward the sky on the cover. As we entered, I realized that people were staring at my Bible. It soon occurred to me that I was the only man in the building without a tie, and one of only two men with a beard.

I felt like I we had stumbled into another country. People were nice enough – some even engaged us in conversation after the service. But when they asked where we were from and what I did for a living, I noticed their surprise (or did I just imagine it?) when I told them I was a pastor. I believe they had no category for a tieless, bearded pastor—unless it was “heretic.”

Then there was the time we were visiting relatives. My wife’s sister, who had begun attending a local church, invited us to a Sunday service. We gladly accepted.

When we arrived, we found that the church was quite small. Sunday School was still in session, so we slipped in and sat in the back. When class ended, we moved nearer the front and sat in the second row. There were five in our immediate family, which constituted about 20 percent of the worshipers present that morning. I am fairly certain we were the only visitors.

The pastor stepped into the pulpit. He took a long look around the room and his eyes settled on us. In a rich, Southern accent, he welcomed all. Then, still looking at us, he stated that the church used the King James Version of the Holy Bible and said: “If anyone” (here his eyes met mine) “happens to have any other kind of Bible, you can just leave it on the pew when you go, and we’ll know what to do with it.”

Making people feel welcome, and avoiding the things that make them feel unwelcome, can be tricky. In an effort to do so, churches install welcome centers and design welcome strategies, which are helpful and good. But more is needed. Jesus was remarkable for making everyone feel welcome. When he invited people to come to him, they knew he meant it. They felt included. They felt loved. There is no substitute for that. A welcome strategy can break down in a dozen ways, but a church that makes people feel loved will always be a welcoming place.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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Reader’s Question: What About Unbelieving Friends and Family?

Helen D. asked the question in the title in response to a piece I wrote a couple of weeks ago (A Biblical Look into the Future). It is a familiar question. I initially responded in the comment section but we continued the conversation by email. Excerpts are included below. (Thanks, Helen!)

Helen: Pastor, I too enjoy your columns in the paper and just read the “New Earth” perspective using the train analogy. I’m curious where you see our unbelieving friends and relatives.

Shayne: I think there is clear biblical support for the idea presented in the newspaper column (A Biblical Look into the Future), some of which I outlined and much of which I did not have space to include. There is also other biblical data which must be taken seriously: the abundant support for the idea of judgment and loss for those who (variously) “do not know God,” “do not glorify God,” who “do not believe [in Jesus]”, are “unrighteous,” etc.

How these two sets of biblical data relate is the question. My understanding is that those who do not want God to be God, who reject him in his self-giving in Jesus Christ, will not enter the life of the new age. In my word picture from the column, they will deboard the one train but not board the other. For such people, the terminal at the end of the line is terminal. In the words of the Scripture, they experience “death” and do not have “eternal life” or (literally) “the life of the age.” One of the reasons I write is to help such people see the hope and beauty of the gospel of Christ.

Helen: The [church] where I went when I had my conversion experience at age 42, teaches that all souls live forever, but believers will live with God and nonbelievers will live without God, which seems terrifying to me since He is Light and Love, and who wants to live that way?!  You believe their lives just end without further consequence?

Shayne: No, not without further consequence, though I hardly understand what those consequences might seem to the person experiencing them. Read C. S. Lewis on this (the chapter on Hell in The Problem of Pain). It seems to me that the Bible teaches that a person – though “person” may cease to be accurate terminology for the damned – continues to exist. There are, however, some good men and great scholars (John Stott, for example) who believe that judgment will result in a final punishment that will bring such a person to an end rather than to ongoing torment.

The problem in talking about such things (or so it seems to me) is that we cannot imagine what damnation entails, just as we cannot imagine what glorification (its biblical opposite) entails. In both cases, I think, the person will be transformed. In the one, to something greater, wiser, and more beautiful (in which the redeemed senses of the enlarged self experience realities we cannot now know); in the other, to something less, something duller (with a diminution of self and – perhaps – of the corresponding senses). This is a horrible end. Those who insist on the keeping themselves inevitably lose themselves, just as Jesus said.

What we can be sure of is that God remains God; that is, he remains loving. He will give us the best we can receive and, sadly, for some people that seems to be damnation. But as Dallas Willard says, “Hell is not an oops!” People who experience damnation will be those who determinedly have chosen “not God.”

All that said, it is best we stay away from medieval images of punishment and stick to biblical texts.

