Restore.

1 Peter, Christianity, Religion

“And, after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace who called you to his eternal glory in Christ will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” 1 Peter 5:10

Peter’s first epistle is often classified with the ‘general epistles,’ meaning that it contains information that is general, or broad, in scope. The epistles in this category focus on addressing many big-picture themes, such as faith, hope, works, love. They differ somewhat from Paul’s letters that often are directed to a single congregation or individual and often focus on thoroughly explaining a single topic in great detail. Both sets of epistles, the general and those by Paul, provide something of a ‘how-to’ manual for living the Christian life. It is in the epistles that we see the theology and doctrine of the gospels unpacked and explained and applied to everyday life.

While 1 Peter is general in scope, there was still a specific context in which it was written. This letter was addressed to the exiled believers living in Asia Minor. These Gentile followers of Christ were living in their homeland, but Peter addresses them as exiles. This theme is one that is repeated throughout 1 Peter; the Apostle wants his fellow believers to understand that this world is not their home. As followers of Christ, believers are living in this world in a spiritual exile. This “exile” is made real to the believers of Asia Minor in the form of persecution that they experienced because of their faith in Christ.

Throughout the letter, Peter discusses how these believers are to respond to this persecution. He implores them to continue being law-abiding citizens, to look out for one another, to love each other, and to seek to do good to those who are persecuting them. Again and again, Peter calls on the believers to not repay evil for evil, to endure their suffering as Christ endured His, and to remember that they have the hope of a better life to come in God’s kingdom.

Peter focuses on this hope at the close of the letter. In the final lines of the letter, he assures the believers that this suffering is only temporary, that it won’t last forever, that it will be over in a little while. He goes on to provide them with more hope and encouragement by reminding them that when this suffering is over, God Himself will comfort, restore, sure up, repair, and strengthen the believers. Peter’s letter to the persecuted believers of Asia Minor closes with the hope of God Himself comforting and repairing them after the struggle is over.

This hopeful message of restoration reverberates with the echoes of other Scripture. Numerous psalms come to mind. We think of the psalm penned by David in which he pours out his heart and soul upon the page, begging God to comfort him amid his trials. In Peter’s words, we hear echoes of Psalm 23:

He restores my strength.

He leads me down the right paths

for the sake of his reputation.

Even when I must walk through the darkest valley,

I fear no danger,

for you are with me;

your rod and your staff reassure me.

You prepare a feast before me

in plain sight of my enemies. (Psalm 23:3-5)

We hear whispers of Psalm 119, where the psalmist pleads with God for Him to restore the grief-stricken author as God promised to do. “My soul melts away for sorrow;

strengthen me according to your word!” (Psalm 119:28) The psalmist knew that God would nourish and restore him after his trials, and he pleaded for God to keep that promise.

Peter’s words mirror those of his contemporary, Paul, who wrote, “but the Lord is faithful, and He will strengthen you and guard you against the evil one,” ( 2 Thessalonians 3:3). In each of these passages and countless others, the believer is continually reassured and reminded that after their suffering is complete, God will restore, repair, strengthen, and nourish them. Whether it be on this side of the grave or the other, God will shepherd the believer in green pastures, will lead them to still waters, and will restore their soul.

Trials and troubles are too many to count in this life. Without the hope we have from Christ, this world is bleak, and its burdens will grind us down. Christ, in His atoning death and defeating the grave through His resurrection, has given us new hope. This hope comes from the prospect of a renewed relationship with God. To those who have faith in Christ, the promise of God’s comfort and restoration never goes void. Place your faith in Christ and allow God’s promise of future restoration to give you strength for the trials ahead.

Artwork, Cover for the Bible, Verve No. 33-34 (Mourlot 117), Marc Chagall

Keep Stretching.

1 Peter, Christian Living, Christianity, Love, Religion

“Above all, maintain an intense love for each other, since love covers a multitude of sins. Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” 1 Peter 4:8-9

In 1 Peter 4, Peter transitions into a discussion of what is one of the believers’ highest obligations–to love for one another. He states that the believers must continue to do this, to continue to love one another and continue to live in a Christ-like manner, for the end of all things–the end of days, the end of time–is approaching. Now, Peter is not telling the believers that the end is near to incite fear or panic, but rather to state a simple fact: that they are living in the last days.

