Expository Listening: 2 Timothy 3.14-4.4

Imagine you’ve come to the end of your life. You’ve poured yourself out, and now you’re giving that last bit of advice to a young person who will carry on your work. What will you say?

That was Paul’s situation in 2 Timothy 3-4. He’s just advised young protege Timothy, in light of last days apathy toward God’s Word, to continue in God’s Word—the message Timothy received from him, as well as the Scriptures he grew up with under his believing mother (Acts 16). Taken together, he’s likely referring to what we now call the New and Old Testaments. This Bible, described as “breathed out by God” (ESV), will accomplish God’s specific purpose for the hearer—this to include teaching and correcting those in error, as well as instructing new followers of Christ still learning the basic things of God. The result for the one who learns to listen well will be full qualification for every thing God has planned for that person.

“So, Timothy, young pastor,” Paul says: ” … PREACH. THE. WORD”! … Full stop.

This week at Woodland we begin a new series we call Healthy Church Partners. We’re asking “What are the marks of the healthy (not perfect, but growing!) church member?” And, while we’re not all called to stand behind a lectern, we are all called to be good listeners to God’s Word, which includes the embracing of God’s Word preached. Make this mark characteristic of our involvement in YOUR church family and all the other marks of healthy church life will take care of themselves.

We’ll see that listening (expositionally!) to God’s Word producing healthy, growing followers of Christ. There’s a Cadillac-Lamborghini word here. “Exposition” means “a setting forth of the meaning or purpose of a writing” (Websters). In the handling of Scripture, this means that the main point of the passage becomes the main point of the message. “So, Timothy, don’t just give your testimony, or lecture, or share good ideas, or even just preach. Preach THE WORD!”

We might think of the good message then as a rifled bullet, or an arrow hitting the target. The good message aims to expose the particular purpose and intent of God as laid out in the particular biblical passage that is then rifled into the particular church situation. The opposite image would be the shotgun blast where the speaker aims to hit something … anything. He will, but not but not the hearts of his listeners. And, over time, they will only hear noise.

The flip-side of expositional preaching is expositional listening. And, returning to 2 Timothy (now, 4.3-4), we learn that listening (expositionally!) to God’s Word protects God’s people from falsehood and false teachers.

In the times between Jesus’ two comings, Paul forecasts, people will be driven by their desires. (See also 3.1-9). They’ll want their “itching ears” scratched and their feelings messaged. They’ll find teachers who will do their market research and say things that people want to hear. In the end, they’ll start out with the truth, but as (expositional!) preaching diminishes, they’ll add Jesus to their pantheon of good ideas and so “wander” off into stories.

Instructive for us is to note that Paul holds people accountable. This implies that there’s desire and skill in listening for the main idea of a passage and expecting to find it in any pastoral exposition of Scripture. The healthy, growing church partner is a trained expositional listener to God’s Word. And, like Timothy’s listeners, we have plenty of myths and pseudo-gospels and false teachers to shank us wide of the mark of God’s truth, if we don’t preach and listen for the gospel-center in each proclamation of God’s Word.

Here’s five suggestions for listening (expositionally!):

  1. Get into the text ahead of each message. If you’re a Woodlander, you’ll find the passage on this site by the end of the week. This will put you on your toes and not your heels as you come into worship.
  2. While you’re reading or listening, summarize the main idea of the passage in one statement. So, for 2 Timothy 3.14-4.2, you might say: Old Paul’s last advice to the young pastor Timothy is to preach the Word. That’s got it.
  3. Then, rewrite the main idea of the message to include your own situation. So, the statement above becomes: The healthy, growing church partner is a trained expositional listener to God’s Word. Not an infallible statement, but it connects the passage to our situation and our series.
  4. Engage your pastor with the main ideas you’ve written out. If you want to say something nice, don’t say, “Great message!” He’ll only think he stunk it up, and now you’re trying to encourage him. Tell him something specific about the passage and how God is applying it to your life.
  5. Finally, find somebody to talk to about how God is helping you apply the main point of the sermon that comes from the main point of the passage.

Now, find that somebody you’re sharing with, and talk through these questions:

Which of the pointers above do you find to be the easiest to do? The hardest? 

Are any of them unclear, needing further explanation? 

How has the idea of targeted, expositional preaching changed the way you think about how you ought to listen? 

What are some additional ways that you can listen “expositionally”? 

Risk! Romans 8.35-39

“Lindsey Sky Dive” CC by Steve Conger-NC-ND 2.0

When is the last time you took a risk?

I don’t mean a thrill-seeking risk. Or a risk, like a lottery ticket, to play the odds to get rich, to profit yourself, or to self-promote.

