Thursday, December 14, 2017

This week's lesson (December 9-15): the Elect


Some things are more difficult to appreciate than others.
Take music recitals, for instance – we’ve all been to music recitals, band concerts, and school programs put on by children . . .
And I know that our children all sound good. Yes, our children always do a wonderful job – a wonderful job any time they’re in one of those recitals, concerts or school programs . . .
But we’ve all been to recitals – recitals, concerts, and school programs . . . in which some of those other children were not quite so easy to enjoy as our own.
And if you know what that’s like – yes, if you know just how difficult it can be to appreciate some people . . . then you know what Paul’s talking about here in Romans 12:9-21. You see, here in Romans 12:9ff, Paul’s writes to a church that’s made-up of two, very different groups. Yes, some of those believers are Jewish, and some are Gentiles.
And when you’ve got two groups like this in the same church – two groups who don’t eat the same, and they don’t dress the same, and you’d better believe they don’t listen to the same kind of music . . . then it’s easy to see why these two groups don’t always get along!
Just like those recitals, in other words, it’s easy to love what our kids are doing – and not so easy to love somebody else’s kids!
But here in Romans 12:9ff, Paul makes it easy on us – and that’s because Paul says that we don’t need to pretend we love everybody! No, we don’t need to pretend that we love anybody; we just need to act like we do – and to see what I mean, take a look at a group that’s easy to love, here in Romans 12:9ff.
Verse nine: “Love must be sincere” – and when Paul says “love must be sincere,” he literally says that “love can’t wear a mask.” 
You see, actors in those days never showed their real face; no, if you were in a play, a skit, or a musical, then you had to wear a mask.
If you played someone who was happy, for instance, then you wore a “smiley” mask.
But if you played somebody sad, then you had to wear a “frowny” mask.
In short, nobody ever saw “the real you” out on that stage; no, all they saw was that mask – that thing you wore on your face . . .
And that’s why their word for an actor was literally, “a hypocrite.”
You see “hupo” means “upon.”
“Kritos” means “a face.”
So put them together, and you’ve got a “hypocrite” – literally “somebody who wears something on their face” . . . or in our words, “somebody who wears a mask.”
So go back to verse nine – and when Paul says, “love must be sincere,” what he’s saying is that we can’t just wear the mask. We can’t just play a role. We don’t need a church full of people who just pretend to love each other. Verse nine:
Love must be sincere [and what does that mean? It means you] hate what is evil; [and you] cling to what is good. [It means you are] devoted to one another in brotherly love. [It means you should] never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. [Yes, sincere love is] joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. [It shares] with God’s people who are in need, [and it practices] hospitality.
Yes, that’s what Paul means when he talks about “sincere love” – and we all know what this is like; we’ve all seen this in action. You go to the airport, for instance; yes, you watch a group that’s waiting for someone to get off the plane – someone they haven’t seen for a long, long time.
Maybe it’s a kid home from college.
Maybe it’s a soldier home on leave.
Or maybe it’s a Student Missionary who’s just spent the last year on some island in the Pacific – but whoever it is, that whole family’s waiting for them . . . and when they show up, then you’re going to see the zeal . . . you’re going to see the fervor . . . you’re going to see the kind of love that Paul talks about in these verses!
Yes, when that family at the airport finally sees that person they’ve been waiting to see for so long . . . then the love you see is real. Ain’t nobody wearing a mask!
Again, that kind of love is real – but it’s not always easy. No, it’s not always easy to feel that kind of love for some people . . . and to be honest, some people don’t make it easy!
Read what happens next, as a matter of fact, and it reminds me of the time I learned how to use an AED – one of those Automatic Emergency Defibrillators; the things that “zap” people whose heart has stopped.
Now I don’t have a problem with “zapping” people – in fact, I think that’s pretty cool.
But then they tell me that part of this “zapping” people means giving them mouth-to-mouth resuscitation – and to be honest, that doesn’t sound nearly so cool.
Then they tell me the people who need mouth-to-mouth resuscitation the most . . . well, I’m not going into detail here, but they tell me the people who need it most may not be the kind of people to whom you want to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation!
Likewise, read verses 14ff, and it’s clear that the people who need God’s love the most . . . they may not be kind of people you feel like loving. Look at the kind of people Paul describes here, for instance, in verses 14ff:
“Bless those who persecute you,” says Paul – and when Paul talks about those who “persecute” us by the way, he literally means people who pursue us, people who come after us, people who are always on our case.
And no, these are not loveable people – but Paul still says in verses 14ff that we should:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
To be sure, I don’t always feel like treating some people this way – no more than I’d feel like giving some people mouth-to-mouth resuscitation . . . but when it comes to First Aid, you don’t have to feel right to do right. No, you just go ahead and do it anyway.
Likewise, Paul doesn’t say we need to feel this great surge of love for the people who treat us wrong; you read verses 17ff, as a matter of fact, and you’ll notice he say doesn’t say anything about the way we’re supposed to feel! Just like First Aid, in other words, you don’t need to like them; no, you just need to treat them right. Verse 17:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
On the contrary: “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, given him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
And no, I don’t know what it means with this talk of burning coals – but I do understand verse 21: “Do not be overcome by evil,” Paul says, “but overcome evil with good.”
When Paul talks about love, in other words, he doesn’t talk about the way I’m supposed to feel; no, he talks about the way I'm supposed to act.
I mean, we can’t always change the way someone feels about us – and that’s especially true if they don’t like us. That’s why I’m glad Paul doesn’t say we need to make people think nice thoughts about us; no, he just says that “if it is possible, as far as it depends on [us, that we should] live at peace with everyone.”
What’s more, we can’t always change the way we feel about someone – and that’s especially true if we think they’ve been mean to us. That’s why I’m glad Paul doesn’t say we need to feel good about these people; he just says we need to treat them good.
Finally, we can’t always pretend that nothing is wrong with some people – that we wouldn’t notice these things if we really loved them. No, Paul says flat-out that some people do bad stuff: they persecute us. They do evil to us. They tempt us to revenge – and we’ve all been tempted to revenge.
But we don’t need to give in to those temptations.
No, Paul says the best way to we overcome evil . . . is with good.
Think of all those recitals my parents attended, for instance – all those recitals, concerts, and band programs that I put them through when I was growing up . . . and even then, I knew they were awful; no, I knew just how bad we really were.
But even then, my parents still went to those programs.
Even then, my parents still clapped at those programs.
Even then, my parents still took us out for ice cream when the program was over – and if you asked them what they thought about the program, then they’d just change the subject.
You see, I don’t know what they thought about those programs. No, I don’t know if they were bored, if they were proud, if they were relieved that it was over, or if they were irritated they were missing their favorite TV program.
But no matter how they felt, I can tell you this: I can tell you that my parents treated me with love – the kind of love Paul talks about.
In much the same way: somebody may not like us – but we can still be good to them.
And we may not like somebody else – but we’re not hypocrites; we don’t smile in their face while we stab them in the back. No, we may not like them – but we still treat them right.
And it may take a long, long time before our feelings catch up with our actions – yes, we may need to be nice for years to people we don’t like very much . . . but that’s okay. That’s fine. By God’s grace, we can do it.
That’s because we don’t need to pretend that we love everybody. 
No, we don’t need to pretend we love them; we just need to act like we do.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

