Waiting For God’s Man

“It doesn’t take long for everything to go wrong.”

You could be forgiven if that is your initial thought when reading the Bible and starting in Genesis. It is a thousand-page book and everything is broken by page three.

It was off to such a good start, too. Genesis 1: God creates everything and everything is “very good.” Genesis 2: Mankind is given the tremendous privilege of filling the earth with more of God’s goodness and love. Genesis 3: Mankind listens to one of the beasts they are supposed to be reigning over and rebel against God, breaking everything for everyone.

It’s a tragedy and not a very long one.

The Promise Given

Or, it would be a tragedy if not for a promise that God makes in the midst of speaking his judgment against the snake, the woman, and the man.

In Genesis 3:15, a verse it is tempting to merely glance over as we read, we see a ray of hope for the future:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (ESV)

It’s tempting to read that and interpret it as a vague antagonism between women and snakes, and between humans and snakes. Except for the last clause: “he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” That is a singular, masculine pronoun.

And that is important. God is making a promise that one day, a man will come along who will gain victory over the serpent. To be sure, the serpent would get his blow in and bruise the man’s heel. But the man will bruise the serpent’s head.

The implication is that the man will suffer, but that it will not prove ultimately fatal. The blow to the snake’s head, however, will lead to his demise.

Hope!

See? We may merely glance at the statement, but it is pretty important: God is giving humanity hope! When Adam and Eve heard this promise, they understood that while the serpent’s deception had led them to lose everything, God’s promise would one day restore everything.

As they were clothed by God in animal skins, they understood that God was going to make a way for their lives to be redeemed.

As they were driven from the Garden of Eden, they understood that God would someday grant them safe passage back into his presence.

They understood these things because of God’s promise in Genesis 3:15.

Looking For God’s Man

How do we know? Because of what follows. In Genesis 4, we’re introduced to Adam and Eve’s sons, Cain and Abel. Cain is born first and Eve’s reaction is telling: “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” (ESV)

Why did it matter that she had gotten a man? Did Eve, a woman, believe that a man was inherently better than a woman? Maybe, though God had created both man and woman in his image. Did she merely rejoice because a man would be more useful in the labor of daily sustenance? Maybe, but not necessarily as women can be just as resilient in providing for their families.

It is far more likely that Eve was remembering God’s promise of a coming male offspring who would break the curse of sin by triumphing over the deceptive serpent, Satan.

But Cain wasn’t the promised one. Nor was Abel. We know that because of what happens next.

We see them worshipping God by each giving an offering to him. Abel’s offering to God is in line with what God had revealed in Genesis 3 by killing animals and clothing Adam and Eve: a blood sacrifice. Cain’s offering is the fruit of his labor in the fields: vegetation.

Both worshipping God. Both making an offering. But God accepts Abel’s offering and not Cain’s. There may not have been anything wrong with Cain’s offering, but we quickly see that there was something wrong with his heart.

Because when God rejects Cain’s offering, it reveals jealousy and rage that drive Cain to kill Abel. God deals with Cain, but we need to see his mother’s response to understand, again, how Adam and Eve understood God’s promise. Genesis 4:25 records Eve’s reaction to the birth of her third son, Seth: “God has appointed for me another offspring instead of Abel, for Cain killed him.” (ESV)

Eve was still looking for the promised “offspring.” She trusted God and knew that Abel couldn’t be the promised one because he was now dead, unable to strike the blow to the serpent. And she knew that Cain, though he was still alive, couldn’t do it either: he had sullied his hands with the blood of his brother and was no longer worthy to spill the blood of the snake. The promised one would have to be pure, unstained by the lies of the serpent and rebellion against God.

But she had another son, by God’s hand, so she had hope.

But Seth wasn’t the promised one. Nor was his son Enosh. Nor was his grandson Kenan.

But mankind kept looking for the fulfillment of God’s promise. That’s what the genealogies in the Old Testament are there for: to help God’s people, those who trusted his promise, in their search for the promised one.

Generation after generation, name after name, there was hope for humanity because God had made a promise. And God always keeps his promises

Some stand out from others. A descendant of Seth, named Lamech, thought he had the promised one identified. He said about his son, in Genesis 5:29, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.” (ESV)

That son was Noah. Noah was important and God used Noah to preserve the human race through the judgment of the flood, but Noah wasn’t the promised one. His deliverance of humanity from sin didn’t last: he himself fell into drunkenness after the flood.

The promised one would be like Noah in that he would provide sanctuary for all who would take refuge within his protection, but he would have to be better than Noah.

So, the search for the promised one continued. It zoomed in on the land of Ur, on a man named Abram. God called Abram to leave and to move to Canaan. God promised to bless the whole world through Abram and renamed him Abraham. But Abraham, for all his obedience, struggled with letting God’s promises come about in God’s way: he continually manipulated the situation to try and bring about the promise on his own. So, Abraham wasn’t the promised one, merely one through whom the promised one would come.

The promised one would be like Abraham in that he would do whatever the Lord told him to do, but he would have to be better than Abraham.

At least the scope of the search was narrowing: the promised one would be Abraham’s descendant.

But it turned out not to be Abraham’s son or his grandson.

Years down the line, however, Abraham’s descendants found themselves slaves in the land of Egypt. And God called one of them, Moses, to lead them out of slavery and out of Egypt and back to the land of Canaan. But Moses had a problem with his temper: he killed an Egyptian and disobeyed God in leading the people towards Canaan. He wasn’t the promised one.

The promised one would be like Moses in that he would lead God’s people out of captivity, but he would have to be better than Moses.

God’s people make it into God’s promised land, but the promised offspring doesn’t appear. The people get into a cycle of ignoring God, falling into the hands of their enemies, repenting and being rescued by a judge raised up by God to save them, only to ignore God again as soon as they were safe. Each of these judges had potential to be the promised one in the eyes of the people. One, Shamgar, killed 600 enemies with no weapon but a wooden ox goad. But his victory didn’t last and God had to raise up another judge after him. So, Shamgar wasn’t the promised one.

The promised one would be like Shamgar in that he too would use an instrument of wood to conquer his enemies, but he would have to be better than Shamgar.

Eventually, God’s people grew tired of the never-ending cycle with the judges. They asked God to give them a king. God warned them that they wouldn’t like it, but they insisted. The first king, Saul, didn’t work out very well, but the second king was promising. His name was David and the Bible tells us that he was “a man after God’s own heart.” Surely, he was the promised one. Unfortunately, he wasn’t. David failed to keep himself pure, committing adultery with a friend’s wife and then arranging to have that friend killed. David wasn’t the promised one.

The promised one would be like David in that he would truly be a man after God’s own heart, but he would have to be better than David.

And on and on. God’s people, those still clinging to his promise of the coming one who would be God’s man, grew weary of watching, weary of waiting. A hundred years was a long time to wait, but thousands were passing. Every time a potential promised one appeared, he failed.

A Man Was Required But A Man Wasn’t Enough

It was becoming clear: no one was good enough. The best and the brightest of humanity had tried and failed. If God’s promise was going to be kept, God was going to have to do something remarkably different than what people had seen before.

One group of God’s people realized this quite clearly. The Sons of Korah were servants of God and helped to write some of the Psalms that we find in the Bible. These were worship songs, sung by God’s people as they praised and trusted him. In Psalm 49, the Sons of Korah realize something very important: the promised one couldn’t just be a man. In verses 7-9 of that Psalm, they write, “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit.” (ESV)

The Sons of Korah looked at this dismal record of failed promised ones and recognized something vital: a mere man wasn’t going to be enough to fulfill the promise. In order to ransom humanity from their enslavement to evil, the promised one would have to be someone who wasn’t under the curse, who wasn’t bound by the lies of the Father of Lies, Satan, that old serpent.

But in order to fulfill God’s promise, the promised one still had to be the woman’s offspring. In other words, he couldn’t be merely human, but he had to nonetheless still be human.

The Sons of Korah suggest a solution, whether they recognized it or not, in verse 15 of Psalm 49: “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me.” (ESV)

They recognized that a mere man could not ransom another man, but they rightly discerned that God could, and would, be able to ransom them.

God’s Not Surprised

God knew that too. All the “failures” that happened along the way weren’t God’s: he allowed the hope to build and his people to look expectantly at each new candidate. People may have been surprised by the failures, but God wasn’t. God wasn’t crossing his fingers as David’s eyeing Bathsheba, thinking, “Man, I hope he doesn’t do it!” God wasn’t biting his fingernails as Moses is standing in front of the people at the rock, whispering, “Please, oh please, don’t hit the rock!” Their failures aren’t God’s failures. God knew that they weren’t the promised one, he knew they weren’t good enough. But he was preparing us for the one who would be. He was preparing us for the GodMan.

See, God’s promise could be fulfilled only if the promised man was also God.

The Promise Fulfilled

Many missed it, but that’s exactly what eventually happened.

After thousands of years of delayed hope, of waiting and watching kings and prophets and judges, of praying for the promised one, God sent his promised one.

He was a man, born to a young peasant girl named Mary. His birth was just the same as every other human’s: messy. His first breath was like every other human’s: a prelude to a newborn’s squall. He grew. He learned. He got hungry and he ate. He got thirsty and he drank. He got tired and he slept. He was human, an offspring of the woman.

He was also God. In the beginning, he was with God and he was God. Before Abraham was, he is. He is the creator and sustainer of all things. He is the first and the last, the Alpha and Omega. He receives worship as God and does not correct the worshippers. He is God, able to ransom us from sin and death.

God’s man is the GodMan.

Jesus Christ is the only name given among men by which we may be saved because he is the only offspring of the woman who is also the one who created the woman.

Jesus Christ is 100% God and 100% man in order to finally fulfill the promise of God and reconcile mankind to himself.

Jesus Christ was the only one who could fulfill Genesis 3:15. He was wounded by the serpent, dying on the cross. But he struck the serpent’s head by rising through the power of his divine perfection.

Jesus Christ opened a way for humanity to return to the presence of God, not by setting a good example for us, but by bringing the presence of God to us and taking the punishment we deserved.