I mean a godly risk … A godly risk, as I mean it, is an action that exposes you to the possibility of loss or injury and that is for the cause of Christ, after God’s own heart and under the direction of the Spirit for the purpose of making Jesus big in the hearts and minds of others.

If that resonates, Romans 8.35-39 is your passage. Its purpose is to show that growth in holiness—toward conformity to the likeness of Jesus—is built on the finished work of Christ and our assurance of our salvation in Christ. We’re secure in present suffering (verses 18-27). Secure as we move toward glory (verses 28-30). Secure until we arrive at the goal of our holiness—conformity to the image of Christ (verse 29). In total, God is for us!

Romans 8.35-39 is about what might happen when we take godly risks for the cause of Christ and why we have the courage to do it anyway.

Risk (for us) is Real (:35-36). There’s paradox here—”truth standing on its head” (G.K. Chesterton). Like in Luke 21.18-19 where Jesus says ” … not a hair of your head will perish” but ” … by your endurance you will gain your life” (ESV). In other words, in some ultimate sense, trouble won’t touch your head, but you could lose the whole thing chopped right off.

Paul is being autobiographical here. His “tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword” (verse 35) is really just a paraphrase of his own litany of personal sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11.25-29. Plus, he throws in a snatch of Psalm 44. We’re considered as sheep to be slaughtered. It’s always been this way with God’s people.

We take risks as well. The mission trip to the big city. The child who risks ridicule by befriending the lesser-thought-of child. The family who opts out of Sunday morning youth baseball to worship in church. The parents who introduce another gene pool to their family through the wonder of adoption.

These risks are real in this life! Even so, while we risk for the cause of Christ, we remember that God doesn’t take risks. He knows the end from the beginning. Jesus secured the redemption of the cosmos (8.20-23). In fact, if you are in Christ, God foreknew you (a relational word!) before the foundation of the universe (verse 29). Nobody is lost between God’s foreknowledge in the past and God’s glorifying work in the future (verse 30). We can take risks because God doesn’t. Our risk-taking is done under the watchful care of a God who doesn’t risk anything.

This makes risk right! In all these things we are more than conquers through him who loved us (verse 37). It’s “in all these things” (all the apparently adverse effects of risk) that we become “more than conquers”. This indicates that the results of risk are actually turned to the good by God. As the commentator Tom Shreiner has put it, “Instead of believers being separated from Christ’s love through affliction the afflictions become the means by which believers ‘more than conquer’.”

We’re helped here by the overall picture of Romans 8. It’s a courtroom. God is the judge, and Jesus is the prosecuting attorney. But, Jesus is also the hangman. And, when we’re found decidedly guilty, Jesus points to us and says, “He’s with me! Guilty, yes! But, paid for by me all the more.” And, with each risk undertaken for Christ’s cause, there’s Jesus’ ongoing intercession for us to the Father. “That one … he’s with me!”

All this helps us remember that risk is in relationship (:38-39). I am sure, says Paul, that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. This is Paul’s reflection on the backside of his own experience. Death nor life … That’s state of existence. Angels nor rulers, nor powers … That’s supernatural beings. Things present nor things to come … That’s time. Height nor depth … That’s space. Anything else in all creation … That’s everything else in all creation. Nothing can separate us from relationship to God in Christ.

If we understand this passage, we’re going to know that whatever we undertake for the cause of Christ we undertake in relationship to Jesus, and we’re secure.

We can take risks for the cause of Christ, because God in Christ loves us!

So, what’s your risk? Start small and ordinary, maybe.

Is there a need in your gathering of God’s people that will certainly take you outside your perceived gifting. That could be it—risking comfort, but trusting God to make up what you lack.

Or, maybe you ought to risk taking a break from technology to relate face-to-face with somebody. Your media “family” might miss you for awhile, but it could be where God is taking you.

Or, take somebody from outside your family on vacation. Or, join a small group where you’ll have to be vulnerable. Or, …

We can take risks for the cause of Christ, because God in Christ loves us!

Find a friend or talk to your small group about these questions:

How does Romans 8.35-39 change the way you think about risk? 

How does knowing that “risk is real” help you take the whole idea of godly risk seriously? 

How does knowing that God transforms the adverse effects of risk (and actually uses the results of risk to accomplish His ultimate purpose for us) help you take seriously the idea that “risk is right”? 

How does knowing that “risk is in relationship” give you courage to step out in faith?

What godly risk do you discern God is leading you to undertake? 

Then, consider picking up a copy of John Piper’s Risk is Right (Wheaton: Crossway, 2013). It’s the source of some of these ideas and a book that sits permanently on my desk at Woodland. It’s actually a revised chapter from Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2003), another book I like to give away, especially to young people, but older folks need it too!