This week's lesson (December 2-8): Children of the Promise

It's tough to explain just why somebody loves you.
I've been married 33-years, for instance -- but if you asked why my wife still loves me after all those years, then any reason I gave would sound pretty silly.
  • If I said she loves me "because I'm so good looking," for instance, then I'd sound like an idiot.
  • And if I said she needs to love me because I'm so good looking -- in fact, she has no choice in the matter. . . then I don't just sound like an idiot. No, I sound like a creepy idiot!
  • In fact, the only reason I could give that doesn’t make me sound like an idiot . . . is to say I don’t understand it; I don't know why she loves me -- but for some reason that only she knows, Narelle has chosen to be in love with me.
Yes, it's her choice -- not mine!

It's something she does -- not me!


Likewise, Paul says we're saved because God chooses to save us.
Not because we're so nice.
Not because we're so good-looking.
No, nothing we can do will make God love us (any more than anything I can do will make my wife love me.)
And yes, we have some choice in the matter . . . 
But so does God.

And for reasons we'll never be able to understand (much less explain) . . . 


He's chosen to love us.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

This week's lesson (November 25-December 1): No Condemnation

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus.
You can sum-up all of Romans 8 (and not just the 17-verses this Quarterly talks about) in just seven words.

Ready?

Here they are: "You don't need a password for prayer."

And yes, that's important.

Then as now, remember, most religions said it was incredibly difficult to get in touch with The Divine -- so difficult that only the right people using the right words to ask for the right things in the right way at the right place at the right time could be sure they'd get a hearing.

Everyone else?

They'd get the same message you get when you're having trouble logging-on to your computer: "Password Incorrect."

To be sure, various and sundry "prayer hackers" said they'd found a way around this -- a way to by-pass God's security system, and get what you want from Him . . .

And then as now, they'd offer their "prayer hacks" for a price . . .

In books.

At seminars.

And through classes at Camp Meeting.

But in Romans 8:26-27, Paul says there's no need to "get in right" in prayer; in fact, he assumes we'll get it wrong -- that we'll use the wrong words to ask for the wrong things in the wrong way in the wrong place at the wrong time . . .

Yet God hears us anyway.

That's because Jesus has removed everything that comes between us and God -- yes, the pay-walls are down, the passwords have been removed, the signs that warned "Authorized Personnel Only" have all been thrown away.

If you want to get in touch with God, in other words, then feel free.

Nothing's stopping you

And if you need help . . .

Just ask.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

This week's lesson (November 18-24): Who Is the Man of Romans 7?

Actually, a better title for this week's lesson might be, "Why is there such a fuss about Romans 7:14-25?"

And the answer would be another question, "Can a Christian be 'perfect' in this life?"

In these verses, remember, Paul summarizes the purpose of the Law: it can diagnose, but it cannot cure. Like an X-ray machine, it can show you what it is broken -- but it can't put on a cast. No, for that kind of healing you need Someone Else . . .

And Paul talks about that "Someone Else" in Romans 8.

But in his discussion of the Law back in Romans 7:14-25, Paul gave his version of Maher's Law, i.e. "knowing better doesn't help." You may know what God wants you to do, in other words -- and you may even want to do what God wants you to do . . . but that still doesn't mean you can do it.

In short, nobody's perfect.

