In Whose Love?
“for Christ to dwell through faith in your heart, being rooted and established in love,”
Christ’s indwelling through faith is established and rooted in our hearts with love. The important question to ask, though, is “Whose love?” All too often, people look to this as a way to plug human works into either their salvation or at least into their sanctification. But, if it is our love that grounds and roots Christ in our hearts, then we are going to be on a roller-coaster ride with respect to faith. For indeed, our love is fickle and failing. When things go well, we may tend to burst with love for God, but when things go very, very well, we tend to allow our ego and pride to step in. When things go poorly, we are often on our knees and adoring God for his daily provision, but when things go really, really poorly, then we often doubt and ask where God is and once again, our human doubts give rise to pride and sin.
No, what roots and establishes Christ in our hearts is the love of God. The love of God for whom? Ultimately, it is the love of God for Christ and, as the elect are in Christ, the love of God for us (Romans 8:39). Does God love those outside of his elect? That is one of those questions that Christians have debated and created theological gymnastics to seek to defend. If we look honestly at Scripture, though, God clearly says that it is Jacob that he loves and Esau that he hates and then uses this to illustrate his election (Romans 9:10-14). It would seem that God has stored up the wicked for the day of wrath (Romans 9:22), and praise be to God that he has sovereignly chosen to deliver some of us from that day for his own glory (Romans 9:23). If you wish to be delivered, too, the call is to repent and believe…but it takes the work of God giving you spiritual rebirth before you can do so.
But does that mean that God does not show any love toward the wicked? Some will argue for various forms of God’s love, but that seems to be importing philosophical categories into the Scriptures…categories that are not consistently found within the Scriptures and thus can make understanding God’s character rather subjective. It seems better to simply say that God brings blessings into the life of the just and the unjust alike (Matthew 5:45) and that the blessings upon the life of the unjust come primarily as a byproduct of God’s blessings on the just. Did not God say to Abraham that the nations would find their blessings through his line (Genesis 12:3)? Have Christians not inherited the promises of Abraham (Galatians 3:29; 2 Corinthians 1:20-22)? Are we not the continuation of true Israel (Romans 9:6-7)? And, those crumbs that fall to the dogs (Matthew 15:26-27), will it not cause the reprobate to be doubly accountable for their sin?
Indeed, one of the great blessings is that Christ in us through faith does not rest on us, but that it rests upon the foundation of God’s love for us through Christ. While our love varies with our every disobedience to God’s covenant (John 14:15), God’s love does not vary. There is no shadow due to change (James 1:17). And that should instill in us a desire to praise and to serve Him.
The Gospel of Peace
“Also, having come, he preached the Gospel of peace to you who are far off and peace to you who are near, for through him we have access, both of us in one Spirit, to the Father.”
It strikes me as odd that people do not seem to notice that as America moves further and further away from the Christian faith, we have become more violent and more divided than ever. To the Christian, who understands that the Gospel is a Gospel of peace and of reconciliation, the correlation should be obvious. Yet, it does not seem to be. People keep looking for a political solution to our problems; that may, at best, put a bandage on some of the wounds, but it does not get at the heart of the problem, which is sin. That sin separates us from God and from fellow man and if there is a time for the Gospel to be heard, that time is now. So, while I do vote, and commend Christians to do the same, I vote for those who I think will best uphold those Biblical values upon which my life is built, but I am under no delusion in thinking that one politician or another is going to bring a time of revival and overall spiritual wellbeing to our country.
In context, Paul is still addressing the unity that Christ has worked between God and man as well as man and man. It is no longer a matter of being Jew or Gentile or Barbarian; if we are in Christ, we are one person by the work of the Holy Spirit and are presented to God in peace — free from the penalty of sin. Jesus has paid that in full for His elect.
So, whether we were far off (the Gentile nations) or near (in Jerusalem or Israel), God has brought us together through this Gospel that brings peace. We must be clear that the primary sense of this peace is peace between man and God. But, when we are at peace with God, joined together as one body with others, then we will find ourselves at peace with one another. The world is to know that we belong to Jesus by the love we have for one another (John 13:34-35). The easiest way to determine whether a person is a true Christian is to observe how they behave toward other true Christians, for if they do not love those who are in the body, they truly do not have God in their heart (1 John 3:10). This, of course, John has said in the same context as making a practice of righteous living. If you want to know whether someone is a true Christian or just a scoundrel using the church for his own ends, this is as good a starting place as any. So, how does it describe you?
Love and Hate
“A time to love and a time to hate; a time for battle and a time for peace.”
Much of human history can be parsed by the wars that nations have waged against one another. And while many wars in the history of man have been about the expansion of power, there is great wisdom here from Solomon when he talks about a time to go to war and a time to make peace. There is indeed a time when war is justified for the common good of mankind — resisting the Nazi’s during World War II, for instance (and there are numerous other examples).
Yet, this verse is not just about geopolitical matters, it is about personal struggles as well. There is a time to love one another, but Solomon makes it very clear that there is also a time for hatred. In our modern society, hatred is considered a bad thing and something to be repressed, yet that is not the testimony of Scripture (so long as that hatred is properly directed). Indeed, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:39) and we are to love our enemies (Luke 6:27), so in what context are we supposed to hate?
We are to hate evil (Psalm 97:10; Amos 5:15). We are to hate the works of those who tempt us to sin (Revelation 2:6). We are to hate the things of this world (Luke 14:26). We are to hate falsehood (Psalm 119:163). In short, we are to hate sin and to strive against it. Is there ever a place to express hatred toward people? At times, but here we must be careful for we do not always know who God will eventually call to faith in himself. Even so, the Bible speaks about hating those who openly stand against God and his Saints (Psalm 129:5; 139:21).
The challenge for the believer is to discern between that which we will love and that which we will hate. Jesus says that we cannot serve two masters for we will end up loving one and hating the other (Matthew 6:24), so begin by asking yourself, whom do you serve? When an action comes in conflict with God’s command in Scripture, to which do you give priority? We often say we love God but then bind ourselves in sin…if that is the case, whom do you really love by your actions? Repent.
Solomon reminds us that there is a time for love and a time for hatred. The time for love is when you are doing the things of God and attending to His Word. The time for hatred is when you are gazing upon your own sins. The sign of maturity, though, is not only keeping those two things straight, but acting upon it. There comes a point in time that if you really hate something, you will strive to keep it out of your life. Yet, how often we do not do so. Repent if these words apply to you.
To be Nice or Loving?
“And he said to them, ‘What have I done now? Compared with you? Are not the gleanings of Ephriam better than the vintage of Abiezer? Into your hands God has given the princes of Midian and Oreb and Ze’eb. What am I able to do compared to you?’ Then their spirit withered from being against him when he said these words.”
I have been told that discernment and timing are the key to negotiations. Sometimes one speaks softly and sometimes one speaks with an uncompromising authority. My grandfather spent many years negotiating with unions on behalf of King Instruments in the mid-Twentieth Century. One story he told was of a very tense negotiation over the fact that several of the parts King was using on their instruments were made overseas and the Union officials wanted them to be manufactured in America. The two men were at an impasse until my grandfather pulled out a cigarette and asked the Union negotiator for a light. The Union man pulled out the official Union lighter and handed it to my grandfather, who looked at it and slammed it back down on the table — the Union’s lighter had been made overseas. My grandfather had won the negotiation right then and there in that simple action.