(Have comments? Join the conversation!)

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A (Biblical) Look into the Future

When the biblical writers looked into the future, they saw “a new heaven and a new earth.” Many of us, schooled in a Platonized version of Christianity, find this confusing. We are comfortable with the heaven part but don’t know what to do with a new earth. It is hard to see any need for it.

We’ve been taught that we are destined for a heaven that is, in Spenser’s line, “unmoving, uncorrupt, and spotless bright.” What living in such a place might entail is quite beyond anything our imaginations can conjure up. Frankly, it sounds rather boring. Still, if heaven is open to us, why will we need earth?

Besides, doesn’t the Bible teach that earth will be destroyed by fire? St. Peter wrote, “…the earth and everything in it will be laid bare,” and “everything will be destroyed.” If everything will be destroyed and we will head off to heaven, what is the point of having a new earth?

But we need to go carefully here. When St. Peter writes that everything will be “destroyed,” he is using the same word he used a few sentences earlier when he wrote that the ancient world was “deluged and destroyed.” Though he says it was “destroyed,” he clearly did not mean the Great Flood had ended the planet, only that it ended human wickedness (for a time).

Likewise, the promised final “destruction” will not annihilate creation – the planet will not be obliterated. Rather, it will remove from it all evil and everything that opposes the Creator. The future will include an earth that is purified of every evil and made right.

The biblical writers say the same kind of thing about people. They do not simply go off unchanged to an ethereal heaven but are themselves transformed. Like the planet itself, they are purified of every evil and made right. The biblical term for this is “glorification” and the biblical picture is of a people and a planet that have been glorified.

The good things that fill the earth now will not disappear. The prophet, for example, speaks of “the wealth of the nations” being brought into the future kingdom. This can only be true if nations and their wealth exist. Indeed, the seer of the Revelation speaks of the “healing of the nations” that will then occur. This is a far cry from the Platonized version of the story, in which believers finally escape the defeat and drudgery of earth.

The situation may roughly (and inadequately) be pictured this way. There are two train tracks, running in indescribably long lines, one coming to an end alongside the place where the other begins, with a little overlap. The trains that run on the tracks are unimaginably long. The first train represents humanity’s history and prehistory, and its cars are filled with treasures.

These treasures include business, technology, art, music, science, literature, sports, and more – all the good things a society (whether ancient or modern) has ever produced. But these treasures are like raw ore that is filled with impurities.

Mixed with these good things, even embedded in them, are toxins, injustices, greed, hatred, bigotry, and inequality. The sheer volume of these evils may even outweigh the good things they permeate.

As the first train reaches its terminal point, it is unloaded and all its treasures are preserved – art, science, music, technologies, games, and more – and purified of their contaminants. The ugliness that has defaced earth’s beauties, the toxins that have poisoned them, the hatred that has scarred humanity’s best efforts, will be removed and incinerated. This is called “The Judgment.” What is left – and there is a great deal left – is loaded on the second train.

These are the stuffs of the new earth. The age to come will not start with a blank sheet. “The wealth of nations” will be brought into it. Earth’s natural beauties and every good work will be preserved by the God who never wastes anything – least of all people. St. Paul makes just this point when he says that God “gave himself for us to redeem us … and to purify for himself a people.”

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The New Humanity (excerpt)

…see the sheer enormity of God’s plan. It begins with two people groups who do not get along with each other and yet are the media in which the Divine Artist is working. To accomplish his purpose, to make his masterpiece, these two people groups, who have been at odds for millennia, must be reconciled. But reconciliation requires sacrifice.

Who will be sacrificed? The Jews? The Gentiles? No! The artist sacrifices himself. Verse 14: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”

That last phrase requires some explanation. Paul was writing this letter from prison and his readers knew why he was there. He had been arrested on the charge of bringing a Gentile past the barrier and into a part of the temple that was forbidden to non-Jews. Had the emperor himself come to the temple and stood before that barrier, he would have been told he could go no further.

Paul had in fact done no such thing. But he had been accused of it and the accusation was so serious – the enmity between Jew and Gentile so great – that a person could be put to death if found guilty of helping a Gentile cross the barrier.

(By the way: in Old Testament times there was no such barrier. That barrier was not God’s idea. It was not a sign that God didn’t want Gentiles but that Jews didn’t want Gentiles.)

