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Bible Study for Wednesday 12th August

Practical Paul Study 6: Christian maturity 101

Galatians 2:15-21; 5:16-26 

Notes

The passage in Galatians 2 is concerned with the start of the Christian journey. The passage in chapter 5 speaks about the way Christians grow towards maturity.

2:16             This verse contains the central statement in the first passage. The word “justification” comes from the legal sphere and is the opposite of being found guilty. Our sin separates us from God. No-one can procure a “not guilty” verdict before God by simply trying hard enough. We can only be justified (found not guilty) by excepting salvation as a free gift by faith in Jesus Christ. This is the only way we can enter the Christian life.

2:17-18       Paul counters the argument that, if justification is to be gained by merely accepting the gift in faith, Christians would simply stop trying to live better lives and regress into sin. That would make Christ the author of sin. He first gives a resounding “No!” to this view and also to the thought of resuming the effort to live a sinless life by willpower after receiving salvation by faith.

2:19-21       Paul paints a completely different picture of the life of a Christian. Before accepting the grace of Christ, we were slaves to the law. We had no freedom. Now we are in union with Christ and our lives and that of Christ is intertwined in such a fashion that Christian living becomes a free choice.

5:16              This verse contains the main statement of the passage. All that follows elaborates on what Paul says here. The Christian life is portrayed as a battle between “the flesh” and “the Spirit”. “The flesh” is our worst selves, that part of us that provides entry for temptations and produces thoughts and acts not in accordance to God’s will. The Spirit is the Holy Spirit that becomes part of our lives and is present to continuously lead us deeper into mature and holy Christian living.

5:16, 18, 25  To be “led by the Spirit” (verse 18) is the way we live the Christian life in a passive sense. We allow the Spirit to take charge of our lives. To “live by the Spirit” (literally: to walk by the Spirit), in verses 16 and 25, is to actively follow the guidance of the Spirit. In practical Christian living both these passive and active aspects are vitally important.

Meditation

How much of living Christian living is effort and how much is trusting God to shape and guide us? It should be obvious that it is both. We all know that we often fail though trying our best to live up to the standards we are set in the Bible. None of us doubt that we need God’s help if we are to live the Christian life in full. There is an old Russian proverb that comes to mind. It invites you to imagine a rowboat in a storm and advises us: “Pray for all you are worth, but never stop rowing!”

This still leaves us with a problem: How much of Christian living is up to my effort and how much does God provide? Is it take an equal amount of effort and trust? Or does God provide as much as I am unable to attain through my own efforts? In fact, both my total and sustained effort and God’s provision are both essential to Christian living. There is one proviso, though: The initiative is always with Christ. Our effort is a response to the grace of God. In the Reformed tradition we have learned to speak of it as a life of gratitude. The key to this is our relationship with Christ – a relationship so real and life-changing that it impacts all we do and think.

Let’s first take a step back before focusing on Christian maturity. Let us first pay attention to Christian foundations. How does the Christian life start? The continuation to maturity can obviously not be at odds with the way it started.

In the passage we read in chapter 2, Paul compares two approaches to get into God’s favour – which is to say, the way to start the Christian journey. The first approach is to assume that we become Christians by cleaning up our act – by being good enough to win God’s favour. This approach is popular, because it is flattering to imagine that we could earn God’s favour by simply pulling up our socks a little bit, by just a little bit more polish. John Stott calls this “the biggest lie by the biggest liar the world has ever known”. We should know from experience that we can only ever attain this in a superficial and external way – as the Pharisees did. The main point in the whole letter to the Galatians is to free them of this lie and to point towards a better approach: Justification by faith in Christ.

Christian life starts by entering into a relationship with Christ – a relationship so intimate that it is alluded to as union with Christ. This is true from its very inception and continues to be the central truth of all of Christian life.

When I was a student at Stellenbosch University a little book with the title “Mister God, this is Anna” was very popular. It was the simple story of Fynn and his mother taking in a little girl they found on the street that had obviously been mistreated. The little girl (Anna) has a very special relationship with God (“Mister God”, in Anna’s way of speaking). One day she potters around in Fynn’s workshop while he is fixing something and comes across two metal rings inserted in one another. She is fascinated by them and, after studying them for some time, she says: “You know, Fynn, this is what me and Mister God are like; he goes right through the middle of me and I go right through the middle of him.” Union with Christ. Explained by a child.