Gideon was in a similar situation. The men of Ephriam complained. They were not excited about confronting the Midianites when things looked dark but now the Midianites were on the run and Ephriam wanted to share in more of the glory. They had effectively accused Gideon of hogging the spotlight.
Gideon’s response is masterful. He essentially says, “Oh my, but you did so much more than I could have done — your successes are much more glorious than mine. You captured these princes, but what has little old Gideon done?” One might accuse Gideon of a little flattery here, but if it is flattery, it is flattery joined with a touch of sarcasm. For what has Gideon done in compared to Ephriam? Gideon was God’s chosen servant in overthrowing not only the Midianites but also the idolatry in the land of Israel which had brought on the Midianite invasion in the first place. Surely the vintage of Gideon’s father is much better than the gleanings that the Ephriamites have been left. And all of this was God’s choosing.
It seems that the jab is not lost on the men of Ephriam. Most of our English translations speak of the anger of Ephriam abating as a result of Gideon’s statement. Literally the text reads that their “spirit withered” from being against him. The implication of the text is not so much that Gideon flattered these men, but that he spoke words that had an edge to them and put these men in their place — much as my grandfather had put the Union negotiator in his place. It is sure that these Ephriamites returned to their task humbled before Gideon’s words.
Unlike my grandfather, I do not enjoy confrontation and would make a lousy negotiator in high-stakes settings. We all have different gifts. At the same time, as we read the Bible, over and over there are times when God’s people are called to be confrontational and I have found, in cases where such is necessary, the Holy Spirit gives us the strength and the words to use.
One of my fears is that Christians have been taught in church and in society that we are not to be confrontational and we have confused non-confrontation with love. Non-confrontation may prove to be “nice” but it is certainly not loving. Further, most people who know me well, know that I do not much like the word “nice” when applied to Christians. Nice has its origins in the Latin word niscere, which means “unknowledgeable.” In Middle English it was used the way we would use the word, “stupid,” and Christians should be neither stupid nor unknowledgeable.
Unlike being nice, love is confrontational. Love confronts those things that bring harm to the one who is the object of one’s love. If a child is threatened, a loving parent becomes a fierce adversary of the one who is threatening to bring harm. That is just what love does. And love confronts sin because sin harms the person who is sinning and harms the relationships one has with others. It may be “nice” to let someone go about their way doing whatever they please, but it is not love. And Christians are called to be known by their love (John 13:34-35). Gideon’s response to the men of Ephriam was not nice by any stretch of the imagination, but it was loving because it shut their mouths to their sin…and isn’t that better?
Studying God’s Honor
“The last thing, brothers, is that whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is upright, whatever is holy, whatever is lovely, whatever is praiseworthy, if there is virtue and if there is praise, think on these things.”
Though in English the words praise and praiseworthy come from the same root, Paul employs two different words here in the Greek to emphasize his point. We already spoke above about that which is worthy of praise, as he closes this verse, he is speaking of that which generates admiration or approval within us. When applied to humans, this word is sometimes translated as “fame,” but perhaps honor is a better term. Towards God, it reflects the notion of giving praise and honor to His name (see Philippians 1:11).
All of that which Paul speaks about culminates in this…honoring God. It is this notion that drives our sanctification and our life as believers. Yet how often we choose to set our minds and thoughts on other things during the day, during the weeks, and during the years. How often we set our affections on the things of this world rather than on the one who is most worthy of our honor.
It has long been my position that while most relationships begin in the shared experiences that people have with one another; lasting and mature relationships make a transition. Instead of falling in love with the person through the things that are done together we fall in love with the person because of who they are — their attributes and personalities and things like this. Genuine love and relationship with God is nurtured in the same way. We may begin our relationship with God through a deliverance from sin, through a grace that was given, or through a recognition of our own wicked and fallen state. Yet don’t stop the relationship there, because the relationship you have with God will mature as you grow deeper in your understanding of God’s character as revealed in his Word.
Thus, spend time focusing on a character trait of God. He is love, he is Truth, he is a God of justice and grace. God is creative and powerful and while loving toward his own, he pours out his wrath upon the wicked. Think on these things. Study how God reveals these character traits of his in the Scriptures. Pursue him through his character. And note too, Paul’s language…think on these things. God has given us minds to understand; he expects us to use our minds to understand his character as he reveals it. Such an understanding will draw us closer to him but such an understanding will also draw us away from the things of the world that distract and pull us away from godliness.
Pursuing Virtue is a Virtue
“The last thing, brothers, is that whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is upright, whatever is holy, whatever is lovely, whatever is praiseworthy, if there is virtue and if there is praise, think on these things.”
Virtue is again one of these words we don’t hear a lot in our modern, western culture…perhaps apart from a phrase that no one really seems to take seriously: “Patience is a virtue.” Indeed, patience is a virtue but few people seem to want to work on practicing patience as they live out their lives. Everyone seems to want the things they want… “And we want them, NOW!”
Yet there is more to the idea of a virtue than just patience. The meaning of the term is to have “excellence of character.” Interestingly, this Greek term only shows up 4 times in the New Testament…in each case, commending us to live virtuous lives, but never giving us a detailed exposition of those traits that one might consider virtuous. Yet, as we study the Bible, we are not left to our own imaginations as to defining the term for virtue, because it is also used 6 times in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and in each case, the term is applied to the character of God. Thus, it is God’s character that defines what is virtuous and as we seek to model our lives after the example of Jesus Christ, we then seek virtue.
In historic Christian theology, virtue was often defined as “Faith, Hope, and Love,” reflecting Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 13. During the reign of King Louis IX (1226-1270 AD) in France, the notion of Christian virtue was nuanced slightly to become “faith, wisdom, and chivalry,” but again, embracing the notion of excellence in character. In the Roman Catholic Catechism, they present 7 virtues (to contrast with the “Seven Deadly Sins”) by combining the ancient Greek “Cardinal Virtues” of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage with the three “Theological Virtues” of faith, hope, and love.
However you construct or deconstruct these lists, the end result should be the same…we should emulate the character of God as we live our lives and in doing so, that produces virtue within us. God is the source and seat of all virtue, we will only find that virtue in emulating Him and His ways. Further, Peter reminds us that adding virtue to the faith God has given to us is not simply a virtuous thing to do, but it is commanded lest we remain “nearsighted to the point of blindness” (2 Peter 1:9).
Hatred of Christ
“For many are walking — as I frequently told you, and even now tell you with tears — as ones who hate the cross of Christ.”
What happens when someone refuses to follow the model of Paul as Paul follows the model of Christ? Sadly, Paul reminds us, that person demonstrates their hatred for the cross of Christ and for the redemption that was achieved on that cross. The Heidelberg Catechism words it that we have a natural tendency to hate God and to hate fellow man.
But why such a strong word? What is someone is just ambivalent? Could there just be a kind of agnostic position where a person is just not interested but is not actively engaging in hatred? The answer is clearly, “no.” Jesus stated very clearly, “If you love me you will obey my commandments” (John 14:15). Jesus further builds on that notion that “whoever has my commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves me…and will be loved by my Father” (John 14:21). In other words, obedience is the mark of one’s love for the Son and if we do not love the Son we will not be loved by the Father. That in itself should be a convicting message.