 

Joy and Satisfaction, in the Sanctuary of the LORD: Psalm 84

Why is your church building a special place? Is it attractive? … paid for? … built, project by precious project, by your church family? Go ahead, boast (in Christ!) about these things. They’re all good.

But, if we think big-picture, your church facility takes on greater meaning when we understand that it is a sanctuary—a meeting place set apart for God’s special purposes.

The place where the Old Testament worshipper went to find the grace and favor of the LORD was the Temple, the special set-apart place for meeting with God. In Psalm 84, we encounter a Hebrew pilgrim making his way up to Zion and the sanctuary of the LORD. In his ascent, we gather truths known to all God’s worshippers, no matter their place in the redemptive story:

Joyful and satisfied believers long to be in the sanctuary of the LORDHow lovely is your dwelling place … (ESV, verse 1). That is, the particular place where God dwells—not because it’s attractive, but because God is there! O LORD of hosts. That is “of armies,” as in, all the powers of heaven and earth . Take the two ideas together and you have the great, omnipresent (everywhere) God localizing his presence to a particular place to meet with man. Blessed are those who dwell in your house (verse 4), even, apparently, the birds who make their homes in the rafters of the Temple (verse 3). If birds are blessed, how much greater the man who gets to live there in God’s presence.

And then, I ask,  at this point in my reading: Do desire to meet with God like this? Is there a sense in my Tuesdays mornings and Thursdays evenings that I’m building toward a meeting with the presence of God Himself? When I leave my place of worship, do I sense that I’m being launched into my week to live out the truths of God’s Word, learned in the midst of His people? 

Joyful and satisfied believers prepare to be in the sanctuary of the LORD. Here, our pilgrim departs. Blessed are those … in whose heart are the highways to Zion (verse 5). Strength will be found in God for the way, until they should appear before Him. They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion (verse 7).

And, I ask: What margins do I build into my week, that I might appear before God in worship, and in my right mind? Do my wife and I forgo the feature length movie on Saturday night that would put us to bed after midnight; instead, maybe, choosing the 45 minute episode that would have us turn in at 10:00? Or, would a melatonin and an earlier bedtime be still better? 

Joyful and satisfied believers lift up their king in the sanctuary of the LORD. The pilgrim enters the holy city and prays, apparently, for his Davidic king. So we take the image of the “shield” (verse 9), set parallel to the “anointed” whose face the LORD will consider.

And, I ask: How am I to relate to a king, our last American King being George III, long deposed, and Presidents Obama and Trump hardly being Davidic Kings … Ah, but I notice, we do have a Davidic King! …  the once and forever King whose lifted-high praise is, in the end, the main goal of my gathering with others in my own sanctuary. 

Then, finally, joyful and satisfied believers find grace and favor in the sanctuary of the LORD. The pilgrim enters the courts of God, and finds grace and favor. For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere (verse 10). Better to take low position at the threshold of God’s presence, than dwell in intimacy with those who don’t know God. For God, like a “sun” shines grace on His people, and like a “shield” protects them and gives them glory. O LORD, “of armies” blessed is the one who trust in you! Joy and satisfaction belong no longer only to those dwelling in the sanctuary, but to all who enter in by trust.

And, I ask again, now from my place in God’s redemption story, viewing Psalm 84 through the work of Jesus on the cross: Why is my own church building a special place? 

And, I remember, the Temple has passed away. In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away (Heb 8.13). And, I remember further, Jesus is the temple through whose sacrificed body we now approach God. Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up … he was speaking about the temple of his body (Jn 2.19 … 21). And, then I ponder how, when I trusted Christ, I entered his church, described (among other pictures) as God’s temple. Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you (1 Cor 3.16).

And then I get it, the reason why my church meeting place is so special. The place where the joyful, satisfied follower of Christ finds the grace and favor of the LORD is in the midst of God’s people. 

So, tomorrow I enter our church building. We’ll lift high Jesus and learn from his Word. That meeting is worth longing for and preparing for, because there, through God’s people, we’ll know God’s grace and favor.

And that will make our sanctuary (beautiful and paid for, as it is) a very special place.

Find a friend or somebody you’re accountable to and ask and answer a few questions:

In the flow of your week, how do you think of Sunday morning? 

How do you prepare for worship each week? What margins do you put in place that help you separate out Sunday morning as different than any other time of the week? 

Do you ever think of Jesus as your king? How does this distinction add to what you understand yourself to be doing when you gather with your church family for worship? 

In what ways does God meet with you to show you grace and favor when you gather with His people for worship? 