This, according to Paul, is the true source of Christian living: Christ who lives in me. His death on the cross becomes, in a very real sense, the penalty paid for my sin. His resurrection becomes, in a very real sense, the energy I receive for a new life. Now we are ready to bear fruit – the fruit of the Spirit. We should not think of ourselves as puppets without will or personality and the Spirit as the puppet-master. He does not move us as a hand in a glove-puppet. No, indeed, he moves us as we are moved by music, but love. Our will becomes fused to the will of God. Our lives display the goodness of God towards all who cross our paths.

This is a deeper transformation than the kind we could produce by our efforts to simply stick to the rules. Its source is the life of Christ, induced by the Holy Spirit. Imagine: every stirring to do something good, to resist temptation, to serve others is the life of Christ, the energy of our beloved Lord stirring inside my body and mind! He evokes new desires in me: for holiness, for wholeness, for God, for service.

In practice it means that we give it our all, while trusting God completely. Are we going to fail at times? Certainly! But we should not be discouraged. The longer we travel on the road of Christian living with Christ, the deeper these patterns will become ingrained, and the more natural and nuanced our responses to God’s overpowering grace.

Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder

Take the two lists in Galatians 5 one by one:

  1. Which of the items in the list of the works of the flesh had previously been part of your life but, over time, have lost their hold on your life? Take time to thank God for releasing you from them.
  2. Which of the items in the list of the fruit of the spirit have grown in your life over time? Take time to thank God for making this a reality.
  3. Find one item in the list of the fruit of the spirit where you would like to grow. Think about ways in which this would enrich your life and those of other people in you circle. Then, pray for the Spirit to help you produce this fruit and start purposefully living in these ways.

Prayer

Celebrate the guidance of God by praying Psalm 119:105-112 slowly and thoughtfully, adding some of your own thoughts to verses that strike you most.

Bible Study for Wednesday 5th August

Practical Paul Study 5: Relationships 101

Ephesians 5:21-6:9

Notes

5:21              Verse 21 is the point Paul is trying to make in all that follows – the golden rule for family life. It is a summary of all he has to say about relationships in the family – including the slaves that were part of families at the time. All of us, without exceptions, are to subject ourselves to one another. This should be done out of reverence for Christ and not merely as duty or out of fear.

5:22-33       Wives are encouraged to subject themselves to their husbands, but in terms of what was said in verse 21 – as a sign of reverence to Christ. Husbands are told to love their wives by doing all in their power to enrich their lives and to build them up as human beings. It is therefore not a matter of one person ruling over the other, but of two persons fully focused on the well-being of the other. This was a major shift in the way marriages were perceived and conducted at the time. The pater familias (man of the family) had virtually unchecked power and was expected to enforce his will on all in the family. He was also the only person with legal status in society. Wives were viewed as their husbands’ property and were there merely to fulfil their duties, of which providing an heir was deemed important. Marital fidelity was not expected from husbands and sexual licentiousness was the norm. Husbands could (and often did) exact cruel punishments on their wives for insignificant transgressions.

6:1-4            Children were not held in any regard at the time. Unwanted children were often killed and children as a whole were treated with disdain. Cruel punishments (even the death penalty!) could be meted out by the pater familias and was seen as his right and duty. Obedience was mostly out of fear. Paul changes all of this by encouraging children to be obedient “in the Lord” and by curbing the excesses of fathers. Their discipline and instruction should be reasonable and done “in the Lord” – which is to say in reverence for Christ. Again, we find reciprocal subjection the rule to follow.

6:5-9            Slaves were part of households in the Greco-Roman world. Businesses were run as cottage industries and were part of home life. In cities the ground floor was normally the shop, with sleeping quarters above. (The Greek word for a household was oikonomos – clearly the word from which our word “economy” comes.) Slaves provided labour for businesses and in the fields (if there were any), and did household chores. Paul’s injunctions for slaves are a seismic departure from the way slavery was viewed at the time. Owners of slaves had absolute control of slaves and there was no protection for slaves. They basically had no rights. Yet Paul depicts them as “slaves of Christ” that serve their masters as obedience to Christ. Reminding masters that they are on equal footing before God with their slaves is a revolutionary thought for the time.

Meditation

I have a friend who is a retired professor in Theology at the Lutheran seminary in St Paul, Minnesota. He also taught constitutional law to post-graduates at the University of Minnesota. He had a unique way of starting his course in constitutional law with the first-year students. My friend would start them off by saying that when studying the American constitution in the coming year they had to be aware of a flaw that runs like a crack through the whole document. “We cannot eliminate the flaw,” he would say, “but if we are aware of it, we can limit the damage it does. The flaw is this: The United States of America was instituted by people who had left Europe where kings and queens ruled and, after winning their liberty from the British monarch, wanted never to be ruled over by a king or queen again. And so, they wrote a constitution that saw to it that henceforth every citizen would be a king or queen. They would be ruled over by someone they had decided upon to be the king (or queen) over the other kings and queens, but only for a limited time – and a time that could be curtailed if he or she lorded it too much over them.”