Time and time again, we fail. But the GodMan, Jesus Christ, invites us to put our trust in him, in his incarnation, in his life, death, burial, and resurrection.

Will you trust him? Will you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead?

Because that’s the only way that you can see God’s promise fulfilled in your life. That’s the only way that you can be redeemed from sin and death: trust in God’s Promised One.

Put simply: trust in God.

Incarnation God Man Jesus Christ

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Getting Jesus Right: The Key To Everything

I want to tell you a story of a man who was crucified.

He was crucified some time in the first century A.D. He was probably in his late twenty’s when he died. He was most likely a convicted political agitator: he was somebody Rome saw as a threat and so they crucified him for it.

Crucifixion

For those of us who live in the 21st century, I guess that’s just an interesting historical fact. But I want you to understand what crucifixion was and what it meant back then. By the first century A.D. Rome had perfected crucifixion as a means of political punishment. It was a means of public humiliation meant to deter anyone who might dare to contradict the Roman system.

To perform a crucifixion, Roman soldiers would take nails and they would drive them, not through the palm of the hand as is frequently depicted, but through the wrist. There’s a very good reason for this: the weight of a man’s body cannot be held by just the flesh and tendons in a man’s hand. The weight requires a bone structure to support it on the nail. The executioners would pound spikes through the condemned’s wrist and into a horizontal beam. They would lift that beam, with the criminal nailed to it, and set it on top of a vertical post set in the ground. Then they would nail the victim’s feet, through the ankles, to that post. And then they would wait.

For hours.

Although in excruciating pain because of the nails through their wrists and through their feet, a crucifixion victim usually didn’t die quickly. That’s because it wasn’t blood loss or shock from the nails that usually killed them but the excruciatingly slow process of gradual suffocation. With their arms stretched out by the nails, the condemned couldn’t take full breaths without pulling up on the nails or pushing up with their feet. Each breath required amplifying the pain they were in. Over the course of a day, the physical, mental, and emotional effort required to make the movement would take its toll and eventually they wouldn’t be able to muster a breath at all.

It was a horrible, vicious, cruel manner of death.

Yehohanan

But back to my story. What’s interesting about the guy I started telling you about is they actually found his bones in an ossuary in his family tomb. His name was Yehohanan. When they opened his ossuary, they found his heel bone still had a Roman spike through it.

It’s the only such bone found out of the thousands of crucifixions we know that Rome performed. But I’d be willing to guess that you still hadn’t heard the story or Yehohanan’s name before this.

Yeshua

There was another guy crucified in the first century as well. They’ve never found his bones, but I bet you know his name: Jesus.

Have you ever asked why that is? Why, of the thousands crucified, is Jesus’ name still known and revered throughout the world while so many others have been forgotten? There’s something about Jesus.

For one thing, Jesus is central to Christianity. As Christianity has endured, Jesus’ name has endured. But beyond the merely religious consideration, there’s the fact of who Jesus is: the Son of God, the Resurrected King, the Mighty Savior. We remember Jesus because he is not dead: he is alive.

Getting Jesus Right

But simply remembering Jesus isn’t enough.

We need to get Jesus right.

And in order to get Jesus right, it’s essential that we turn to the Word of God. And, thankfully, in 2 John, we’re given five marks to help us see whether or not we’re getting Jesus right.

If I am getting Jesus right then…

1. I am fully committed to truth of who Christ is (2 John 4)

The first way I can know I’ve got Jesus right is if I’m fully committed to the truth of who he actually is. For example, in John’s day, people were saying that Jesus couldn’t be human because he was God. So they said he only appeared to be human. But that contradicts the truth of the Word. The Bible is clear that Jesus was actually human, actual flesh and blood. If the Bible says Jesus is human, I’ve got to believe that regardless of how I feel about it.

But the flip side of that coin is when people say that Jesus is human, he’s just not God. They take this approach because it’s hard to deal with Jesus as God in our modern era. But Scripture is just as clear that Jesus is God as it is that he is human. Jesus himself claims the divine name in John’s Gospel. Others testify to his divinity throughout the pages of the New Testament. The record is clear.

And it goes beyond questions of his nature. I need to land inside the biblical lines on his atonement, his kingdom, his purpose for his followers, etc. Getting Jesus right isn’t a choose-your-own-adventure story. Either I am fully committed to understanding the truth of who he is or I’m settling for a false Jesus I’ve manufactured according to my own whims, traditions, or feelings.

Ask: Is my faith resting on my feelings or on the truth of who Jesus is, as revealed in the Bible?

2. I have a deep, practical love for fellow believers (2 John 5)

Getting Jesus right also results in a very real and a very deep practical love for my fellow believers. John considers this essential. John understands, and wants me to understand, that if I truly understand Jesus’ nature and the nature of his work, I will be free to quit living my life as a means advancing myself. I don’t have to do good things for my neighbor; I get to do good things for my neighbor. When I see a brother or sister in need I can meet that need and I don’t have to advertise it. Because of who Jesus is, I no longer have to pretend like I can impress God.

Instead, I am able to focus on others. Life in the truth of Christ means I am no longer living life for me. I am free to live to serve others, just like Christ demonstrated in his own life. I cannot have the truth of who Christ is without the love that it brings for those around me.

Ask: is my faith producing self-centeredness or is it producing selfless service for others?

3. I find joy in obedience (2 John 6)

Another key to helping me determine whether I have Jesus right or not is to determine why I obey God. John says that obeying God is the natural outworking of the truth of who Christ is and loving those around me. So, do I obey him because I desperately want to be seen as being righteous? Or do I obey because I love Jesus? If I get Jesus wrong, it will be very difficult for me to obey him for the pure joy of it. No one but the biblical Jesus is sufficient to inspire me to go the extra mile, turn the other cheek, and seek holiness.

Because that’s what obedience should spring from: a deep love for Jesus. When I understand that Jesus is all I need and all that God needs from me, I no longer have to obey out of fear. Instead, getting Jesus right means that I can obey God from the sheer joy of knowing his love in Christ. I can’t add to my salvation, I can’t improve on Jesus’ record. Obedience becomes not my best attempt to forge a ticket to heaven but the all-expenses-paid trip I get to go on. I no longer have to wear obedience as clothes to impress those around me but as my most comfortable pair of pajamas to luxuriate in. If I find joy in obedience not for what it does for me but for the joy it brings God, I can know that I am getting Jesus right.

Ask: Do I obey God because I need to look righteous or do I obey God because I love Jesus?

4. I live in Christ’s teaching (2 John 9)

One thing that getting Jesus right doesn’t mean is being about to pass an essay exam on the hypostatic union of Jesus. Following Jesus can’t be reduced to a theology seminar. That being said, however, there are certain things that God reveals in Christ that I need to learn, I need to know, and I need to believe. Call it the basics, call it catechism, call it whatever, I’ll call it what John calls it: the teaching of Christ. Jesus taught us things. He was called “Teacher.” There is an intellectual element to faith.

However, it is important that I not insist on going beyond the teaching of Christ. It is possible to get bored with the gospel and to go beyond it, to look for more teaching, more revelation, a new prophet to speak to me. But Scripture’s clear: Jesus is God’s ultimate revelation (Hebrews 1:1-2). It is possible to go beyond the teaching of Christ by demanding a continual supply of new truth and not being content with what God has revealed.

This happens in individuals, in churches, in entire religions: they are not content with Christ’s teaching but must add to it to fulfill their own desire. But I need to be content. I need to recognize that while the gospel is as simple as “I’m a sinner, Christ died in my place, now I can have peace with God,” it is also remarkably deep. There are so many implications of the gospel that I could spend 200 lifetimes considering them and never exhaust the variety. I should be content with the gospel because it is enough for me to chew on forever.

Literally forever.

Ask: Am I demanding more revelation from God or am I content with Christ?

5. I have true fellowship with God (2 John 9)

The final mark of getting Jesus right is probably the hardest one to evaluate. I want to be right. I want to assume that I am on the right path. But I can deceive myself. If I get Jesus right, I have true fellowship or communion with God. But I can fake that relationship with God. I can fool myself and I can fool others.

But I can’t fool God.

I can have an incredible prayer life, read my Bible every day, go to church three times a week – I can look really good for others and in my own eyes.

But if I don’t get Jesus right, it won’t matter in the end.

There is only one way to fellowship with God: confess the real Jesus as Lord and believe in my heart God raised him from the dead. If my “fellowship” with him is based on any other confession, hope, or idea, I will lose everything when it matters the most.

Ask: Am I in fellowship with God and heading towards him or will I lose everything in the end?

Conclusion

In the end, the ultimate question, then, is, “am I getting Jesus right?” That’s the question for me and it’s the question for you.

Here’s my challenge to you: don’t take my word for it.

Go read the Gospel of John. Read 2 John. Read the New Testament. Read the Word of God.

And seek Christ. Seek to get him right, not based on what I say, not based on what anybody else says, but based on who he has revealed himself to be in the Bible.

Seek Christ because everything hinges on getting Jesus right.

Relationships Can Change The World: The Letter To Philemon

What does the Gospel of Jesus Christ have to say about your relationships with other people?

That’s an important question, but don’t answer it just yet.

Answer this one first:

Is the Gospel of Jesus Christ primarily about going to heaven when you die, or is it about having every aspect of your life, both now and forever, transformed?

If you’re a Christian, how you answer that question will significantly influence how you live. More specifically, your answer will require you to evaluate decisions, finances, ethics, etc. by completely different criteria.

Why It Matters

If the Gospel is simply about getting to heaven when you die, then this life is of secondary importance. So long as you check the boxes marked “heaven” on your final destination ticket you’re free to live however you want or at least, however, your culture pressures you into living.

If, however, the Gospel is about much more than that, indeed is about transforming everything about you, then its implications for the here and now are massive. Instead of filtering every decision through a “me” or a “culture” filter, you have to filter it through a “Jesus” filter. This means that you give Jesus shot-calling power in your finances, ethics, etc.

It especially affects your relationships.

So, back to the original question: What does the Gospel of Jesus Christ have to say about your relationships with other people?

Put succinctly: everything.