We must understand that the last days began with Christ’s resurrection; from that moment, the clock has been ticking down to the end. We even see that Peter makes mention of this in his famous sermon at Pentecost. There Peter quoted from the prophet Joel and said the following about the arrival of the Holy Spirit that had just occurred:

And it will be in the last days, says God,

that I will pour out My Spirit on all humanity;

then your sons and your daughters will prophesy,

your young men will see visions,

and your old men will dream dreams.

I will even pour out My Spirit

upon My male and female slaves in those days,

and they will prophesy,” (Acts 2:17-18).

Peter understood that the arrival of the Holy Spirit meant one thing: that the last days had finally arrived. As such, believers must be all the more diligent about the work that they have before them; the believers must be disciplined, self-controlled, on watch, sober-minded, clear-headed, and committed to prayer. Given the unique nature of the times, Peter was emploring the believers to finish strong, to see the job through unto the end. Peter also wanted the believers to remember that, above everything else, more important than finishing the job well, is the duty to continue loving one another.

In the Greek, Peter calls upon the believers to keep their love ektenes (ἐκτενής), or “stretched out,” because love covers a multitude of sins. The idea here is that the believers keep stretching their love for one other out,  and to demonstrate forgiveness to one another. We see Paul reflect a similar idea in 1 Corinthians 13 when he wrote 

“Love is patient, love is kind.

Love does not envy,

is not boastful, is not conceited,

 does not act improperly,

is not selfish, is not provoked,

and does not keep a record of wrongs.

 Love finds no joy in unrighteousness

but rejoices in the truth.

 It bears all things, believes all things,

hopes all things, endures all things.

 Love never ends,” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8).

There are several words in Greek for love, and Peter uses in his letter the most familiar word– agape (ἀγάπη). Agape can mean unconditional love, a love that will love you regardless of being loved in return, a non-stoping love, the sort of love that God demonstrates to the world, a sacrificial love. Agape can also be used to mean a deeply devoted, brotherly love. 

Here, Peter is telling the believers to have a non-stoping, unconditional, non-grudge-holding love for their brothers and sisters; that they are to love one another no matter what.

This lesson on love and forgiveness is one that Peter himself received a crash course in, and his words here show us how far this Galilean fisherman grew in his understanding of love and forgiveness. It was this same Peter who asked Christ how many times a brother must be forgiven, who asked if forgiving a brother just seven times would suffice. It was this same Peter who denied Christ three times and cursed His name after Jesus’ arrest. It was this same Peter who sat upon the beach with the resurrected Christ–the very Christ whom he had cursed just three days before–and it was this same Peter who Christ asked three times if Peter loved Him. It was this same Peter who responded three times that he did love Christ, and it was this same Peter whom–out of love– Jesus forgave for his denials, his cursing, and the rest of his sins.

Here, in this letter, we see this same Peter–a man who has grown dramatically in the Spirit–who encouraged his fellow believers to resolve to love one another.

We hear in Peter’s exhortation echoes of Christ’s words at the Passover meal when Christ said to the disciples, “a new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another,” (John 13:34-35). Peter wanted the believers to understand that the love they demonstrate for one another is the most persuasive witness to the world of their commitment to Christ; that love is the hallmark of the believer. The love that Christ commands means believers must look out for each other. Believers must take care of each other. This love requires believers to carry one another’s burdens, and it requires them to use the gifts and talents they all have to serve one another. In everything they do, the believers are to demonstrate their love for God and their love for each other. In doing this, the believers will bring glory and honor to God and Christ

In many ways, what Peter calls on us to do here in chapter 4 might be more challenging than any of the other exhortations he gives in this letter. This call to love is difficult because it forces us to take a look in the mirror. We have to check our resolve; we have to ask if we are really as determined and committed to living like Christ as we ought to be? Are we as committed to loving one another as we are supposed to be? When we start asking ourselves these questions, they open a whole litany of other questions that we must answer. The truth is that we might not like the answers we get when we really start being serious about being followers of Christ and asking ourselves if we are truly living out our faith, or if we are merely going through the motions. This examination is something we must do; it is crucial–it is imperative–that we understand the importance of resolving ourselves to loving one another. Loving one another is a foundational aspect of being a follower of Christ. It is a fundamental practice, and if we cannot do it properly, we will not ever grow in our faith; we will always be hindered, we will be hobbled.

We must ask ourselves if we are resolved to love our fellow believers, our brothers and sisters, unconditionally? Is the love we exhibit to our brothers and sisters eager to forgive and patient and kind and sincere? Or do we keep a record of wrongs and hurts and grudges? Do we only love when it is convenient for us to do so? When it is easy for us to do so? Do we only love when we get something in return? Do we love all our fellow believers or just those who are like us?

