Category Archives: Paul

Examining Ourselves

[Text: 1 Cor. 11:17-34]

Paul’s Corinthian children were a challenge.  On the one hand, they were truly believers, confirmed in their faith by the more voluble gifts of the Spirit and zealous for the wonders of God in their midst.  On the other hand, they seemed to have missed the memo about “Love one another.”  So Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to straighten out their many misconceptions about being the Body of Christ.

One of the targets of this corrective epistle is the Corinthians’ handling of the Lord’s Supper (see 1 Cor. 11:17-34).*  More than just a bread-and-juice remembrance ceremony, this was apparently a full meal shared together as a church—only the “sharing” in this case seemed to be the exclusive prerogative of the wealthy members of the congregation, who gobbled up the feast while their poorer brethren went hungry.  Paul gives them a remedial lesson in the origin of the Supper—“This is a celebration of the Lord’s death, not an opportunity to get sated and drunk!”—thus putting into theological perspective any wrongheaded approach to the meal.  “If you get this wrong, it is very, very serious,” Paul warns.  “In fact, your unworthy approach to this celebration is the reason some of you have become sick, and some of you have even died!”

The wrong that Paul names here is failure to “discern the body,” a phrase that has led to some strange interpretive developments over the centuries of Christian history.  Where the focus has been on the elements (bread and wine), theologians and church leaders have usually quarreled over what true believers should “discern” these to be:  are they physically transformed into the very body and blood of our Lord?  Or do they spiritually deliver the presence of Christ within the participant?  Much additional attention has been directed to Paul’s solution to the problem, namely that each one should “examine himself” and make sure he is partaking “in a worthy manner.”  Elaborate schemes for determining a person’s spiritual readiness to participate in the Supper have been proposed, including the adoption of a token system indicating that one has appropriately confessed one’s sins before eating.

Suffice it to say that, just like the Corinthians, these discussions also miss the memo about “Love one another.” Paul hasn’t actually veered from his central theme in this section, so neither should we.

In context, the fault of failing to “discern the body,” and the remedy of examining ourselves to make sure we are partaking of the Supper in a worthy manner, have everything to do with believers’ consideration of and care for their fellow celebrants.  Harking back to the congregational factionalism that he dealt with earlier in the letter, Paul defines what this behavior actually is, in the eyes of God:  he writes that those who proceed to feast without regard for family “despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing.”  It is unlove that is the problem here, not an improper evaluation of the elements or a guilty conscience in need of confession.

So Paul proposes that each one should “examine himself . . . and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”  Our English verb examine may not be the most helpful translation here, since in our experience it’s possible to accomplish an “examination” merely by looking at the subject.  Imagine a repairman examining a broken hinge to see how badly damaged it is, or a cook examining an egg to see if the shell is cracked.  Maybe just a cursory glance at the state of our heart is enough?

The Greek verb dokimazō, meaning to test or try, pushes us past this limited idea and back towards an older use of the English verb, which is, after all, the root of our academic word “exam.” This dreaded culmination of all the learning that we have (supposedly) done for a course involves questions that we are responsible now to answer.  Our readiness to answer has nothing to do with a sudden change of heart in the moment, and everything to do with how we have lived our lives up to this time of examination.*

So I want to propose a series of questions that should get at the heart of what it means to “discern the body,” in Paul’s use of the phrase.  These suggestions should be taken as friendly reminders of our call to love one another, not as a blueprint for a new era of communion-token exams in the church.  Consider asking yourself these sorts of things long before the next Communion Sunday:

Do I know the names of many of the brothers and sisters communing with me?*

Do I know something about their story?

Am I interested and involved in the lives of others, especially those outside my immediate circles?

Do I treat everyone here with gentleness and respect?

Do I share what I have with those who have less?  Do I perceive needs around me?

Do I ever mock, dismiss, malign or gossip about any individual or any class of people?

Do people in this church generally feel safe with me?

Do people in this church trust me to take them seriously?  Am I a good listener?

Am I sensitive to the bigger-picture issues that may affect some of them more than these things affect me?  Am I compassionate towards those who grieve things that I cannot immediately identify with?

As Paul indicates in this chapter, if we take the time to evaluate ourselves, we will avoid the embarrassment and discomfort of our Father God bringing our unloving behavior to our (and to others’!) attention.  Let’s examine ourselves, then, to make sure we are seeing our family of faith with clarity and compassion.

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*Although some verses have been paraphrased, all direct biblical quotations used above come from the ESV.

*Those pastors in earlier times who quizzed their congregants about their beliefs and behavior prior to communion were also examining their people in this way; but they did not ask the kinds of questions about “discerning the body” that I am proposing here.  They were looking for evidence of catechesis and personal purity.

*Re. each of these questions, be realistic about how much you can know about the people in your congregation.  Not even the pastors can hope to know everybody well, especially after the population of a church reaches a certain number.  But do you know a reasonable amount about a reasonable number of people outside your circles of close friends and family?

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Filed under 1&2 Corinthians, Applying the Scriptures, Body of Christ, Epistles, Historical Context, Instructing the Body, Jesus, Paul

What Are You Studying?