An Example From Scripture

We see this comprehensive impact of the Gospel on relationships very clearly in the New Testament book of Philemon.

Whereas most of the letters in the New Testament are written from a leader to a congregation, Philemon is different: it is primarily written by a Christian leader to another Christian leader. Not only that, but it’s from a friend to a friend. Paul is the author and Philemon is the leader of a house church. It’s a very personal letter.

Paul most likely wrote the letter from Rome while sitting in prison. And Philemon was likely a well-to-do leader of a house church in one of the towns that Paul had visited on his missionary journeys.

He was also a slave owner.

That’s a shock to our 21st-century sensibilities, so we need to understand what slavery was like in first-century Rome before we can understand this letter’s impact on how we understand relationships under the Gospel. In first-century Rome, there were so many slaves that they outnumbered the Roman citizens. It was not uncommon for a wealthy Roman citizen to own upwards of ten thousand slaves.

And then gospel gets introduced into this mix. And, frankly, the message spread very quickly amongst the slave community. The hope and grace and joy in the message of the Gospel gave new meaning and purpose to the lives of those who found themselves in bondage.

But the Gospel also began to reach those who owned slaves. And this was a new thing. Slavery was so common in that day it was just kind of the air they breathed, the water people were swimming in. People took it as a fact and never really examined it.

But one commentator on the book of Philemon said no other writing was more instrumental in the downfall of slavery than it was. Why? Because Paul says that just because something is culturally assumed it is not necessarily going to stand in light of the gospel.

Why does all this talk of slavery matter? Because Paul is writing to Philemon about an escaped slave, Onesimus. That may not mean a whole lot to us modern readers, but in Rome, where slaves outnumbered the citizens, there was a constant fear of a slave revolt. Consequently, the punishment for any slave who disobeyed their master or who ran away from their master was very serious. The master could, at their discretion, beat a runaway slave. They could imprison them. They could even kill them. As a matter of fact, one of the means of death that was available to the Roman citizen who owned a runaway was crucifixion.

So, when Paul writes to Philemon about Onesimus, he knows the seriousness of the matter.

He writes knowing Philemon’s rights as a slave owner.

But, he also writes knowing that the Gospel has the power to transcend the law and transform relationships.

He knows that because he has experienced it.

Paul is a fascinating character study. When we first meet Paul, he is persecuting the new Christian faith. He was really focused on his Jewish heritage, he saw this new church that was starting, and he said, “absolutely not.” He began to persecute the church: he was there when Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned. Paul threw believers into prison. He even got permission from the religious leaders to take the show on the road and begin threatening the church in Damascus.

But something changes. He has an encounter with the risen Christ.

Now you talk about an unlikely convert: that’s Paul! But he is changed: he goes from being a persecutor to being a preacher to being a prisoner for Christ.

When Paul writes Philemon, he starts by referring to himself as “a prisoner for Christ.” As I understand it, he’s giving testimony to the extreme power of the gospel to transform your life and your relationships. He was antagonistic to Christ and now all of a sudden he’s willing to suffer for Christ.

His relationship with Christ changed and that made a huge difference in his relationships with others. Paul was a pretty intense dude. Paul did not have any problems telling you what he thought.

Except in Philemon, he seems to hold back. Paul had the authority, as an apostle and the one who brought the Gospel to Philemon, to tell Philemon what to do but he softens it.

I would argue it’s the gospel that softens Paul’s words. Paul experienced the love of Christ in his own life and it drove him to demonstrate that love to others. He tells Philemon, “I’d rather appeal to you.” Why?

Love doesn’t demand and command: it encourages and transforms.

The gospel that transformed Paul was not something that Paul came to unwillingly: once Jesus showed up and Paul experienced the love of Christ he began to apply that to his life. There’s a transformation that takes place in Paul’s ministry.

The way Paul relates to people has been transformed by the power of the Gospel.

Paul’s not the only one who’s been changed by the gospel. Philemon has been changed as well. One thing we know about Philemon is that he is a rich guy. Anyone who had a house big enough for a church to meet in and who owns slaves is in the one percent: he’s the upper crust in society. People of his station were not supposed to be concerned about opening their homes up to what was likely a congregation of lower class people.

And yet the gospel has transformed him.

Jesus says it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Good thing God works miracles. Because Philemon, the rich guy, is a Christian. He’s somebody who’s been transformed. He’s in the Kingdom of Heaven. Why? Because the Gospel transformed his relationship with his wealth. The Gospel took what had probably been the primary concern for him and makes it secondary to the cause of promoting the Gospel.

Philemon’s relationship with Paul is affected by the Gospel. Because of the Gospel, Paul knows that Philemon is someone he can trust. Philemon will listen to the Holy Spirit, he’s a trustworthy kind of guy now because the Gospels transformed him.

But there’s also a relationship that still needs to be transformed by the Gospel. There’s a blind spot in Philemon’s life. His relationship with his slave, Onesimus. Paul wants Philemon to see the implications of the Gospel in this area: Onesimus can no longer be a slave if he’s a brother in Christ.

This is where, if I was Paul Harvey, I’d pause and you’d just have to wait for the rest of the story.

I’m not Paul Harvey, but you still have to wait.

First, there’s a third character we need to look at: Onesimus. A slave who most likely stole from his master the resources by which he was able to escape. He ran away to Rome to hide from his master in the crowds there. And then he meets Paul. And Paul introduces him to Jesus.

Onesimus, who was willing to risk death to flee slavery, meets Jesus. And what does he do? He begins serving Paul. He begins to willingly do the thing he was willing to die to avoid. The Gospel transformed Onesimus’ relationship with service. This is a guy who said, “I don’t want my life to be defined by serving someone.” Now, after the Gospel, he is submitting to Christ and he’s serving Paul. It’s interesting that there’s a little play on words going on here: Onesimus means “useful.” Paul tells Philemon that Onesimus was formerly useless as a slave, but now he’s useful.

Paul is not saying he’s useful because now he’s just a good obedient little slave. No, he’s saying he’s useful because he’s been transformed by the gospel. Onesimus has changed from wanting what he wants to get out of life to wanting what Jesus wants. His relationship with his very life has been transformed by Jesus coming in.

Note that Paul is not turning Onesimus over to the authorities and having them haul him back. Most likely, Paul is putting this letter in Onesimus’ hand and he is freely and willingly going back to Philemon. The master that he probably stole from. The master that he could not wait to get away from. And he’s going back.

That’s transformation. That’s what the Gospel does in our relationships.

How?

How does the Gospel transform us like that?

The Gospel gives us a call, not to self-advancement, not a call to self-improvement, not a call for me to be the best me possible, but for me to be like Jesus. The Gospel transforms us not by giving us a list of things to do but by first and foremost having us see Jesus.

Jesus is all that matters. Jesus is the only one whose vision for your life matters. What you want to be, what you want to do, what you want to become in yourself are entirely and utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of God’s plan for the universe. God’s goal for creation is not that it would revolve around you but that Jesus Christ would be all in all.

But how does that happen?

Jesus becomes a slave.

Is that not the most counter-cultural counter-intuitive way of doing things you’ve ever heard?

If we want to get ahead, we imagine that we’ve got to promote ourselves. Jesus example says, “No.”

Jesus is God. He didn’t have to give up the privileges that he had as God eternal and come to earth as a human being. He didn’t have to do that but he did.

Because the fundamental truth of the Gospel is this: a life lived for yourself is a life that is not worth living. A life lived for others is a life that will endure forever.

Jesus comes and he dies on a cross not because it was good for Jesus, but because Jesus wasn’t worried about Jesus: he was worried about his Father, he was worried about us. That’s why Jesus came and Jesus died and that sacrifice opens up the hope for us to be transformed and for us to be redeemed. If we will submit to Christ, the Bible says we will be saved. If we confess Him as Lord and believe in our hearts that God raised Him from the dead we will be saved.

And being saved doesn’t just mean getting to go to heaven when you die. Being saved means that one day you’re going to look like Jesus. Getting saved means God starts remaking you, beginning the process of transforming you from a wretched rebel to a son or daughter who looks like Jesus.

Part of that process will necessarily involve transforming your relationships.

The gospel transformed Paul from a persecutor to somebody who was willing to be a prisoner. It changed his relationships with those called Christians and with the Christ they took their name from.

The gospel transformed Philemon from “that rich guy” to somebody known for being generous, loyal, and a disciple-maker. It changed his relationship with his stuff and how he used it.

The gospel transformed Onesimus from a runaway slave to a faithful fellow worker. It changed his relationships with those around him from what he could get to what he could give.

That’s radical. It is change that everyone can see. It is a testimony to the power of the gospel.

So, how is the gospel changing your relationships?

Because here’s my fear: that we, as Christians, are so tempted to make our relationships about us that we miss the life-transforming power of the gospel in them. When we approach relationships saying, “what am I going to get out of this, what’s in it for me?” then we miss the heart of Jesus in the gospel.

Not only that, but the world misses a chance to see real, practical evidence for the truth and power of the gospel.

The gospel is not inert. It isn’t just a good story. It’s not about morality.

It’s about transformation.

You don’t know the ripples that will spread out in the lives of those who see the gospel transforming relationships.

And now for the…rest of the story.

We don’t get it from the New Testament, but there’s something very interesting that happened in the story of Philemon and Onesimus after Paul’s letter. A guy named Ignatius of Antioch writes years later about the Bishop of Ephesus. His name? Onesimus.

Now, it’s possible that there was another Onesimus, but the fact he is also referred to as the Slave Bishop seems to indicate that it’s the same guy. And, as we trace the story through various authors, we get the idea that Philemon took Paul’s hint and set Onesimus free. Then, Onesimus went back to Paul and serves with him. He serves the wider church faithfully and eventually becomes the bishop of Ephesus.

Some scholars also think Onesimus is the one who assembled Paul’s writings. That’s important. There wasn’t a printing press, so preserving the letters would have to be an intentional act. It seems Onesimus may have been the guy doing it. So, why do we have a New Testament that includes Paul’s letters? Ultimately, it’s the inspiration of the Holy Spirit but he could have been working specifically through transformed relationships.