But in Matthew 5:48, Jesus commands us to "be perfect" -- and over the years, believers have struggled to reconcile that command with Romans 7:14-25.
  • Some believers (such as Pelagius) said Christians should be perfect in this life; the Law tells us what to do, after all, and Jesus shows us how to do it.
  • Other believers (such as Augustine of Hippo) said Christians could not be perfect in this life -- and yes, most Protestant Reformers agreed with him. We are "Simul Iustus et Peccator," said Luther, "simultaneously saints and sinners."
  • Though he was definitely a Protestant, however, John Wesley seems to have believed in something he called "The Second Blessing," i.e. a gift of the Holy Spirit that would gradually free believers from all known sin. "We may not be perfect in anything else," Wesley said in effect, "but we can be perfect in love."
  • Like Wesley, for instance, she said "sanctification was the work of a lifetime" -- not the instantaneous experience claimed by some in the Holiness Movement.
  • Like Wesley, she said those who are "perfect in love" don't know it (and certainly don't claim it) -- again, not like some in the Holiness Movement.
  • And like Wesley, she was resolutely practical in her holiness; "the sign of the Holy Spirit" is not miracles, in other words, but the love we show for each other.
While she never claimed perfection, in other words, Ellen White was certainly open to the idea . . . 
But it took M. L. Andreasen to make it mandatory.
Andreasen was a famous Adventist speaker, theologian, and church leader; he was also a keen student of Ellen White. And when he read her words about our need for holiness and God's gift of the Holy Spirit at the end of time, he came up with the belief we now call, "Last Generation Theology."
  • Like Wesley, Andreasen said perfection is possible.
  • Like Adventists everywhere, Andreasen said the time would come "when Probation closed," i.e. when salvation was no longer possible for anyone who was not already saved. 
  • And like many "Historic Adventists" today, Andreasen said believers could make it through this "close of Probation" only if they'd been made perfect -- both sealed and sanctified -- by the Holy Spirit.
Perfection was not only possible, in other words; Andreasen said it was required for anyone who was alive when Jesus returned . . .
Which brings us back to Romans 7:14-25.
  • Reformers such as Luther, remember, viewed this text as "proof" that believers could not achieve perfection in this life.
  • But Adventists such as Andreasen say that that it's talking about people who try to overcome sin by their own power; as such, it doesn't apply to believers who are made perfect by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  • And then you have John Brunt -- the author of the companion-book to the Adult Sabbath School Lesson way back in 2010 -- who says flat-out that we're missing the point. That's because "Paul isn't trying to talk about the human dilemma at some point in a person's experience. He's talking about the law, and the human dilemma is merely an illustration." (John Brunt, Redemption in Romans [Pacific Press: 2010], page 75.) 
Myself, I suspect that Brunt is right -- that the subject of these verses is the Law, and the point of them is our need for Christ.
If we struggle with sin, after all, then that means we need Jesus.
But if we are able to overcome sin, then it's only because of Jesus.
And when we stand in the Judgment after the close of Probation, then the only reason we will be able to stand is all because of Jesus -- the same Jesus who said He'd be with us always, "even to the close of this age."

Thursday, November 16, 2017

This week's lesson (November 11-17): Overcoming Sin

You never would have made it out on your own -- in fact, they had to carry you most of the way . . .

But now you're free. You're safe. Yes, you've left it all behind: the work camps, the secret police, the  constant fear of just what the authorities might do next . . .

But then one day, there's a knock on your door.

And when you open it, a busy little man pushes past you into your living room, sits down in your favorite chair, and tells you it's not that easy.

Yes, he says you're still one of them.

Still subject to their laws.

Still obligated to follow their commands -- and for that reason, you will do what he tells you to do.

And yes, you're free.

But old habits die hard -- and when he says these things, then you're tempted to obey.

Yes, it would be easy for you to do what he says . . .

In fact, he could probably force you to do what he says . . .

And that's why you need to call for help.

Right now.

Friday, November 10, 2017

This week's lesson (November 4-10): Adam & Jesus

It all depends on the group you're in.

If your high school was like mine, for instance, each group had its own table in the lunchroom.
  • Yes, football players sat with other football players.
  • Members of the Chess Club sat with other members of the Chess Club.
  • And if someone sat at the wrong table -- if a new member of the Chess Club inadvertently sat next to a defensive lineman, for instance . . . then he would be told where to go, how to get there, and and what he should do while making trip.
Likewise, Jews and Gentiles did not mix if they could help it. Like football players and members of the Chess Club, they each inhabited their own worlds -- each with its own concerns, each with its own set of rules, and each with its own list of Who's In, and Who's Out.

So what happened when members from each group found themselves sharing a pew in church?

Pretty much the same thing that happened at my high school -- and that's where Romans 6 comes in.

In Romans 6, Paul points out that whatever had divided them in the past wasn't as important as what had united them in the past -- that they'd all attended the same high school, even if they'd all sat at different tables . . .

And as students at Old Adam High School (so to speak), they'd all faced the same, dismal future.

But now they're all in a new high school.

All seated at the same table.

All looking at the same, bright future together.

And if they're all members of that same, new group . . .

Then maybe . . .

Just maybe . . .

What unites us now . . .

Is more important than all the things that divided us in the past.

Thursday, November 02, 2017

This week's lesson (October 28 - November 3): the Faith of Abraham

Abraham was a man of faith.
What do you mean by "faith"?
Just look at the way he followed God to the Promised Land!
And look at the way he left Sarah in the lurch when they went to Egypt.
 He rescued Lot!
Then had a child by Hagar -- and left her in the lurch too!
He bargained with God about the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah.
When did questioning God become a sign of "faith"?
Then he left Sarah in the lurch again with Abimelech . . . wait a minute -- now you've got me doing it!
And Hagar too -- again!
What about his willingness to sacrifice Isaac?
 I'll give you that one -- though that story's always seemed kind of "problematic" to me. 
Okay, so Abraham wasn't always quite as "faithful" as we might want.
No, he wasn't -- but he had one thing going for him.
What's that?
God was faithful, even when Abraham was not. 