But why hate? There are some, for example, that will argue that ambivalence is the opposite of love, not hatred. There is something to be said there…but let me suggest a different explanation, as I would argue that ambivalence is a form of hatred…typically expressed in passive-aggressive behavior. Hatred can be lived out either passionately (we might call that enmity) or passively (passive-aggressive behavior, ignoring the person, etc…). Either way it is hatred and in both contexts, obedience is not present.
Jesus tells a parable about two sons (Matthew 21:28-32) and each was asked to work in the vineyard. The first said yes but didn’t (passive-aggressive behavior) and the second said no (active refusal — an expression of enmity) but then repented and went to work. The first clearly represents the priests and the Jewish establishment who committed themselves to obedience in their vows yet didn’t; the second represents the active sinners who had openly rebelled against God and then repented and did what God commanded. Jesus asks the question…which did the will of the Father? Doing the will of the Father is another way of speaking about obedience and thus when Paul looks upon those who are actively or passively in disobedience, he speaks of them as hating Christ.
With this before us, we should be reminded, then, that Paul’s language is not just speaking about those who are outside of the church, but of those who are inside of the visible church but who, by their very actions, demonstrate their hatred for Christ and the cross. Most who are in this group in the church would not like to think of themselves as hating Christ, but if they do not walk in obedience as they live out every corner of their lives, then what does that say about their hearts? What does it say about our own hearts, too, when we choose to be disobedient in small things or in great things in our lives? And no, we don’t get the choice of picking and choosing either…Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, that means that all of Scripture is ultimately what He has commanded and what we are to obey in its proper context. No, we will not get it correct perfectly in this life, but we ought strive in that direction. Will you?
Mentoring, Paul’s Way
“I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timothy to you soon in order that I may be encouraged by the knowledge of you.”
On one level, this is a continuation of the spirit that Paul has been expressing toward the people in Philippi. He holds them in high esteem and with great affection, so surely firsthand news of how they are going, brought to him through Timothy, will encourage his heart while he is in prison. How one mark of the believer is that he (or she) has a sincere desire to know how the church is doing, and a desire to rejoice with the saints (if even from a distance) with their successes. How sad it is when there is either no interest or, the interest is more of a competitive nature where one takes some degree of satisfaction in the struggles of another congregation.
On another level, we might also speak of the language that Paul uses when he speaks of how he hopes to send Timothy to them. He does not speak generically of hope, but places his hope in the Lord Jesus. This echoes James’ language when he speaks of doing this or that, “Lord willing” (James 4:13-15), remembering that God is sovereign not over our salvation, but over all of the occasions of our lives and over the opportunities that we may or may not receive. He numbers our days and we cannot move either to the right or to the left without God’s sovereign permission in our lives.
Yet, I do believe that the most significant notion in these words is that of Timothy’s role as a surrogate visitor for Paul to Philippi. We have already seen that Timothy has been mentioned as being present with Paul while he is here in prison and most of us know of the close relationship that these two men had as mentor and student. Even so, Paul is willing to send Timothy to the church, depriving himself of the comfort of Timothy’s presence, so that news might be brought from the church in Philippi.
Remember, these were times when news (and people) did not travel as fast as it does today. A departure by Timothy would not be a short event but likely would have lasted even for months (depending on the seasons and storms brewing). Yet, Paul was willing to make such a sacrifice for said knowledge. But more than that, for Timothy was essentially the one into whose hands Paul’s ministry would fall. Here Paul is preparing to send Timothy out to this church to minister to them on his behalf, essentially placing this responsibility on Timothy’s shoulders.
And that is the heart of mentoring. How often as leaders, employees, coaches, and even as parents we want to micromanage the lives of those we are leading or mentoring along so that everything goes smoothly and that they don’t make the mistakes that we made as we learned. Now, while I agree that I do not wish for my children (for example) to make many of the mistakes that I made when younger, we must always recognize often we learn more through our mistakes than we learn through our successes. Many of the mistakes we made getting to where we are now are mistakes that, in God’s providence, have guided us to where we are now. Certainly, there are mistakes that no one should make and only by the grace of God were we brought through them — these we should guide others away from — but other mistakes, when made, do not need to be the end of all things, but can be turned into a learning experience from which maturity can develop. Paul does not micromanage Timothy; similarly, we should not micromanage those whom we mentor.
Feeding One Another
“Considering not only your own things but also the things of each other.”
Clearly, this statement goes hand in hand with the words that have come before it…that of considering others as more significant than yourself. We have become very much a “me first” generation. We focus on taking care of our own needs first then the needs of our families. Then, after we take care of our own needs, we look to the community and to the church with whatever happens to be left over. Such is not the definition of sacrifice; it is the definition of selfishness. Abel offered to God that which was best while Cain offered to God that which was left over…which did God accept? Whose offering does our offering look more like? Cain’s?
Paul gives us the definition for a humble Christian lifestyle right here in these few words: count not only your own needs as important, but also look to meeting the needs of your neighbor…particularly those neighbors who happen to be born-again believers. If we, as a church, want to be seen once again as a vital member of our community, then this is how it will take place…we will serve the needs of others and not just needs that we perceive we have for ourselves.
Loved ones, God has a habit of using a life that is not interested in his or her own glory, but gives all of the glory to God. One of the ways we learn to have that mindset is by counting the needs of others as more significant than our own. Truly, that does not come easily to us; our sin nature resists it; but it is that for which we should strive. And like the verse above, when I meet with people in counseling situations (especially marital counseling situations) 9 times out of 10, the source of the problem is selfishness. Each party wants needs met before they will be willing to meet the needs of their spouse. Until we adopt the mindset that we are interested in our spouse’s needs (regardless of whether she meets ours) and we trust in God to meet all of our needs through prayer, then we will be stuck in frustration. Joy comes when we care for each other.
A story is told of a man getting a tour of heaven and hell. In Hell he found that people were all skinny and emaciated and then he saw why…they all had arms that were fused straight (no bending at the wrist or elbow). They could not feed themselves. Then the man went to heaven and found that people’s arms were fused straight as well, yet people were well fed and content. Then he saw why: everyone fed one another, not themselves. That is a picture of what Paul is speaking of here but I would put forward another thought — not only ought we expect the body of Christ to feed each other (not themselves) in heaven, should we not expect that on earth as well? If we don’t strive for this, we rob ourselves of true blessedness.
Preferences and Desires
“Now, I am absorbed by the two. The longing I have is to depart and be with Christ for that is much more preferable; but to remain in the flesh is more needful on your account.”
This is one of the major themes of the book of Philippians…considering the needs of others as more significant than the desires of oneself. We will see this idea developed more fully in chapter 2, but it is scattered throughout the theme of this letter. Such was the mindset of Christ, was the mindset of Paul, and is meant to be our mindset as well. I earnestly believe that the great majority of our conflicts…whether marital or in social settings…stem back to pride and selfishness…we want our way and what we desire and the needs of others are seen as secondary. If we could genuinely say with the Apostle Paul, “I would rather, but you need this more…” then I suggest that the vast majority of our conflicts would be resolved very differently than they are resolved now.