Pastors, teachers, and other students of God’s Word, you might enjoy supplementing your studies with some unique and accessible commentary.  My Bible Journal posts have followed the haphazard course of my own studies recently, largely focused on the New Testament.  Here’s an attempt to organize my offerings for you.  Please pass these links on to others if you think they would be helpful!

Remember, you can follow the Bible Journal on Twitter @GrassRootsTheo, or sign up for email notifications (see the button below).

Bible Journal entries are listed below under the relevant books or sections of the Bible.  Find a match with what you are studying, and read along!

**GENERAL BIBLE STUDY TOOLKIT**

Bible Study Strategies (Audio)

Genre Judgment Calls

Pickup Theology

Redemptive-Historical Reading

Self-Evaluation Tool

A Friendly Intro to Biblical Theology

 

** OLD TESTAMENT COMMENTARY**

Christ in the OT

The Messiah in the OT

**GENERAL NEW TESTAMENT COMMENTARY**

Christ in the NT

Christ Jesus Our Lord

Invitational Imperatives (various Epistles)

Providing Perspective (various Epistles)

**GOSPELS**

General Gospels

Eyewitnesses to a Transfiguration

Mapping the Parables

On the Unforgivable Sin

Prompted Parables

Prophetic Puzzle Pieces

Samaritan Stories

“Shhh – don’t tell!”

Mark

Mark is Longer

Luke

Death Meets Life at the Gates of Nain

“Follow, Fast!”

The Cost of Salt

John

Curious Questions (Woman at the Well)

Naming Names

**ACTS**

Paul the Governed (see also Romans)

Prison Diary (Acts 16)

Greek Gods in the NT (Acts 16-19)

Take-Aways from Philippi (Acts 16)

Rome Meets Paul

Before Speaking, Listen (Acts 17)

 **PAUL’S EPISTLES**

Mutual Autobiography

What Paul Said About Jesus (Comprehensive Chart)

Paul on Jesus, Part 1 (The Lord of Time)

Paul on Jesus, Part 2 (History, Salvation, Obedience)

Paul on Jesus, Part 3 (Benefits & Realities)

Romans

Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Galatians)

Paul the Governed (see also Acts)

The Metaphysical Situation (see also 1-2 Corinthians)

1-2 Corinthians

Fortune Cookies

Pickup Theology

Riff on 1 Cor. 13

The Metaphysical Situation (see also Romans)

Theo-logic

Examining Ourselves

 Galatians

A Tale of Two Jerusalems

Chronology and Meaning (see also James & Romans)

In Step with the Spirit

Ephesians

Military Mnemonics

Philippians

Providing Perspective

Philemon

The Mouse that Roared

**NON-PAULINE EPISTLES**

James

Chronology and Meaning (see also Galatians & Romans)

A Topical Concordance of James (includes link to pdf resource)

1 Peter

Providing Perspective

123 John

Euphemistic Faith

**REVELATION**

Hang On ‘Cause Jesus Wins

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Chronological Contexts and Multiple Meanings

[Texts:  James, Romans, Ephesians, Galatians]

As you may have noticed, James’s letter is not easy to reconcile with Paul’s teaching on faith apart from works.  On the face of it, James seems to be saying that we do good works in order to be saved, which scrambles our brains if we also know Paul’s firm lines about nobody being able to boast about their efforts toward salvation.  Why does James seem to promote opportunities for boasting?  Is there any way to reconcile these two writers?

Here are three thoughts to pack along as you read James’s little letter with Paul leaning over your shoulder.  One thought has to do with time, and the other two focus on a couple key vocabulary words.

First, about timing:  although James’s letter follows the epistles of Paul in our New Testaments, it was actually written much earlier.* This James was not one of the Twelve (that James was murdered by Herod early on; see Acts 12), but he was a significant figure among the leaders in the Jerusalem church, which was kind of the Command Central of the Jesus movement at the outset.

As events transpired in those early days and as news of conversions began rolling in from unexpected corners of the Empire, James mediated a theological conference/strategic planning meeting in Jerusalem to figure out how to accommodate the many new Gentile believers.  Just about everybody at the start of this Messianic movement was steeped in Jewish categories of thought, which logically led many of them to assume the continuing and universal necessity of Jewish works of the law (such as circumcision, dietary restrictions, and Sabbath-keeping).

The ministry to the Gentiles challenged these assumptions, though, as it became unavoidably apparent that the Holy Spirit was already at work in these converts entirely apart from Jewish law-keeping.  At the James-led Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), the Jewish church leaders officially conceded the point.  Paul would later expound on the theological significance of it all, especially in his letters to the Galatians, the Romans and the Ephesians.  But prior to both the Council and Paul’s theological explanations came the epistle of James to the scattered Jewish believers in Jesus.

So this is the historical and theological context of James’s message that “faith without works is dead.”  Knowing this order of events helps us keep James’s thoughts, and even his vocabulary, in proper perspective.  Specifically, two words that both James and Paul use, justification and works, aptly illustrate the difference between their respective contexts.

When James writes, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” he seems to be contradicting Paul’s unequivocal statement in Romans that “by works of the law no man will be justified.”  But when James wrote his letter, he (and the Jewish church) had not yet wrestled formally with the reality and implications of Gentiles entering into the people of God sans Jewish particulars.  His words describe the vindication or verifying of faith by compassionate deeds,  for in this way one’s faith is justified—that is, confirmed—by one’s actions.