My friend would then read them the passage in the second chapter of St Paul’s letter to the Philippians where Paul pleads with them for unity in the church by pointing to the example of Christ: “Let the same mind be in you that was[a] in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something determined to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness…” (Philippians 2:5-7). What Paul was suggesting for the Philippians was, following the example of Christ, to become a society where every person was the other’s servant!

“Now,” my friend would say, “be honest. In which kind of society would you prefer to live? In one where every person is a king or queen, or in a society where every person is the other’s servant?”

Paul does much the same thing in Ephesians when he speaks about the way a household should run. In Ephesians 5:21 he writes, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” This is the thrust of all that follows in the passage we have read: Wives and husbands. Children and parents. Slaves and owners. No-one gets to lord it over anyone else. The church of Christ is an alternative society – one in which we are all one another’s servants.

We in the Western world in the 21st century have little idea how radical Paul’s injunctions were in the cultural world where they were uttered. Women had no social standing in society – neither in Jewish, Greek nor Roman society. Marriage was not seen as a curb on sexual licence. Divorce, unreasonable demands, harsh punishments and even murder was hardly frowned upon. The pater familias (the man who was head of the household) had power over women, children and slaves that we would balk at. Children were not held in any esteem and were ruled over as long as their parents (and especially their fathers) lived. Unwelcome births were summarily disposed of and cruelty to children was common. Slaves were not only taken from far off lands, but debt could land you in slavery in your own country. Slaves had no rights and were hardly viewed as human by most of their owners. The fact that the pater familias was the only person with legal standing in civil society made him indispensable for all in the family and served to cement his rule.

Now, notice what Paul does. He starts each section by addressing the group that were expected to be servile to the pater familias: wives, children, slaves. His first word to each of these groups sounds as if he will now support the power given to the pater familias by society: Wifes should subject themselves, children and slaves should obey. But then he explodes the impression by adding the reason for doing so: It should be done as service to Christ and not out of fear or a sense of civil duty. And then he turns to those in power – husbands, parents and masters – and finally demolishes the Greco-Roman system by calling upon them to imitate Christ, the one who gave himself to us in humility, even to the extreme of allowing himself to be crucified. This should be done by subjecting themselves to their wives, their children, and their slaves. They are to seek the advantage of others, even if it means disadvantaging themselves. This does not in any way eliminate roles of leadership in the household, nor does it lead to permissive parenthood or slackness in the workplace. It does, however, cut deep into the basic attitude towards one another by all parties. It turns us into a society where we seek the good for one another.

The fact that modern society has softened our attitudes in all these spheres of domestic life is a direct result of Christian mores over many centuries. Yet it should not allow us to think we have arrived at Paul’s new society. We should constantly ask ourselves if our way of interacting with our families emanates from a deep concern for the well-being of the other persons. No two marriages are exactly alike, and parenthood has no single workable recipe. Even individual children in one family need to be treated differently. Labour relations are complex. Yet Paul’s guidance is clear: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

We will need to be creative to find the exact way to do it in our unique circumstances. The question to ask is not “Who’s the boss?” Dominance is out of place in Christian families and workplaces. Initiative and leadership, though, is not. The question to ask persistently is, “Am we serving one another? Are we living for one another’s advantage?”

Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder

  1. Consider your relationships with family members: In which ways do you serve and benefit them? How could you do this even better?
  2. Consider your relationships with people who provide services for you in your home and elsewhere: In which ways do you serve and benefit them? How could you do this even better?

Prayer

Celebrate the guidance of God by praying Psalm 119:65-72 slowly and thoughtfully, adding some of your own thoughts to verses that strike you most.

Bible Study for Wednesday 29th July 2020

Practical Paul Study 4: Christian ethics 101

Ephesians 4:1; 4:17-5:2

Notes

4: 1-2           For Paul, ethics is not simply about rules. It is about living a life worthy of your calling. He reminds the Ephesians that they are called by God to be and do certain things. To effectively answer their calling, they are urged to lead a life worthy of God’s call. The two aspects of such a life is Christian unity (verses 3 to 16) and holiness (4:17-5:5).

Verse 17-19 In these verses Paul contrasts the lives of Christians with those of pagans, as they themselves previously were. The origin of their condition of being “alienated from the life of God” is their “hardness of heart” (v 18). By this Paul refers to their obstinate rejection of God’s known truth. From this starting point there is a logical trajectory to darkness of understanding, then to deadness of soul and, eventually recklessness of life.