Paul’s readers knew he had been accused of helping a Gentile cross the uncrossable barrier. That barrier was a tangible symbol of the hostility and alienation that existed between Jew and Gentile. But Paul says (verse 14) that Christ has torn down the barrier and made Jew and Gentile one.

Jew and Gentile are one? Really? Where are they one? You certainly don’t see it in Israel or on the West Bank. No. The only place you see it is in Christ.

That’s the same place where Indian and Pakistani are one. The same place where Japanese and Korean are one. The same place where black and white are one. They are one in the magnificent church of Jesus Christ, where there “is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11).

Among those for whom Christ is all and in all, racial barriers fall. Among those for whom Christ is just much of more, or a little of something, they remain standing.

This oneness in Christ is something that racists can never prevent and that progressives can never provide. It cannot be compelled by law but it has been propelled by love – the love of Christ. I’m not saying we needn’t bother making laws. Laws may restrain hate (which is a good thing) but they cannot produce love (which is a better thing).

(For more, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PwwEBKu7IWA)

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The New Humanity

We are thinking about the church, what it is, what it does, and whether or not it is important. I’ve noticed that when people try to answer that last question, even church leaders, they usually do so in terms of what the church can do for a person or a family. It educates our children. It provides us with friends. It encourages us to be faithful to Christ through sermons and teaching. Its music gives us an emotional lift.

Whether or not those things are so, the true importance of the church will never fit through the narrow window of personal benefit. To evaluate the church’s importance by the benefits I accrue is like saying, “Air is important because I couldn’t dribble my basketball without it.” The importance of air extends beyond my basketball and the importance of the church extends beyond the personal benefits it provides.

Today, we will be looking at the church as imaged in Ephesians 2, but before getting into the text, let’s do a quick survey of what Ephesians has to say about the church. I think we will see is that the church has a central and extraordinary place in the purpose of God for the world.

The church, as presented in Ephesians, is headed by Jesus himself. (That is Ephesians 1:22 and 4:15). There is no other organization on earth about which that can be said. The people of the church are God’s personally chosen, glorious inheritance. (That is Ephesians 1:18.) The church is a still-under-construction yet already functioning temple in which God lives by his Spirit. (That is 2:21-22.)

The church is God’s masterwork, through which he displays his wisdom to the great powers of the universe. (That is 3:10.) The church is a principal source of glory to God on earth (3:21). The church is destined to attain the whole measure of the fullness of Christ (4:13). It is even now growing up into the mature body through which Jesus himself acts and works on earth. (That is chapter 4:4, 12, 15-16.) The church is also (5:27-33) the fair Bride of Christ destined to be joined to him forever, a picture that is filled out in other Scriptures.

If this is the church’s calling, it is no wonder that Paul urges his readers to “walk worthy of the calling you have received” (5:1). Here, I’ve been asking what the church can do for me when I should have been asking, “What on earth have I got myself into?” I’ve stumbled into the heart of God’s plans for the world – and beyond. And yet no one stumbles into the church – Ephesians is clear about that; they are called.

We have already seen the church as temple and as priesthood (1 Peter 2). We have seen the church as family (Philemon). But in Ephesians 2, there is a breathtaking picture of the church that is almost too vast to take in: the church as the beginning of a new humanity. The first humanity sinned and fell – and is still falling – apart. In Christ, a new humanity has been redeemed and is being brought together. Let’s read the text. We’ll begin with verse 11 and read through verse 18.

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— 12 remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, 15 by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, 16 and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. 17 He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Listen again to the extraordinary purpose statement from verse 15: “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity…”

This section of the letter begins (v. 11) with Paul urging these “Gentiles by birth” to remember their past. They were separate from Christ – that is, they knew nothing about and had nothing to do with the Messiah. They were excluded from Israel, the principal nation through which God was advancing his purpose on earth. They were strangers to the all-important, history-shaping promise made through the covenants – they knew nothing about it. The upshot is (verse 12) they had no hope and were without God in the world. It is a bleak picture.

Not only were they excluded from Israel, there was enmity between them and the Jews. The Jews despised Gentiles as unclean. They considered them toxic. In answering the question of why God made Gentiles, one rabbi responded that God made them to be fuel to keep the fires of hell burning. Each and every day of his life, the devout Jew would thank God in prayer that he had not been made a Gentile.

For their part, the Gentiles disliked and distrusted the Jews and heaped scorn on them. At times in history, this dislike festered and became persecution. At other times and in many places, the persecution became expulsion. And, when expulsion was not enough (think of Adolph Eichmann’s Madagascar Plan), it became genocide.

