Eleven Chapters. Eleven chapters of deep, 'down in the weeds' theology, the answers to questions, problems and even accusations neatly laid out. The reason for our hope explained. The brilliant narrative of Christ's resurrection and God Eternal's consequential and irrevocable testimony that Jesus the Christ is His one and only son (Romans 1:4)! The message of God's amazing grace extended to sinful, undeserving man, culminating in this paralyzingly wonderful declaration:
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.
Forgiveness from sin, freedom from bondage and eternal life. Dare we ask anything else?
Paul anticipates the question, the obvious question, if you think about it: "now what do I do? Knowing that I have become God's child through no effort of my own, how do I respond? Can I even respond? Can I please Him?"
Yes! The answer is, wonderfully, yes!
And so the great hinge of this wonderful book turns, and Paul takes us to and through the second act, the great THEREFORE, instructions for God's undeserving but blessed and empowered children. We emulate Christ's sacrifice by becoming living sacrifices in turn; we become bond-servants of gratitude, making our best effort for the Kingdom we serve (Romans 12:1).
How do we do that? The answer, almost eerily, brings us back to the teachings of our Lord Himself, words He uttered before He went to the cross, words about internal righteousness that made the external requirements of the law seem almost easy by comparison:
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire.
If we're expecting a 'to-do list' - either from Paul or from Jesus - we are going to be sorely disappointed. Because why? Because external gestures of piety aren't going to cut it. Because hatred and contempt are murder in God's eyes. Because a lewd glance constitutes adultery (Matthew 5:28). Because a person who gives even his body to be burned, but doesn't have love, is nothing (1 Corinthians 13:3). Because God is determined not only to free us from the consequences of sin, but from the tyranny of sin.
Does the caterpillar become the butterfly by following a 10-step self-improvement program? No. Holiness, real holiness - the kind of holiness that can only come from God Himself - is something that will never be achieved from the outside in; only from the inside out:
Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also!
It can never be attained by our own efforts, even (perhaps especially) after we have received the free gift of God's grace. Don't you dare try! I assure you, that way leads only to madness and frustration, it leads to despicable self-righteousness and religious cruelty. Don't do it!
Rather? We are to be transformed by the continuous renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). We are to submit ourselves to God's word, revealed plainly in the miracle that is scripture. We are to invite the Holy Spirit into our lives, submitting to Him in humility, thankfulness, praise, warmth, peace and understanding, because those who walk by the Spirit will not gratify the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16). We are to emulate Christ's example of humility and service, esteeming others over our own selves (Philippians 2:3).
It begins not with what we do, but with what we think. We must change our minds. And we can, with His help!
Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me!
Special thanks to @jesusislord858, @SolaScriptura99 and @sisterdawnmarie for providing your insights on Twitter, helping to make today's post happen!
If only Job's friends had stopped here. This is enough, isn't it? To witness a friend in distress, to weep with him, suffer with him, to share your shoulder and let your wisdom be demonstrated in your silence?
When we read the story of Job, we almost always identify with Job. Those other people, Job's treacherous wife, his know-it-all friends who seem to have an answer for everything - they represent someone else; they have to.
But let's cut Job's friends some slack here. Imagine yourself in their position. You give up a solid week from your life to weep with a friend, to care for him, to share in his grief, and after all is said and done, he's not ready to get on with it? You've done what you can, have you not? Yes, he's paid an unimaginable price and you feel for him, but sooner or later, he needs to get on with his life! Perhaps it's time he owns up to whatever it is he's done to bring this on himself. No one is completely innocent, are they?
How great is the human instinct to want to make sense of this, to put things into a context that we can understand. If only we know what Job has done to bring this on himself, then we'll know the rule, we know what to do to avoid calamity. Because it is possible to avoid calamity, isn't it? On some level we must believe that we are ultimately in control, even if all that 'being in control' means is living a life that God finds pleasing enough to warrant us special treatment.
We Christians spurn this notion of self-determination wherever asked, but ultimately we want it, we crave it, just like everyone else. We pay lip-service to God's sovereignty but will often use whatever religious means we have at our disposal to wrest some control, any control, from His hands - because we can't believe that He would truly will us, His most loyal, to suffer as unbelievers do. That just doesn't make sense!