Paul begins these verses with the reflection that his mind is absorbed by these two things that are before him…he is not entirely sure what is going to take place next. He is pondering God’s direction. He goes on to assert his longing to be with Christ. He has had a long ministry that was filled with great triumphs but also with great hardships — just read 2 Corinthians 11 to put the hardships in perspective — Paul is waiting to complete his race. At the same time, he recognizes that the timing of that race’s completion is in God’s hands, not his own. He also is aware that there is still need that he continue to labor for the good of the church that is in its infancy around him. Thus, he recognizes the need for that which is preferable to be placed on hold so that what is necessary can be done. Fruitful labor will be God’s choice for Paul’s life, and though he desires to depart, what we see in this saint is that he will change his desires to align them with God’s desires.
And this is the lesson we must learn ourselves. Often, when God leads us into a new area of our lives or opens a door to minister to others, we may go through and do so begrudgingly. Often, we even say, “Yes, I would have much rather done something different, but God led me here.” While that statement may be true (at least at the outset), as Christians, we must not allow that statement to remain true for us. A big part of following God is that of taking our desires and aligning our desires with God’s desires. We should learn to desire what God desires and when God shows you his design, you should re-align your desires along the path that he reveals. I won’t suggest that is an easy task, but I will put forth that in Christ it is possible.
Thus, as you go forward this day, keep this model of the Apostle Paul in front of you. Seek to give priority to the needs of others around you rather than your own preferences and then seek to find your joy and desire in the things God would have you set them in…not in those things you prefer. And in doing so, see what God does through and in you.
Love guarded by Knowledge and Discernment
“And this is my prayer: that your love might overflow more and more in knowledge and all discernment.”
And so, out of Paul’s love for his friends in the church in Philippi, he offers up his prayer for them as they seek to grow in their spiritual maturity. He begins with a prayer for agape love…there are several different words in the Greek to reflect different aspects of love; agape love reflects the idea of a sacrificial love that loves regardless of whether the love is reciprocated on the part of the beloved. Ultimately, it is the love demonstrated by Christ who died for the sins of the elect while we were yet dead in our sin and in rebellion against the King of Heaven. It is also the kind of love that all believers are to strive toward as we live our our lives in community…as the old hymn based on John 13:35 goes: “They shall know we are Christians by our love.”
But notice something. Often Christians seem to end there when they talk about God’s design for our lives. There is an assumption that we are just to love one another, love the world, and all will be happy. And what we end up with oftentimes is this mushy, sappy, love that has no real backbone to it. Yet, Paul does not end his prayer here. Paul asks that the agape love that the church would have would indeed overflow (arguably a reference to Psalm 23:5), but that it would overflow in knowledge and discernment.
In other words, love does not stand on its own, but is guarded and guided by something else in the life of the believer. The term that Paul uses for knowledge is ejpi/gnwsiß (epignosis), which is typically used to refer to a knowledge of the transcendent — a knowledge of that which is outside of you, whether moral or spiritual. And while the term ai¡sqhsiß (aisthasis), which we translate here as “discernment” only shows up once in the New Testament, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is found 22 times in the Book of Proverbs (no great surprises there). Thus, according to Paul’s prayer for spiritual maturity, love does not stand alone, it is accompanied by both the knowledge of God and the discernment that comes from the fear of the Lord.
The idea virtue seems to have been replaced by freedom in our culture today. People champion personal expression and personal pleasure over the idea of chivalry, honor, integrity, and duty. People seem to value personal experience over transcendent truth. And that shift is a dangerous one for the culture; more significantly, it is our calling as a church to pull the culture back from the edge of the cliff. But we cannot do that unless we, as Christians who make up the church, also embrace a Biblical model of knowledge and discernment that guides and guards our love. May indeed Paul’s prayer for the church in Philippi be a prayer that we embrace in our lives and may we strive to cultivate the knowledge of God (found in the scriptures) and godly discernment (begun with a fear of the Lord) in our lives in every way.
“For God is my witness how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.”
What a beautiful line this is as he expresses his desire to be with the Philippian believers. His desire is to be with them and the desire is great. This is more than a man simply being homesick while he sits in chains, wishing to be out of bondage. Were this simply an expression of Paul’s homesickness, we could write this statement off, but such would not be consistent with the character of the Apostle Paul who has discovered (as he will later write) that he has discovered how to be content in all things. Here is a man with a genuine affection for the church of Jesus Christ.
As we reflect on the nature of Paul’s affection for the church, it ought to cause us to ask whether we share the same affection for Christ’s church in our midst. Do we love the people of Christ’s church in the same manner or with the same intensity as Jesus loves them? Would we gladly be willing to suffer for the church? Would we gladly be willing to die for the church? If not, are we ready to repent? For is this not the model to which we are called? And if we are not able to love other believers, with whom we will spend eternity and with whom we are counted as one body, then how will we show the love of Christ toward unbelievers?
Loved ones, my fear is that the church has fallen into the trap of living with a wester-self-centered mindset. My fear is that the church has fallen into the trap of living for itself rather than sacrificing itself for others. My fear is that the church would not be able to say with the Apostle Paul, “how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.” And if my fears are true, what of our witness to a watching world? May the world look upon us as a people that seek to serve Christ and not ourselves nor our institutions. And as the world looks at us, and sees the love of Christ in us for one another, may the world desire to partake of that which God has done in us.
“And Rebekah lifted her eyes and saw Isaac; she fell from her camel and said to the servant, ‘Who is this man walking in the field to summon us?’ And the servant said, ‘He is my lord.’ Thus she took her veil and covered herself. So the servant recounted to Isaac all of the things he had done. So Isaac led her to the tent of Sarah, his mother, and he took Rebekah to be his wife and he loved her. In this way Isaac was consoled after his mother.”
The journey has come to an end. Rebekah has returned with Eliezer; Isaac has returned from Beer-Lachay-Roiy; and Abraham surely is satisfied with the providence of God. This ending has all the marks of one of the great romance stories — the two, whom God has matched together, finally meet, though at first seeing each other from a distance. You can almost envision Rachael dismounting and covering herself as would have been the custom for those so engaged to marry, and Isaac running in their direction.
Now I do need to make a note of the language that is used to speak of Rebekah dismounting her camel. One might have expected a different term than the one that is used here. For example, when Achsah dismounted her donkey (Judges 1:14), the author uses the term jnx (tsanach), which means “to dismount.” Yet, in our instance, Moses chooses the much more generic term lpn (naphal), which literally means “to fall down.” Sometimes the term is used of someone accidentally falling, sometimes it is used of someone falling in battle or collapsing, and sometimes it refers to someone falling prostrate on the ground, but typically it refers to something done either in great passion or with some degree of awkwardness (or clumsiness). Though I am not suggesting a comic reading of the text where Rebekah falls flat on her face, I would suggest that the word choice is there to help relieve some of the tension of the account and remind us that Rebekah is just as perfectly human as each one of the rest of us — an awkward dismount from a camel after a long trip or otherwise.
Whether clumsy or graceful, Isaac takes Rebekah to be his wife, allowing her to take possession of his mother’s tent, something that would have been a proper privilege and thus Isaac finds comfort. Isaac was 37 years old when his mother died (Genesis 23:1 — noting that she was 90 when she gave birth, Genesis 17:17). While we don’t know the exact amount of time between the death of Sarah and the sending of Eliezer to find Rebekah nor how long the actual journey took, the combined span of time was a total of 3 years as Isaac is 40 years old at the point where he marries (Genesis 25:20), which means that at this point in history, Abraham is 140 years of age. He will live another 35 years before he passes away, even taking another wife (see Genesis 25), but the covenantal work to which Abraham has been called is complete and we are getting ready to see the baton be passed from Abraham to his son, Isaac. One generation following after the other.