That’s pretty cool.

So, based on the example of Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, begin to think intentionally about how you can demonstrate the gospel through them. Start today by changing the way you think about relationships.

Don’t ask: “What do I deserve?” Ask: “How can I serve?”

Don’t ask: “What’s the least I can do?” Ask: “What will show the most love?”

Don’t ask: “What do I want to do?” Ask: “What would Jesus do?”

When you change your approach to relationships, they are transformed. When relationships are transformed, its evidence for the truth of the gospel. Then, when evidence for the gospel is seen, the gospel spreads. And when the gospel spreads, the world is changed.

How are your relationships looking in light of the gospel? Because they have the power to change the world.

Obadiah: The Danger Of Indifference

Indifference.

Indifference

It seems to be a perennial problem.

Obadiah dealt with it. Obadiah was a prophet. His book is the shortest in the Old Testament. If you can quote a verse from it without looking it up, you’ll have earned my undying respect.

We just don’t seem to pay much attention to Obadiah.

I think the reason is that it’s short.

What could such a short book possibly have to say that would matter?

I had a professor when I was in college, though, who was fond of saying that “in order to be immortal, a message need not be eternal.”

Sometimes it’s the short messages that hit the hardest and linger the longest.

The Danger of Indifference

One thing that should jump off the page of Obadiah is that indifference is dangerous.

Obadiah is a really interesting book not just because it’s the shortest one in the Old Testament. No, it’s interesting too because Obadiah has a focus that’s a little different than most of the rest of the Bible. Obadiah focuses his message, not on Israel, not on Judah, but on the nation of Edom.

Edom is not a nation that we think about much. They’ve been one of history’s casualties. So, a little bit of background might help us as we walk through the text. Edom is comprised of the descendants Esau. Now that name ring a bell. Who is Esau? He’s Jacob’s brother. Jacob, the father of the nation of Israel. Esau was actually the firstborn, the oldest son. He was the one who should have been the most prominent, according to tradition. Instead, Jacob gets that honor and is the one who becomes the carrier of God’s promise. Jacob is the one who inherits the blessings. It’s through Jacob’s line that we have the nation of Israel. And Esau is jealous, not entirely without cause, of Jacob.

The seed of jealousy planted by Jacob’s usurpation of Esau carries over into the relationship between the two nations that sprang from them. And that’s what Obadiah addresses.

God’s Judgment On Edom

But Obadiah doesn’t give us this background in his message. Instead, he just launches into God’s judgment against the nation of Edom. Verses 1-9 say:

The vision of Obadiah.

Thus says the Lord God concerning Edom:
We have heard a report from the Lord,
    and a messenger has been sent among the nations:
“Rise up! Let us rise against her for battle!”
Behold, I will make you small among the nations;
    you shall be utterly despised.
The pride of your heart has deceived you,
    you who live in the clefts of the rock,
    in your lofty dwelling,
who say in your heart,
    “Who will bring me down to the ground?”
Though you soar aloft like the eagle,
    though your nest is set among the stars,
    from there I will bring you down,
declares the Lord.

If thieves came to you,
    if plunderers came by night—
    how you have been destroyed!
    would they not steal only enough for themselves?
If grape gatherers came to you,
    would they not leave gleanings?
How Esau has been pillaged,
    his treasures sought out!
All your allies have driven you to your border;
    those at peace with you have deceived you;
they have prevailed against you;
    those who eat your bread have set a trap beneath you—
    you have no understanding.

Will I not on that day, declares the Lord,
    destroy the wise men out of Edom,
    and understanding out of Mount Esau?
And your mighty men shall be dismayed, O Teman,
    so that every man from Mount Esau will be cut off by slaughter.

Apparently, Obadiah missed the memo on how to be an effective public speaker. He just jumps right into it: “you’re going to be judged Edom. You’re going to be destroyed now.”

Not A Unique Message

A message of judgment and destruction is not a novelty amongst prophets. Why is that? Because God is a holy God, he is a righteous God, and he has established the world expecting certain things from his creation. God judges sin and destroys sinners because things go really horribly terribly wrong when we don’t do what God has said to do. Sin itself is the cause of God’s judgment. Humanity is frequently in need of judgment, that message is not unique, because we frequently do the things that God says not to.

But we’ve got the idea wrong when we think that God says don’t do that because he’s just some sort of cosmic killjoy. God’s commands and God’s judgments are not pettily motivated. God knows that if we function as He created us to function, things will go better for us. And he knows that by judging our sin and calling us back to repentance (kind of smacking us upside the head) he can get our attention. He knows that things will go better for us if we will turn from our rebellion and do things his way. So, God’s judgment is ultimately an act of grace in calling people back to wholeness and fulfillment.

If God is gracious in judgment, we are infinitely creative in requiring it. And almost everyone would agree that there are things that need to be judged. Murder. Rape. Theft. And more. Most everyone recognizes that there is a reason why we have police officers and courts and judges and jails.

A Surprising Cause

But sometimes we’re surprised by what God says requires judgment. Because Obadiah, after telling Edom they will be judged, turns to tell them why. And it’s for something that you and I probably wouldn’t worry about that much. Verses 10-11 say:

Because of the violence done to your brother Jacob,
    shame shall cover you,
    and you shall be cut off forever.
On the day that you stood aloof,
    on the day that strangers carried off his wealth
and foreigners entered his gates
    and cast lots for Jerusalem,
    you were like one of them.

Edom, you’re being judged for violence done to Jacob. You did perpetrate the violence though: you just stood there and watched.

You’re being judged because you were indifferent.

We think, “What’s the big deal?”

And God says, “That’s the big deal: that you stood there and did nothing.”

Indifference is dangerous.

It’s dangerous because it invites God’s judgment, but it’s dangerous because of where it leads people. Verses 13-14:

But do not gloat over the day of your brother
    in the day of his misfortune;
do not rejoice over the people of Judah
    in the day of their ruin;
do not boast
    in the day of distress.
Do not enter the gate of my people
    in the day of their calamity;
do not gloat over his disaster
    in the day of his calamity;
do not loot his wealth
    in the day of his calamity.
Do not stand at the crossroads
    to cut off his fugitives;
do not hand over his survivors
    in the day of distress.

The Edomites indifference leads them to the next step: rejoicing at Israel’s misfortune. The German term that we’ve coopted to describe this is “schadenfreude” – pleasure at another’s problems. The Edomites were indifferent as they stood and watched, but that indifference infected them and led to schadenfreude.

And then they take it a step further: they profit from Israel’s problems. They looted the homes and farms the Israelites had been driven from. They didn’t drive them out, but they certainly gained from someone else doing it.

And, to add insult to injury, they wouldn’t let Israel escape their enemies. They cut off and turned back anyone fleeing.

They were indifferent.

They rejoiced.

They profited.

They participated.

Edom is being judged for good cause.

Not Just Edom’s Problem

But just in case we think Obadiah’s message is for Edom only, it’s not. This is a God’s message for each of us. Obadiah broadens the spectrum in verses 15-16

For the day of the Lord is near upon all the nations.
As you have done, it shall be done to you;
    your deeds shall return on your own head.
For as you have drunk on my holy mountain,
    so all the nations shall drink continually;
they shall drink and swallow,
    and shall be as though they had never been.

All the nations. Edom. Israel. America. Kenya. Australia. Romania. Britain.

Nothing’s exempted here.

All the nations are going to experience the judgment of God for this very same: indifference, schadenfreude, profiting off the misfortune of others, participating in injustice.

It’s interesting that Obadiah says “as you have drunk on my holy mountain so all the nations will drink continually.” To drink in the hall of your vanquished enemy was the sign of victory. God says, “look all the nations do this. All of them think they won, whether through conquest or through indifferent profiteering. And in the very act of enjoying their victory, I will destroy them. They’re going to drink and they’re going to gulp down and they’re going to disappear.

The very instance of their success is the very thing that condemns them.

God’s Message of Hope

But Obadiah’s not done – verses 17-21:

But in Mount Zion there shall be those who escape,
    and it shall be holy,
and the house of Jacob shall possess their own possessions.
The house of Jacob shall be a fire,
    and the house of Joseph a flame,
    and the house of Esau stubble;
they shall burn them and consume them,
    and there shall be no survivor for the house of Esau,
for the Lord has spoken.

Those of the Negeb shall possess Mount Esau,
    and those of the Shephelah shall possess the land of the Philistines;
they shall possess the land of Ephraim and the land of Samaria,
    and Benjamin shall possess Gilead.
The exiles of this host of the people of Israel
    shall possess the land of the Canaanites as far as Zarephath,
and the exiles of Jerusalem who are in Sepharad
    shall possess the cities of the Negeb.
Saviors shall go up to Mount Zion
    to rule Mount Esau,
    and the kingdom shall be the Lord’s.

God’s judgment is going to come against all those who oppose God’s kingdom but there will be a deliverance on Mount Zion. God’s kingdom will be established. Everyone who opposes the sovereign King and Creator of the universe will be judged. But those who submit to the King will reign with him. How is that going to take place?

Jesus Christ the King

In the mysterious providence of God, it’s going to take place because of Jesus Christ. It is going to take place through this Jewish Messiah, dying. This is Jewish King being mocked by an occupying army. It’s going to take place by this King being so poor he can’t even afford to bury himself, someone else has to foot that bill.

And then he rises from the dead. And he establishes himself and demonstrates his authority in that act. He sets himself up as the King, the one on the throne, the one who will produce the Kingdom of God.

Where You and I Fit In

Here’s how he’s going to do it: he’s going to take normal, everyday people. Like you and like me. And he’s going to change them and transform them from the inside out. He’s going to take the heart inside of them that is indifferent to the sufferings of others and he’s going to replace it with a heart that bleeds for the sake of others. He’s going to take their selfish will out of their mind and he’s going to put in instead a desire to do God’s will. He’s going to create this people from every tribe and every tongue and every language. These people are going to want nothing more than to see his kingdom established and they’re going to start now. They’re going to try to make a difference in the lives of the people around them. They’re going to meet problems and they’re going to fix them. And they’re going to come face to face with depravity and sin and all of the mess of humanity and they’re going to speak life into it through the words of the gospel of the kingdom.