And yet we're reminded, time and time again, that at some time in our lives, we saw death on the horizon, and we pledged to imitate the Servant Who Suffers, our Lord, Jesus. We were willing to sacrifice the pleasures of this life for eternal treasures. Scripture tells us that while we can be rewarded here and now, spiritually, emotionally, materially, our ultimate reward isn't in this life, but the next. If suffering is the exception, rather that the rule, in our lives today, it's because we stand on the shoulders of martyrs who were willing to imitate Christ's suffering before us.
Today those martyrs still march to the Lord's drum the world over, giving their lives so that others may be saved. Today our brothers and sisters in Christ are imprisoned, tortured, torn from their families arms and murdered by hostile states, by Islamic militants, by God's enemies who find our message of love, joy and peace with the Living God so offensive they would kill anyone who utters it.
And yet we complain, why? Where is the meaning? That's why. I can endure anything if I know why. If only I were imprisoned for the cause of Christ, rather than imprisoned in a body that's been racked with a random illness, rather than imprisoned in debt, in a dead-end job... if only.
If only I knew why I was suffering, then I would know what to do. That's it, isn't it?
Notice that in the midst of the storm, while Jesus slept and the disciples panicked, there was very little they could do. Undoubtedly they were hard at work with oars and sails and trying to make a beeline for shore. When Jesus woke up, what did they expect? What would you expect? What would I?
What do you expect? What do I?
I expect Jesus to rise up, take control of the ship and tell me what to do. "Hoist that sail! Get on that oar! Row! Row! Row!" I expect Him to see me through the storm. If I expect any rebuke at all, I expect to be rebuked for what I've done wrong, or haven't done at all, to remedy the situation.
It retrospect, it's ridiculous though, isn't it? Would anyone in their right minds expect the disciples to 'succeed' in the situation described? Jesus doesn't rebuke them for their actions or their failures, but for their attitudes, for their fear, for their attempts to control a situation that God has firmly in hand.
"Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?" (Mark 4:40)
Jesus evidently has little interest in satisfying our desperate curiosity, in connecting the dots for us; I suspect this is mainly because of why we want these dots connected - so we can regain control of the ship.
Rather, He wants us to learn - He has even shown us the way Himself! He did so while catching some shuteye on a ship that appeared to any rational observer to be going down. He modeled simple trust in a God who never, ever fails to be in command of the situation. And when awoken from His slumber, what did He have to say?
"Peace, be still!" (v. 40)
One wonders, was He talking to the storm, or to those inside the boat?
During this COVID crisis there’s no shortage of Christians trying to fit the current situation into a narrative that they can come to terms with. Some say this is God’s wrath poured out on the earth, others say it’s the work of Satan, others still remark that it’s some sort of human-engineered conspiracy, maybe a hoax. “They” are trying to influence elections, distract from the recently signed peace accord, shut down churches (whatever). The reality is, however, that the people saying such things don’t actually know such things, neither do I; and that’s okay.
Could this thing be the wrath of God poured out on earth? Maybe. The work of the devil? Perhaps. Biological warfare? Possibly. A complete hoax? Sure, why not? Any of these things could be true. On the other hand, it could be the case that an infected snake in a Wuhan marketplace transmitted the COVID-19 virus to humans, the virus took off, and now a group of imperfect human beings, medical agencies and government authorities are working in earnest to contain it, perhaps too late in the game.
Me? I’m not going to stake out a position. Why. Because it’s not important? No. Rather, because it’s not important that I know. This kind of thing is God’s business, not mine. Mine is to do the work set out for me, set out for all of us in the plain teaching of scripture: worship God, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, share the Gospel, treat others the way I want to be treated... love God with my whole heart and my neighbour as myself. This virus could have been engineered by aliens from another planet working in concert with Freemasons and Scientologists in a plot to destroy Israel, usher in the antichrist and force us all to take vaccines that contain the mark of the beast: it still wouldn’t change how I’m to respond as a disciple of Christ.