We must understand that there may come a time when our church–the people, the community, the family of believers–might be all that we have in this world. With this in mind, we must demonstrate a love for each other that shows our brothers and sisters that we will be there for them through thick and thin, for better or worse, ’til death do us part. 

We must also remember that for a Christian to not love their brothers and sisters is hypocrisy: it shows no thankfulness for the grace and mercy and love of God. It shows a disregard for the commands of Christ, who called upon us to love as we have been loved. For a Christian not to love is a waste. We have the hope of the world, secure and eternal, that can never be taken away from us regardless of what situation in which we find ourselves. This hope was given to us out of God’s unconditional love. We have been given hope and received a love that the world does not have. Out of love, Christ suffered and died so that we can have freedom from slavery to sin and death–how then could we not love? We must remember that we are to resolve ourselves to live like Christ and to love one another.

Resolve yourself to live like Christ. Resolve yourself to love like Christ. Love your brothers and sisters, and keep stretching that love and showing forgiveness, for this is how the world knows we are His disciples.

Artwork: “Love One Another III,” Ivan Guaderrama, 2015. https://fineartamerica.com/featured/love-one-another-iil-ivan-guaderrama.html

An Apology for Hope.

1 Peter, Christianity, Religion

“…but in your hearts honor 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; yet do it with gentleness and respect,” 1 Peter 3:15.

Peter’s first epistle is focused on encouraging believers to remain steadfast in their commitment to following Christ, despite the persecution they were enduring. Throughout the five chapters that comprise this letter, Peter reminds the believers that they do not belong to this world, that they are exiles and wanderers who are citizens of the kingdom of Heaven. As such, they must continue to seek to live as God called upon them to live. Peter repeatedly exhorts the believers to live differently from the world around them, and his letter is peppered with calls for the believers to be a holy people, a holy nation, living stones, living temples, and a holy priesthood. 

While calling upon the persecuted believers to be different from the world around them, Peter also gives practical applications of holy living to the believers for them to model in their lives. Peter provided insight and advice to Christian slaves, and also for Christian wives and husbands. Peter called upon all the believers to be good neighbors and respectful citizens. The believers were to demonstrate different characteristics than the world; they were to “put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander” (1 Peter 2:1). The followers of Christ were to “have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind” (1 Peter 3:8). Believers were also to be the “bigger people” in situations in which they were wronged,  just as Peter wrote, “do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing,” (1 Peter 3:9). It was of the utmost importance to Peter that the believers understood that they must be different; that they must live holy lives.

In chapter 3, Peter reveals the reason why believers must live differently. He reminds them that their very lives are living witnesses of God to the world. Due to this,  believers must always be ready to explain why–even in the midst of trials and persecutions–they have hope. Peter call on the believers to be ready to give an apologia (ἀπολογία), or an apology for their faith and their hope. This type of apology does not refer to showing remorse for doing wrong or asking for forgiveness; instead, this apology relates to a verbal argument defending or explaining one’s faith. Peter wanted these persecuted believers to understand that their holy lives would lead to people asking questions. These would be questions about how the believers could continue to be hopeful and serve Christ, even during their trials and persecutions. When these questions arose, the believers must be ready to explain precisely that–why they had hope and what that hope was rooted in.

If ever there was anything the world needs today, it is exactly what Peter here calls upon us as followers of Christ to do. We need people who are willing to be the bigger person. We need people who are not bent on returning evil for evil, people who bless others–even if those others are bent on harming or destroying them. We need people whose lives reflect the hope we have in Christ.

The world around us can be a frightening place; it often seems as though things here are getting worse and worse. Everything in the world around us is continually being questioned.  There are only wars and rumors of war; we are bombarded with news of heartache, and grief, and coming despair and destruction. It would seem as though there is no hope in the world.

But we, as believers, we have hope, and we know the source of our hope. While the world around us may be crying that the sky is falling and going into a panic–we carry on. We are not frightened by anything alarming; we have no fear and are not troubled.

Because of Christ, we have confidence in the future, not because the world will get better, but because–even if this world falls apart–we have a future with Him. This is why it is so vitally important that we live differently from the world. This is why we must lead lives that reflect our calm assurance of hope in Christ. For in this dark and seemingly hopeless world, we believers are the only sources of hope that the lost might see. We are the small, twinkling stars in a dark and moonless night; we are the nightlight put into this world by God to show others around us that things aren’t as dark and scary as they may seem. We were put here to reflect the hope that we have in Christ.