Thursday, October 26, 2017

This week's lesson (October 21-27): Justification by Faith

A thought experiment:

Read Romans 3:19-28, but . . .
  • instead of "law," read "lifestyle," 
  • and instead of "Jews" (whom we've picked on enough this quarter already), substitute whatever group of right-thinking, right-living people you fancy -- the kind of people, in other words, whom you wish attended your church. 
If you're the kind of person who makes your own granola, for instance, then imagine a church full of granola-making, sweater-knitting, organic-gardening, Prius-drivers who all voted for Bernie Sanders.

Got it?

Now imagine that a change in the real estate market suddenly brings in people who are their exact opposite -- that the granola-makers come to church, for instance, and discover they've been "invaded" by a bunch of BBQ-loving football fans who all drive pick-ups, and who all wear hats proclaiming it's time we "Make America Great Again."

Got it?

(And yes, if you like, then you can swap the two groups, i.e. have a church full of BBQ-lovers invaded by granola-makers; either way is fine.)

But with that in mind . . .
  • How do you think these two groups will get along?
  • And what would Romans 3:19-28 say to the members of both groups?
Discuss.

Two Books about Romans

Two books you might enjoy as you study this quarter's lessons:

John Brunt's Redemption in Romans. This was Brunt's companion-book to his Sabbath School lessons on Romans back in 2010; it's practical, scholarly, and an easy read.

N. T. Wright's Paul for Everyone (parts 1 & 2). Part of his commentary series on the New Testament, Wright is a little tougher reading than Brunt, but it's still practical (and a good survey of new approaches to Paul's writings).

Friday, October 20, 2017

This week's lesson (October 14-20): the Human Condition

I like Romans 1:18-32.

But Romans 2:1-29?

Not so much.

Mind you, I've nothing against them personally -- as I've said before, some of my best friends are Gentiles . . . but taken as a group, we all know what they are like:
  • Gossips.
  • Idolators.
  • Sexual predators.
Yes, they're everything Paul says they are in Romans 1:18-32 -- and while it may not be politically correct, somebody's got to say it!

Hearing those verses, as a matter of fact, reminds me of the time somebody was talking about The Wisdom of Solomon during the potluck  -- you know, the part where it talks about idolators and "their shameless uncleanness" . . .  and I'm not saying those Gentiles were glad to hear it.

But they needed to hear it!

That's why I don't have any problem with anything Paul says about them . . .

But why did he say all those bad things about us?

Sunday, October 08, 2017

This week's lesson (October 7-13): the Controversy

If you're reading this, then you're probably a Gentile.

Yes, one of those people.

When the Israelites left Egypt, in other words, we were the ones who came after them in chariots.

And when David fought the Philistines, we rooted for Goliath.

The destruction of Jerusalem?

That was us.

Ditto the "mixed multitude" who caused all that trouble during the Exodus.

In short, there's good reason why Jewish Christians thought people like us shouldn't join the church -- not so long as we remained Gentiles.

But if God opened the door to people like us . . .

Then maybe we should think twice before we shut the door behind us.

Thursday, October 05, 2017

This week's lesson (September 30 - October 6): the Apostle Paul in Rome

This is not my church.

Not any more.

Not since they took over.

And yes, I know I'm supposed to be grateful. If it wasn't for them, people tell me, our church would be in bad shape; that's because their numbers are growing (while ours are dwindling).

But they're so ignorant.

Their kids are so rowdy.

And you should see the food they bring to potlucks!

So you can understand why I'm skeptical about Paul's plan to visit our churches here in Rome. To be sure, he's one of us -- but if you want my honest opinion, he's just a little too close to them.

And no, it's not that I'm prejudiced; some of my best friends are Gentiles.

But I wish they knew their place -- knew it, and stayed in it.

Is that too much to ask?

Sunday, September 03, 2017

This week's lesson (September 2-8): Freedom in Christ

Sure, Jesus is nice . . . 

But is he enough?

That's the question Paul answers in Galatians 5:1-15 -- and it's an answer we still need today.

Even today, after all, you still run into the idea that following Jesus is okay for beginners . . . 

But if you really want to get serious about following God, then there's always something else you need to do.

In Paul's day, that "something else" was circumcision.

In our day, it may be speaking in tongues. Learning to meditate. Or achieving sinless perfection.

And no, it never stops there; no matter how much you do, as a matter of fact, there's always something more that needs to be done -- something more that's said to be the real mark of the true believer.

(As in, "Yes, we're glad you're vegan -- but we've noticed you're still eating fruits and vegetables at the same meal, and . . .")

Paul calls this attitude, "slavery."

We might call it an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

But whatever you call it, the fact remains: Jesus is enough.

You can't add anything else.

No, all you can do is subtract.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

This week's lesson (July 8-14): the Unity of the Gospel

Peter deserves our thanks.

Few have done more for the Gentiles, after all.
  • It was Peter who baptized Cornelius.
  • It was Peter who backed Paul at the Council of Jerusalem.
  • It was Peter (along with James and John) who confirmed Paul's mission to the Gentiles.
  • And when Peter visited Paul's converts in Antioch, he was delighted to work with them. Worship with them. And even eat with them.
In short, Peter has consistently defended the right of Gentiles to be Christians, even though they are still Gentiles.

So why shouldn't he recognize the right of Jews to be Christians, even though they are still Jewish?