Verse 20-24 Now he turns to the Christian life. It has a very different starting point and, therefore, develops on a radically different trajectory: It starts by “learning Christ” – not merely “learning about Christ.” The verb is the same one that is at the core of the Greek word for a disciple. Learning Christ is following him and being taught by him like the first disciples. It is more than intellectual assent, since there are the term has very strong relational dimensions. “Getting to know Christ” comes quite near to this meaning. The same goes for verse 21, where “heard about him” could be better translated simply as “heard him”. “Taught in Him” also intends to convey a personal learning process; one in which our Lord is personally involved in our development as Christians.

In contrasting the two ways of living, Paul does not mean to say that all unbelievers’ lives turn to evil and all Christians’ lives sparkle with holiness. He is spelling out the likeliest trajectories that logic dictates. We still need to be reminded that we have to rid ourselves of all vestiges of this old way of life and to clothe ourselves with the new self that was given when we committed ourselves to God as his children and followers.

Verse 25-5:2 Here we see Paul being very practical. Note that all his injunctions are deeply relational. Only by living holy lives in the most practical ways can the unity he pleads for in the previous section of his letter be attained.

Verse 26     Verse 26 seems to contradict verse 31. Anger is permitted, though restricted in this verse, while it is forbidden in verse 31. It seems that there are two kinds of anger: righteous anger and unrighteous anger. Blatant evil should call forth anger (note God’s anger in 5:6!), but we are cautioned not to allow it to take over our lives. This is what verse 26 advocates. But anger should not be a persistent state for a Christian. Hence verse 31.

Verse 30     “…do not grieve the Holy Spirit.” What grieves the Holy Spirit? Obviously, unholiness and disunity – the opposites of the unity and holiness that is worthy of our calling.

5:1-2            In these verses we are given a summary description of a life worthy of our calling. We are to imitate God – and specifically Christ’s self-sacrificial love.

Meditation

It almost sounds as if Paul is saying that all unbelievers are awful people and that all Christians are good people. We know from experience that this is not true. We all know people who could honestly be described as good people, but are not Christians. And, as we all know, many Christians would need a lot of spit and polish before we could describe them as good people. What Paul is actually saying in this passage is that there are two different processes to becoming either a good or a bad person. And the most important thing about both these processes is the starting point.

Philip Yancey tells the story of a friend who met him in a coffee shop and asked his opinion about a important decision he needed to take. His marriage was not going well and now he was involved in an affair. He was considering leaving his wife for the other woman and wanted to know from Yancey if God would forgive him if he went through with his plans and simply asked for forgiveness afterwards. Yancey answered him very carefully. “Yes,” he said, “God forgives our sins, but that was not all that should be said.” And then he continued to articulate his fears for his friend. If you enter on a path of sin with full knowledge that it is wrong, you put yourself on a slippery slope. It makes a next, similar transgression just that bit easier. And it makes your own willingness to return to God that much harder. “Therefore,” he pleaded with his friend, “do not start out on this road. It takes your further and further away from God. It leads to ruin.” Yancey was warning his friend against striking out on the trajectory of sin.

This is exactly what Paul is speaking about. If you start walking with your back towards God, you start a process that takes you further and further away from him and from the life he gives.

Ah, but there is an opposite road to travel – a road that leads to life and not to ruin. We are to nurture our relationship with God, following Christ, living with our ears close to God’s mouth, daily learning about life from him. And this needs to be more than an inner process. It needs to show in the way we conduct ourselves. It is like taking off the old rotten garments of the life without God bit by bit and replacing them with the magnificent clothes of the life of a child of God.

This process is not accomplished over-night and we do not all start at the same place. CS Lewis, in Mere Christianity, asks why we get Christians that are so hard to get along with, while there are unbelievers who are such nice people. Is this not an argument against the efficacy of the gospel? No, he says, the unpleasant Christian is probably someone who was born with a temperament that is not naturally bent towards friendliness and spontaneity and who was deeply wounded as a child, while the nice unbeliever was endowed with a sunny disposition and natural friendliness. The question we should ask, he says, is not why the unbeliever is such a nice person, but how he would have been if he were also a Christian. Likewise, we should not merely ask why the Christian is not a better person, but rather how much less Christ-like this person would have been without God’s love.

We all have a road to travel to Christlikeness. None of us has reached the end of it. Some of us have a longer road than others, but we travel this road with the full assurance that we are accompanied by the risen Lord Jesus himself and that He will not leave our side until his work is completed.

Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder

  1. Give some thought to the way God has shaped you over the years. Can you name at least one practical aspect of your life where you have grown?
  2. Give some thought to the future journey with God. Can you name at least one aspect of your life where you would like to grow?

Prayer

Celebrate the guidance of God by praying Psalm 119:57-64 slowly and thoughtfully, adding some of your own thoughts to verses that strike you most.

Bible Study for Wednesday 22nd July

Practical Paul Study 3: Scruples 101

1 Cor 1:22-23; 8:1-13

Notes

1: 22-23      You can sum up the theology behind all that Paul says in this letter in two words: “Christ crucified.” For Jewish people in Corinth a crucified Christ was a sign of weakness. They would have preferred a strong and conquering leader as a Messiah – preferably a miracle maker. For the Greeks this was too unsophisticated. They would have preferred a convincing new philosopher with theories by the dozen. Yet, Paul insists on using the image of Christ on the cross to provide wisdom for the solution of a number of very practical solutions the Corinthians had questioned him about.

8:1                The situation Paul is speaking to, was a common one the church faced in the Greek-Roman world of the time. All the major cities in Paul’s day were littered with temples to the gods. The larger temples had inner courts where meat could be bought at cheap prices and eaten on the premises. The catch was that this meat had been offered to the gods of the temples and participation in the meal perceived to honour them. Some of the early church’s adherents had recently been converted from these religions and had powerful associations with this practice. Other members of the first faith communities could shrug this off in the firm conviction that the gods were, in fact non-existent. They participated freely in these meals and caused consternation among the Christians whose faith was still weak in this matter.

8:7                “…their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” Paul uses the language of purity/impurity from the Old Testament, but applies it in a surprising fashion. Defilement, in Jewish tradition, was ascribed to physical bodies and objects. Here Paul applies it to consciences – to be exact, to weak consciences. This is a beautiful description of scruples with no real base.

8:9-12          Up until this point, after the first three verses, Paul has been squarely in support of the inescapable truth that meat offered to idols can be eaten with no qualms. Now he returns to his initial statement about love building up, while knowledge (without love) leads to arrogance. Instead of commending the meat-eaters for their superior theology, he cautions them that the liberty their insights has given them, could cause the weak in conscience among them to stumble. This is a very practical concern. Paul is always concerned with right teaching but displays equal concern with right living. Right living, for him, is not merely ‘sticking to the rules’, but allowing the image of our Lord expressing his love for us on the cross to shape the way we conduct ourselves. In a telling statement in verse 13 that imitates Christ on the cross he resolves to rather give up his freedom than to cause a brother or sister to fall.

Meditation

Christians do not always agree. That is plain to see. Some of our disagreements are about practical Christian living. And this is where the subject of scruples becomes important. Scruples are burdens on a person’s conscience imposed by herself/himself. They are practices that are not sinful of themselves, but are judged to be morally wrong by an individual or group. We seem to have much fewer scruples about now than in the past. I can still remember very strict views on the sabbath, proper dress codes and the like from my childhood days. Nowadays the wind seems to be blowing in the opposite direction; anything smacking of strict adherence to ethical and moral standards is frowned upon as prudishness or excessive puritanical zeal.

Neither of these approaches seem to help us towards proper Christian daily living. This where our passage becomes very important. Paul’s approach to scruples seems to be the only proper way to steer out of both excesses. He desists from full endorsement of either of the Corinthian Christians’ positions on the specific issue of eating meat offered to idols, but without liquifying into compromise. He does this by simply staying with his emphasis on Christ crucified and not giving in to either the Jewish or Greek tastes in Messiahs.

A strong Messiah, catering for Jewish taste, would simply have made “might makes right” the way to go. The group who could impose their will on the others by means of numerical superiority, social class, financial contributions, or any other measure, could impose their opinion on the others as “the truth.” As we all know, this never ends well. The history of the church is littered with schisms and disgruntled individuals leaving the fold rather than succumbing to being bullied.

On the other hand, a Messiah who emulated the famous Greek philosophers of Greek history would have led to a situation where the case would be argued along rational lines and the most convincing side would win the argument and shut the opposing opinion down. Paul refuses to force the correct theology on the scrupulous Christians. He reminds me of a poem by CS Lewis called “The Apologist’s Evening Prayer”:

From all my lame defeats and oh! much more

From all the victories that I seemed to score;

From cleverness shot forth on Thy behalf

At which, while angels weep, the audience laugh;

From all my proofs of Thy divinity,

Thou, who wouldst give no sign, deliver me.

 

Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust, instead

Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.