The fact that we are still here proves that there is still much work to be done. We do this, we reflect our hope in Christ, by doing just what Peter has encouraged us to do:

  • We do it by seeking always to do good to others.
  • We do it by modeling Godly marriages to the world.
  • We do it by being sympathetic and compassionate, and humble in all our relationships.
  • We do it by loving our fellow believers and helping them through their trials and ordeals.
  • We do it by demonstrating respect and gentleness in all our endeavors.
  • We do it by trusting in God and not being scared of what the future holds.
  • We reflect our hope in Christ by seeking to be like Him.

Through this–by living lives that are so radically different from all those around us–by reflecting our hope to them, we can draw them to that hope. When they ask us how we can possibly have hope, despite all the trials that are going on in our lives; 

  • How can we have hope now that our spouse has left us? 
  • How can we have hope now that we’ve received that terrible diagnosis from the doctor?
  • How can we have hope now that we’ve suddenly and tragically lost a loved one?
  • How can we have hope now that we’ve lost absolutely everything?

When asked these questions by the lost, we can look at them–at those souls who are so lost and disillusioned and desperately searching for something in which to hope–and we can tell them that our hope is not fixed upon anything in this world. We can say to them that our hope comes from the God who came to earth, who took our punishment and died for our sins, who then rose again out of the grave and ascended back into Heaven. We can tell them that our hope comes from the God who is alive today and sits upon His throne in Heaven; that our hope comes from the God who is above all the powers of this world. We can tell them that our hope is rooted in this God, who came and died and rose again and reigns on high today, and that He has promised that He will bring us to be with Him once again. We can tell them that, despite what happens to us, despite what goes on in the world around us, we have this promise from Him–we have hope.

The world is watching. Lead a life that reflects the hope you have in Christ. Let your life be a witness for Him and a living apology for all to see.

Artwork: “Blindfolded Hope Sitting on a Globe,”  George Frederic Watts, 1886.

Roll Your Sleeves Up.

Christianity, Religion

“Therefore, with your minds ready for action, be serious and set your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 1:13

In the days surrounding the New Year, it has become customary to look back over the year that is closing and to review its highs and lows. At the end of a  year, we take stock of that year, and we look forward with hope to a better year to come. With this hopeful anticipation comes another New Year’s custom–that of making resolutions. These resolutions are frequently related to self-improvement–eating healthier, losing weight, reading more–so as to improve the “success” of the upcoming year.

The trouble with New Year’s resolutions is that after the celebratory fervor of the New Year wears off, so too does the commitment to one’s resolutions. Frequently, as January closes out, we often find ourselves sliding into old habits–cheating on those diets, sleeping in when we should exercise, choosing to watch another episode of a show instead of reading that book that’s been living on the nightstand.

Sadly, we often experience such variations and fluctuations of commitment and apathy in our lives as followers of Christ. We may have had an emotional experience that resulted in our making a commitment to Christ, but as time goes on, that initial enthusiasm fades away. If time does not cause our faith to lose its luster, the advent of trials and hardship certainly can. Many people have bought into the lie that believing in Jesus will give them health, wealth, and success. The Bible says nothing to this effect; in fact, it says the opposite. In John 15, just before Jesus was betrayed and arrested, He says, “if the world hates you, you know it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, the world hates you. Remember the word I said to you, ‘A slave is not greater than its master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:18-20). Following Christ does not mean one will be free from experiencing heartache, grief, and suffering. Following Christ means being buffeted on all sides by the world and by the powers of the world.

Peter understood this firsthand. He endured prison and beatings because of his commitment to Christ. He wrote a letter of encouragement to believers in Asia Minor who were also suffering through trials and persecutions that befell them due to their faith. This letter, 1 Peter, was written roughly 2-3 years before Peter’s own death during the persecutions in Rome under Emperor Nero. In this letter of encouragement, Peter exhorts the Christians to remember that this world is not their home; that they are citizens of a land that is to come. He reminds them that these sufferings are only for a little while, but that God’s promise of salvation to them is eternal.

Peter also gives the suffering Christians a bit of advice: He tells them to be “ready for action and serious-minded.” Peter’s words in Greek literally translated are “gird up again your loins.” This phrase refers to the practice at this time of taking one’s robe and tucking it into a belt, so one could do work unencumbered by the robe. To use the language of our day, Peter told the believers to roll their sleeves up and stay focused on Christ. Peter encouraged these believers to continue in their faith, to stay focused on Christ, and to continue living as He called them to live, despite what it might cost the believers. If they lived, glory to God. If they died, glory to God– for their faith would become sight.