On Paul’s part, in his (post-Council) letters to the Romans and Galatians, both of which are theological exposés of wrong assumptions about Jewish priorities, the word justification evokes a courtroom scene in which judicial action acquits or condemns the accused.  In such a setting, Paul says, those all-important Jewish “works of the law” do not amount to guaranteed favor with the Judge.

In sum, Paul’s concern is different from James’s, and so he uses these two terms differently.  For Paul, justification has to do with acquittal before the Judge (rather than confirmation of the reality of one’s faith, as in James), and works are narrowly considered as the special obligations placed on Jews under the law (rather than merely compassionate actions).  To put it even more simply, for Paul the words have a specialized, religious significance, while James intends them to convey everyday realities.

Making this chronological and theological distinction between James’s and Paul’s use of these two terms may help put some contemporary Christian teaching into perspective as well.  If you have ever been baffled by the characteristic Reformed portrayal of Christians erring by “trying to earn God’s favor” through their deeds, recall that the Reformers who rediscovered Justification By Faith in the sixteenth century were writing and thinking in the midst of a Roman Catholic context.  In close imitation of Jewish law, Roman Catholic religion was full of do’s and don’t’s and specific demands that a truly religious person must fulfill to obtain (and maintain!) God’s favor.

In a Protestant context today, this ritualistic error feels remote, and thus this refrain about the danger of trying to “earn God’s favor” seems out of place when the “works” in view are deeds of compassion.  But perhaps the critique comes home more personally whenever we notice that we’ve fallen into “magical thinking” about religious practices, whereby our Christian rituals (prayers, communion, liturgy – or listening to Christian radio, or having our daily Quiet Time) have gained a good-luck-charm status.  (“If I do this just right – or enough times – then I’ll get my wish!”)

We should not, however, confuse the warning against vain effort in religious “works” with a caution against exerting ourselves in the just and compassionate deeds we’ve been called to do.*  As James insists, living faith actually requires some work to show it is alive.

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*Notice, by the way, that this means that the NT letters are arranged in groups by author—i.e., Paul, followed by Not-Paul—and then by size and order within these groups.  You have to do a little more digging before you figure out their historical chronology.

*Granted, “deeds of compassion” can sometimes become our religious good-luck charms, too.  But I think the analogy of manipulating God’s favor through our ritualistic spiritual exercises fits Paul’s meaning most closely.

References to “boasting,” “justification,” and “works/works of the law” come from Ephesians 2, Galatians 2-3, Romans 3, and James 2.

Approximate dates of relevant events: Epistle of James, early 40s AD  —   Jerusalem Council, c.49 AD  —  Epistle to the Galatians, early 50s  —  Epistle to the Romans, c.57AD.  Think about how different the theological and church context is in each case, despite the proximity of these dates!

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Paul on Jesus: Part Three

[Texts:  Paul’s life and letters]

To wrap up my summaries of Paul’s teaching on Jesus (Part One and Part Two having covered History, Salvation, and Obedience), I’d like to focus on the Benefits delivered to believers in Christ and the new Realities of our spiritual location “in Christ.”  My comprehensive chart of what Paul had to say about Jesus can be accessed here, if you’d like to see these ideas in more detail.

On my chart, I am calling “Benefits” those things that are presently in our possession through faith in Jesus, as well as those things that are promised to us in the future (but are no less certainly ours!).* For the most part, these are intangibles; yet even as the bread and drink of Communion are physical reminders of a real but untouchably distant historical event, so are our physical bodies reminders of the real, material future blessings of resurrected life in the New Heavens and New Earth.  In other words, all that we are unable to experience with our senses now will one day be thoroughly realized in our bodies, relationships, and world.

Some of the invisible Benefits belonging to believers are improvements on the old order of things, as set out in the Hebrew Scriptures:  freedom from the law of sin and death; inclusion, if we are Gentiles, in the promises and family of the great patriarch Abraham; access to God in the first place.*  Other Benefits trump the oldest enemy of every human being, Death itself: for in Christ, Paul assures us, we have already died and been made alive with never-ending life; and though we will die physically, we shall yet hope to live again in our resurrected bodies.

Still other Benefits explain our present situation, however contrary to evidence these truths may seem:  we are adopted children of God; we are gifted by God for service and with the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit; and we have the blessings of comfort, joy and encouragement in Christ.  Truly, as Paul says himself, we by Christ’s poverty have become rich.

Finally, the Benefits of life in Christ include our salvation from judgment and extend to the formation of our characters into his likeness.  Righteousness and holiness, flowing from our deliverance from the power of sin, law, and death, will increasingly mark the people of God.  And in all of our challenges and changes, we are guaranteed to find ourselves safe in the love of our Father God.

Knowing these Benefits is the key to bearing the Realities of the Christian life, which, Paul does not hesitate to admit, will often be painful and sorrowful in our broken world.  Those believers whose political and social settings most closely resemble Paul’s own will best be able to appreciate the power of these truths for the shouldering of suffering.