As a father, one of the greatest blessings is to see your children walking in faith after you — and your grandchildren and further generations as well. Isaac is far from perfect (and even makes some of the errors of his father), but he is a man of faith and a man who knows the grace and covenant faithfulness of God. He has had a long journey under his father’s guidance and now is ready to raise sons of his own. It should be noted though that children rising up and calling their parents blessed is not something that happens without a great deal of work in the raising of our children. It seems that many Christians today have adopted the idea that their kids will automatically grow up to be Christians and then sit back and let their kids follow whatever course they happen to follow. Yet scripture is filled with reminders — teach these things to your children and to your children’s children. If we do not show our children the way we are going, why are we surprised when they do not follow? Do not simply take them to church, but live the Christian walk as you live before them and teach them why every element of your Christian faith is true, reasonable, and essential to life not only in this world but thereafter as well.
“And Abraham said to his servant, the oldest in his household who ruled over all which were before him, ‘Please put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear before Yahweh, the God of heaven and the God of earth that you will not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites with whom I dwell. You must go to my relatives that are in my land and take a wife for my son, Isaac.”
It seems that people tend to dwell on the practice of setting one’s hand on the thigh (or loins) of another to swear an oath, a practice, it seems that was rather distinct to Abraham and Jacob (Genesis 47:29). Traditionally, Jewish commentators have held that the significance of the placement is related to the covenantal sign of circumcision given by God to all who would serve him. Christian commentators have also cited the significance of the loins as the place from which descendants come, again, tying the act to God’s promise.
Yet, the statement that is far more important is that which follows: Abraham does not want Isaac to take a wife from amongst the Canaanites. Here, Abraham surely must be remembering the terrible effect on the life of Lot and his family as a result of Lot’s action in taking a Sodomite wife. How typical it is that when a believer marries an unbeliever, the unbeliever drags the believer down, not the other way around. The Apostle Paul also builds on this idea, applying it to Christians:
“You must not be unequally yoked with those who do not believe; for what participation does righteousness have with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”
(2 Corinthians 6:14)
Paul is using the Old Testament prohibition of plowing with an ox and a donkey together (Deuteronomy 22:10) to illustrate the effect of mismated people within marriage, implying to some degree that believers and unbelievers are different species (children of light and children of the devil!). In addition, when God formed Eve from the rib of Adam, he formed her to be his helpmate. The task given to Adam was obedience (you shall not eat…) and worship in his work (you shall work and keep this garden). Thus the wife’s primary task is to assist her husband in his worship of God in all he does. How can she do so if she is a pagan and not committed to the One True God of Heaven and Earth? How can a believing wife help a pagan husband to worship God when his heart is already committed to serving the works of his hands? How important it is that we be equally yoked together.
Thus, as Abraham has come to the point where he is too old for the task of traveling and finding a wife for his son, he entrusts this task to his eldest and most trusted servant — the steward over his household. Go back to my homeland and find a wife for Isaac. There is an interesting implication being made here, though God has made the Covenant with Abraham, it seems that those from whom he descended are not so idolatrous that they do not know of the God of creation. I would not venture to call them believers as there still are idols as part of their cultural worship, but they are not as “lost” as are the Canaanites that surround where Abraham has chosen to dwell. We must be careful not to push this inference too far, but there is significance in the idea that the children of Abraham’s brother are oriented in such a way that they will follow Yahweh’s call and serve him in covenantal fellowship.
Beloved, the account of Abraham’s life is coming to a close (though he will take another wife) and this is the one last covenantal task that he has left to perform. How alien it is to us in the west who are used to choosing our own spouses to see this action taking place. For most of the world through most of history, men and women’s weddings were arranged by their parents or by their guardians. In that context, you did not marry because you fell in love, but you fell in love because you were married. How, in today’s world of convenience marriages and divorces, we can learn a great deal from those who have gone before us and chosen the act of love because marriage was a life and death covenantal arrangement.
Bread and Circuses
Let me paint a picture for you of a culture where the Senate ruled over the people and the “commoners” had little say over what laws were enacted in the land. The culture that I am describing was one where many flocked to the cities of jobs, though they would only earn poverty level wages. Healthcare was available, but only for those who had the wealth to afford it; most suffered under whatever folk remedies happened to be available. Infectious disease was rampant in the poor sections of the cities and the government did little more than turn a blind eye to their situation. About the only thing that the society could expect in terms of assistance was a little bit of free grain and free tickets to an occasional arena even — “bread and circuses.”
I am trusting that this description sounds fairly familiar, but I am not talking about our own society, but am instead talking about the first century Roman empire. For the elite, it was a comfortable time in history: there was art, culture, relative order in the empire, abundant access to wealth, and there was rule of law to keep the “rabble” in their place. For the poor, it was a life of hard labor, starvation, and death. The bread was meant to keep the poor working and the tickets to the games was meant to keep the poor from revolting — the ancient precursor to television, one might argue. And it is into this world that God chose to send his Son, taking on flesh and living not amongst the rich, but amongst the poor.
It has been said that compassion is a character trait that is learned, not one that is natural to us. Our default is typically to take care of “ol’ number one” first and others second. If that is the case, and I think that there is merit to the idea, then the ultimate teacher of compassion is God himself. In both Hebrew and Greek, the same word is used to describe both compassion and mercy, and that is what God was doing when he sent his Son to come into this world, to live amongst us, and to die to atone for our sins.
But the question of compassion must not end with the compassion of God. We need to ask the question as to whether or not we have learned compassion from His example. You see, compassion cannot be modeled by the pagan gods, which are made of wood and stone — they neither move nor see nor hear, so how can they extend compassion to any? Compassion cannot be modeled by the gods of nature, for nature is cruel and only the strong survive. And compassion is not modeled by the god of the atheist, for their god is their own mind and reason, thus any action taken will be self-serving. If the God of Christianity, then, has modeled compassion to us, shouldn’t then we who have received the compassion of God also be the most compassionate people in the world?
In ancient Rome, that became the case. One of the first things that Christians did in ancient Rome was to establish hospitals that welcomed all, rich and poor. These hospitals were staffed with doctors, pharmacists, teachers for the children, caretakers for orphans, nurses, people to care for lepers, surgeons, cooks, priests, laundry women, and pallbearers. Never in the history of the world had such institutions been established and the Roman elites looked at the Christians and just did not understand why believers were doing what believers were doing. And Christianity thrived even in an empire where professing Christians were persecuted and sentenced to death within those circuses that everyone attended.
Something has happened though. Today, it would seem, Christians are often seen as self-serving and insulated from the pain and misery of the world around them. Pagans no longer shake their heads in disbelief at the compassion we are willing to show to the poor and suffering, but describe Christians as being just as “self-seeking” as the next group of people.
So what is the solution? The solution is not to win more political elections and gain power to enact laws to protect the “Christian way of life.” Such laws are not bad, but legislation cannot transform a culture. The early Christians turned Rome inside out without ever getting a seat in the Roman Senate. The early Christians turned Rome on its head by sacrifice and compassion for those in need. If we, as modern Christians, desire to see America turned on its head, this is the model that God himself has set for us — radical compassion, grace, and mercy. Such is what God demonstrated when he sent Christ to us as a baby in that manger and such is the kind of compassion that we ought to emulate as we live our lives amongst a people who reject the truth for which we stand.