Millions of Christians today live in places where their faith costs them significantly. We must continually lift up these brothers and sisters in prayer, and those of us who are fortunate to live in places where we can freely practice our faith must ask ourselves if we take our faith as seriously as those who are dying because of their faith in Christ.

For those of us who are not persecuted: we must also heed Peter’s exhortation. We cannot let our faith be so weak that we allow setbacks, hardships, heartaches–no matter how minor or severe–diminish our faith. When times are good, we must be serious-minded and set our faith in Christ. When times are bad, we must roll up our sleeves and continue being serious-minded and focused upon Christ.

Resolve this year to being an obedient follower of Christ. Commit each and every day to serve Him and seeking to do His will. No other resolution is of any importance or relevance if you are not first focusing daily upon Christ. So roll up your sleeves and get to work.

Artwork: “Blacksmith’s Boy – Heel and Toe (Shaftsbury Blacksmith Shop),” Norman Rockwell, c. 1940.

Illogical.

Christianity, Religion

 “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written,

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul had to address several issues. The Corinthians were a raucous bunch, and the church was overflowing with spiritual problems. The church was full of division; there were factions who favored the teachings of certain men over others– some followed Paul, some Apollos; others followed Peter, while still others followed Christ (1 Corinthians 1:12). There was also a divide between the social classes within the church. Paul rebuked the Corinthian Christians for their practice of not eating the Lord’s Supper together as one body. The early churches observed the Lord’s Supper much differently than modern churches do; it would be a full meal at which the baptized members of the church would observe the ceremonial breaking of bread and drinking of wine. When the Communion would be partaken in Corinth, the wealthy members of the church would arrive before the poorer members, while many of the poorer members would still be working. The rich members would not wait for their poorer brethren to arrive, and would begin to eat and drink to excess. When the poor Christians finally did arrive at the communal meal, there would be no food remaining, and the rich Christians would be intoxicated. The Corinthians did not observe then Communion as a sacred act; instead, they treated it like a party. As if these issues were not enough, the Corinthian believers were accepting of an affair between a man and his step-mother, and nobody spoke out against this immorality that was going on within the church. Paul was, at the very least,  disappointed and disgusted with the lack of restraint that was so evident in Corinth; the letter that is now referred to as 1 Corinthians was his attempt to begin helping the Corinthians correct these grave issues.

One of the greatest strengths of the Apostle Paul’s writings was his ability to understand the context of the culture in which his audiences lived. As he said himself, he could be a Jew when among Jews, and a Greek when among Greeks. This cultural awareness is evident in the first chapter of 1 Corinthians as Paul goes to some lengths to discuss the “foolishness” of the Gospel. Paul understood the importance of logic, philosophy, and the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom that was so pervasive within Hellenistic culture. He dealt with this firsthand when he debated the Stoics and the Epicureans before the Areopagus in Athens in Acts 17. The fundamental core truth of the Gospel–that God would send His son, Jesus, to die for man’s salvation– was utterly illogical. Furthermore, as is also evidenced in Acts 17, the idea of a resurrection of the dead was equally laughable. Luke records in Acts 17:32 that “when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some began to sneer…” Paul was no stranger to the opposition to the Gospel that was put forth by those who claimed to be wise by the world’s standard of wisdom.

Paul, therefore, goes on to remind the Corinthian Christians that the world’s standard of wisdom is not the same as God’s, and it is God’s wisdom that they should be concerned about. A prophecy from Isaiah was quoted to reinforce the point that, along with everything else of this world, all man-centered wisdom would eventually pass away and be destroyed. The wisdom that man can ascertain for himself is nothing compared to the wisdom found in God. Compared to God and His wisdom, the wisdom of the world is nonsense.

 To those who have not been changed by Christ, this message would not make sense. To the non-believer, to the philosopher, to the seeker of wisdom the Gospel of the Cross is completely and totally ridiculous. It makes no sense that God–the Creator of the Universe–would send His son to die for the salvation of man–the creation. This kind of belief seems unfounded and illogical. Paul points out that the Greeks’ commitment to having a logical understanding of the world is what prevents them from seeing and understanding the beauty of the Gospel, just as the Jews’ demand for signs prevented them from seeing the signs being played out before them. The cross of Christ breaks all barriers, it is a stumbling block to those of any background, both Jew and Gentile, who don’t believe in it. The message of the cross was too illogical for the philosophers to take seriously. They, like the Jews, were too deeply committed to their own understanding of how the world was supposed to operate and they could not see the incredible work that God did through Christ and the cross. It was through this illogical and “foolish” act that God chose to save the world, and it was this foolish gospel that Paul preached, and is this foolish gospel that draws men and women back to God.