While some of the Realities that I have listed on my chart rather cross over into the Benefits category (e.g., belonging to Christ, having already been buried and raised with him, being members together of his body), other Realities do not feel like Benefits at all.  Our close identification with our Lord, both individually and collectively, opens for us the possibility of suffering, an experience that Paul knew only too well.  He recognized in his imprisonment, maltreatment and hardships the fulfillment of a prophecy once made about him by the Lord himself:  “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name,” and he identified the same in the lives of his friends:  “For the sake of Christ you not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”

It’s the phrase “for his sake” that puts the Realities in perspective.  Since for our sake Jesus was condemned, bringing into being the Benefits that Paul celebrates, our temporary sufferings for his sake can be borne in grateful response and the confident hope of receiving unshakeable life at the end of our story.  Without this perspective, no believer over the whole course of Christian history could have withstood the cruel persecutions devised by the world. By God’s grace, Paul’s life and letters provide us with a verbal picture of the noble soldier who bears all for the sake of his Commander in Chief.  Let’s learn from him, and keep on standing firm.

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*It would actually make just as much sense to call these Benefits “Realities” of the Christian life; but here I’ve used the “Reality” category to collect those things that we experience in this life because we are believers, as well as for a few more invisible and intangible implications of belonging to Christ.

*I’m not going to give you the verse references in this post!  If I did, your eyes would skim these paragraphs and you wouldn’t really read these amazing statements.  (Am I not right?)  You see if you can remember the specific verses that I’m referring to.  If you can’t, look up these ideas under the Benefits and Realities categories on my chart “What Paul Said About Jesus.”

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Before Speaking, Listen

[Text:  Acts 17]

This is the text of a short talk I gave last spring for Q-Commons in Lancaster, where the themes included neighborliness, leadership, and the relevance of faith.  I chose as my topic the neighborly art of listening before speaking, as exemplified by Paul in Athens.  I’m re-posting this today in anticipation of my participation on a panel discussing race in America a couple of weeks from now, where I plan again to emphasize the courteous decision to listen well to our neighbors.

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Hello, neighbors,

I want to lift up for you an ancient idea, and then give you a biblical picture of it to remember it by.

Here’s the old idea, from the biblical book of Proverbs: Prov.18.13

“To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.”  (Proverbs 18:13)

Listening before speaking is slow, patient work that requires both self-control and self-denial.  It comprises both a stepping back from the stage and the honoring of a speaker who is not you.  I’d suggest, and maybe you have observed, that we in America are not characterized by either self-control or self-denial, and as a result we typically make very poor listeners, especially to those people we deem very much different than ourselves.

I’ve heard frustration about American listening expressed by some voices that I’ve been trying hard to listen to recently, the voices of my African-American neighbors.  As I’ve listened and read, I’ve realized that this is nothing new.  Here’s W.E.B. DuBois, writing in 1903 (so he’s using an older vocabulary):

“We must not forget that most Americans answer all queries regarding the Negro a priori, and that the least that human courtesy can do is to listen to evidence.”

I am hearing the same idea expressed in modern terms by my black neighbors today.  Here’s Ekemini Uwan, a graduate student at Westminster Seminary, writing her frustration just this past November:

“Either talk about race with some level of aptitude, precision, and intelligence or don’t speak on it at all.  Anything less is patronizing.”

And from Jemar Tisby, a pastor and educator, speaking this January about the past year of racial tension in our country:

“It reeks of paternalism to come to the table that you haven’t been sitting at, listen for a second, if that, and then offer suggestions or solutions.”

To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.  Surely we can do better.  This is our challenge, as citizens in a complex and multifaceted country, as neighbors in a diverse community.  So here’s a biblical picture of how we might make courteous listening (before speaking) a reality in our own neighborhoods and conversations.

When I say “a biblical picture,” don’t think I’m going to tell you anything particularly spiritual or religious.  It’s just that I know a good story that illustrates this ancient idea, and it’s found in one of the books of the Christian Bible, the one we call Acts.

As you may know, Acts was written by a Greek doctor named Luke, who actually was himself a very good listener—he took the time to sit down with a lot of eyewitnesses and came away with two volumes of investigative journalism.  One of these books, Acts, tells the story of the first followers of “the Way,” a strange new offshoot of Judaism that centered on a man named Jesus.  And one of the leaders of that new movement was a Middle-Eastern man named Paul.

Now, Paul was a man on a mission, a mission of communication.  He was burdened with a message that he wanted to get out to people in all the diverse communities of the Greco-Roman world.  And it’s in one of his encounters with people who were to him significantly “other,” the Athenians, that Paul’s skills as a listener truly shine.

You probably realize that Paul’s message about his savior Jesus would have been both alien and challenging to these Athenians.  For one thing, Paul’s singular, personal deity bore little resemblance to their multiple (and moody) gods and goddesses, or to the impersonal divine force conceived of by many of the philosophers in this urbane cultural center.  And grasping Jesus’ significance in human history required the back-story of the Hebrew Scriptures, which Paul’s audience in the Areopagus likely did not have.

So Paul needed to build bridges of communication to get his very foreign message across, at least to make a start; and what is suggested in Luke’s narrative is that he did so—first—by listening carefully.  Basically, he was observant, and he did his homework.  What he came up with is a fascinating bit of apologetic discourse, but it’s also worth knowing as an excellent illustration of considerate listening.