That’s the plan.

The Danger of Indifference For Those Who Should Make a Difference

But what happens what happens when the people who are supposed to be bringing it about, lose the plot?

That’s the danger of indifference.

If you’re going through your day and you’re scrolling through Facebook and you see the funny video of the guy falling flat on his face. What happens if you’re indifferent to that? You’re being conditioned.

Maybe then you’re driving down the street and you see a homeless guy, maybe indifference is your reaction. Why? Because you’ve conditioned yourself to be indifferent to the suffering of others.

And then maybe you’re at work and you’ve got a coworker who just got promoted. They’re in a little over their heads and instead of offering to help, you just sit there and watch them flounder.

It’s true for all of us: if we miss the danger of indifference, we’re going to sit there and watch. And then a little later on maybe we move to the next step too.

Maybe instead of just watching the video, we share the video. Why? Because we get “likes.” We get joy out of it.

The homeless guy: instead of just being indifferent, we start thinking, “man I’m glad I’m not such a mess. I’m glad I’ve got things together.”

We get to work. And we realize, “hey, if this coworker keeps floundering, maybe that opens a door for me once they finally get rid of him.”

The danger of indifference.

We begin to see profit in indifference.

“I get my rush from the Facebook likes.”

“I get this feeling of smug superiority from judging the homeless guy.”

“I might get a raise or a promotion if this guy gets fired.”

And it’s not so far from there to begin participating, just like Edom did standing at the crossroads.

Indifference is dangerous.

The Image of God Is Marred By Indifference

Indifference is a sin. It’s not just an affront to God: it destroys us. It takes everything it means to be human and it turns it around. God created us in His image. The very first thing we see God doing is seeing a problem and fixing it. And he says to us, “you’re just like me! I made you to see problems and fix problems!”

Indifference is the precise opposite of that. If we’re not doing the things God created us to do, we aren’t experiencing the life he meant for us to live, we’re not being what he made us to be. Indifference is the gateway drug to a life that is less than human. From not caring about others to taking pleasure at the misfortunes of others, to profiting from the loss of others.

God made us to be problem-solvers, world-changers, difference-makers.

Indifference makes us people who just sit back and consume instead of create. People who are constantly looking to be entertained instead of looking to engage their culture.

Indifference In The American Church

Indifference is dangerous and it seems to have overcome the American church.

I used to worry about the American church. I used to worry that we were a lot like Israel. We were aware of the things that were wrong, we knew that that we were kind of idolatrous, and we knew that we had placed the American Dream ahead of following Christ. We knew that but we were kind of OK with it.

I used to worry about that. But the past couple weeks, as I’ve been reading Obadiah, I’ve started worrying that maybe we’re not like Israel: maybe we’re more like Edom.

Maybe we are completely indifferent to the problems of others.

Maybe we are willing to rejoice at the problems of others.

Maybe we are willing to profit off of the problems of others.

Maybe we are willing to participate in a system of injustice.

Because what’s the church designed for?

The church is, by nature, designed to be unable to be indifferent. We are given the life-changing message of the gospel of the Kingdom. We are the ones who can go to a world that is broken and say, “here is a solution!” We can go to people who are drowning in despair and who are turning to alcohol and pornography and drugs and success and money and all of these things that will ultimately be empty and we can say, “Look! That’s not going to do it for you.” And we could run headlong into the darkest places and say, “here’s Jesus.”

But are we?

Not hardly.

No church in history has ever had the resources that the American church has. No national group of believers has ever had the sheer numbers, the sheer technological ability, and the sheer financial resources of the American church.

And yet, no church has ever spent more money, more time, or more effort on itself. The church was never designed to be a country club that we pay our dues to and we show up once a week or twice a week for our own benefit.

And yet the American church has devoted itself to creating a culture centered around sitting under preachers that we like, singing music that we like, and building buildings we like. All the while indifferent to the fact that too much of the world’s population has zero access to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. All the while indifferent to the fact that there are people who are waiting for the door to burst open and shots to be fired. We are indifferent to the fact that there are people who will go to bed tonight not having eaten last week and not sure if they’re going to get to eat this week.

Do you see the danger of indifference in Obadiah?

What if we are Edom?

What if we are the ones watching indifferently, rejoicing indecently, profiting obscenely, and participating blindly?

Then we better fix it.

The Solution to Indifference: Engage

If the problem starts with indifference then the opposite of that is how you fix it. And it’s really only that first step that needs fixed – instead of just sitting there and watching and being indifferent when you see a problem – engage.

Engage with your heart: feel it.

Engage with your head: think about it.

Engage with your mouth: speak boldly about it.

Engage with your hands & your feet: go do something about it.

This holistic engagement is the what’s at stake here. Engage. It’s the opposite of indifference and it makes a difference.

Everything changes when you engage. So, next time you’re scrolling through Facebook ask yourself, “am I being conditioned for indifference or am I being conditioned to make a difference?” Ask, “as I’m having a conversation at work, am I being conditioned to indifference or am I going to make a difference?”

The danger of indifference is that you would waste the life God has given you and be worthy of his judgment, just like Edom.

The beauty of engagement is that God says, “Come on in. Join me in changing the world.”

saviors vs. The Savior

Finally, there’s something interesting about how Obadiah ends his message:

Saviors will ascend Mount Zion to rule over the hill country of Esau, but the kingdom will be the Lord’s.

God calls us to join him in changing the world, but we need to recognize that it’s still, ultimately, his work: when we engage instead of watching indifferently, we are saviors with a small “s”. It’s essential that we know and proclaim the Savior with a big “S”. We don’t get the glory, we don’t engage for praise. The praise and the glory go to Jesus: Jesus, whose kingdom it is that is being established. Jesus, who shows us what it means to be human as God intended. Jesus, who dies on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin. Jesus, whose resurrection from the grave conquers the God’s enemies.

Reject indifference.

Embrace Jesus.

Change the world.

 

If God Is Good, Why Do Bad Things Happen? (A Sermon From Psalm 10)

If God is good, why do bad things happen?

The question is not new. People have asked it for centuries. It shows up in historical, philosophophical, and religious texts.

One of the places it appears is in Psalm 10.

Most think that David is the author of Psalm 10. Assuming that, what David is doing in Psalm 10 is wrestling with the question of how to reconcile God’s goodness with the reality of evil. He starts off asking:

Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?
    Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?

Psalm 10:1

David is expressing his confusion, his sadness, his uncertainty, his doubt…in other words, David is just like us. When we see bad things happen, we wrestle with them, they affect us, they affect our faith. We pray, “God! when times are tough, I have a really hard time seeing you! God, when evil strikes, I have a really hard time understanding if you’re good! God, why do you hide yourself!”

When things are hard, it’s difficult to see God. We have trouble understanding how it is that we could be experiencing what we’re experiencing and God still be good.

How can God be good if he hides when trouble comes? But does he hide? Or is it the case that perhaps the problem is not that the Lord hides from us in times of trouble, but that it’s harder for us to see him in times of trouble.

When I was growing up, I remember my pastor telling a story. I don’t remember if it was his story, if it was a true story, or if it was something he made up. But he told the story of a couple who were dating and he would drive his car with a bench seat and she would sit right next to him. And they got married and experienced the normal ups and downs and they had kids. Twenty years go by and, one day, they’re sitting at a stoplight and they see a car coming the other way. There’s this young couple sitting in the car and the guy’s driving and his girl is sitting right next to him and he’s got his arm around her. The wife sees this scene and, from her seat by the passenger window, looks over and says to her husband: “Do, you remember when we used to do that?” And he looks over at her, across the seat, and says, “Yeah, but I’m not the one that moved.”

God doesn’t move.

God doesn’t change.

When times of trouble come, it’s that our circumstances have put a lot of seat space between God and us. We seem to have slid farther and farther across the seat.

God’s not intentionally hiding.

It’s just harder to see him when times are tough.

But David points out a problem: when it’s difficult for us to see God, evil seems to increase. The wicked seem to be emboldened by God’s apparent absence and they began to take advantage of the situation.

In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor;
    let them be caught in the schemes that they have devised.
For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul,
    and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord.
In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him;
    all his thoughts are, “There is no God.”
His ways prosper at all times;
    your judgments are on high, out of his sight;
    as for all his foes, he puffs at them.
He says in his heart, “I shall not be moved;
    throughout all generations I shall not meet adversity.”
His mouth is filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
    under his tongue are mischief and iniquity.
He sits in ambush in the villages;
    in hiding places he murders the innocent.
His eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
    he lurks in ambush like a lion in his thicket;
he lurks that he may seize the poor;
    he seizes the poor when he draws him into his net.
10 The helpless are crushed, sink down,
    and fall by his might.
11 He says in his heart, “God has forgotten,
    he has hidden his face, he will never see it.”

12 Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand;
    forget not the afflicted.
13 Why does the wicked renounce God
    and say in his heart, “You will not call to account”?

Psalm 10:2-13

Unfortunately, evil tends to breed evil, wickedness, wickedness. We see this when we look at the world today. We hear stories of people growing up and seeing depravity all around them and instead of desiring a different way they just continue in it. They see the war, so they wage war. They see drugs, so they do drugs. They see wickedness and they learn it and they say, “look we’re not being punished for it. We’re not being held accountable for it. Therefore, I can do whatever I want.”

David says evil is a problem that just snowballs. It’s not random, it’s not chance: it comes from us. From humanity. Lying about one another, stealing from one another, persecuting one another, waging war with one another. If there’s no God to hold us accountable, then we can do whatever we want to.

“Do whatever you want as long as you can get away with it” is the modern mantra.

How many atrocities have come about from people operating on that understanding?

How many warlords are on their thrones today because they’re convinced that no one can stop them?

How many people today are walking around with this understanding: there is no God?

Thankfully, Psalm 10 goes on and David reminds himself and us:

14 But you do see, for you note mischief and vexation,
    that you may take it into your hands;
to you the helpless commits himself;
    you have been the helper of the fatherless.
15 Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer;
    call his wickedness to account till you find none.