The beauty of the cross is that it makes no sense; its illogical nature is what gives it so much power. Yes, we can study the Old Testament and understand the deep symbolisms and fulfillment of prophecies that are contained within Christ’s death, but even then we are still forced to answer critical questions: Why God would come to Earth and allow Himself to die at the hands of His creation? Why didn’t God just start over again, as He did in the days of Noah? Why would God do this? Why wouldn’t God do that? There are any number of questions that we could ask and drive ourselves crazy with if we were to try to find logic in what Christ did. But that’s just the point–there is no logic in it. Christ’s actions defy any wisdom and understanding of man. We are not saved by finding the logic in Christ’s death; we are saved by having faith in His illogical outpouring of love and mercy and grace. We are not saved by uncovering some secret, hidden knowledge; we are saved by trusting in the God who came to die for us. 

We are foolish to think that we can predict how God will operate. We cannot put Him in a box and systematically predict what He will do. Our wisdom is not His; our wisdom is foolishness in comparison. The message of Christ crucified proves this;  the cross shows us how little we understand about how God operates. Thankfully, God does not operate according to our standard of logic. Our God operates in the illogical, like coming and dying to take away our sins, so that we might be allowed to have a new life with Him.

Artwork: “The Philosophers,” c. 1620-1625.

By Faith.

Christianity, Religion

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” ‭‭ Hebrews‬ ‭11:1-3‬

“And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” Hebrews‬ ‭11:39-40‬

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews‬ ‭12:1-2‬ ‭

The Letter to the Hebrews is a beautifully-written piece of Christian theology and doctrine. Though there are numerous speculations as to who its author was, the true identity is still unknown. What is known, however, is the purpose for which this letter was written. In the years following Christ’s ascension into Heaven, there was the belief that His return would be imminent. However, as time carried on, and Christ had yet to return, some Jewish believers began to think that maybe Jesus had not been the promised Messiah. These people began to go back into their old rituals and practices and started to once again wait for the coming of the Messiah. The author of Hebrews, determined to correct this fallacy and “falling away” (Hebrews 6:4-5), gives detailed teaching about the Jewish rituals and observances, and how Christ fulfilled all of these things in His life and death. The author of Hebrews uses the traditions and teachings of the Old Testament to make the fact that Jesus is the Messiah crystal clear.

In chapter eleven of Hebrews, this systematic approach of teaching through the Old Testament is on full display. In this chapter, the author highlights the importance of faith, and how it was by faith that the heroes and heroines of the ancient days, of the Old Testament, were gained their approval from God, and it was through a life of faith that they bore witness of God. It was by faith, by the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (Hebrews 11:1) that the people of old lived; they never saw God in the flesh, and many of them never lived to see God’s promises to them fulfilled, yet they trusted in God nonetheless. The writer of Hebrews goes through the Old Testament, person-by-person, to demonstrate how the figures in this “ Hall of Faith” lived out their faith in God, regardless of the cost. For some, like Noah and Abraham, this life of faith did not cost them their lives. For many of the prophets, their faith in God cost them everything: “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.  They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated— of whom the world was not worthy” (Hebrews 11:35-38). None of the people mentioned by the author of Hebrews received what was promised to them in their lifetime–they did not live to see their inhabitants become a great nation or live to see the coming of the Messiah–and yet they persisted in their faith, knowing that God would keep His promise in His time.

Where Hebrews 11 ends with those who did not live to see God’s promises come into fulfillment, Hebrews 12 begins with those who are living after the coming of Jesus the Messiah. Though the promise of the Messiah has been fulfilled, we must still live a life of faith. We must always press forward in life toward the promise of eternal life with God in His Kingdom. The heroes and heroines of the Old Testament, that “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), surround us and they have modeled for us how we are to live. We are to live as they did; with our eyes to the future and our faith firmly rooted in God. Christ, who is the author and perfecter of our faith, is now seated at the right hand of God. Since He endured our shame and punishment, He has enabled us to continue in the race that is life, and through our faith in Him, we can put aside the sins which so easily trip us up and drag us down. 