From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee,

O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free.

Lord of the narrow gate and the needle’s eye,

Take from me all my trumpery lest I die.

 

In one of his poems GK Chesterton says it very succinctly: “Take not thy thunder from us, Lord, but take away our pride.”

Neither of these approaches are Christian. The route the Crucified Christ would have us take is one of service to our fellow-believers and love for our enemies – which, sadly, is often what adversaries in the church become to one another. Yet, one should not mistake this for a permissive attitude towards truth. Paul never lets go of the truth. Simultaneously, he never lets go of his brothers and sisters in the Christ even when it necessitates him to sacrifice some of his freedoms. When differences in opinion on Christian living arise among us, let us travel the route of love that builds up, without losing our passion for truth in the matter. Loving conversations, seeking the truth and respectful accommodation of one another is the sign of a community following Christ crucified.

Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder

  1. Which scruples are not shared by all the members in our church?
  2. Where do you find yourself in these matters?
  3. How can we address these matters without sacrificing truth or the unity of the church?

Prayer

Celebrate the guidance of God by praying Psalm 119:41-48 slowly and thoughtfully, adding some of your own thoughts to verses that strike you most.

 

Bible Study for Wednesday 15th July

Practical Paul Study 2: Community building 101

Romans 12:1-2; 9-21

Notes

Verse 1-2   is not only the introduction to verses 3 to 8, but to the whole of what follows. Everything Paul encourages us to do is thereby depicted as practical responses to the mercies of God and not as attempts to be good enough to earn the mercies of God.

Verse 9       is the statement from which all that follows flows. Practical love is unpacked in a practical way in the verses that follow and is put forward as the antidote to evil.

Verse 10-12 emphasize the kinds of persons Christians are to be; none of them specifies what we are to do. Of course, this assumes that we are doing a lot of things in the community.

Verse 13-21 tells us what to do and what not to do. Our deeds should pass God’s love for us on to others within and outside the faith community in a variety of practical ways.

Verse 14     Note that Paul echoes Jesus’ in Matthew 5:44-45 by going beyond both nonresistance and nonretaliation to persecutors. Jesus’s maxim asks us to love our enemies and pray for them. Paul ask us to bless them and not to curse them. Verse 19-21 elaborates further on this theme.

Meditation

There are so many different admonitions in the brief space of 13 verses that it is hard to keep up with Paul’s train of thought. It seems like Paul is presenting us with a random selection of disparate thoughts here. This impression changes once we realise that all of it flows from the first, very simple injunction: “Let your love be genuine…” What follows might sound haphazard, but there is actually only one theme. “Let your love be genuine…” Paul gives us a lengthy list of concrete ways in which to respond to God’s love for us by loving others. Responding to God’s love is all about relationships, about love. Paul’s injunctions that follow his initial call to let your love be genuine tells us how to love different groups of people: the poor, outsiders, fellow believers, enemies, the suffering. These are no more than examples, since opportunities to extend God’s love to others crop up all the time in all kinds of different ways. When Christians do this, a new kind of community starts to emerge around them – first the church and then even wider in the places where God has planted them.

What Paul does in this passage is to save us from the damaging notion that love is merely some warm fuzzy feeling towards others. Love is meaningless if it is not expressed in practical ways. The shape love takes is determined by the person in need and the situation in which it is to be expressed. In the church this is done in a context of mutual affection, where we honour one another without reserve (verse 10). The previous verses described the humble service we provide for one another by putting our gifts to use. Here Paul urges us to make the church a haven of acceptance and encouragement in a world where a competitive spirit reigns and where we feel the constant need to be on our guard to avoid slights and put-downs. After verse 12 the scope broadens. The physical needs of both fellow believers and strangers should be tended to (verse 13). Our love should even extend to our enemies where we respond to persecution and animosity by blessing and forgiving our enemies (verses 14, 17 and 19) and even by caring for them when they are in need (verse 20).

Some of these commands will be easy for you to keep, while some will be difficult. It will not be the same for everyone. Paul is concerned that our response to the mercies of God should be as wholehearted as God’s love for us was revealed to be at the cross. Jesus gave his all for us. Our self-giving to others can be no less.

I find verse 21 very encouraging. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This is precisely what God is already doing. Practicing this kind of genuine practical love is to join God in overcoming evil in the world. Paul points out the only way for the world to become a better place. God grants us the honour of participating in his wonderful healing work in a world in such dire need for it. When we do this, we receive the full extent of God’s healing work ourselves.

The kingdom of God does not come by grand gestures – though they have their place. It comes by thousands and thousands of small daily acts of love. This is how evil is overcome by the children of God.

Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder

  1. Which of the injunctions in this passage would be most difficult for you?
  2. Why is this so?
  3. Think of a concrete act of obedience to one of these injunctions that you could do this coming week. How would this make the world a better place – even in a small way?

Prayer

Celebrate the guidance of God by praying Psalm 119:33-40 slowly and thoughtfully, adding some of your own thoughts to verses that strike you most.


Practical Paul Study 1: Church 101

Romans 12:1-8

Notes

Verse 1-2   is a verse that connects the unusually long and detailed doctrinal part of the letter to the encouragement towards practical Christian living that starts at Romans 12:3. (Note the word “therefore” in verse 1, that refers back to the first eleven chapters.) From here on Paul launches into explicit advice on practical living. He depicts this as a response to “the mercies” of God – as described in detail in the preceding chapters. In short, this refers to the fact that God loved and saved us while we were still undeserving sinners (Romans 5:8). We respond to this by presenting our whole physical existence (“your bodies”) to God as a sacrifice. Three words describe how this is done: Our lives are “living” sacrifices – an ongoing steady commitment. Our lives are “holy” sacrifices – not in the sense of being morally perfect, but in the sense of being dedicated to God, belonging to God in the fullest sense. Our lives are “acceptable” sacrifices – not in the sense of meeting the minimum requirements, but in the sense of pleasing God.

Note the start of this passage: “I appeal to you…” This is a very strong word and demonstrates the importance practical Christian living has for Paul. Christian practice is not an afterthought. Paul pleads with them to put the gospel into practice in the strongest language he has to his disposal.

It is striking that this responsive living is called “worship”. Worship is not only what we do on Sunday mornings in church. It is what we do with our lives seven days a week! It is also our “reasonable” worship (as the Greek word logikos is mostly translated instead of “spiritual”). What Paul is saying here is that, in the light of God’s amazing mercy and goodness towards us, the only thing that makes sense (that is logikos/logical) is dedicating your whole life to God. Anything else would not make sense.

Of course, this is only done imperfectly when we strike out on our journey with God. In verse 2 this is depicted as a process of transformation in which the way we grow in the responsiveness of our lives to the mercies of God. We become less and less influenced by the sinful ways of the world and become more and more focused on doing the will of God.

Verse 3-5   The section from verse 3 to 8 is concerned with our response to God as part of the church. We do not live our Christian lives in isolation, but as part of a community of faith. Our impact on the world is measured first of all by the way we can demonstrate community life. The section starts with Paul’s exhortation to humility. Without humility no community life is possible.

The reason for this is simple: God allots gifts, roles, and functions in the church. The “measure of faith” that God assigns is not meant to convey that God gives some of us more faith than others. The idea here is to present faith as trust in God and specifically to trust God for inserting you in your proper place in the church. The church is a mutually beneficial community where we serve one another with our gifts. For this to occur, we need to appropriate the gifts God grants us with humility, as service to others and not for applause. We are like a human body, where each of us has a unique and essential role to play. There is no rank of gifts, since they are all necessary for the well-being of the body of Christ.

Verse 6-8   Paul describes how we are to respond to God’s grace by providing seven examples of gifts in the church. He is urging that each gift is used in keeping with its nature. The list of gifts is not exhaustive. Many other gifts are named in other letters to other congregations. Christians serving according to their gifts shape and empower the church, but they also shape the world we live in.

Verse 6       When Paul speaks of “prophecy” he is not referring to an ability to foresee the future, but to the gift of explicating the faith in preaching and teaching.

Verse 7       “Ministry” (Greek: diakonia) could be translated as “service” and should not be seen as the work of a minister of religion, but as service in the broadest sense: anything from washing dishes to leadership, if it is done as a response to the mercies of God.

Meditation

I once heard someone described as “a good person in the worst possible sense of the word.” Ouch! Christian service if done from my own need to be needed or my desire for acclaim is not what Paul is propagating. This can take quite unattractive forms. This is true not only in the letter to the Romans, but in all his letters. He takes care to always start by giving us a glimpse of the glorious love and grace of God before going on to practical advice for Christian living. But (and this is important!) he never stops there. Paul’s understanding of faith is that it does not only discern God, but that it jumps to its feet whenever it encounters God and responds in words and in deeds. Paul is practical, but his practicality is more than mere legalism (of which he was stripped on the road to Damascus) or duty. Mere assent to the gospel is incomplete if it does not flower into Christian living.