How does Psalm 84 change the way you will worship God next time you enter your church facility? 

“Going on” in Christ—Freedom to Boast in Christ: Galatians 6.11-18

Go ahead. Boast a little … Your kids behaving themselves? Good thing. Have you won a basketball game? Avoided an accident? Had something especially good to eat lately? A good coffee, maybe? Or, caught a really big fish this week? … All good stuff. But, is this all worth boasting about?

Paul draws together all the arguments from his letter to the Galatians with one, powerful, concrete, wonderfully terrible image: But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ (6.14, ESV).

My only boast is in Christ who makes me a new creation through the Gospel. 

That’s a hard teaching when there’s so many big fish and near accidents and good coffees that delight us. Do I have to put away all the “good” things of life to think rightly and only of Jesus?

We struggle here, because we forget (or, don’t properly believe) where we’ve come from. In (even before) the beginning, God existed. Holy unto Himself. Like consuming fire, He will not suffer the presence of sin. For our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12.29, from Deut 4). He, our same God, created a world and a people through His eternal Son. For by him all things were created … all things were created through him and for him (Col 1.15). We sin, and by all rights will be obliterated, removed from God’s presence—no pleasure to follow, nothing good, nothing we were made to enjoy, certainly not God’s presence. That’s now bedrock reality, Ground Zero for sinful humanity.

How does God respond? By sending His Son who meets us. Where? At the cross. And, in a way I struggle to get my mind around, we, those He’s called to Himself by faith, died with Jesus on that very cross. I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live (2.20a) … And, then, in a way still more profound, we were raised with Jesus to share his life. … the life I life I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me (2.20b).

Then, on Monday of this week, our friend Adam catches a big fish. And, he lets my boys hold it. And, we’re so happy! Now … who gets the credit for our happiness? Where was that happiness bought? … At the CROSS!

Now, when we boast, we brag, rejoice, glory and exult in the work of Jesus. And, we do this as new creations, free to enjoy the good of this world, because at the cross Jesus bought back those pleasures for his people.

“Every legitimate pleasure is a means to a higher end” (C.S. Lewis). The end, Paul would add, of boasting in Christ’s work, at the cross.

“Every legitimate pleasure in the world becomes an evidence of blood-bought Calvary love and an occasion for boasting in the cross” (John Piper, 2000).

For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer (1 Tim 4.4). In other words, at the cross.

So, parents, kids do their homework and their chores this week? Celebrate! Kids, win a game recently? Jump for joy! Taken in a steaming, hot and strong cup of coffee or cup of chocolate recently? Give thanks. But, remember where the pleasure comes from. And, boast like crazy. In Christ, because of his work, at the cross.

Find a friend and think about these questions from Galatians 6.11-18:

How does this passage change the way you think about those things you’re excited about? 

Why is it so hard to get your mind around the idea of any kind of boasting as a positive thing? (It might help to note that in its 37 uses this word is alternatively translated in the ESV as “brag, rejoice, exult, or glorify”.

Do I really believe that God is holy and I am undeserving of His presence? How does the power of the cross depend on starting in the right place in thinking about God and myself? 

How does Paul’s logic apply to pain in this world as well? The same word is used in Rom 5.3-4. How might Christ’s work be significant in our pain, just as it is in our pleasure, and why might we boast in our suffering?

Noting Paul’s reference to the insignificance of circumcision (the sign of being under law), and noting Gal 5.6 as well, how might boasting in Christ free me to love and serve others? 

Noting Paul’s closing of the letter in Gal 6.17, how does boasting in Christ leave a mark? 

 

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Going on in Christ—Freedom to Love and Serve: Galatians 5.25-6.10

Wood heat … simple. The process in getting those snow-soaked logs stacked in the basement … less so.

Likewise, the first time I and my three children (those old enough to toss a log of firewood) set out to fill our basement, the goal was simple enough: stack wood in the basement. The process proved less so—break loose the frozen logs, stack them on our wooden sled, slide them across the yard, push them down the chute to our basement, and stack them in the basement. Simple enough, it would seem.

But, human nature turned up. “Topping” proved the most enjoyable, and so got done the quickest. “Hauling” turned out to be the most tedious, and so barely got done at all. After hands froze, nobody wanted to work outside. And, the job took too long and only got done after I’d schnertzed a bit at everybody.

At our second attempt, more recently this winter, we rethought the matter—match our strengths to our roles, but then use our strengths to help each other. Seven year-old Henry topped. I hauled and carried, of course. Ten year-old Jack pushed logs down the chute. Almost-teenager Katja stacked the wood. If one got ahead of the other, he or she would slide other to cover the other’s weakness. We caught a rhythm and found freedom in relationship. The wood got stacked, and we got warm, in the end. This was love and service in the Northwoods world of necessity.