Who would ever have guessed that God’s secret plan to remake humanity would hinge on bringing these two hostile peoples together? But, according to Paul, this plan had been in the works for generations, even for ages.

Imagine you are a performance artist, who creates art out of living things. Would you choose a Siamese cat and a Pit Bull for your greatest work? Why not make it easier on yourself by working with a more compliant media, like gerbils? Why use natural enemies? But God chose Jews and Gentiles for his greatest work of performance art. Back in verse 10, Paul wrote: “For we” – the church of Jesus Christ – are his workmanship” – his poiema in Greek; his great work of functional art.

Now look at verse 13, which is the transitional sentence that links two paragraphs. It starts with two important words in the Pauline vocabulary: “But now…” You were once godless, hopeless, and hostile (verses 10-12), but now things have changed. You have changed. Why? Because you are now in Christ Jesus.

In verse 12 they were in the world but now (verse 13) they are in Christ Jesus. In verse 1 they were in their sins. But now they are in Christ. They were far away but now they are near. The price of bringing the Gentiles near was nothing less than the blood of (literally) “the Christ”; that is, the Messiah of the Jews.

Reconciliation requires sacrifice. Sometimes it is pride that must be sacrificed. Sometimes identity. Sometimes privilege. Sometimes power. Reconciliation does not happen without sacrifice.

In 1956, five young missionaries were killed by the fierce Waodani tribe of eastern Ecuador. In 1958, Rachel Saint, sister to one of those missionaries, and Elizabeth Eliot, wife of another, went to live in the Waodani tribe. Rachel lived there for the rest of her life, loving those people, and being loved by them. Reconciliation came through sacrifice.

But no sacrifice compares to God’s own sacrifice, which Paul conveys in just five words (verse 13): “the blood of the Messiah.” What could be worth that?

And now see the sheer enormity of God’s plan. It begins with two people groups who do not get along with each other and yet are the media in which the Divine Artist is working. To accomplish his purpose, to make his masterpiece, these two people groups, who have been at odds for millennia, must be reconciled. But reconciliation requires sacrifice.

Who will be sacrificed? The Jews? The Gentiles? No! The artist sacrifices himself. Verse 14: “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility.”

That last phrase requires some explanation. Paul was writing this letter from prison and his readers knew why he was there. He had been arrested on the charge of bringing a Gentile past the barrier and into a part of the temple that was forbidden to non-Jews. Had the emperor himself come to the temple and stood before that barrier, he would have been told he could go no further.

Paul had in fact done no such thing. But he had been accused of it and the accusation was so serious – the enmity between Jew and Gentile so great – that a person could be put to death if found guilty of helping a Gentile cross the barrier.

(By the way: in Old Testament times there was no such barrier. That barrier was not God’s idea. It was not a sign that God didn’t want Gentiles but that Jews didn’t want Gentiles.)

Paul’s readers knew he had been accused of helping a Gentile cross the uncrossable barrier. That barrier was a tangible symbol of the hostility and alienation that existed between Jew and Gentile. But Paul says (verse 14) that Christ has torn down the barrier and made Jew and Gentile one.

Jew and Gentile are one? Really? Where are they one? You certainly don’t see it in Israel or on the West Bank. No. The only place you see it is in Christ.

That’s the same place where Indian and Pakistani are one. The same place where Japanese and Korean are one. The same place where black and white are one. They are one in the magnificent church of Jesus Christ, where there “is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11).

Among those for whom Christ is all and in all, racial barriers fall. Among those for whom Christ is just much of more, or a little of something, they remain standing.

This oneness in Christ is something that racists can never prevent and that progressives can never provide. It cannot be compelled by law but it has been propelled by love – the love of Christ. I’m not saying we needn’t bother making laws. Laws may restrain hate (which is a good thing) but they cannot produce love (which is a better thing).

The way Christ destroyed (the Greek word means to unloose, untie, or disassemble) the barrier between Jew and Gentile was by “setting aside” (verse 15) “the law with its commands and regulations,” which was done (verse 16) through Christ’s death on the cross. The law, expressed through commandments and spelled out in regulations, has been set aside. Some versions will say “abolished,” but a more precise translation is, “rendered inoperative.” It was the word that was used of a store that went out of business.