We have developed a language for this in the Christian tradition. We have come to the insight that every Christian is called to a vocation. This calling is a wonderful thing. We are called to do what we most desire to do and are best at doing. Frederick Buechner says it beautifully: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” This place might be inside or outside the church, as part of the church’s commitment to God’s world.

The trick seems to be to match my gifts with the needs of the church and the world. It is important to know here that the list of gifts Paul provides us with does not cover all the gifts that God bestows. There are a number of lists in the letters of Paul and they all differ in the kinds of gifts put forward. The reason for this is simple: God provides what is necessary in each congregation and in each setting in the world. Since the needs in congregations differ and since locations differ, the gifts that emerge would also be different from each other. A gift for computer technology would be out of place in ancient Rome, but extremely helpful in modern Edinburgh. The point Paul makes here is that every Christian is gifted in some way or another. All of us are equipped with the abilities and energy for certain tasks that is vitally important somewhere. Discovering this match and serving according to your gifts is a wonderful and rewarding way of responding to God’s grace. It not only benefits the people you are serving but fills your own existence with meaning and joy. Only then can you truly say that you are living in touch with the fullness of God and of your humanity.

Digging deeper: Some questions to ponder

  1. What help does Paul provide for Christians who find it hard to persevere with a committed Christian life when he depicts our lives as a response to God’s mercies (verse 1)?
  2. What would your response be to a person who finds it unnecessary to make any life-changes, but views worship on Sundays as sufficient? (See verse 1.)
  3. What practical advice would you give to someone who struggles to motivate herself/himself to make the hard choices necessary for Christian practice? (See verse 2.)
  4. Paul starts his discussion of the way a church fits together with a call to humility (verse 3). Why is this an important point of departure?
  5. Which of the gifts that Paul lists in verses 6 to 8 are present in our congregation? (Think of persons who practice these gifts.) Can you name a few gifts that are important for our congregation, but not mentioned in Paul’s list?

Prayer

Celebrate the guidance of God by praying Psalm 119:1-8 slowly and thoughtfully, adding some of your own thoughts to verses that strike you most.

Practical Paul – An introduction

St Paul was a very practical man. He was steeped in the Jewish tradition the study and application of the law. In fact, he had been trained by Gamliel the elder, one of the most famous teachers of Jewish law in his time and son of the famous rabbi Hillel. You do not get more practical than that!

The problem with such an exclusive focus on the law is that it could make you lose the essence of the Jewish/Christian religion – the fact that it was to its core relational. In the first instance, a relation with God, initiated by God and mirrored by his people. The law describes a way of life in accordance with the way God acts. To be law-abiding is not driven by the desire for a good reputation or by fear of punishment. It is a loving response to God. It is a very practical way of telling God, “Lord, I love you too!”

In the second instance the law is utterly relational by opening us up to one another. Jesus sums up the intention at the heard of the law by adding the injunction of loving our neighbour to loving the Lord our God.

Both these perspectives have massive implications for the way we interpret the specifics of the law. Paul’s earlier interpretation of the law was rigid and literal, to such an extent that the God-centred and neighbour-centred intent of the law got lost. After his encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus this changed dramatically. From then on, he was no less serious about the law, but made it a habit, before getting into practical specifics, to first focus on who Jesus Christ was and what God’s plan of salvation for us is. This is what we are to respond to in practical Christian living. If you get this wrong, you will certainly get Christian living wrong. If you get this right, your response will reflect the glory of God and be appropriate to the challenges of our particular context. A rigid and angry God would saddle us with a rigid one-size-fits-all system of laws. A sentimental and permissive God would allow us to live as we see fit. The crucified Lord gifts us with the clue to respond to God and also to the needs of our world in ways that emanate from the grace-filled heart of God.

This explains why all of Paul’s letters display a distinct structure: The first part of each letter focused on what God had done for us and who our Saviour is. The second part of each letter gets down to practical Christian living as a response to what God has done for us. By starting with God’s love and grace-filled intervention in our lives, Paul gets Christian living right. He is prevented from making the same mistakes he made as a Pharisee and becomes the pre-eminent guide to practical Christianity.

In this series of Bible studies, we will focus on six passages that speak about Christian practice, but we will start each study by first focusing on what Paul had said about God’s initiative for our salvation. This should help us to get things straight when we head out to live the Christian life.

The studies:

Romans 12:1-8                                   Church 101

Romans 12:1-2; 9-21                       Community building 101

1 Cor 1:22-23; 8:1-13                      Scruples 101

Ephesians 4:1; 4:17-5:1                  Christian ethics 101

Ephesians 5:21-6:9                           Christian relationships 101

Galatians 2:16-20; 5:16-25            Christian maturity 101

 

 

 

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