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This week at Woodland, we are, at long last, come to Paul the Apostle’s discussion of relationships in light of the Gospel. What does freedom look like in relationships? 

As in last week’s passage, we will ” … keep in step with the Spirit” (5.25). But, relational freedom involves others. And, walking in the Spirit with others in mind turns out to involve the giving up of “conceit” (5.26, ESV). Paul’s qualifiers show us that conceit involves the person who “provokes” another—the kind of man who positions himself in the right circles, so as to guard his turf. Appearing to have a high self-esteem, this man really lives in bondage to the way he feels others think of him. Conceit, likewise, involves the other sort of person who envies—the kind of woman who feels ill-will toward the advantage of others. Having low self-esteem, this woman (or man) holds a grudge, so as to avoid releasing her claim on those who have hurt her. Both kinds of people live in dependence to what others think of them. Neither is free to love and serve. Both live under “law”.

By contrast, freedom in Christ means that we no longer depend on other people to validate us. Instead, we depend on Christ, and His Spirit helps us love and serve without fear. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ (6.2). Freedom in relationship then involves restoring one another, resting in Christ’s sufficiency, and remembering that God’s opinion of us is all that matters. Freedom in relationship, likewise, involves freedom to love and serve generously … for whatever one sows, that will he also reap (6.7).

Freedom in relationship looks like freedom to love and serve fearlessly and generously in the power of the Spirit. 

At the end of the day (pictured, I believe, by the “load” of 6.5, the judgment or opinion of God), only the opinion of God regarding our lives matters. Refusing to be in bondage to either the praise or criticism of others opens vistas of freedom for love and service. When we walk by the Spirit we’re able to go on with Christ in our relationships with other without fear, because God’s opinion matters more than that of other people.

Find a friend or small group and consider these questions:

What are some concepts in our study of Galatians thus far that have “pushed” you, in either your understanding of the Christian life or your ability to live them out?

 

Are any of these ideas unclear to you? 

 

Have you ever thought of the idea of “conceit” as involving both inflated self-esteem and low self-esteem? What common root do you find in both of these social sins?

 

Why is there freedom in considering God’s opinion of me once I’ve trusted in Christ? How is this the opposite of “conceit”?

 

Where have you, personally, found freedom in your life as a result of considering the opinion of God? How has this freed you to love and serve without fear? 

 

How does “bearing one another’s burdens” fulfill the Law of Christ? 

 

Where do you need to love and serve as a result of your freedom in relationship? 

 

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Going on in Christ—Freedom from “License”: Gal 5.13-24

Battle! That’s what we get when we move out in Christian freedom.

Last week at Woodland, we discussed how the Gospel, rightly applied, leads to freedom from law—the sense that we must do something to be right with God. This week, we learn that the same gospel frees us from license—the sense that we’re okay, just the way we are; the impression that we can live any way we want to live.

Freedom from license means victory over sin by the power of the Spirit. 

The right image is the battle. And, this battle requires preparation (verses 13-15). Now, being free in Christ, we’re not to serve the “flesh”—that part of us that still seeks to save ourselves apart from Christ; that aspect of our yet unredeemed selves that sits at the center of an elaborate program of self-salvation. If we do, we’ll “bite” and “devour” one another. Picture a snake pit!

Instead, we’re to use our freedom to fulfill the Law of Christ: Love your neighbor as yourself (Deut 19; Matt 22). But, how?

Have you ever noticed how often, when God give His people something to do, the Spirit turns up? But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh (verse 16). This image shows how we’re to yield to the Spirit of God in the midst of the battle. Like an ancient student walking alongside and following the lead of his teacher, we’re to follow the lead of God’s Spirit, the warm, personal, reassuring presence of Christ in us (4:6). Yielding to His leadership reminds us that, while we don’t do anything to earn salvation, there is effort in the Christian life. Our role takes the form of cooperation with the Spirit of God who helps us in the confusion of the battle.

Note the language of desire. While we in our dim passions might fumble around in our opposition to the Spirit, His Spirit opposes our flesh (verses 16-18). Confusion results, as in a battle. But, if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law (verse 18). The Spirit will prevail in those who respond to God’s Spirit with the well-known “fruit” of the Spirit as evidence.

Putting ourselves in the place to yield to the Spirit is then the key. Recognizing that we can’t achieve freedom in the Christian life on our own, we still have to put ourselves in the place for the Spirit to work on us. You can’t fall asleep by trying, but it sure helps to be in bed. Maybe, your mechanic alone can fix your car, but you still need to take it to the shop. Call it “aggressive-passivity,” maybe.