16 The Lord is king forever and ever;
    the nations perish from his land.
17 O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
    you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
18 to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
    so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

Psalm 10:14-18

What is David saying? He’s saying, “God, I know you’re going to fix things. I know that you are going to do something about evil. God, you are good in spite of the fact that evil exists. This time of trouble is not the eternal state of things. God, you’re good and, yes, bad things happen. But one day, they’re not going to happen anymore. One day, God, you’re going to set everything right.”

Do you hear David’s relief? Do you get his sense of understanding?

God’s not hiding; God’s going to do something about this evil. Indeed, God has been doing something about it all along.

What is God doing about it?

God Gave Us A Choice

First, God gave us free will. Debate the particulars all you want, but he gave us a choice: worship him or worship not-him. And humanity chose not-him and everything that has happened since has been a consequence of that decision to not worship God.

But God hasn’t moved. God hasn’t changed.

And what God established from the beginning still holds true.

God created the heavens and the earth. And he made light and he made the moon and he made the sun and he made the animals and he made everything and he said, “this is good.” And then he made Adam and he made Eve and he said, “this is very good.” When God said it was good, was he unaware of how bad it would get? No! He wasn’t surprised. It’s very good because the end result would be to God’s glory and the ultimate good of his creation.

When God declared over his creation, “this is very good,” he was not saying, “this is very good because they’re never going to face difficulties, they’re never going to choose to reject me, they’re never going to have to deal with trouble.” Not at all. He’s saying this is very good because God built his solution to the problem of evil in from the very beginning. He built in his understanding that mankind would choose not-God and that all of this trouble would come as a result.

God knew that. And he can still say it’s very good because of what he’s going to do.

God Gave Us Life

In spite of the evil to come, God gave us life. He could have made nothing! If God created nothing then we would not exist to even ask these questions! We would have been spared pain but we would also never know joy. Existence is better than non-existence.

So, God gave us life out of love. But then why didn’t he create us without the ability to choose not-God? Because, if God would have given us no choice but to worship him, if the only option was the God-option, we’d be no different than robots.

How much does a robot understand of love? How many robots are drive hundreds of miles to visit a national park, stop at the overlook, and marvel at the panorama of creation? How many robots go out at night to look at the stars and see the Milky Way stretched out above them?

The reason didn’t God didn’t create us like robots, the reason he gave us a choice, is not so that he could punish us when we finally fell. No! He created us with a choice so that we would have the capability or the possibility of knowing what love and beauty are.

God gives us life and it’s interesting that we still have it. He didn’t change when we fell. God didn’t pull the plug. In spite of our sin and the trouble we cause and the trouble we experience, we still have life. We still experience goodness. We still experience love. We still experience God’s provision.

Whether we acknowledge him, or not, he still allows us the chance at making something of this life. One of the things that God is doing about evil is he gives us a glimpse of good things in this life and invites us, through them, to see the rest of his work.

But we say that’s not enough. We don’t want glimpses of good in the midst of the bad: we want God to fix the problem!

God Made Us In His Image

We misunderstand what God’s purpose was for us. He created us in his image. God didn’t just give us life and say, “here, eke out whatever meager meaning and purpose and beauty and love you can find.” No! He gives us the opportunity to be like him. He says, “look, you’re going to be like me. You’re going to understand and you’re going to be able to create and you’re going to have dominion and you’re going to be able to rule. You’re going to be creative and there’s going to be problems presented to you and you’re going to be able to fix them.”

One of the things that God is doing about evil is that he made us in his image. We’ve been given the stewardship of creation and one another. We’re supposed to be the ones representing God to the world. We’re supposed to be the ones who fix problems when they come up.  We’re supposed to be the ones who bring order out of the chaos like God brought order out of chaos.

When we experience trouble, when we experience the effects of sin on this world, we’re not experiencing something that God is surprised by. Instead, what we’re experiencing is God giving us the opportunity to image him. We so often look the problems of this world as if, somehow, we were helpless creatures in the hands of time and fate.

And yet God has given us minds that are almost unimaginably creative and hands that can build the most intricate and beautiful things. Through history, we can see that God gave us the ability to create amazing things, technology that allows us to travel faster than sound waves. We can build stuff as high as mountains. And we have medical technology that can save lives. We have this unbelievable potential to fix problems as they arise. That’s God’s gift to us.

And yet when times come in hard times come, we just want to take our hands off the wheel and say, “Jesus, take the wheel.” Or worse: “This is your fault, God.”

I don’t think that God’s plan for humanity was for us to shrink from problems: he created us to solve them. There is a near-constant invitation for people to join him in his work. When we see evil, we need to understand that God is giving us opportunities to exercise the gifts he’s given us.

The problem of evil is ultimately not that God doesn’t intervene every time, but that we, his created solution, choose not to.

Instead of solving problems, we create them. We end up causing more destruction than we do construction. Why? Because we take the gift of creativity and the ability to make stuff and we twist it.

We take minds that were meant to harness the healing power of creation and instead we split the atom and build weapons capable of destroying every single one of us.

Instead of serving, we’re lazy.

Instead of loving, we’re uncaring.

Instead of giving, we’re greedy.

And then we blame God for our problems.

The problem is not God, the problem is our sin.

But God’s not done yet: there’s another thing that he’s done to deal with evil.

God Gave Us Jesus And Took Our Sin

God knew that in order for us to do that which we were created to do, in order for us to join him, in order for us to truly demonstrate who he is to the world around us, he has to fix something first: sin. Because so long as sin is in us, we will continue to abdicate our role in creation.

God has to change something in us in order for us to change the world.

He’s inviting us to see problems as an opportunity to join him in his work but we will never see them as such until he gets through to us. Not until he takes that heart of stone from us and puts a heart of flesh in its place are we ever going to experience what it means to truly image God

The reason we can know that God is good even when bad things happen is that God takes those bad things and turns them for His own glory and for our good.

He does this most visibly with Jesus Christ.

Jesus comes. And Jesus experiences all the things that we experience. He lives, he breathes, he struggles, he hurts. Jesus is just like us: he’s human.

Still, there’s something different about him because instead of creating chaos where there should be order he brings order where there is chaos.

Instead of breaking things that should be fixed, he fixes things that are broken.

Jesus does what man should have done: he fixes problems instead of creates them.

And we killed him for the trouble. We put him on a cross. We did the most unimaginably evil thing possible. We sought to kill God.

But Jesus didn’t stay dead. Jesus rose again.

In Jesus, we finally see hope. We see the possibility of God dealing with this problem of sin that we’ve got. Because, in Jesus dying and rising, we are invited to place our faith in Him. We are invited to exchange our heart of stone for a heart of flesh. And we’re given Holy Spirit and now we’re empowered to live a life that exists for God’s glory and for the good of others and not for ourselves.

Instead of doing good things to further my own ascension, Jesus ascension means that I don’t have to do anything for me anymore. I can do things purely for others. There’s no need for selfish motives.

If God is good why do bad things happen? I don’t know: look at the cross.

Bad things happen so that God can redeem them. In redeeming them, God shows us a better vision of His glory. God saves us by removing the sin from us. It’s only after sin is taken out that we’re able to finally do what it was that we were created to do: fix what’s broken!

What is God doing about the problem of evil: he’s redeeming people and setting them free of themselves so they can focus on fixing things. The question is not, “where is God when suffering comes,” but, “where are the people at whose hearts have been changed so that they can now live the image of God out in this world?”

When war breaks out.

When tragedy strikes.

When injustice reigns.

When oppression is the law of the land.

Where’s the church?

God doesn’t rush in and fix all of our problems; he doesn’t curtail our free will; he doesn’t cut us off at the knees: he wants us to know true love and true beauty and true grace. He invites us to see evil dealt with at the cross.

But when we receive that vision, the saddest thing in the world would be for us to imagine that the only reason we’ve received it is so that we can go to heaven.

No, no, no, NO!

God Gives Us Purpose

God saves us and he gives us a purpose. That purpose is what to finally do what we are made to do which is to image him, to showcase him, to allow creation to see who God is. He has made mankind a steward, a creative, problem-solving being that points back to his goodness.

That can’t happen unless our sin gets dealt with.

Our sin can’t get dealt with unless we’re humble enough to ask God fix it.

And once it’s fixed, we’re free to do that which we were created to do: meet the challenge of evil head-on and work to eradicate it.

What’s that mean when the question comes up, “If God is good, why do bad things happen?”

It means that the Church has some work to do.

Christian, you and I are God’s answer to the problem of evil.

Sometimes we think there are two kinds of Christian: there’s the professional Christian and then there’s the everyday Christian. Not so. There’s just one kind of Christian: those who work to fix what’s broken.

When problems arise at work.

When a terrorist strikes your city.

When a hurricane devastates the coast.

The people of God should be right there, working to fix things.

We won’t be perfect.

We’ll always need Jesus.

But let’s get to work.

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Psalms Series Main Title

The Lord Who Knows The Man Who Is Blessed – Psalm 1

Psalms 1 TitleWhen it comes to worship music in the church today, there’s a much better atmosphere than that which existed a few years ago. “Worship wars” is how many described the rough transition from a church that predominantly relied on hymnals and pianos to one that rolled out a dizzying array of guitars, keyboards, and (heaven forbid!) drums.

Today, the worship wars seem to have subsided into a few skirmishes over theology and repetitiveness, but churches that want pianos have them and churches that want bands have them.

But there’s still a lot of work to be done on the issue.

One thing that would help is for churches to regain a sense of connectedness to the church’s worship tradition throughout the centuries. For years, God’s people used God’s Word to form the backbone of their congregational singing: they turned to the Psalms.

Now, I am not advocating for psalter-exclusivity in congregational singing, but I don’t think it would hurt us to go there more often. Why? Because how can God’s greatness be better captured than by the church singing of his glory in the very songs that he gave us to reveal his glory to us? And how can we better identify with the people of God through the centuries than by singing the same things that they sang? The faith once for all delivered to the saints is well-rehearsed and well-remembered when we sing the Psalms.