Stuck in this city on an unplanned vacation, waiting for his friends, Paul puts the time to good use and even comes away from the tourist attractions with the opening lines of a sermon.  As he begins speaking, he shows right away that he’s taken the time to observe their context:

“Men of Athens, he says, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.  For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’  What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”

Paul proceeds then to introduce his theological beliefs very tactfully, aware that this audience wouldn’t be familiar with the vocabulary that he might naturally use among his Jewish brethren in a synagogue.  He speaks of creation, of providence, of the sovereignty of God—all ideas that his Athenian neighbors can track with in a general sense:

He says, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.”

And then, quite unusually for something recorded in the Christian Scriptures, Paul does a riff on a couple pieces of pagan literature:

“He is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’”

Note that he didn’t have time on this visit to duck into the local library and bone up on Greek poetry.   These quotes are the fruit of his previous study—this man has done his homework well before he even encountered these global neighbors, and he has listened well enough – paid attention well enough – that these poetic details have lodged in his mind.

As you might expect, Paul’s punchline in this speech is about Jesus; but there’s something UNexpected about the way he puts it.  He ends his intro to Christian theology with a provocative statement about judgment and immortality—two more categories of thought that would have been shared by these Athenians:

“[God] has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

That’s the Jesus part of this speech—that’s all he gives—blink and you’ll miss it.  But how considerate of Paul here, not to burden his audience with unfamiliar words like Christ and sin—there would be time to fill in the blanks later.

How kind of him also to avoid the condescending tones, the disregard and dismissal that might have colored his speech to these “others.”  Paul did not speak shameful folly, because he listened, well before he ever opened his mouth.  He was observant, and he did his homework.  And by this, he earned the right to speak in their neighborhood.

To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.  Be the difference, neighbors. Be observant; do your homework. And before speaking, always have the courtesy to listen.

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All biblical quotations are from the ESV.

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Paul on Jesus: Part Two

[Texts:  Paul’s letters and speeches]

In a previous post I shared some of the fruit of a year-long study with friends in which we read the NT books in chronological order.  As I went along in my perusal of the Epistles, I gathered answers to the question, “Who is Jesus in this letter?”  This resulted in a chart of Paul’s collective teachings on Jesus, which can be accessed here.  Earlier I surveyed who Jesus is across time; now I’ll take a look at some of Paul’s major themes as he teaches about the Savior.

What does Paul spend the most verses talking about, across all of his letters and his speeches in Acts?  Any guesses?  Three categories stand out to me as the fullest sections on my chart:  Redemptive History, Forensics, and words about the Commander-in-Chief and His Troops.  So, speaking broadly, Paul was apparently most concerned to communicate Jesus’ historical significance, the judicial aspects of our salvation in Christ, and the duties and experiences of the soldiers of this Kingdom.  Let me dive a little more deeply into the details of each of these subjects.

Paul conceives of Redemptive History in its full sweep, from past through present to future, and emphasizes always the accompanying revelation that makes sense of it all.  Jesus is the Long-Expected One, and Paul seems to delight in connecting the dots in Scripture and in human history to show that this is so.  Much of his apologetic speech to Jews in Acts is concerned with how Jesus fulfills Hebrew prophecy, especially regarding the identity of the anticipated Christos.  Though his letters to the churches no longer have this evangelistic purpose, Paul cannot seem to help mentioning Jesus’ historical connections; to him, they are part and parcel of Jesus’ identity and role as Savior.

Among the many details of Redemptive History, two receive special emphasis when Paul speaks or writes about his Lord.  First there are all the ways that Jesus fulfills prophecies and promises, types and signs that have appeared throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  He emphasizes Jesus’ connection to David’s line and Abraham’s family, showing how he fulfills “the promises to the patriarchs”; regarding Moses and the Law, Paul makes much of Jesus’ substantial embodiment of past “shadows” and hints, from the Passover lamb to the identity-marker of circumcision to the special Jewish holidays.

The second detail of Redemptive History that receives the most attention is the anticipation of Jesus’ return from heaven—a future event that has bearing on Paul’s (and our) present.  Again and again, Paul casts the behavior and hope of the church in terms of, and in light of, the expected reappearance of the Savior.  His “coming,” as Paul typically puts it, is as certain an event as his entrance into human history in the first place, and as certain as the suffering, death, and resurrection that form the foundation of our confession.  In his desire to persuade Christians to suffer faithfully, Paul continually returns to this certainty.  It is notable, by the way, that with one exception* he does not mention the Second Coming in his speeches in Acts: it seems that this information is most relevant to Christians who need reasons and reminders to persevere, but not yet to potential converts.

Forensics, or the judicial aspects of our salvation, comprises another major category of thought in Paul’s writings and speeches.  This theological topic is probably what usually comes to mind first when we think of what Paul had to say to the church, and with good reason.  Although not any more prevalent than the other two subject areas discussed here, Paul’s reasoning and teaching on forgiveness, judgment, law and faith, sin, salvation, and justification (to name just a few prominent terms!) certainly stand out as deeply important to him.