I love chapter 9 in John; it’s filled with examples of how Godly wisdom can be present without empirical knowledge. Note the disciples in verse 2 are trying to do the same thing that we are: put a bad thing that’s happened into a rational narrative that they can feel good about. Why? I don’t know, human instinct. I presume some part of them wants to know that they can avoid such a fate if only they check the right boxes. Notice Jesus doesn’t provide them a comprehensive answer that they can write down for future reference. Rather He tells them what they need to know: “this has presented you with an opportunity to bear witness to God’s glory - now seize that opportunity”.
Later in the chapter, the same blind man they were discussing (no longer blind) exhibits the kind of Godly wisdom that Jesus’ own disciples lacked in this instance. He freely admits to not having all the answers; instead he takes what information he has and responds with faith. The Pharisees are asking all the wrong questions as far as he’s concerned: “is He a prophet, a sinner, can He dance on the head of a pin with a thousand angels?” The man responds (v.27): “why do you want to hear (my explanation) again? Do you also want to become His disciples?”
Note the word “also”. This man has made up his mind. He doesn’t have all the facts, and he certainly doesn’t have the full details of the Gospel yet (no one does at this point); but it doesn’t matter. The man who opened up His eyes is righteous, He’s good, He’s brought God’s healing to him; this man will follow Jesus.
We have a choice here. We can try to describe this with theological or political rationalizations that make sense to our fallible human minds; or we can be about God’s business, confident that He has provided everything we need to know in order to do just that. Just be aware that every moment we occupy ourselves with the former is another opportunity lost to do the latter.
What’s it going to be?
Note the curious disparity here. God’s people are very much trying to behave like God’s people. They “delight to draw near to God”. They aren’t just religious; they’re downright spiritual. This isn’t self-imposed, legalistic drudgery; these people are sincerely - joyfully, even - seeking an encounter with the living God. Yet God is not pleased. The apostle James says that if we draw near to God, He’ll draw near to us (James 4:8). Well, Israel is, and it’s not working.
Thankfully, the answer isn’t shrouded in mystery; it’s provided plainly. God’s people, for all their spiritual enthusiasm, are a quarrelsome group of miscreants who have oppressed and neglected the poor. Loving one’s neighbour as oneself is, evidently, not a priority. Under such circumstances, the Lord refuses to be responsive to prayer and supplication, no matter how sincerely and fervently such petition may be offered.
If there is a clearer biblical picture of western evangelicalism today, I don’t know where to find it. Enter any number of evangelical churches and you’re bound to find enthusiasm, dedication and spiritual fervour. If it’s an experience you seek, it’s an experience you will find. But ask yourself, within such churches, do we really love our neighbour - our Christian neighbour, let alone anyone else?
If someone loses a job or falls ill in your church, is any real help rendered beyond some half-hearted promises to pray and a few casseroles? Are we behaving as “one body” (1 Cor 12:12-27), or as several bodies pulled together once or twice weekly for some mutually agreeable religious activity?
If we want a genuine encounter with the Living God, we had better be able to answer this question confidently.
With each passing day, the stakes get higher, and the shore gets further away. We’re going from “having” faith to learning to “walk by” faith which, I’m starting to understand, are two entirely different things.
Where are we at now? Not gone yet, but sights set on the overflowing refugee camps of Europe. Maybe Greece, maybe Sicily - two hubs with more migrants than they can handle, people who desperately need help, many who have never heard the Gospel.
For now? Still in Canada (Edson, AB, to be exact) - trying to balance two full-time jobs - “day job” and service to the Kingdom - training for mission, working with our church to reach our community for the Gospel, ramping up fundraising, starting to see the invitations to preach come in (commencing next week - will try to record and make it available here). Learning how the battleship (okay, dinghy) works, sometimes missing the cruise-liner.
Sometimes feeling brave, other times waking up in the middle of the night in sheer terror - the realization that the shore is almost completely lost. What are we doing? Have we lost our ever-loving minds?
Calvin and Hobbes come to the stunning realization that their wagon has no brakes; a cliff looms just ahead...