There once were stores in my hometown whose main business was to sell typewriters. Those stores went out of business with the advent of the computer. I once had a friend who had a Polaroid “instant” camera (as they called it), which seemed miraculous because it took only minutes to produce a picture. But Polaroid was pushed out of business in 2008 by the arrival of the digital camera.

Paul is saying that the Law has gone out of business for those in Christ because something better has arrived. Christ has done what the law could never do. He has made new people, people at peace with God and with others.

Why was the barrier pulled down and the law set aside? Verse 15 gives us the extraordinary purpose behind it: “to create in himself one new humanity out of the two…” A new humanity (anthropos in Greek), something that had never existed before. The Gentiles did not become Jews, like the “God-fearers” who went through instruction and became proselytes. The Jews did not become Gentiles through some kind of apostasy. No, the two became something new that had never before existed: the church of Jesus Christ.

The church is not an amalgamation of Jew and Gentile, some kind of spiritualized Frankenstein’s Monster. It is a new thing, the beginning of a new humanity – a new way to be human. When Paul differentiates between Jews, Greeks, and the Church of God in 1 Corinthians, his reasoning is clear. The church is neither Jew nor Greek. It is something never before seen: a raceless new humanity.

When you came to Christ (if you have) you became a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). You are different in a fundamental way from what you were before. You are now a spiritual being, and spiritual beings are the destiny of humanity. This is a revolution. This is evolution. Changes have happened and are happening because of the introduction of God’s Spirit into human beings on a permanent basis.

That was made possible because in Christ God took our humanity on himself, took our sins into himself, and died (verse 16) to reconcile us to himself and to one another. Jesus is the beginning of the new humanity.

God is now bringing people from every race and nation and tribe and language into this new humanity. There is a great coming together in Christ. And this is part of a bigger plan, the ultimate plan, which is spelled out in the key verse of this letter (Ephesians 1:10): “…to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.

Do you see? The church in which Jews and Gentiles become one; in which blacks and whites, Latinos and Asians, Pakistanis and Indians, Japanese and Koreans become one is a working model. We are the living proof that God can do it, that it will happen: that God will “bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.”

We in our oneness are living proof of the living God. No wonder Jesus, on the night of his betrayal, the eve of his crucifixion, prayed “… that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20).

May we, for our part, be the answer to his prayer.

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What It Means to Be Alive

The phrase “full of life” occasionally appears in print or is spoken in conversation. This or that person or, sometimes, this or that city, is said to be “full of life.” The phrase is found in many languages. German communicates it in a single word: Lebensfülle.

What does it mean for someone to be full of life? The philosopher Dallas Willard defined life as “the power to act and respond in specific kinds of relations.” He gives the example of a cabbage, which is alive and acts and responds to soil, water, and sun. A dead cabbage, though it exists, cannot act or respond.

A cat is capable of acting and responding in a greater number of relationships than a cabbage. For example, a cabbage cannot respond to a ball of string but a cat can. Neither cat nor cabbage, in my experience, responds to a word of advice. Cat lovers may disagree.

Is it possible for something or someone to be alive to one thing but not to another? Yes. The cabbage is alive to soil, sun, and rain but quite dead to a ball of string. The cat is alive to a ball of string but quite dead to Shakespeare’s plays. Shakespeare, for his part, was alive to cats, though he clearly didn’t like them.

In biblical literature, only God is alive in all kinds of relationships: he is “the living God.” People are alive in some kinds of relationships but not in others. For example, St. Paul pictures people as dead to God in their pre-faith state. As the cabbage does not respond to the ball of string and the cat does not respond to “Much Ado About Nothing,” they do not respond to God.

When someone does respond to God, it is evidence that a “life-making” miracle has occurred. For a person to respond in relation to God requires at least as great a miracle as would be necessary for a cat to respond in relation to “Much Ado.” The Bible describes that miracle as a new birth.

This raises questions. If someone has come alive to God – a miracle attributed to the working of God’s Spirit – how would they know it? What evidence is there? When people are “made alive” in this way, is it in relationship to God only? Or are they alive in other relationships as well?

The Bible suggests three evidences that someone has come alive to God. First, they express faith: they begin to trust God and his love. Second, they begin, falteringly at first and imperfectly at all times, to obey God. And third, they start to love (falteringly and imperfectly once again) people they did not love before.