Practically, yielding to the Spirit will look like meeting with God in His Word, the Spirit’s chosen theatre of operation. Yielding to the Spirit will likewise involve preaching the Gospel to ourselves: we’re saved by grace through faith in Christ, not our goodness through self-effort in our circumstances. Those who follow the Spirit’s lead will grow in the Spirit’s fruit and take on His desires. Having … crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (verse 24), their Christian experience of freedom will begin to match their new identity in Christ.

We will know victory in the battle with the flesh!

Find a friend and consider the following questions:

How does this passage, as well as previous passages in Galatians, show that the Spirit replaces the former work of the Old Testament Law? 

What does this section tell us about the “normal” Christian life? What part does desire play in the Christian experience? 

In the language of this passage, what is really happening when we, however briefly, choose to sin? 

What do you think about the idea of “aggressive-passivity”? What does God do in bringing about our Christian freedom? What do we do? 

How is this discussion about Christian freedom different than a discussion about trusting Christ for salvation? (Hint: think of the difference between entering the Christian life and “going on” as we grow in Christ.)

Why is spending time in God’s Word so critical in knowing Christian freedom?

How do we go about preaching the Gospel to ourselves? What are some “Gospel-problem” areas in your life? (think: last week’s message) where you might preach the Gospel to yourself? 

Going on in Christ—Freedom from Law: Galatians 5.1-12

What’s your Gospel problem? That place where you know stress. That area to which you’re most inclined to respond with sleeplessness, sleeping too late, working too much, irritability.

That could be your Gospel problem.

By the time the Apostle Paul comes to Galatians 5:1-12, he’s made his case in the letter: we enter the Christian life by grace through faith in Christ, and we go on the Christian life by grace through faith in Christ. It’s the “going on” part his Galatian readers struggled with. Taking on the mark of circumcision indicated a half-hearted, fire insurance, “Jesus-and” kind of dependence on Christ. Paul’s bad news: “… Christ will be of no advantage to you (verse 2) … You are severed from Christ (verse 4).” Might as well try to keep the whole Law while you’re at it, Paul chided (verse 3). Might as well finish the circumcision job like a pagan idol worshipper, for all the good circumcision will do you (verse 12; Deut 23.1) … Owiee!

Jesus, plus nothing, equals everything, he’d have them know.

Like the Galatians, freedom from law, for us, means relying on the work of Jesus and refusing to return to self-effort. Far from demanding more of us, Christ asks us to “stand firm” (verse 1) in His work, His righteousness, His relationship with us. We’re sons and heirs, after all. Then, we’re not to “submit again” to that drive to please Him through self-effort (verse 1b). Freedom results, to which we’re helped by the hope of salvation at Christ’s return and the continuing guidance of His Spirit, reminding us that it’s all true (verses 2-6). And then, when we fail (and we will sometimes, like the yeast works its way through all the dough), we return again to the work of Jesus (verses 7-12) … freedom!

All this is why Galatians is such a fantastic book for growing Christians, and why our Bibles should fall open to its well-worn pages. Trusting Christ isn’t a “one-and-done”. We all have our Gospel problems where we need to return to the work of Christ, again.

Find a group and discuss these questions as they relate to the passage and your life:

Why is it significant that the believer must only “stand firm” in her position in Christ? (Why do you think that it is that Paul doesn’t ask us to do something to experience freedom? 

Why is it so easy to return to self-effort and rule-keeping? What does Jesus offer in exchange for our best results? (Consider Matt 11.29-30)

Give your own paraphrase of Gal 5.2. How does the work of Christ prove to be of no benefit to the one who insists on coming to God through his own self-effort? 

What do verses 5-6 tell us about the normal Christian life? Whom do we rely on while we wait for that moment when in Christ’s presence we will be acknowledged as RIGHTEOUS!

What are some ways that we lose our freedom in Christ? What are your own personal indicators that you are trusting in someone or something other than Christ? 

Freedom through Weakness: Galatians 4.21-5.1

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Old Woman on Tashirojima by Nic Walker on Flikr. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This week we Americans received a new president. Amidst the bluster about greatness (again) through strength, we just might be forgetting what it means to be free.

This week at Woodland, we’ll consider freedom. Not a nation state, but an outpost of the Kingdom of God, where do we, as American Christians, really find our freedom?