That's all these "men from James" were asking: nothing more than the right of Jewish Christians to practice their traditional (and God-given) way of life.

And if this caused some ill-feeling among the Gentiles . . .

Well, nothing is gained by blurring the distinction between God's chosen people and the world.

No, Jews are Jews and Gentiles are Gentiles -- even within the church.

And if Peter is willing to defend the things that make us different . . .

Then who among us would not do the same?

Sunday, July 02, 2017

This week's lesson (July 1-7): Paul's Authority & Gospel

 Detective: "Is there any other point to which you could wish to draw my attention?" 
Sherlock Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time." 
Detective: "The dog did nothing in the night-time." 
Sherlock Holmes: "That was the curious incident." 
-- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Silver Blaze.
One of the most curious things about the Book of Galatians is something Paul doesn't say.

In most of his other letters, remember, Paul begins with some kind of compliment:
  • In Ephesians, he praises the church because it "loves all the saints."
  • In Philippians, he thanks the church for its "partnership in the gospel."
  • And even the church in Corinth -- a church riven by factionalism, and marked by sexual immorality -- is told that it "does not lack any spiritual gift."
Yes, Paul finds something good to say about every church . . . 
Except the one in Galatia.
And it's not as though the Galatians had abandoned all standards; if anything, just the opposite. No, they'd added rules. They'd stiffened requirements. They'd raised the bar for church membership -- raised it back to what it had been in the past.
"You can't be too careful," was their motto; "You can't be too strict," was their policy. "There's no such thing as too many rules" -- that was the way they did church.
But did Paul thank them for their devotion?
Did he commend them for their dedication?
Did he thank God that, whatever their faults, they're not as messed-up as the church in Corinth?
No.
And its just that lack of appreciation that is so odd.
If Paul could say something nice about the church in Corinth, after all, then you'd think he could say something nice about anyone!
But when it came to those careful, earnest, and dedicated believers in Galatia?
Paul doesn't say anything nice.
Given the choice between "too strict" and "too loose," in other words, Paul silence seems to suggest that "too strict" is worse.
Which is . . . curious.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

This week's lesson (June 24-30): Paul - apostle to the Gentiles

All through Scripture, it is clear that God has a people who love and follow Him.

All through history, it's been clear that we are that people.

And ever since Abraham, it's been clear that the definitive mark of God's people has been circumcision -- in fact, the Bible even refers to it as "an everlasting covenant."
  • Jesus was circumcised, remember.
  • The apostles were all circumcised.
  • And while God may have reached out to the Gentiles in love, there is no evidence from Scripture that He has ever intended them to be the leaders of God's people.
To be sure, the Apostle Paul has written that "there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" -- but however true this may be spiritually, the fact remains that all these distinctions are still binding socially.
That is why we must resist recent attempts to make our churches "politically correct."
Yes, that is why Gentiles must not be ordained. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

This week's lesson (June 17-23): major themes in 1 & 2 Peter

"Respect all human authority," it says in 1 Peter.

"Submit to governing authorities," it says in Romans.

"Pray for all those in authority," it says in 1 Timothy.

So that's what I've been doing.

Ever since January 20, I've added a prayer for the President to my pastoral prayer at church. "Bless our President," I say, "that he might govern with wisdom, humility, and justice."

Has it changed him?

Dunno.

Has it changed me?

Dunno.

Have I received a lot of feedback on this from church members?

Oh yeah!
  • Some have taken this as a show of support for the President.
  • Some have wondered if this is an ironic critique of the President.
  • And one member told me that, "You can pray for him -- but he's not my President!"
All of which suggests that we're still struggling with the central question of 1 & 2 Peter -- the question of how we follow God in an imperfect world. (Or as Bruce Springsteen put it, "How do we keep our ideals after we've lost our illusions?")

Do I have an answer?

Not yet.

Do my church members agree on what that answer might be?

Not yet.

And that, in itself, is reason enough to pray.

Friday, June 16, 2017

This week's lesson (June 10-16): the Day of the Lord

I may need to rethink this whole business of survivalism, a.k.a. "prepping."

Read 2 Peter 3, after all, and you'll find lots of stuff about THE END OF TIME . . .

But not much stuff about bug-out bags.

Or MREs.

Or how to prevent scurvy with spruce-needle tea.

And yes, it tells us to prepare for THE END.

But it does so by urging us to live "holy and godly lives."

To live "peaceful lives that are pure and blameless."

And "to grow in the grace and knowledge of Christ."

All of which may be useful in THE END OF TIME . . .

But all of which sound suspiciously like the way I'm supposed to live every day.

Friday, June 09, 2017

This week's lesson (June 3-9): False Teachers

The best commentary on 2 Peter 2:1-22 comes from a Conference President -- one who told me "there are three things that get pastors in trouble: power, sex, and money."

"And since their sexual problems usually grow out of control issues," he added, "this means the three things that get pastors in trouble are are power, power, and money."

"And yes, their money problems also grow out of control issues -- and you know what that means? It means the three things that get pastors in trouble are power, power, and power."

Go -- and don't do likewise.


Friday, June 02, 2017

This week's lesson (May 27-June 2): Prophecy and Scripture

You know the drill:
1. An issue comes up -- could be weddings rings, could be same-sex marriage, could be the age-old question of "Will my dog be in heaven?" . . . but whatever it is, it seems to pit the personal experience of church members against the message of Scripture and/or Ellen White. 
2. A team of theological experts is assigned to look into this issue -- and after much study, a report is issued that explains What Inspiration Actually Says About this Subject (WIASAS). 
3. Upon completion of the WIASAS report, the issue is Official Declared to be Settled (ODS), and the church moves on . . . 
Or not.