While there has historically been much debate over the exact meaning of some of Paul’s terms (especially justification), there is no question that he sees salvation in Christ Jesus as intricately bound to questions of sin and righteousness, wrath and favor.  The news in Christ is always good for those who have accepted him:  there is true and ultimate rescue in this Savior, a gift of innocence in place of guilt.  There are also wrong ways to go about solving the problem of our standing before the Judge of all—errors that have persisted since ancient times, and that still threaten to undermine the message of Paul’s gospel.

Finally, we could probably say that the relationship between a living and powerful Commander-in-Chief and His Troops is the topic at the forefront of Paul’s thoughts in his letters.  His own experience and that of his friends give Paul real-time illustrations of what it means to serve the Lord, and his explanations and exhortations provide a verbal framework for the embodiment of life as “good soldiers of Christ Jesus.”  Courage, perseverance, kindness, responsibility, generosity, and faithfulness to the delivered message of the Kingdom are qualities constantly reinforced in Paul’s epistles.  If you read through this section of the chart I created, I think you’ll get a sense of the nobility of our calling in Christ—something lovely to reach for, something worthy to strive after.  Paul’s many words still urge us on towards the finish line, so many centuries later.

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*The one exception is a mention in Acts 17 (in the Areopagus at Athens) of a resurrected man who will one day judge the world on God’s behalf.

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What Paul Said about Jesus (Original Chart)

I do intend to continue with my observations of Paul’s words about Jesus, which I began to explore in my previous post.  In the meantime, here is my topical concordance of What Paul Said About Jesus, based on the ESV.*  It prints out in 15 pages, double-sided.  I suggest using color, as I have indicated the verses found in Acts with red text, and there are colorful bars marking each new major category.  Some verses fit into more than one category or subcategory.

Topical teachers and teachers of Paul’s writings will surely appreciate the chance to compare his thinking across his letters (and the speeches in Acts) in these different areas.  Others will find this a treasure-trove of the riches of Christ as expressed by this prolific Apostle.

What Paul Said About Jesus (Original Chart) (pdf)

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*As per ESV copyright rules, whole verses constitute less than 50% of the text of this document.  I have paraphrased or truncated the rest.

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Paul on Jesus: Part One

[Text:  Paul’s Sermons & Letters]

After joining some friends in 2015 to “ride a fast horse” through the NT books in chronological order, I’ve ended the year’s race with four small notebooks full of observations and many a likely topic to Journal about.* I’m a Notebook Person (because I can’t remember anything I read unless I write it down), and I approach any kind of study with research questions to keep me focused.  This year I kept three queries in mind as we approached the Epistles:

What’s on [the writer’s] mind?

Who is Jesus?

What is faith?

The first kept me alert to the main ideas of the letter, the second to the letter’s presentation of the Savior, and the third to the multifaceted nature of biblical belief.

In this post I’d like to at least begin to organize the data I collected on Paul’s teachings about Jesus.* Whenever we read works of “systematic theology,” we’re looking at collections of information on different theological topics (Father, Son, Spirit, human beings, the church, etc.), really the results of research efforts that the theologian has made over time in his reading of the Scriptures (and of other theologians).  Each scholar presents the data in a different way, having decided what’s most important to communicate and how to arrange the material.  My own [very small-scale] theological overview will offer the ideas Paul communicates about Jesus, ordered from most often to least frequently mentioned.*

I’ve written elsewhere about Paul’s unusual and very personal use of Christ Jesus as a designation for his Lord, probably my favorite discovery out of the year’s study.  Of course he also makes use of the Kingly title, Jesus Christ, and continually resorts to the shorthand name-title, Christ, when he really gets going in his theological explanations.  He calls Jesus the Son of God (though, unlike the author of Hebrews, only once does he call him simply the Son) and also our Lord, usually in company with Jesus’ name.* So what does he have to say about this Jesus?

The first thing I noticed from my survey of Paul is that there is a LOT to tell about the Savior.  I found it helpful to group the Jesus-details that I found in Paul’s writings into thirteen subcategories, which are listed at the end of this post.  What I’ll highlight here is the fascinating way the Lord Jesus inhabits and owns all of Time—Past, Present, and Future.  This is what I discovered (and if you just read these Bible verses through in order, you’ll get a big-picture sense of Christ’s involvement in history!):

  • Paul teaches that the Son existed in Eternity Past and was active in Creation:

He was in the form of God, but did not count equality with God something to be grasped.

He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

For [by means of] him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible.

  • He surveys Redemptive History, showing Christ’s relationship to it and fulfillment of it:

To [the Jews] belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever.

…which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh…

All the promises of God find their Yes in him.

  • He names what has been accomplished by Father and Son in the Near Past:

He was manifested in the flesh.

God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law.

And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.

Christ Jesus . . . in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession.

He was crucified in weakness.

Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father.

God has highly exalted him!

  • …and celebrates what our Lord is doing in the Present:

Christ Jesus . . . is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.

Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.

Christ nourishes and cherishes the church.

  • Finally, Paul holds out the promise of Christ’s activity in the Future:

We await a Savior from heaven, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

Through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. . .

. . .on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of man by Christ Jesus.

For as in Adam all die, in Christ all will be made alive.