So what makes a friend a friend? And when I speak of friends, I am not thinking of those we might casually refer to in that way, but those with whom you have a close and enduring bond — a bond that is strengthened, not weakened by trials and difficulties and with whom love is the only right word to describe the affection that you have for one another. When I was a teenager and in my early twenties, I used to describe this kind of friend as one who you would trust with your car, your girlfriend, and your credit card. Now that I am older, I would describe such a person as the kind of person that I am content simply being with in life together…you know, the kind of person that it doesn’t really matter if you are doing something in particular, but simply being together is enough. It is the kind of person with whom you can disagree and it doesn’t really matter because your relationship is not established on points of common opinion, but instead is built on life together.
It is the kind of relationship that Sherlock Holmes is portrayed as having with John Watson; the mysteries that Doyle wrote about simply provided the backdrop; what made the stories was the relationship between these two men — these two friends. While this is the kind of friendship we ought to have with our spouses, it is often not limited to our spouses. It is the kind of friendship we ought to have with our families, though families often fall short and it is typically not limited to family relationships. And, this is the relationship we ought to strive for with other Christians, though such relationships are often had outside of the church. And, it is a relationship that typically is built over time, while going through the ups and especially through the downs of life together. If our lives are described as part of the tapestry of history, these friends would be the strands that not only are intertwined with our own but also whose color so blends with ours that at a glance, the two threads almost appear to be one.
I have been doing my devotions of late in the scripture passages that deal with the life of Abraham. And what strikes me as remarkable is that despite the messiness of his life and despite his failures and sins, Abraham is not only called the father of the faithful (Romans 4:11-12,16; Galatians 3:7), but Abraham is also called “Friend of God” (Isaiah 41:8; James 2:23). Scripture tells us that God spoke to Moses face to face as one speaks with a friend (Exodus 33:11; Deuteronomy 34:10) and Jesus says to his disciples at the last supper, “I have called you friends” (John 15:15), but it is Abraham that history has marked off as the one having such a relationship with God that he is called “friend of God.”
So, what marked Abraham’s relationship in this way? Certainly this was God’s design, but what can we learn about this friendship that can be applied to our relationships with each other and to our relationship with God? The first thing that we should note is that while God was always faithful on “his end” of the friendship, Abraham was not. Yet, Abraham’s failures did not compromise the friendship he had with God. We should secondly note that their friendship was not defined by the destination or by the promise. Abraham spent nearly his entire relationship with God as a wanderer in the land of Canaan and Egypt. He knew that God had promised him the land, but he also knew that it would be distant ancestors that would actually inherit the promise after spending more than 400 years in Egypt (Genesis 15:13-14). Abraham would die long before the promise was fulfilled. In fact, Abraham received the initial call from God to leave the land of Ur prior to receiving the promise that God would make his descendants a great nation (Acts 7:2-4). It would only be in connection with the call to leave Haran after his father’s death, that the covenantal promise was given (Genesis 12:1-3). We might suggest that the friendship was strengthened by the covenant and promise of God, but clearly it did not begin with these things.
If I were to speculate, I think that it would also be safe to say that Abraham’s relationship was also not based on common likes and dislikes or on common experiences. Certainly Abraham disliked many of the things that God dislikes and it is true that God enters into our experiences as we are in relationship with him, but this still seems to be a superficial place to ground our understanding of this very special friendship. There is no questions that these things, whether experiences or the covenant, were part of the maturing of this friendship (at least on Abraham’s side), but they do not seem to be the essence of the relationship.
I would suggest that the essence of the friendship that Abraham had with God was not in knowing where they were going or how they would get there, but in knowing that they were going in that direction together. And I think that this principle applies to our friendships with other humans as well. We began not by asking about Abraham’s relationship with God, but with the question of what makes a friend a friend — or, what distinguishes the deep and genuine friendships from the casual (and often superficial) friendships that we have. The answer is that those deep friendships are built not so much upon what we do, but upon doing it together — even when we are not doing anything in particular.
God could have taken Abraham on a trek that extended across the breadth of Africa or into the mountains of Tibet and it would not have mattered so long as they were making the trip together. Sherlock Holmes, apart from John Watson, was depressed and bored with life, even to the extent of experimenting with mainlining cocaine to free him from his boredom. It was Watson who kept Holmes grounded, focused, and (in most cases) clean from his drug use. It was nothing Watson did, it was Watson’s mere presence. Husbands and wives often do many romantic things as they are building their relationship, but ultimately there comes a point (because life otherwise gets in the way and struggles arise), where they are forced to realize that what really matters is not so much those romantic episodes, but that they are living life together, facing trials together, hurting together, and loving together.
Moses said to God that what made God’s people distinct from all of the other nations of the earth was his presence with them (Exodus 33:16). That indeed is true of the church in a corporate sense and of Christians in a personal sense, but that is also true of friendship as well. What makes your friendship with me genuine friendship is your presence with me and vice-versa. The deepest friendships are marked by presence — a presence that is needed, desired, and even yearned for — and as a result of that common presence, our stories become so intertwined together that from a distance they almost seem to be one and inseparable.
The Confrontation: Genesis 20:9-10
“Then Abimelek called for Abraham and said to him, ‘What have you done to us? How have I sinned towards you that you have introduced this great sin upon me and upon my kingdom? Works which should not have been done, you have worked upon me.’ Abimelek said to Abraham, “What did you see that you did this thing?”
The thing that interests me the most about this confrontation is that Abimelek does right what most Christians that I interact with seem to do wrong. When Abimelek realizes that Abraham has deceived him in this way, Abimelek does not throw a temper tantrum nor does he badmouth Abraham behind his back. Abimelek also does not try to “get even” as is so often done. Instead, Abimelek confronts Abraham and asks him what the purpose of this deception was as well as asking Abraham what he had done to make Abraham act like this.
Jesus, in Matthew 18:15-20 gives us instructions as to how we are to resolve conflicts, and in doing so, Jesus begins by instructing us to go directly to the person and speak to them about what took place with the intention of restoring the relationship that was broken. Abimelek does just that. There is no question that he is upset, but he makes the choice to go and confront Abraham in his sin. How often it is that confessing Christians are unwilling to do what this pagan is willing to do. How often it is that some of the worst back-biters are those who fill the pews of churches on Sunday mornings. How sad it is that confessing Christians so often set a poorer model than do unbelievers when we should be the ones who set the bar for the culture. We who know the love and forgiveness of God should be the first to model that love and forgiveness to the culture.
Loved ones, how is it that you respond to an offense done against you? It matters not whether we are comfortable in doing so, this is the command of Jesus we are talking about! Jesus says that if you love him you will obey him (John 14:15). Obedience forces us into places and situations which will stretch us as they are often God’s tool to sanctify us. Before you gripe and complain about one who has offended you, begin by asking yourself what you might have done to cause the person to offend you (as we see Abimelek doing) and second, ask yourself how you have offended God. As God has forgiven you, forgive the offending brother and go to him in grace seeking to restore him from his sin. They say that blood is thicker than water—the blood of Christ, though, is thicker than all.