As we run our race, we must keep our eyes focused on Christ–as those of old focused on God the Father–because without Him and His help, we cannot finish the race. The race before us is not a sprint; it is a marathon. It is a race that will push us to our very limits; it is a race that will be long and arduous. Like those of old, our race might end painfully, and it might end without us seeing all of God’s promises coming into fruition. But as the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 1:21, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” While we live, we run the race that is before us; when we die, our race is done, and we are with Him.

Our lives today are just as much rooted in faith– rooted in the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen”–as were the lives of those in the Old Testament. We have not seen God, nor have we seen Christ. While we can look back at our individual lives before Christ saved us, and see how God worked in us and changed us, it is our faith that lets us know that the things that happened were done by God and not by chance or karma. It is by faith that we believe the Bible to be true. It is by faith in the hope that there is a better life to come that we continue forward–sometimes trudging–in this life. Most importantly, it is by faith in Christ, in Christ alone, that we are saved.

Those who came before us lived by faith, so too must we. Those who came before us left us a witness and a model to live by, we must do the same for those who will come after us. We can only do this by keeping our eyes focused on Jesus. We can only live by faith.

Draw courage from those who went before you. Keep your eyes on Christ. Live by faith. Leave a witness for those who come after you.

Artwork: Marc Chagall Tapestry in the Knesset, Israeli Parliament, c. 1960-1970 

Idols.

Christianity, Religion

 “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” 1 John 5:21

The Three Epistles of John are traditionally believed to have been written by the Apostle John, the same author of the gospel which bears his name, and the Revelation. The letters were likely written near the end of the first century A.D. to encourage believers in the faith, and to help them combat false teachings. John, by this point in time, was advanced in age and of the twelve disciples, was the only remaining living one. In these letters, he was giving the next generation of Christians invaluable doctrinal teaching upon which they can rely after he is gone. The constant refrain of “little children,” found throughout these epistles, helps reinforce the image of a beloved elderly figure–much like a grandfather–instructing his grandchildren how to live.

The first epistle, or letter, is primarily focused on reinforcing orthodox and accepted doctrine, as well as refuting heretical doctrines which were beginning to emerge at this time. Even at this early point in Christian history, there were views of Christ beginning that contradict what the Apostles and the churches taught. Such beliefs often focused on Christ and his human nature.  Some heretical views taught that Christ was just a spiritual being and that He did not have a physical body. Other views rejected His deity and taught that He was merely a man who had been incredibly enlightened by God. John uses this letter as an opportunity to combat these false teachings while also teaching the believers how to test for sound doctrine.

Throughout 1 John, there are cycles of repetition, which are to drill into the minds of the believers the sound doctrine to which they must cling, and use to combat false teaching. This repetition comes through in a series of tests; John most commonly presents these tests in an “if, then” format. We see this occur in several places in 1 John, such as in 2:3-4 where he writes “By this, we know that we have come to know Him if we keep His commandments. The one who says ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” John presents a test of proper belief– that if we know Christ, then we will keep His commandments. Those who do not pass these tests are not living as Christ taught.  

The tests that John presents to his audience are focused on three specific areas:  the first being righteousness– showing that the true Christian will seek to live a godly life. The second test focuses on love– demonstrating that the hallmark of the true Christian is that they will love others as Christ loved them. Lastly, there is the test of belief–meaning that the true Christian will adhere to and hold orthodox beliefs about Christ, such as His literal coming to earth in the flesh. If believers encountered anything which did not pass these tests, they would know that those teachings such be avoided and refuted. 

John ends the first of his letters with the line “Little children, guard yourselves from idols” ( 1 John 5:21). This plea appears out of nowhere; up to this point, there has been no mention of idols or idolatry. Why then would John mention this, seemingly in passing, at the end of his letter?

Certainly, idolatry would be something which confronted Christians of this time. The Mediterranean world, in which the early church emerged, was a hotbed of pagan religion; one need look no further than the cultures of ancient Rome and Greece to understand this. Pagan temples were everywhere, and worship of idols would be just as plentiful. The cultural situation in which early Christians found themselves was not entirely different than that in which Israel found itself in the Promised Land–surrounded by people who worshipped a plethora of gods. Knowing how idolatry plagued ancient Israel throughout its history, John certainly wanted to encourage the next generation of Christians to avoid this same tragic pitfall.

Even this understanding of John’s call to avoid idols doesn’t fit the overall scope of the letter. This face-level reading does not take into account the three tests that he continually relied upon throughout the letter. To get the full meaning of the message that John is communicating to his audience, we must read this command in the light of those tests. When we take this approach, John’s call takes on a whole new and deeper level of significance.