Paul’s brilliant little allegory, found in Galatians 4.21-5.1, recounts and recasts the story of two boys, and their mothers. Set against the story of Genesis 15-21, we remember Abraham and Sarai, old and nearly infirm, expecting, of all things, a son. Not able to take God at His word, they went the route of strength: find the young and vibrant Hagar, bring about a son in the usual way, assume this is what God had in mind. But God would have none of it. “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac” (Gen 17.19). Then, later, “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman” (Gal 4.30). Not that God didn’t care for Ishmael and his mother, but they would not inherit. Apparently, strength counts for nothing in God’s economy.

The reversal, in Paul’s recounting of Israel’s core narrative, requires us to consider whom we identify with. Will we come to God through strength, human ingenuity, cleverness, the natural advantages to belittle those without means—just as Hagar and Ishmael ridiculed Sarah and Isaac? Paul attaches Hagar and Ishmael to Mt. Sinai and the Mosaic Covenant, long the place of freedom from bondage in the Israelite imagination.

But, is Sinai really about freedom? While boasting of strength and will and moral might (Ex 24.3), Israel failed under the Law. Like Hagar and Ishmael failed before them. Like strength and human effort fail always. And, like you and I fail apart from Christ. Sinai, along with the earthly Jerusalem, is really about slavery and bondage.

Then, there’s Sarah and Isaac. Paul attaches them to the Abrahamic Covenant. Those who approach God in weakness and faith come as true sons of Abraham (3.7-9), as sons not slaves, as those who will inherit (4.28).

It’s always been so, and it was so with Christ. “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear” (Is 54.1). Paul’s quotation from the Servant Songs of Isaiah references (in Isaiah’s day) the One who would come to rule. Consider 54.1 in context, the verse just before, ” … he bore the sins of many and made intercession for the transgressors” (53.12). Paul’s tale of two mothers and sons is really about three sets of mothers and sons. But only one of the mothers, Sarah and her son, Isaac, anticipates Jesus and his mother, barren because she’d known no man.

Even including the rabbinic argumentation involving allegory and typology, Galatians 4.21-5.1 speaks to American Christians today. Where do we find our freedom, especially in an environment where we can expect downward mobility in culture, even ridicule?

Find a friend or group of friends and consider some questions from Galatians 4.21-5.1.

Looking outward—

Where do we as American Christians increasingly find ourselves in positions of natural disadvantage? 

How does this reaffirm us as New Covenant believers who are looking forward to the fulness of God’s Kingdom (Phil 3.20; Heb 12.22; Rev 3.12)?

Where does this passage point us as we seek freedom? 

Looking within our church family—

Does the circle of those we include in church events only include those who are like us? Or, does it include an eclectic variety of sinners united only by weakness and dependence on God? 

Do we allocate time to the kinds of problems we’d find in the middle of the newspaper—the crises in developing nations that seem far away? Or, are we only front page and sports page Christians? 

Do we continue to consider those who can’t care for themselves—the unborn, orphans, the mentally handicapped, refugees, children in our Sunday school program? 

“For” Life

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Sunday at Woodland we participate with Christ-followers around the nation in Sanctity of Life Sunday. Being “for” life means serving Christ and suffering for those in crisis in this world while in the face of an enemy.

Our lesson spans the human story and tells of death and life, in Creation … in Crisis … and in Christ. Death in Ezekiel 28 and the fall of the beautiful being who became Satan, but life in Genesis 2 and the mud-man who received God’s breath of life. Death in our first parents’ grasp for power in the fashion of God’s arch-enemy who desired power of his own, but life in God’s severe mercy in expelling our first parents from the Garden. Then, life in Christ himself, who came to put to death our need to find contrived power apart from God’s rightful rule.

It’s in thinking through our own imitation of Satan’s grasping after power like God’s that we have our connection to Sanctity of Life Sunday.

Ancient peoples were not unlike us. They found need to reap power from their circumstances, to appease whatever forces they thought would deliver. And, the better the sacrifice, the more the power. So goes the reasoning.

For Ancient Near Eastern Moabites, and even wayward Israelites, this meant (the horror of it!) sacrificing their children to Molech, or his Phoenician counterpart, Baal. What god could resist delivering rain or other necessities for such a sacrifice? More sophisticated, later Greeks and Romans abandoned their infants (particularly baby girls) in exchange for the power of stature in society. Consider the candidness of one Roman, Hilarion, in writing to his pregnant wife, “If you are delivered of a child before I come home, if it is a boy, keep it, if a girl, discard it …”

We haven’t come much further, and Ancients weren’t the fools we sometimes think them. For many today, the gods are just different—upward mobility, career advancement, affluence, leisure, education; the “good life”. All forms of power by some estimations. And, for a heart-rending many intent to tap these modern forces, the price of unborn life does not seem to high.