Cherishing God’s Covenant (Genesis 17:9)
“And God said to Abraham, ‘Thus you shall cherish my covenant—you and your seed after you to the generations.”
Do we really cherish the things that God has done for us? As I interact with Christians, sometimes I wonder. How often we will tell our neighbors about an award that one of our children might have received, but we will neglect to tell them about eternal life because it might be seen as socially awkward. It seems odd that we are often so silent about that which we profess to hold so dearly. Indeed, those things that we genuinely cherish are things that we seek to keep pure and preserve from outside influences. How often, though, we allow our theology to be polluted with non-Biblical but popular ideas. We often talk much about how God is love and how God forgives, but at the same time tend to downplay the fact that he is going to judge sin with eternal fire and how those who do not come to him in his Son, Jesus Christ, are guilty of the greatest offense imaginable before a holy God. How often truth becomes so watered down that its taste is barely recognizable.
Many of our English translations will render this word as “keep” and not “cherish.” The Hebrew verb used in this passage is rAmDv (shamar), which means, “to keep, to guard, to cherish, or to preserve.” It conveys the idea of protecting something that you treasure or hold dear. When this word is used to speak of commands, it usually reflects the idea of the people keeping them by doing them. Such is the same here. God is going to institute the sign of the covenant, that is circumcision. Yet, note that being circumcised is not how one fulfills the covenant—the covenant requires perfect obedience for it to be fulfilled—something that no mere human is able to perform. Hence, we need a savior; hence God moved through the split animal pieces, not Abraham. Thus the tone here as this word is being used is not so much the actual fulfillment of the covenant, but whether or not Abraham is going to be faithful enough to the covenant to preserve the covenantal sign not only in his life but also in the lives of his children.
In the Christian church, we use the same language to refer to Baptism. As blood in its fullness has already been shed by Christ, the sign is a bloodless one and thus circumcision as a command has been done away with. Though many Christians still circumcise their sons, it is simply a matter of preference and family tradition at this point in history. Baptism is now the covenantal sign we place on the heads of our children. This sign is not necessary for salvation (as the thief on the cross could not have been baptized), but it is a matter of obedience and a reflection as to how seriously we cherish the covenant that God made with Abraham for us—which of course, was confirmed by Christ. If you cherish the things of God, your obedience to them should follow.
Loved ones, my prayer for you is that you take these words seriously. God has made a covenant with us as his people and he has always been fully and completely faithful to that covenant; are we being faithful to him? Do we really cherish the things that God is doing in our lives and do we raise our children to cherish those things as well? People say that children will hold dear the things that they see their parents holding dear. Do we cherish the covenant of God so dearly that our children and our grandchildren are also drawn to cherish those things as well?
Christian hearts, in love united,
Seek alone in Jesus rest;
Has He not your love excited?
Then let love inspire each breast;
Members on our Head depending
Lights reflecting Him, our Sun,
Brethren His commands attending,
We in Him, our Lord, are one.
-Count Nikolaus von Zinzendorf
Praying for the Church (John 17:20)
“Yet, I am not asking for these alone, but also for those who will believe in me through their words.”
It is funny how sometimes we take things said to others in the Bible and freely apply them to ourselves irrespective of the context. For example, God spoke these words to the prophet, Jeremiah:
“Even before I formed you in the womb, I knew you;
Even before you had come out of the womb, I had made you holy.
I committed you as a prophet to the nations.”
Now, while it is certainly true that some of this can be applied to us as we recognize God’s ordination of all things according to his own purposes (Ephesians 1:11) and given God’s omniscience, there is nothing that God does not know, this statement was made specifically to Jeremiah, not universally to all people. In turn, it is not proper to simply claim the text as our own without qualifying these things. There are other texts that we sometimes do the same thing with and similarly go back and forth debating on whether or not something can legitimately be applied to us in our lives. Yet, Jesus graciously removes any confusion from us as to this question—he plainly says that this prayer is not only for the Apostles that he has surrounding him, but it is also for all who will come to faith through the preaching of the Gospel through them. Friends, that is speaking of you and of me—all of us who trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and have done so through the revelation of God’s word and the proclamation of the Gospel—he is speaking of us in this prayer! And these final verses, in particular, will reveal our Lord’s heart for his church.
And what are the themes of this final section of his prayer—what petition is on our Lord’s heart first and foremost? He prays for unity amongst believers and love as he has loved. Ouch. How far we have strayed as a church from those two petitions of our Lord. How greatly we allow sin to cause division and we allow our lack of love to cause us to be self-centered and prideful both individually and corporately.
Loved ones, we are making a mess of this in many ways and we need to repent of our sins in this area especially. Yet, simply saying, “I’m sorry” is not enough if we are going to be faithful, we also need to change our ways and work to restore that which has been broken. Now, that being said, am I suggesting that we throw away the truth of the Gospel and just embrace everyone regardless of what they believe and of what they have compromised? No, that is not quite it, for Jesus is speaking of those who will believe in him because of the word of the Apostles—the Scriptures. We cannot throw away the authority and Truth of the Bible and retain any semblance of Christianity. That being said, I believe that the key is to concentrate on living out the sacrificial love that Christ modeled. I think that if we begin to get the love part right, the unity part will follow in a way that honors the Father. Yet, that is still a tall order. For before we can actually love those around us, we have to start loving God more than we love ourselves. When this happens, you are ready to love sacrificially and serve with your whole being—holding nothing back as Jesus held nothing back. A small group of believers, ones willing to do just this, turned the world on its head—what would happen if the church got with the same program? I believe that God would bring genuine revival once again.
We praise Thee, O God!
For the Son of Thy love,
For Jesus Who died,
And is now gone above.
Hallelujah! Thine the glory.
Hallelujah! Thine the glory.
Revive us again.
A Christian Hierarchy of Values
The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, argued that there was a hierarchy of values in terms of what was worthwhile for individuals and society to pursue. For Aristotle, the highest value was the knowledge of truth for its own sake. Of course, Aristotle was an Empiricist, which means that his real interest in “Truth” has to do with what one can observe with one’s senses or through the use of observational tools. Some might be tempted to simply label this, “science,” but such a label would shortchange both science and Aristotle’s view. Much of science is based on the use of reason built upon basic presuppositions and Aristotle recognized that observation could be applied to things outside of the realm of what we would typically classify as science (metaphysics, for example).
Aristotle’s second value was the discovery of practical knowledge—what Christians and Jews typically refer to as wisdom. This is the kind of knowledge that can guide one to live a life well and skillfully. For Aristotle, this was exemplified in the Four Cardinal Virtues of Greek thought: Justice, Wisdom, Courage, and Moderation. Finally, the value at the bottom of Aristotle’s list was that of learning to be skilled in Technique—what we would refer to as technical or vocational skills. These are the skills by which one would earn a trade.
I began to reflect on these ideas for two reasons. First, I heard a contemporary philosopher argue that our modern culture has turned Aristotle’s hierarchy upside down—that those who our society values the most (based on their paychecks) are those who demonstrate a high degree of skill in technique and those who are valued the least are those whose life is dedicated to the pursuit of truth for truth’s sake. Thus we live in a society where professional athletes, popular musicians and actors, and skillful doctors (again, technique with the surgical instruments) are the wealthiest class and preachers, teachers, and philosophers make up one of the poorest classes in society. The second reason that I began reflecting on this idea is because I happened to be teaching on Augustine’s approach to the Four Cardinal Virtues of the Greeks. Ultimately, Augustine affirmed these virtues as Christian virtues, but only when they were joined by faith, hope, and love—especially love.