John’s call to avoid idols is best understood as avoiding twisting the gospel to fit what we want it to mean. For example, John previously demonstrated that sound doctrine could be determined through the test of righteousness–that the true believer in Christ will seek to live a godly life. However, what if one who professes to be a follower of Christ,  and continues to indulge in sin and does not seek to live as Christ commands? According to John, that person is preaching and practicing a false gospel. In other words, they’ve constructed for themselves a practice which is not the gospel of Christ, and that is idolatry.

What if one professes Christ and does not exhibit love for their brothers and sisters?  John taught that love was a hallmark of the true believer. Claiming to follow Christ and not demonstrating Christ-like love is the same as creating a new gospel, which is no different than idolatry. Similarly, if one holds beliefs that are contrary to what the Gospels and the Apostles taught about Christ, they are worshipping a false Christ, and a false Christ is no better than an idol.

When we look at the plea to avoid idols through the lens of the tests John put forth in this letter, we see just how much more severe this command is. We also realize that this plea is just as applicable to us today in the twenty-first century as it was to Christians in the first century. All around us, we see how people have taken Jesus and His teachings from the Gospels and twisted and tweaked them to fit whatever agenda they have. Charlatans masquerading as teachers of the Word spew forth any number of fallacious messages about Christ. They teach that He is accepting of sin, or that Christ wants to bless you with prosperity and a bountiful bank account in this life, and people eat this teaching up. Such teachings make a god of something other than God. These teachings are not sound, they are not true, and in John’s view, they are idolatrous. 

Idolatry didn’t disappear with the ancients; it is more prevalent than ever. Heed John’s plea; avoid the idols which are seeking to lure us away from the truth. 

Artwork: “Moses Indignant at the Golden Calf,” William Blake, c. 1800.

What’s Your Theology?

Christianity, Religion

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” Galatians 1:6-7

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” Galatians 5:6

The church in Galatia had a big problem. The issue confronting it wasn’t entirely unique; in fact, this issue was one that was being debated in numerous Christian assemblies during the first century AD.  The issue at hand was this: as the message of Jesus—a message rooted firmly in Judaism—spread to Gentile areas, and Gentiles began to accept Christ as Savior, did those Gentiles have to become Jews to be saved? More specifically, did Gentiles need to be circumcised to be part of the Christian community. Was circumcision necessary for salvation?

A prominent faction within the Galatian church said yes. So Paul, who had preached extensively throughout Galatia, penned his letter to the Galatian churches to set them straight.  Paul’s message was clear: there are no other means of salvation other than Christ. Circumcision—though once commanded by God—did not save anyone, only Christ’s atoning death accomplished this. In light of Christ’s death and resurrection, circumcision meant nothing.

It was imperative that Paul—and the church as a whole—nip this problem in the bud because what was being taught in Galatia was undermining the gospel of Christ. The message being spread in Galatia was that believing in Jesus as Messiah and Lord, and believing that He died to save us from our sins was not enough to obtain salvation. The Galatian “theology” was that one needed Christ AND circumcision; that one without the other was insufficient.  The Galatian theology said was that Christ’s sacrifice wasn’t enough on its own, that we must do something else in addition to it to obtain salvation.

Any teaching that says that Christ’s death isn’t enough to save us from our sins is heresy, as is any teaching that says humanity can do anything on its own to earn its salvation. Christ’s death is sufficient in and of itself, and salvation is the unmerited gift of God given freely by Him to those incapable of saving themselves—us.

We read the Epistle to the Galatians today, and we scoff at the fact that people were once teaching such a fallacious message. It baffles us to think that people would believe there was anything else that could possibly be needed in addition to Christ’s work for salvation to be obtained. But, when we examine our own hearts and practices, we realize that we often make this same mistake. Our hang-ups today aren’t over the issue of circumcision, but there are many other issues we have replaced it with. Are we following sound theology and believing in the only gospel—the true gospel of Jesus who died to save us—or do we, in our own practices, add things to Christ?  Do we truly believe that Christ’s death was sufficient to give us salvation, or do we put faith in our works as well, or in the practices that we develop? Is our theology Christ and Christ alone, or is it Christ and whatever we think we can do to earn God’s favor? If we elevate other things— good works or the “right” theological interpretations or anything else—to the point of being equal with Christ in our theology, those things will very soon replace Christ in our theology.

So, what’s your theology? Is Christ alone sufficient, or are you adding something else to Him?

Artwork: “The Three Crosses,” Rembrandt, 1653.