Paul has much more to say, of course, about the theological meaning of these events, about the relationship between the Commander and his Soldiers, and about the blessings that are ours even during our earthly lifetimes because of our spiritual location “in Christ”; and I’ll bring out those themes in future posts.  For now, just savor the above statements about the Savior as a summary of his movement through time and his intersection with human history—exciting things accomplished and anticipated, and thoroughly true.

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*If my Bible Journal entries have seemed haphazard to you, this is why.  It was a very fast horse.

*I’m also including material from Luke’s account of Paul’s sermons in Acts, because I’m curious to understand Paul’s whole picture of Jesus.

*Obviously, the discipline of systematic theology holds particular appeal for tidy minds like mine.  But don’t think of the product as being just a dry recitation of propositions fitted neatly into pigeonholes!  The best theology should lead to the praises of doxology. A good systematician will fill in the bigger picture for you, since you might see only individual details when you read the Bible in your occasional devotions and classes.

*On the other hand, when Paul refers to the Lord, it can be tricky to decide whether he’s speaking of the Father or his Son.

(Quoted verses are from the ESV:  Phil. 2:6; Col. 1:17, 16; Rom. 9:5; 1:2,3; 2 Cor. 1:20; 1 Tim. 3:16; Gal. 4:4; Eph. 2:17; 1 Tim. 6:13; 2 Cor. 13:4; Rom. 6:3; Phil. 2:9; Rom. 8:34; Col. 3:1; Eph. 5:29; Phil. 3:20-21; 1 Thess. 4:14; Rom. 2:16; 1 Cor. 15:22)

I decided that Paul’s details about Jesus fall into the following categories:
Ontological Essence (what sort of Being is he?)
Place in Redemptive History
Near-Past Historical Events
Present Activity
Substitutionary Death (he died “for you”)
Forensics (the legal meaning of his death)
Resurrection, Ascension & Exaltation
Commander in Chief & His Troops
Example to Imitate
Subject of Preaching
Benefits to Believers
Reality of Believers (what is life like because of the Savior?)
Subject of Misunderstandings & Unbelief

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Providing Perspective (Part 2)

[Text: Philippians]

Among the most difficult of persuasive tasks is the work of convincing someone to keep believing something in the face of physical pain.  What words will be strong enough to counter the terrifying anticipation and experience of bodily brokenness—especially when the hurt can be avoided simply by denying a belief?  Paul’s letter to the Philippians, expressly intended to bolster frightened believers, powerfully equips his friends to persevere by offering a God’s-eye perspective on their circumstances.

In my last post I explored how Peter’s first letter exemplifies the job of the epistolary writers, who sought to provide perspective that promotes persevering performance in the believers they addressed.  Like 1 Peter, Philippians is clearly addressed to Christians who are suffering fearful persecution, and it’s another excellent example of writing that persuades via perspective.

This context of persecution is something we may miss, though, if we’re accustomed to treating the Epistles section of the NT as an Inspirational-Verses Mine.*  Phrases from Philippians have captioned many a motivational poster (think of “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” and “Don’t be anxious about anything…”), and if you read through the whole letter you’ll probably bump into a large handful of similarly familiar sentences.  As powerful and gracious as these verses already are to us, understanding their context allows us to discover their even higher purpose, which was to equip Christians to face the pain of physical persecution with courage and hope.

Paul’s own situation when he wrote to his friends in Philippi was hardly comfortable.  He begins the letter with news from his prison cell in Rome, reassuring his readers that even this unhappy circumstance “has really served to advance the gospel.”  His self-conscious example sets the stage for what he needs to get across to them in their own time of suffering.  It’s not clear exactly what is happening to the church in Philippi, but these clues suggest that whatever it is, it’s scary:

[Do not be] frightened in anything by your opponents.

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

[You are] children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world,  holding fast to the word of life.

The phrase “it has been granted to you” indicates that it isn’t always the case that Christians will suffer physically; even in those early days, some individuals and groups would have to face more dire situations than others, according to the sovereign plan of God.  It happened that these particular believers needed some especially persuasive perspective in order not only to stand fast in their faith during this persecution, but also—what might be the harder task—to do so with truly gracious care for one another.

You can find examples of a God’s-eye perspective throughout the letter, but I especially like Philippians 2 for its concise interweaving of lofty themes and tender encouragement toward a collective commitment to Jesus.  While we may be inclined to focus on the doxology-like poem describing Christ’s kenosis (or “emptying” of himself) in vv.5-11, keep in mind the purpose of even these famous theological phrases. Through them, Paul calls his friends to count the benefits of their location “in Christ” and so be motivated to stand firm, not in opposition to each other, but considerately and in all humility (which is the key to stepping aside from rivalry and disunity).  In other words, he exhorts them to decide among themselves to believe together, and then strive side by side for the sake of the gospel.  He’s building a band of brothers with these words, and so the Christ-theology that we find here, though rich and true, is only incidental to his main purpose.

Two other familiar imperatives, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” and “Do all things without grumbling or disputing,” also need to be set firmly in the context of it having been “granted” to them to suffer and be engaged in conflict.  Are these soldiers going to press onward, or will they drop back?  According to Paul, they have every incentive to press on and hold fast to the word of life, not recanting even though they’re in a dangerous spot there in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation.  In fact, running away from the fight (and hence the faith) would have much, much worse consequences than the persecution they are suffering—no wonder this outworking of their confession is to be accompanied by “fear and trembling”!