Thus, I began asking the question, if I had to construct a hierarchy of values for the Christian life, how do I think that they would be reflected in the Christian life. One might be tempted to begin, as Aristotle begins, with a knowledge of truth for its own sake. Jesus said that his purpose in coming to dwell with men was to bear witness to the truth (John 18:37). God, of course, is the God of truth (Isaiah 65:16) and those who reject God suppress the truth (Romans 1:18). In addition, those who have no knowledge of God (as truth resides in God) destroy themselves (1 Corinthians 1:34). Also, the implication of scripture is that it is the knowledge of God that allows his people to be faithful (Hosea 6:6) and when there is no faithfulness in the land, it is joined by a lack of the knowledge of God (Hosea 4:1).
Yet, it seems to me that a higher virtue sets the stage for the knowledge of the Lord. When Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the very Son of God, Jesus’ response is not to congratulate him on that knowledge, saying it was the highest virtue, but Jesus instead said, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah” for this knowledge came from “my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17). There are two things that need to be brought out from this verse in light of understanding Christian virtue. First of all, the source of the knowledge of God is God himself, not something gained through a human pursuit—and if something has a source, or a precursor, it ought not be seen as the “highest” virtue. Secondly, Jesus does not say, “virtuous are you,” but he says, “blessed are you.” The Greek word for virtue, ajreth/ (arête), refers to one’s moral excellence or other attributes that make one praiseworthy. Yet, blessedness, maka/rioß (makarios), has to do with one’s internal state as a result of their relationship to God. Thus, Jesus can say, “blessed are you when you are persecuted for my name’s sake…” Similarly, Peter’s blessedness does not come from anything he has done, but because of what has been done to him.
Now, we may be tempted to engage in a discussion of regeneration, but since the purpose of a hierarchy of virtue is to give us something of merit to pursue, such a discussion does not seem to have a place here as regeneration is something that God does in us which in turn precipitates a response of faith and repentance in the believer. Our temptation, too, might be to jump immediately to the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and to Peter’s instructions on how to build up our faith (2 Peter 5-7), but again, these seem to have their source in a virtue that is more primary.
And that brings us to the question, what then does the Bible present as primary? The logical answer seems to be that the highest virtue is the fear of the Lord. We are told in scripture that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of both wisdom (Psalm 111:10, Proverbs 9:10) and knowledge (Proverbs 1:7). The fear of the Lord gives life and health not only to the individual believer, but it is also a sign of a healthy church (Acts 9:31). And then, out of the fear of the Lord proceeds the pursuit of the other Christian virtues.
Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ, brother of James, to those who have been loved in God the father, and who have been guarded and called for Jesus Christ: May mercy be to you and may peace and love be multiplied.”
As mentioned earlier, Jude identifies himself not as Jesus’ half-brother, but as Jesus’ servant and brother of James. It is a clear reminder to us that we are to take a humble attitude when we approach leadership roles. We are called to be servants, not masters and Jude’s attitude exemplifies just this mindset. Jude also reminds us as we read this letter, that those of us who are called and elect are beloved to God and kept, not on our own strength but guarded by the power of God and held for Jesus. There is a great eternal wedding that God has planned and He has called a people to himself—the church—to be the bride of his beloved son, Jesus. What a blessing to be called beloved of God. This is the name that God gave to Solomon (Jedidiah: see 2 Samuel 12: 25).
The blessing is also interesting. Not only does he pray for mercy, which is unusual (only 1 & 2 Timothy and 2 John contain mercy in their blessing), but it is the only epistle where mercy is listed first. I think that it is an indication that there are serious problems in this church. The people have clearly, based on the text, fallen astray, following these false teachers, they are in need of God’s mercy.
Note also that Jude’s blessing is for peace and love to be multiplied while mercy stands alone. Though one may argue that all three of these items are connected, as many modern translations would lead you to believe, the Greek sets mercy apart from the other two blessings. Perhaps this is because of the problems that are going on in this church. One of the things that these false teachers are doing is to create disharmony within the fellowship and to pervert the people’s love feasts. All sinners desperately need the mercy of God, yet, given the issues going on within this fellowship, they especially need God’s peace and love to shape their fellowship.
Forgiveness is the Result of Love
“And they refused to obey and they did not remember your wonderful works which you did with them. They hardened their neck and appointed a leader to return to their bondage in their rebellion. But you are a God of forgiveness—gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abundant in steadfast love—and you did not forsake them.”
This passage from Nehemiah is part of a larger prayer that was led by the Levites, proclaiming the covenant faithfulness of God even in the midst of the sin of the people and repenting of their sin as well. This was part of a covenant renewal—recommitting themselves as a nation to the service of God on high. The prayer extols the ds,x, (hesed) of God (translated here as “steadfast love”). God’s ds,x, (hesed) is one of the great themes of the Old Testament and describes his covenant faithfulness and mercy despite the covenant breaking of his people. It is a term that is very closely tied with the New Testament term, ajgavph (agape), which refers to a sacrificial love that loves regardless of whether that love is reciprocated.
Friends, because of God’s great love, you have experienced forgiveness. You who were rebelling against God in your sin, you who were unworthy of anything but eternal condemnation, have experienced this forgiveness when you were born again. How is it then, that you can withhold forgiveness of others? It is because of the great love that God has shown to you that you can forgive others. If you have never experienced the love of God, then it is understandable that you cannot forgive, but you who have experienced the love of God need to demonstrate that love in the way you forgive those who have offended you—even when they are still in rebellion against what is right.
Most English translations of the Bible translate the central section of this verse as: “appointed a leader to return to their bondage in Egypt.” The word that is translated “in Egypt” which I have translated as “in their rebellion” is the word MDy√rImV;b (bemiryam). Literally, this word means “in their rebellion” as I have translated it. “In Egypt,” though, would only vary by one letter, and would look like this: Mˆy∂rVxImV;b (bemitsrayim). The only difference is the presence of the letter c (tsade-which gives the “ts” sound). Given the context of the prayer, which is speaking of Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness wanderings and their complaining—many expressing the desire to return to slavery in Egypt, most translators consider that the missing tsade was just a scribal error when the text was being copied thousands of years ago.
At the same time, the reading of the ancient text should not be ignored. We must never forget that the people’s sin is rebellion against God and sin binds us in spiritual chains. God’s redemption of the people from their physical bondage in Egypt is a picture of what God’s redemption of his people’s bondage to sin would look like as fulfilled in Christ. The way our English Bibles translate this word, then, probably best reflects what these priests were praying, but we should never forget what is being done by God in the larger picture of redemptive history. And that is God’s faithfulness in spite of our great unfaithfulness.
Friends, there will be people who will harm and offend you. There will be people that it will seem like you could never forgive. Yet, I plead with you who have experienced God’s ds,x, (hesed), show that ds,x, (hesed) to others in the way you forgive. One thing that I often hear at funerals is “I wish that I had taken the time to tell this person that I loved them have forgiven them…” Beloved, don’t live with regrets, love and forgive others as God has loved and forgiven you.