Now compare this with what happens in 2 Peter 1:16-20:
1. The author gives his story, i.e. what he actually experienced. 
2. The author gives the message of Scripture, i.e. what it actually says. 
3. And the author explains how he story of his personal experience helps shape his understanding of Scripture . . . AND his reading of Scripture helps shape how he understands his own personal experience.
In short, it's not Personal Experience OR the Meaning of Scripture that is definitive; instead it's the two of them acting on each other in a kind of interpretative dance.

All of which suggests that the issues of our day need more than just a team of experts to tell us What Inspiration Actually Says About this Subject.

No, we also need to hear what all of God's people are saying about this subject, based on God's leading in their lives..

And then we all need discover just how these two messages -- Scripture and Experience -- can both inform each each in our church.

Just like they do in 2 Peter 1:16-20.

Friday, May 26, 2017

This week's lesson (May 20-26): be who you are

What would it be like to have a super-power . . .

But while everyone else has superpowers that are really terrific -- you know, powers like super-strength, supper-speed, or the ability to read minds . . .

Yes, they've all got the kind of super-powers that people want . . .

But your super-powers are kind of lame.

Like maybe you have the ability to communicate with small, household appliances.

Or maybe you can determine the age of rocks by their taste.

Or maybe you just smell good to cows.

So while everybody else is out there battling crime, thwarting villains, and signing movie contracts . . .

You're in a field.

Surrounded by cows.

Talking to an electric can-opener.

About that new patch of limestone, down by the creek.

Lame, right?

But that's the way I feel when we talk about the spiritual gifts listed in scriptures such as 2 Peter 1:5-7.

I mean, here we have the Creator of the Universe -- the Master of Infinite Power, and Infinite Wisdom . . . somebody, in short, who can do a lot better than the Avengers or the Justice Society.

But does He give us X-ray vision?

Does He give us a freeze-ray?

Does He give us the ability to shoot lightning bolts from our fingertips?

No.

Instead, we get things like faith.

Goodness.

Self-control.

Kindness.

And love.

Really lame stuff -- right?

But if the Master of Infinite Power and Infinite Wisdom chose to give us these gifts . . .

Lame as they seem to be . . .

Then what kind of people does this world really need?

What kind of powers should those people have?

And what kind of powers are the most difficult to practice?

Friday, May 19, 2017

This week's lesson (May 13-19): Jesus in the writings of Peter

A true story.

Maybe.

It's 1962, and a heavy-duty theologian by the name of Karl Barth is visiting the heavy-duty seminary at the University of Chicago . . .

And while he's there, a student asks him to sum up his life's work in one sentence.

So he says, "Jesus love me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

And that's it.

That's all he said.

A true story?

Maybe.

But if you were asked the sum up your beliefs in one sentence . . .

Then what would you say?

Friday, May 12, 2017

This week's lesson (May 6-12): servant leadership

1. You can't be a leader if you don't have followers.

2. That's why leaders need to take care of their followers.

3. If you want to be a leader, but you don't want to take care of your followers, then refer back to Rule #1.

-- I Peter 5:1-10 (Campbell's Condensed Version)

Friday, May 05, 2017

This week's lesson (April 29-May 5): Suffering for Christ.

1. Everyone suffers.

2. Try to be one of those who suffer for a good reason.

--I Peter 3:13-4:19 (Campbell's Condensed Version)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

This week's lesson (April 22-28): living for God

I Peter 3:13-16
1. Live the kind of life that makes people ask questions.

2. When they ask questions, give gentle and respectful answers.


3. If they're not asking questions, then take another look at the kind of life you're living.

Friday, April 21, 2017

This week's lesson (April 15-21): social relationships



  • "To live outside the law, you must be honest." -- Bob Dylan
  • "In 1968, Allard K. Lowenstein and his anti-Vietnam War "Dump Johnson movement" recruited Eugene McCarthy to run against incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson. . . . A number of anti-war college students and other activists from around the country traveled to New Hampshire to support McCarthy's campaign. Some anti-war students who had the long-haired, counter-cultural appearance of hippies chose to cut-off their long-hair and shave their beards, in order to campaign for McCarthy door-to-door, a phenomenon that led to the informal slogan, 'Get clean for Gene.'"-- from the Wikipedia article on Senator Gene McCarthy
  • ". . . there are two types of laws: there are just laws, and there are unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that 'An unjust law is no law at all.'
"Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law, or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. . . ." 
"Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience. It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved. It was practiced superbly by the early Christians, who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire. To a degree, academic freedom is a reality today because Socrates practiced civil disobedience. 
"We can never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was 'legal' and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was 'illegal.' It was "illegal" to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler's Germany. But I am sure that if I had lived in Germany during that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers even though it was illegal. If I lived in a Communist country today where certain principles dear to the Christian faith are suppressed, I believe I would openly advocate disobeying these anti-religious laws . . . "   -- excerpts from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail, published in The Atlantic Magazine.



Friday, April 14, 2017

This week's lesson (April 8-14): a royal priesthood

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

The Spiritual Food & Drug Administration (SFDA) warns of continuing problems with sales of tainted milk.

"We're seeing record levels of contamination" says SFDA spokesman Peter Johnson. "Malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander of every kind . . . people are just guzzling the stuff."

And the result?

"Sick, weakly believers," says Johnson. "You just can't 'grow up in salvation' if you're living on this kind of thing."