We should sing the Psalms in our worship together. But that shouldn’t be the extent of our exposure and engagement with them.

Instead, we should sing them, pray them, meditate on them, study them, and preach from them.

Because, while the psalms have indeed been central to the singing of the church, they address themes that are perennial in the life of God’s people. There are psalms that exult and psalms that weep, psalms that proclaim and psalms that question, psalms that encourage and psalms that call to repentance. Frustration and anger find their place among them as do joy and love.

No other book of the Bible is so adequately able to address the wide-variety of emotional, psychological, and spiritual states that we find ourselves in from time to time.

Psalms 1 is a great place to start a deeper study of the book:

Blessed is the man
    who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
    nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law he meditates day and night.

He is like a tree
    planted by streams of water
that yields its fruit in its season,
    and its leaf does not wither.
In all that he does, he prospers.
The wicked are not so,
    but are like chaff that the wind drives away.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.

Let’s take it piece by piece:

“Blessed is the man”

There is a temptation in our Instagram/Twitter/Facebook society to misread the first word of this Psalm. Instead of “Blessed” we add a hashtag: “#blessed”. That’s a mistake. Because “#blessed” is usually associated with physical blessings, i.e. “Check out my new Lexus! #blessed.”

But that’s not how it would have read to the original audience. They would have read “blessed” and understood it to contain a strong element of contentment, a state of joy no matter what came their way. They would have seen Paul as a “blessed” man when he wrote in Philippians 4:11 that

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.

Psalm 1:1 would read, in this light, as: “Content no matter what is the man…” Contentment is not dependent on what you have. Correspondingly, blessing is not dependent on what you have. Instead, blessing is the state that results from being content.

Which is a problem for us, because we, as humans, are incredibly discontent. It’s natural to us, as natural as breathing. We see what we have and wish for better. We see what others have and wish for that too. We wish for esteem and fame and beauty and on and on. Discontent flows from our constant need to see ourselves as deserving of everything and focusing on what we yet lack.

We are not naturally content.

That should tell us that the state of being blessed, the state of contentment, if discontent is natural, must be derived from supernatural means. It is not something we can manufacture within ourselves; it has an external origin.

It has a name: Jesus.

Jesus is the one who saves us from our need to have everything by giving us everything in him.

Jesus is the one who saves us from our need to be central by centering our lives on him and on serving others.

You cannot be content until you realize that Jesus is all you need. You cannot realize that Jesus is all you need until you realize that you are not the center of the universe. You cannot realize that you are not the center of the universe until you learn to center yourself on the God who speaks through the Bible.

The author of Psalm 1 shows us what that looks like in a series of quick shots, some of what you shouldn’t do and some of what you should do: “Blessed is the man…”

“…who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,”

  • Walks = General movement in life
  • Counsel = Advice, instruction, and company
  • Wicked = Those opposed to God

Blessed is the man who does not generally make a move in his life according to the advice of those opposed to God.

“…nor stands in the way of sinners,”

  • Stands = Developed habits in life
  • Way = Course, direction, and road
  • Sinners = Those condemned by God

Blessed is the man who does not allow habits to develop that keep him on the road that leads to God’s condemnation.

“…nor sits in the seat of scoffers;”

  • Sits = A settled position in life
  • Seat = Dwelling place, identity, unity
  • Scoffers = Those who mock God

Blessed is the man who does not settle into an identity of mocking God, either directly or through hypocrisy.

“…but his delight is in the law of the Lord,”

  • Delight = pleasure, joy, focus
  • Law of the Lord = The Word of God

Blessed is the man whose pleasure is derived from an intentional and consistent focus on the Word of God.

“…and on his law he meditates day and night.”

  • His law = God’s, not the man’s
  • Meditates = Thinks, reasons, brings back to mind continually and habitually

Blessed is the man who is more concerned with what God commands than with what he himself thinks, so much so that he continually, day and night, brings God’s Word back up into his mind to think on and be transformed by it.

The author then describes the effect of these things on the man’s life and character:

“He is like a tree planted by streams of water”

  • Tree = Solid, stands the test of time, growth
  • Planted = Intentionality, planning, purposeful action
  • By streams of water = Access to that which gives life which is not dependent on circumstances.

Blessed is the man…because he will be solid enough to stand the test of time and to thrive no matter what because he is intentionally guided by the Sovereign Farmer-King who gives him access to the life-giving Word so that he is not dependent on circumstances for contentment.

“that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.”

  • Benefit to others’ health
  • Benefit to personal health

Blessed is the man…because through his connection with God’s Word, he is able to both bless others who taste of God’s gift through him and to sustain himself for both productivity and rest.

“In all that he does, he prospers.”

Blessed is the man…because in everything that he encounters and does, he is able to see God’s hand at work in his circumstances.

Then, lest we miss it, the author contrasts the blessed man with the wicked man:

“The wicked are not so,”

Unlike the blessed man, the wicked man does not see God’s hand at work, does not have anything to sustain himself or ultimately benefit those around him.

“but are like chaff that the wind drives away.”

Unlike the blessed man, the wicked man is not solid, not intentionally guided, and not able to thrive: he is lightweight, haphazard, and useless.

Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the Lord knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”

Unlike the blessed man, the wicked man will wither under the judgment of God and will not know the joy of God’s people because God chooses to forget him even as he chooses to know his own.

What have I done? I’ve just paraphrased the message of Psalm 1. Put it all together and what do we get?

Blessed is the man who does not generally make a move in his life according to the advice of those opposed to God. Blessed is the man who does not allow habits to develop that keep him on the road that leads to God’s condemnation. Blessed is the man who does not settle into an identity of mocking God, either directly or through hypocrisy. Blessed is the man whose pleasure is derived from an intentional and consistent focus on the Word of God. Blessed is the man who is more concerned with what God commands than with what he himself thinks, so much so that he continually, day and night, brings God’s Word back up into his mind to think on and be transformed by it. Blessed is this man…because he will be solid enough to stand the test of time and to thrive no matter what because he is intentionally guided by the Sovereign Farmer-King who gives him access to the life-giving Word so that he is not dependent on circumstances for contentment. Blessed is this man…because through his connection with God’s Word, he is able to both bless others who taste of God’s gift through him and to sustain himself for both productivity and rest. Blessed is this man…because in everything that he encounters and does, he is able to see God’s hand at work in his circumstances. Unlike the blessed man, the wicked man does not see God’s hand at work, does not have anything to sustain himself or ultimately benefit those around him. Unlike the blessed man, the wicked man is not solid, not intentionally guided, and not able to thrive: he is lightweight, haphazard, and useless. Unlike the blessed man, the wicked man will wither under the judgment of God and will not know the joy of God’s people because God chooses to forget him even as he chooses to know his own. 

So what do we do with the message of Psalm 1? Obviously, we all want to be blessed, to be content. None of us set out to be “the wicked.”

Unfortunately, we are. We shouldn’t read this Psalm and see ourselves as “the righteous man.”

We are “the wicked.”

Don’t believe me? Check out what another part of God’s Word has to say:

Romans 3:10 – As it is written, “None is righteous, no not one”

Romans 3:23 – for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God

That’s pretty comprehensive. But if we’re not righteous, how can we apply Psalm 1?

By recognizing that it’s pointing us, not to ourselves, but to Jesus. He is the righteous one, the solid one, the one through whom God blesses everyone even as he raises him to everlasting life.

Romans 5:8 – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 10:9-10 – because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

We can’t be righteous enough, we can’t do a bunch of good works to try and make sure God remembers our way. The question is not one of activity but one of dependency, not one of tenacity but one of trust.

Do you tenaciously cling to your own activity to justify you before God or do you humbly trust in and depend on Jesus’ righteousness before God?

What is the way of righteousness that the Lord knows? To trust in Christ.

What is the way of the wicked that will perish? To trust in yourself.

That doesn’t mean so long as you “trust Jesus” you can live however you want. No, those who trust Christ are urged to do good things:

Romans 12:1-2 – I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

We who trust Christ are not exempt from holiness, but invited into it. We are never meant, before Jesus or after him, however, to trust in our works. We are not the righteous: Jesus is. We find our delight, our dwelling-place, and the satisfaction of our deepest need in him. And we worship him by allowing God’s Word to transform and renew our minds.

Singing the psalms, studying the psalms, reading about the psalms, and writing about the psalms: may they all lead us closer to the God who knows the man who is blessed.

Submitted to the Word: Church Leadership

A couple weeks ago, I posted about why Christians should base everything they do on the Word of God. Then I posted a case study of what it looks like for a church to base their view of membership on the Scripture. In this post, I’m going to explore what it looks like for a church to do so in regard to church leadership.

Submitted to the Word of God - Church Leadership

You want to get your blood pumping?

Try talking about church leadership structure in a crowd of Christians.

Guaranteed to get the heart rate up.

It seems like the discussion of church leadership is one that is accompanied by equal measures of confusion, terror, and fear.

But I don’t think it needs to be that way. Indeed, I think that it dishonors Christ when his body carries out important conversations over leadership in such a manner. So how do we cut through the clutter and begin to examine these things together with peace, unity, and love?

We go to the Word.

Most of the vitriol inherent to the topic stems from opinions that are based squarely in tradition rather than in the Word. And when my opinion is based in a different tradition than yours, we end up speaking from completely different foundations. Instead of standing together and conversing, we stand apart and argue. Some of those traditions have biblical merit, some of them don’t. But we won’t get anywhere until we are standing on the same foundation, agreeing to the grounds for the discussion.

That must be the Word.

So, in this post, I’m going to look at the Word. Obviously, this is not an exhaustive study of the topic. Nor do I assume that it is automatically the correct one. I think it’s biblical, but I’m open to discussion. (Indeed, I would welcome it! Email me: pastor@rhsbc.org)

Without further ado…

Congregational Authority

The first thing that I see when I look at the Word is that the local congregation is the starting point for discussing church leadership.

Why?

Because Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to take church discipline issues to a governing board: he says take it to the church.

And because when an issue arises in the early church in Acts 6, the apostles don’t just appoint men to take care of the problem: they tell the church, “choose from amongst yourselves.”