The essence of the motivation offered here by Paul is a reminder of true though invisible things, both historical and current.  Beginning with their location in Christ through their faith in his person and work, believers should recall that they have an unlimited store of encouragement, comfort, love, affection, sympathy, and participation in the Spirit to bolster them in these anxious days.  The Captain they follow is risen, alive, and exalted, and it only awaits God’s pleasure before the whole world inevitably bows the knee to him.  Meanwhile they can devote themselves to his service, knowing that God himself provides his children the willingness and energy for this high calling of continuing to love one another in the face of suffering.

Paul ends this section of his letter (our chapter 2) with news of himself and their mutual friends Timothy and Epaphroditus, again providing his Philippian friends with flesh-and-blood examples of faithful perseverance.  The personal connection would surely have appealed to these believers, as they considered how much these men, whom they loved and admired, were willing to suffer for the work of Christ.  Their special shared history with Paul accounts for his feeling free to spur them on to good works with words like “make my joy complete,” and “obey…so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain,” obviously calculated appeals to the persuasive power of mutual autobiography.

Though it may not be “granted” to all of us to suffer persecution for the faith during our lifetime, recognizing the troubled context of these Philippian Christians should put these famous favorite phrases into perspective for us.  If those believers were called to such a high road in the midst of dire circumstances, then surely we, with our relatively puny instances of suffering for the faith, can manage to stand firm in one Spirit without rivalry or grumbling.  After all, we, too, have every incentive to do so.

And, come to think of it, if we ever do find ourselves suffering through a season of painful persecution, we can be especially glad that Philippians is so easy to memorize.

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*See my earlier post, Fortune Cookies, for some commentary on memorizing Bible verses out of context.

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Providing Perspective (Part 1)

[Texts:  Epistles; 1 Peter]

If I had to sum up the job description of the writers of the Epistles, I would put their purpose and goal like this:

Providing perspective that promotes persevering performance.

This is essentially what Bible teachers mean when they distinguish between the “doctrine and theology” sections and the “practical instruction” parts of a letter, or when they tell you things like, “The indicative precedes the imperative!”  What they’re trying to get across is that the writers’ statements about God’s reality (the indicatives) are the ground and motivation for whatever commands (or imperatives) are addressed to the readers.  As Christians, we act on the biblical marching orders when (and because) we believe the true doctrine.

Besides the fact that my phrase employs a nicely mnemonic alliteration, I like it because it closely reflects the nature of persuasive letter-writing, rather than academic textbook-production.  Paul and Peter and the other writers weren’t producing systematic theologies; they were writing to individuals and communities that they cared about.  Even Paul’s letter to the Romans, written to people he didn’t know personally, retains that down-to-earth sense amid all the theologizing.  Real minds and lives were at stake there in Rome, and Paul’s concern for the renewal of those minds motivated him to provide a thorough theological perspective to promote the persevering performance of these believers.

Granted, each Epistle was written with a different purpose, reflecting the relationship of the writer to the readers and the specific needs of that community at the time of writing.  Some letters berate (or praise!) more than instruct, others spend more words on itinerary than imperatives.  But in every case, the writer is concerned both for the readers’ understanding of God’s truth and that they will continue to walk in a worthy way, in light of that truth.  And in some of the Epistles, including 1 Peter and Philippians, these two concerns are especially evident.  I’ll offer some observations from 1 Peter here, and save Philippians for the next post.

Peter’s first letter, written to unknown recipients living in Asia Minor, continually stresses the necessity of a proper perspective for the facing of persecution with faithful resolve.  Statements about the believers’ state of mind are peppered through the letter:

“Therefore, girding up the loins of your mind, and being sober-minded…”

“Have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”

“…in your hearts regard Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you…”

“Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking…”

“…be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.”

“Be sober-minded, be watchful.”

Peter’s letter is itself a tutorial in “the reason for the hope that they have,” as he walks his readers through what Christ has accomplished for them, and who they are because of Jesus’ victory.  Not just self-controlled and sober minds, but informed minds are necessary in order to endure the fiery trials without feeling surprised (“as though something strange were happening to you”).  So Peter offers large doses of perspective:

“He has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus!”

“You’re being guarded by God’s power!”

“You’ve been born again of imperishable seed through the word of God!”

“You’re a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession!”

“If when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.”

And Peter is clear that endurance, in God’s scheme of things, isn’t just about grimly hanging on through the white-water rapids of life, caring only for your own survival.  The perspective that he shares is meant to motivate towards the persevering performance of “loving one another earnestly, from a pure heart,” shepherding the flock of God “not for shameful gain, but eagerly,” and maintaining honorable conduct in the eyes of outsiders.

Above all, Peter hopes to motivate his readers to “entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good,” following in the steps of their chief Example, Jesus. Reaching for such a high goal is possible only for those whose minds are prepared for action, armed with a God’s-eye view of circumstances.  If his words succeed in their mission, then Peter will have faithfully lived up to his job description – providing perspective that promotes persevering performance.

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Biblical quotations taken from the ESV, though some are paraphrased.

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