Does this happen all at once? Will a person who has become alive to God automatically be alive to people and their needs? Will they become alive to ethical and moral requirements that have hitherto gone unnoticed? Will their confidence in God and his ways become a reality across the expanse of their lives?

It does not seem to happen all at once, either in the biblical record or in personal experience. It happens incrementally as more and more of a person’s life is infiltrated by God. To the degree that God is present in the various regions of an individual’s life, he or she comes alive.

There is a fictional image of this in C.S. Lewis’s “The Magician’s Nephew.” Lewis pictures Aslan, the Christ-figure, bringing life to a new world. As he walks a barren planet, his singing voice causes grass to sprout and spread, like a ripple in a pool. Heather, and then trees, do the same. Wherever he goes, life appears.

It is like this with humans too. This new life must “spread” through a person’s vast interior. Because that does not happen steadily, an individual may seem inexplicably unalive in some relationships, even those with important moral or ethical dimensions, causing us to wonder about the reality of the spiritual life.

Of such a person, including ourselves, we must not despair. Once animated, the life that is alive to God will spread. Signs of it will appear, demonstrated (falteringly and imperfectly) by faith and love.

First published by Gatehouse Media

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The Common Politic

My sons Joel (PhD, University of Aberdeen) and Brian (PhD, UC Santa Barbara) are starting an online magazine, The Common Politic. It is an ambitious project, meeting a need in the Christian community that has not hitherto been met. It is a great idea and you can read about it below.

What is The Common Politic?
The Common Politic is a new type of web magazine that aims to address a deficit in the current offerings of political discussion among Christians. When done publicly, such discussions usually occur in one of two sorts of media outlets: (i) highly selective journals and magazines or (ii) social media.

Online journals that specialize in opinion and in-depth commentary rather than reportage—think Political Theology, Church Life Journal, The Other Journal, or Syndicate but also First Things, Commonweal, Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, or Christian Century—either cater almost exclusively to professors and pastors or take editorial lines that leave out the vast majority of thinking believers. Christians of different theological persuasions or political leanings rarely encounter one another in these outlets, and participation is nearly impossible for those whose vocation doesn’t involve much writing.

To read more, please go to https://www.patreon.com/thecommonpolitic?fan_landing=true.

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The Chosen

Photo by Bo Lane on Unsplash

St. Peter gives us a picture, drawn straight from the Old Testament, of the people who trust in Jesus (1 Peter 2:9-10). We helps us see who they are and what God intends them to do.

First, those of us who trust in Jesus are a chosen people (or race; genos, in Greek). We constitute a new global race, whatever our ancestry, whether we are Jewish or Arab or Indian or Chinese or European, or African, or American. We are the worldwide family of Jesus. We are a distinct (and distinctive) people, the people of God. We belong to each other and we belong to God.

Peter says that we are chosen. This is the second of three times that he reminds his harassed and maligned family living in Asia Minor of this encouraging truth. The world may not want them but God does. He chose them.

Garrison Keilor, creator of A Prairie Home Companion, once talked about what it means to be chosen. He used the familiar setting of a schoolyard baseball game:

“The captains are down to their last grudging choices: a slow kid for catcher, someone to stick out in right field where nobody hits it. They choose the last ones two at a time—’you and you’—because it makes no difference. And the remaining kids—the scrubs , the excess—they deal for us as handicaps. ‘If I take him, then you gotta take him,’ they say.

Keilor says, “Sometimes I go as high as sixth, usually lower. But just once I’d like Darrel to pick me first and say, ‘Him! I want him! The skinny kid with the glasses and the black shoes. You, c’mon!’ But I’ve never been chosen with much enthusiasm.”

But God did choose us with much enthusiasm and he didn’t wait until the end — “… he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight” (Ephesians 1:4).[1]

Sometimes this delightful truth is presented in a way that disparages people who have not been chosen, but the Bible doesn’t do that. Christopher Wright pictures the biblical teaching on being chosen this way: “It is as if a group of trapped cave explorers choose one of their number to squeeze through a narrow, flooded passage to get out to the surface and call for help. The point of the choice is not so that she alone gets saved, but that she is able to bring help and equipment to ensure the rest get rescued. ‘Election’ … [is the] choice of one for the sake of many.[2] We are chosen.


[1] Van Morris, Shepherdsville, Kentucky; source: Robert Russell, The Southeast Christian Church Outlook (6-8-00), Louisville, Kentucky

[2] Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God’s People (Zondervan, 2010), p. 72

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