And because Peter doesn’t tell his audience that some of them are priests in the kingdom of Heaven: he says they all are part of the kingdom of priests.

And one more example. Paul doesn’t tell the leaders of the church at Corinth to confront the sin of one of their members: he says it’s a whole church decision/action.

I know that there are many who would disagree with the idea of congregational authority, and I recognize that I have benefited from their thinking on many subjects. But on this issue, I go where the text leads me.

But recognizing the authority of the congregation doesn’t get me out of the jam entirely. Because Scripture is clear that there is a restricted leadership structure within, among, and under the idea of congregation authority.

Two Offices/Roles

Organizationally, a mass democracy has never succeeded. It should not surprise us that God knows this fact and has taken it into account in his structuring of the church. Instead of pure popular vote driving the decision-making of the church, we see that God calls certain people to function as “under-shepherds” and “servants” within the body life of the church.

Pastor, Elder, Overseer

The first of these roles is that of pastor/elder/overseer. Yes, I am aware that there are three terms there, but they all seem to be used interchangeably in the New Testament, having less of a official character, than a descriptive one.

We see an example of all three descriptions referencing one role in Acts 20:17-28:

Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him…Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

The astute reader will say, “Hey! That’s just two of the titles! Where’s pastor?” 

I’m glad you asked. What the ESV has translated as “care for” is the Greek word that we get “pastor” from. The fact that “pastor” means “shepherd” is even more clarifying as we see that Paul’s chosen image for the church is that of “flock” as in a flock of sheep that the elders/overseers were to “pastor.”

What is additionally helpful to know is that all three terms serve very well to highlight different aspects of what I take to be one role: 

  • Elder: Someone who is mature, wise, and dependable in their advice and direction to the church.
  • Pastor: Someone who is capable and compassionate enough to shepherd God’s sheep, to care for their soul’s well-being like a shepherd cares for his sheep’s physical well-being.
  • Overseer: Someone who is gifted in leadership and can help the church achieve God’s purpose for them, and who will be a good steward of the resources God entrusts to them.

For the sake of clarity, we will use pastor to refer to this role and assume within it the other titles as well.

Another note of interest: whenever the NT speaks of the role of pastor in the life of the church, it does so in the plural. The only time the term is singular is when a specific pastor is being talked about. Without looking at all the texts (Acts 14:23; 20:28; 21:18; Titus 1:5; 1 Peter 5:1-5, etc), suffice it to say that the role seems to have been one that recommended, if not required, at least two per church.

The New Testament is not silent either about the character of those who would fill the role. 1 Timothy 3:1-7 speaks to this:

The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.

As does Titus 1:5-9

This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

Those are not easy qualifications to meet. Indeed, it could certainly be argued that no man will meet them entirely this side of sinlessness. Nonetheless, we ought to see them as important guideposts for evaluating a candidate for this office. Why? Because a pastor is someone who is given authority to guide, care for, and steward the church. Not to the exclusion of church authority, but as a God-given extension and outworking of it. The role demands a man of character (not open to the charge of debauchery, not arrogant, not quarrelsome, etc.) and competence (able to teach, manage well, etc.). It is not one that can or should be filled by just anybody.

But nor is the other role in church structure:

Deacon

The qualifications read similarly, though there are some differences to note.

Deacons likewise must be dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain. They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. And let them also be tested first; then let them serve as deacons if they prove themselves blameless. Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things. Let deacons each be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well. For those who serve well as deacons gain a good standing for themselves and also great confidence in the faith that is in Christ Jesus.

Again, steep requirements. Not a position you put just anybody in. But also not the same kind of position as that of pastor. There are several differences that help us both distinguish the two roles and also help define the role of “deacon”.

The first difference is inherent in the title itself. Pastor”, “elder”, and “overseer” all carry a certain expectation of authority: a shepherd has authority over his sheep, an overseer has authority over that which he oversees, and an elder has authority by weight of maturity and wisdom

By contrast, “deacon” does not. The word itself is a transliteration of the Greek word diakonos, which means “waiter, servant, or administrator”. From the word itself, the role of deacon places an emphasis on service rather than authority.

This is contrary to the practice of many churches today where deacons are seen as an authoritative body over the church. I would argue that the New Testament doesn’t define the position in terms of authority within the church, but in terms of service to the church.

But that doesn’t mean that it is an inferior or second-class role. Indeed, it is clearly an important title, one that Paul uses to distinguish some servants from others in the Body. It is a role that someone must be “tested” in before giving the distinction. So it’s not just a generic thing for all Christians, it’s unique and identifiable. So, in comparing the two roles, we ought not to imagine that the role of deacon is somehow a lesser one than pastor: it’s a different one.

A practical example of the difference between the two roles is seen in Acts 6:1-4:

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

Here, we have a prototype situation for both pastors and deacons. The apostles here are serving the first church in Jerusalem as pastors, serving the spiritual and intellectual needs of the congregation. This problem arises and they suggest that the church appoint men who would serve the physical and organizational needs of the church: deacons.

NOTE: These categories are not exclusive! Pastors can meet physical and organizational needs and deacons can meet spiritual and intellectual needs. It’s not about separation of powers but about normative characteristics. So a pastor is not exempt from service or a deacon from being spiritual.

We’ve seen that there is significant overlap in the qualifications for the role of pastor and the role of deacon in 1 Timothy, but there is one final difference to highlight:

“…able to teach…” 1 Timothy 3:2

Again, the role of pastor and deacon are not mutually exclusive. But this difference matters for another question that needs to be addressed in the discussion of leadership in the church: are there gender restrictions for the office of pastor and deacon?

Gender in Leadership

Talk about a hot button topic! This issue has been increasingly under scrutiny as the wider culture embraces modern feminism. So the church needs to engage this issue because it will come up as we carry out our task of making disciples.

But we don’t need to engage it from a culture-first perspective, but from a perspective of submitting everything we do to the Word of God.

Male Pastors

When we start with the text, I believe we see clearly that the office of pastor is restricted to men.

Remember, the main differences we saw between the New Testament descriptions of pastors and deacons is in the meaning of their titles (authoritative vs. service-oriented) and the qualification “able to teach.”

We need to consider the context: in 1 Timothy 2:12, Paul says that women are “not to teach or exercise authority over a man.” He then goes into chapter 3 and talks about “overseers”. Of the three synonymous terms for pastor, that is the most authoritative one. In Titus, he uses “elder”. In Acts, he urges the elders to be “pastors”. But in 1 Timothy he specifically highlights the most authoritative role title he can.

Why?

I believe it is because he is making clear that this office is reserved for men. He then says that an “overseer” must be able to teach, something he had just said was not permitted for a woman. So while it may not be culturally popular, and while some traditions within Christianity do not, if we are going to be people who submit in everything to the Word, we need to reserve the role of pastor for men on the basis of the New Testament’s teaching.

Male and Female Deacons

With regard to deacons, however, the gender case is not so cut and dried. We need to recognize that up front and be willing to explore the evidence even as we consider our own traditions. Some traditions have always had female deacons and others consider the idea heretical. Nonetheless, I would urge both sides to consider the evidence of the text and will myself argue that there is certainly room in the New Testament for both male and female deacons in the life of the church, so long as the role is defined biblically as a service-oriented one.

Translation of Gyne in 1 Timothy 3:11

The first consideration we need to make is that our English language is not the original language of the New Testament. In the Greek, 1 Timothy 3:11 uses a word that can be translated “wives” or “women.” Various English translations have used either option. The ESV renders it this way:

Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.

Whereas the NASB renders it this way:

Women must likewise be dignified, not malicious gossips, but temperate, faithful in all things.

The trouble is that there is no possessive pronoun (their) in the Greek. It’s just “Wives/Women likewise” in the original.

It’s not conclusive either way.

This translation fact also matters because if Paul is giving the qualifications in verse 11 for “the wives of deacons”, why does he not also give qualifications for “the wives of overseers”? Overseer is a more authoritative role and, it could be argued, one in which a wife who didn’t meet certain criteria could be even more detrimental to the church.

 

If all we had to go on in the discussion of gender in the role of deacon was 1 Timothy 3:11, I would still say that it is at least possible that Paul, having intentionally restricted the office of pastor/elder/overseer by emphasizing the need for authority and teaching, is here saying or assuming that “women can be deacons too.”

Romans 16:1

However, we also have Romans 16:1 to consider. Here there’s another contested translation:

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea. (NASB)

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. (NIV)

In the original language, Paul refers to Phoebe as a “diakonos” of the church at Cenchrea. By tying the title of deacon to a particular church, it seems that Paul is implying that Phoebe holds that particular title in the church. Some English translations have translated it, “Servant” while others have transliterated, “deacon”.

Again, it’s not perfectly airtight either way. But between Romans 16:1 and 1 Timothy 3:11, I believe that there is room for both male and female deacons in the church that is trying to submit everything to the Word of God.

*For further reading on the role of women as deacons, consider these two articles from either side of the discussion, both written by Southern Baptist pastors.
http://jamedders.com/why-have-women-deacons/
http://www.dennyburk.com/does-the-bible-teach-that-women-can-be-deacons/

Also, in case you were wondering, this is an issue the church has disagreed on through the centuries. In the 2nd century, Clement of Alexandria considered female deacons as obviously supported in the text. He said, “We also know the directions about women deacons which are given by the noble Paul in his letter to Timothy.” Tertullian though, in the same rough timeframe, distinguished the office of deacon from that of widow (1 Timothy 5:9) and implied strongly that women could not and should not serve as deacons.

Conversations over the issue are nothing new. But that simply means we should continue to discuss and wrestle with the texts involved and make a God-honoring, unity-promoting decision in our own contexts.

Conclusion

So ends a case study in submitting our understanding of church leadership to the Bible. We’ve walked through passages that are really clear and some that are not so much. Church leadership is not a necessarily simple topic, but one that bears reflecting on and seeking the Scripture regarding. There’re some things that aren’t clear, there’re others that are clear in the text.

Our task then is to sift and weigh these things, not as an academic exercise, but so that we might be fully submitted to the Word.