Daughter: “Dad what’s with you and Calvin and Hobbes? ”.
Dad: “Calvin and Hobbes is empirically the greatest comic of all time, honey - that’s not my opinion, that’s just science. It was true before, it’s true now, it will be true even if Bill Watterson sues me for the unauthorized use of a comic snippet on this blog post” (don’t sue me Bill, I’m a missionary - I don’t have cash to court-ordered turn over to you. But as long as we’re on the subject, may I ask you to partner with our ministry?)
Reading “The God Ask” by Steve Shadrach - theology and practice of fundraising. Not terrified by the prospect, just hoping my friends and family understand that I’m not dropping hints every time I bring up the ministry or the fundraising that’s needed to make it happen (friends and family, when it comes time to ask, you’ll know - no one ever accused me of ambiguity - until then, I’m just sharing what’s on my heart).
Also consequently brushing up on an area of the bible I’ve willfully ignored most of my life - money. Short answer? Wow, have I been making excuses. No matter, and no time like the present to correct course. Just thinking of all those years I’ve sat on my resources, treating God’s money like my money, rather than my money like God’s money.
Anyway, that’s it, work, classes, fundraising, preaching and plane tickets (headed to N. Carolina in March for intensive missionary training - kids too), and of course, this morning, blogging.
Whoever you are, wherever you are, I pray that God’s leading you into deeper faith - greater risk, more excitement. Maybe we’ll cross paths as we plummet over the cliff together. That would be great. God bless your day.
Christians of all backgrounds, denominations and affiliations agree: Jesus’ instructions here are not meant to be taken literally. (I’ve never encountered a Christian who has gouged out his eye or cut off his hand, and suspect I never will). We agree to interpret this verse symbolically. Doing so, then, requires us to then unwrap the symbolism. What on earth is Jesus talking about, and how should we apply this to our lives?
This is relatively simple. Jesus isn’t talking about the removal of sin, He’s talking about the removal of things that cause us to sin. Is there anything inherently wrong with an eye or a hand? Of course not, if there were, He would simply say “cut off your right hand and gouge out your right eye, God doesn’t like them.”
But there’s not and He doesn’t. What He’s saying is this: if there’s anything in your life that causes you to systematically commit serious sin in your life, get rid of it. Even if it’s an otherwise good or necessary part of your life; if it causes you to sin gravely, it could be endangering your very soul! Do not, under any circumstances, allow such a thing to keep you from Heaven. You’re better off without it.
If the well-paying job that you’re in is forcing you into unethical or even illegal behaviour – quit. If you have a gambling addiction and live within walking distance of a casino – move. If a friendship of yours seems to be heading in the direction of an extramarital affair – terminate the friendship.
And here’s another one which, I’m afraid, is going to cause me to lose readers (so be it): if your political activities are causing you to hate and dehumanize your enemies, cut them out, immediately. Politics are by definition temporary; you won’t need them in the Kingdom of Heaven. If they are leading you into unChristlike behaviour, trash them, before they ruin you.
I’ve encountered too many Christians on social media who gleefully and easily heap scorn, derision and spite on enemies both real and perceived. Regardless of whether they’re on the Right or the Left side of the political spectrum, it’s as if, in that moment, they couldn’t care less about Christ’s teachings on love, forgiveness and grace. “Love your enemies” becomes mere advice that we are free to disregard, due (I suppose?) to the quality of our enemies.
But know this, it’s one thing to lose your temper, to forget yourself, to lose a battle with the flesh, it’s another thing altogether to make a willful decision to disobey the clear teachings of Christ. You are under orders to love your enemies; you are under orders to pray for them. If you deliberately refuse these orders, you are not recognizable as His disciple. We all fail in executing His commands, but we don’t get to refuse them. That option is not presented to a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Jesus, we all struggle with the flesh. We all experience moments where we’re shocked to find hatred, contempt, lust, greed, and all sorts of ugly things in our hearts. We pray that you forgive us our sinful natures, cause us to repent, and create in us cleaner and cleaner hearts. Teach us to love our enemies – make it so we want to love our enemies. Renew a right spirit within us. Amen.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.