Enter Christ. Legitimate in power, He is Life itself (Jn 1:4, 5:26; 1 Jn 5:12). But, with Him also comes death: His (1 Pet 2:24); in a mysterious way, ours (Gal 2:20); and then, our desire to find power apart from Him (Rm 12:2), and even our shame in having dabbled or plunged into the culture of death (Heb 10:22; 1 Jn 3:20-21). Glory be!

Now, for those of us knowing life in Christ, being “for” life means going back into the crisis. There, filled with the Spirit and armed with the Gospel and prayer, we identity with the powerless—the unborn, but also their mothers, their fathers, their families. We consider that  pro-life is “whole-life” and include the mentally handicapped, the elderly, the refugee, the otherwise healthy children in our Sunday schools, powerless because they are children.

Ours is the blessed task of ministering the Gospel to see the powerless reconnected to the rightly rule of the Father. And, in identifying with the powerless, we suffer with them in the face of an enemy. It’s an old story. It is the story.

Questions for application and group discussion

Find a friend, or a group of friends, and consider the verses listed throughout the post. Then, consider these thought questions:

What persons or things die with the coming of Christ?

How is it possible for holiness and shame to grow side-by-side in the life of a Christian?

How does Satan use shame to debilitate in the life of a Christian? (1 Pet 5:18; Rev 12:2)

Why is it important to separate the (objective) guilt of sin that is forgiven when a person trusts Christ from the (subjective) sense of shame that results? (Heb 10:22; 1 Jn 3:20-21)

Who are the powerless my my/our web of relationships? 

What groups of people are being left out or overlooked in the church family where I/we serve? 

What would it look like for me to join with others in serving these groups and suffering with them?

Gospel versus Religion: Galatians 4:8-20

Sunday, at Woodland, we’ll return to Galatians—that deep, glorious study in the Gospel.

We’ll find Paul, in chapter 4:8-20, pleading again with his Galatian children in the faith. The Galatians have left Paul’s teaching—the Gospel itself—to follow new teachers who would re-cast the young, Galatian believers in their own image. Unless the Galatians return to the truth of the Gospel, their new life will involve the quest for self-salvation through religious ritual (verse 10), as well as subordinate status to their new instructors, who would turn them into special ministry projects, in order to elevate themselves (verse 17).

Paul’s message: the Gospel brings freedom; religion (as in Christless, self-salvation programs through works) brings bondage. 

For Paul and the Galatians, bondage looked like estrangement. Previously, Paul had known the Galatians during a season of personal weakness that involved physical disability (verse 13). Even, and especially, in weakness, he’d become like the Galatians (verse 12), and they’d received him and the Gospel message, willing even to sacrifice their own selves for Paul’s good (verse 15). Their mutual status together: shared freedom … blessedness! (verse  14).

All that had ended at the writing of the letter. Now, Paul felt the need to give birth to his Galatian children again! (verse 19). His desire to see them recast in Christ’s image (verse 19) would result in his own shared freedom in the Gospel with the Galatians. But, only if they’d abandon their self-salvation quest through religion to return to trust in Christ alone.

Paul’s message describing Gospel versus religion meets us at two levels. As individuals, we might not come, like the Galatians, from pagan idolatry, and we might not dabble in ritualistic religion. But, we all have our idols, because we all seek to save ourselves. Competency, respectability, order, a well-disciplined family. All are good, but as requirements for happiness in place of Jesus, they serve as means for self-salvation leading to bondage.

Then, in community, as the Galatians and their new teachers show us, religion means we won’t be content to attempt to save ourselves, we’ll also attempt to save others by our own effort. This is “minister’s disease,” and I, for one, get how it works: We start out serving, but somewhere along the way it becomes a program that is my idea, and I find myself exhausted. And then, because I’m exhausted, I expect others to come alongside me to exhaust themselves. And, when they don’t come, I get angry and build a case against them in my own heart …

Sound familiar? “Minister’s disease” will often be found in communities where there is no joy.

In response, we have the message of Galatians: Just as we have entered the Christian life by grace through faith in Christ, so we continue in the Christian life by grace through faith in Chris. And for us, as with Paul the Galatians, returning to the Gospel when we fail will mean shared ministry in freedom,”blessedness”.

Find a friend and have a look at Galatians 4:8-20.

Thinking of verses 8-11—

Why is religion even more dangerous than non-religion?

What idols (anything that is not Christ) are you tempted to use for your own happiness?

How does knowing that God knows you (verse 9) free you from the temptation to worship “idols”?

Thinking of verses 12-20—

Why should the Galatians have found Paul’s argument compelling?

What do these verse have to teach us about our dependences on each other as we serve one another? 

How should your Christian service change as a result of this passage? 

The Gospel brings freedom; religion brings bondage.