Johnson adds there's plenty of pure, spiritual milk out there, "but for some reason, it's just not as popular."

Still, he's hopeful.

"They've tasted and seen that the Lord is good," Johnson says. "Maybe they'll try Him again."

#1PETER2:1-3
#ROYALPRIESTHOOD
#SPIRITUALCOUNTERFEITS


Friday, April 07, 2017

This week's lesson (April 1-7): an inheritance incorruptible

Maybe you don't have much in common with the people at your church.

And maybe that's not a bad thing.

Read I Peter 1:1-12, after all, and you can't help but notice who put you there; yes, it says:
  • God chose you.
  • God gave you the new birth.
  • Yes, God gave you "an inheritance that can never perish, spoil, or fade."
In short, God made you part of His family.
And if God did that for you . . . 
Then why should they be any different?
Even if they are.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

This week's lesson (March 25-31): the Person of Peter

When was Peter "born again"?

When he began following Jesus part-time?

When he began following Jesus full-time?

When he recognized that Jesus was the messiah?

When he saw the empty tomb?

When he saw the risen Lord -- and was told to feed His sheep?

When he received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost?

When he recognized that Gentiles could be members of the church?

Or . . . when?

And how many times?

Friday, March 24, 2017

This week's lesson (March 18-24): the work of the Holy Spirit

Jesus is a carpenter.

And so is the Holy Spirit.

Way back in Genesis 1, remember, the Spirit "brooded" over the chaos of creation, much like a contractor mulls over an especially difficult job-site. And with that done, the Spirit rolls-up its sleeves and gets to work.
  • On the first three days, it creates homes for everything.
  • On the second three days, it creates everything that's going to live in those homes.
  • And with that job done, the Spirit now had a place for everything, with everything in its place.
Likewise, the Book of Acts is another creation story.
  • First, the Spirit creates a home for all of God's people: the church.
  • Then the Spirit creates the people who live in that home: church-members.
  • And when it's work is finally done, the Spirit will have a place for all of God's people, with all of God's people in His place . . . 
But we're not there yet.

No, we're living on a construction-site.

And God's Holy Spirit is still on the job.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

This week's lesson (March 11-17): grieving and resisting the Holy Spirit.

There's one sin you never see -- that's the unpardonable sin.

You can't spot it in someone else, after all; that's because you don't know how grace has been offered to that person, or how it's been received.

Moses committed murder, remember.

David committed murder AND adultery.

Peter denied Jesus.

Yet all of them ended up forsaking their sin and following God.

No, you just can't tell if someone else has committed the unpardonable sin.

But if you think they have . . .

Then what does that say about you?

Friday, March 10, 2017

This week's lesson (March 4-10): the Holy Spirit, the Word, and Prayer

When you pray, you talk with God.

And what you say, of course, depends on the God to whom you're praying.
  • If your God is an impersonal force, for instance, then your prayer will be a recipe, i.e. a list of directions that must be followed precisely in order to get the results you want. (See also Magic.)
  • If your God is a grudging bureaucrat, on the other hand, then your prayer is an attempt to make sure the right forms have been completed in order to get the results you want. (See also most books on "How to Pray with Power.")
  • But if your God is a loving Father, then you talk with Him -- and even if you "say something wrong" (whatever that means), then you know that's okay. Yes, you know He knows you well enough to know what you were trying to say, and loves you enough that He doesn't hold this against you.
In short, it's not so much how you pray that counts.
It's who's listening.

Friday, March 03, 2017

This week's lesson (February 25-March 3): the Holy Spirit and the Church

What if there was no Holy Spirit?

Yes, what if your church was on its own, with:
  • No Spirit to guide -- just your own wits.
  • No Spirit to gift -- just your own talents.
  • Not Spirit to empower -- just whatever enthusiasm you could drum up on your own.
In short, imagine that God had nothing to do with your church.
Would you notice any difference?
And would you do anything different if He showed up?


Thursday, February 23, 2017

This week's lesson (February 18-24): the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit

Even Moses couldn't do it all.

You remember the story: Moses is the sole leader of Israel: President, Chief Justice, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and County Dog-Catcher, all rolled into one.

Needless to say, he's run ragged trying to do everything that needs to be done -- and what's more, nothing's getting done when it needs to be done.

That's why the LORD tells Moses to bring 70 elders to the Tent of Meeting; there He will put the Spirit on them and they "will help [Moses] carry the burden of the people so that [he] will not have to carry it alone" (Numbers 11:16f, NIV).

To be sure, none of those leaders were as gifted as Moses -- which is another way of saying that Moses had to delegate work that he could have done better himself.

And there you have the most difficult thing to believe about spiritual gifts.

It's not believing that God has gifted you.

It's believing that God has gifted someone else.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

This week's lesson (February 11-17): the Holy Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit

To be honest, I think you should skip this week's lesson -- just go straight to next week's.

You see, next week's lesson is about spiritual gifts.

This week's is about "the fruits of the Spirit."

I mean, next week you get to talk about exciting stuff:
  • Signs!
  • Wonders!
  • Miracles!
But this week, you need to talk about love . . . and patience . . . and gentleness . . . and kindness . . . and all the other "touchy-feely" stuff that you already know you should do.

What's more, you already know how God develops these "fruits" in your life: yes, you know He's going to put you in situations where you need them!

(That's why you should never pray for patience, by the way. No, you do that, and He's going to give you people with whom you need to be patient!)

In short, this week's lesson deals with all the ways God helps you deal with difficult people in a difficult world . . .

And who needs that?

Thursday, February 09, 2017

This week's lesson (February 4-10): the Holy Spirit and living a holy life

You meet someone.

You fall in love.

You decide that you want to spend the rest of your life with them.

So you get baptized.

Or if they're human -- and feel the same way -- then you get married.

Either way, that means no more dating around.

Either way, that means "you have forsaken all others," and "shall cleave only unto that person for as long as you both shall live."

And either way, this doesn't mean you're perfect.

Doesn't mean you don't make mistakes.

Doesn't mean you don't need forgiveness.

But there's something going on between the two of you that's not going on with anyone else -- something that you don't want to break.

In short, salvation means you've fallen in love.

And holiness means you want to stay in love.

Thursday, February 02, 2017

This week's lesson (January 28 - February 3): the baptism and filling of the Holy Spirit

Going through my wallet this week, I found a gift-card -- one that:
  • I'd been given last Christmas,
  • Tucked-away for safe-keeping, 
  • And promptly forgotten.
But now that I've found it -- or rather, now that I've discovered I had it all along -- I get to use it. Enjoy it. Find out what it can do.
In much the same way, God gives us His Spirit -- and the key word, remember, is "give." It's not something we earn, in other words; we don't get it because we've been extraordinarily nice.
No, God's Spirit is free.
It's a gift.
And if you're a Christian, then you've already got it -- the same as I already had that that gift-card last I got last Christmas.
So now that you've got it . . . 
Why not use it?
Enjoy it?
Find out what He can do?
You don't need to "get" the Spirit, in other words.
No, you need to remember what you've already got.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

This week's lesson (January 21-27): the Personality of the Spirit

The Holy Spirit is not an impersonal force; instead, He is a person -- like God the Father, or God the Son.

Pity.

If the Holy Spirit was an impersonal force, after all, then we could use Him to get what we want -- the same as we do with electricity. Yes, we could channel Him. Manipulate Him. Maybe even hold seminars and write books on "How to be Filled with the Power of the Holy Spirit."

But we can't.

No, He's a person. That means we can work with Him. Talk with Him. Maybe even hold seminars and write books on how to have a relationship with Him.

But reduce this relations to a set of techniques -- to a series of steps that will get us what we want?

It doesn't work when we try this with people.

And that means it doesn't work when we try it with the Holy Spirit.

Pity.

Friday, January 20, 2017

This week's lesson (January 14-20): the Divinity of the Holy Spirit Spirit

Something will go wrong.

And someone will be there to help.

That's the advice on travel I got from Rick Steves' radio program . . .

And that's pretty much what Jesus says in John 14-17.

Anytime I'm on the road, after all, there's always a glitch -- yes, wallets go missing, flights get delayed, reservations are made for the wrong week. This used to frustrate me; I used to believe that proper planning would ensure a perfect trip . . . but now, I just take it in stride. (Mostly.) "Something's gone wrong," I tell myself, "and that means . . . "

Sure enough, somebody's always there to help. Could be my wife. Could be a clerk. Could be the stranger who stops what they're doing to ask if I need help (and it's amazing how often that happens).

But when things go wrong (as they always do), both Rick Steves and John 14-17 have always been right: I've never had to deal with it on my own.

That's why the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is important.

That's why the divinity of the Holy Spirit is important.

You see, we know that things go wrong.

But as believers, we also know that Somone's always there to help.




Sunday, January 08, 2017

This week's lesson (January 7-13): the Holy Spirit - working behind the scenes.

The Holy Spirit works behind the scenes.

Except when He doesn't.

Read the Book of Acts, for instance, and it's clear that Things Happen when the Holy Spirit shows up.
  • Yes, the sick are healed.
  • The dead are raised to life.
  • And sometimes, the healthy are smitten with sickness -- or even killed!
Yet in each case, the Holy Spirit does not perform a miracle in order to draw attention to Himself; instead, its purpose is to glorify Christ.

Like Jesus Himself, in other words, the Spirit exists to make somebody else look good . . .

Even if this means He needs to make a scene.

Go, and do likewise.

Friday, January 06, 2017

This week's lesson (December 31-January 6): the Spirit and the Word


God provides tech support.
Not only that, but He doesn't outsource. 
Some companies, after all, don't provide any help; no, you buy their product and you're on your own . . .

Like the time I bought a cheap MP3 player that turned out to have no manual, no website, and no toll-free number I could for help in figuring out how to turn it on.

In consumer electronics, this is called "lousy customer service."

In philosophy, it's called "Deism" -- the idea that God made us, then kind of . . . lost interest.

Then you have the manufacturers that do provide tech support -- or rather, they've given this job to another company located somewhere in South Dakota India the Philippines that is committed to providing fast, friendly service at the lowest possible price (with an emphasis on "the lowest possible price").

In business, this is called "outsourcing."

In philosophy, it's called "Neo-Platonism" -- the idea that God does not deal directly with His creation, but does so only through a near-infinite "chain of creation."

But when we need help, our prayer does not go to an angel . . . who passes it to an archon . . . who turfs it to a saint . . . who transfers it to a call center located somewhere in South Dakota India the Philippines South Dakota.

Instead, God picks up the phone Himself -- and sometimes, He doesn't even wait until we call to get in touch! No, He calls us to see how we're doing. He drops by to see how we're doing. And if He needs to be there with us all the time, then we know where you'll find Him.

In business, this is called "on-site support."

In philosophy, this is called "immanence" -- the idea that God is close to us.

But if you need a personal name for God when He does this, then you call Him, "the Holy Spirit."

This first appeared in 2014.