Practical Proverbial, from 1 Timothy, 15 October 2018

Timothy, my son, I am giving you this command in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by recalling them you may fight the battle well, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme. 1 Timothy 1:18-20 (NIV).

If you aren’t familiar with it, to excommunicate someone is to cut them off from communing with the body of believers.   It’s a harsh action, one designed to excise someone whose talk or actions are corrosive and threatening to the health of the church.   But it wasn’t designed to be punishing.   Instead, it was designed to instruct, to give someone over to the sins they seem to be choosing over communion with the saints.   Some churches today still practice this kind of church discipline, and it’s supposed to be done in love, as a way to show the person the drastic and destructive nature of the things they are saying and doing.

Paul is talking about excommunicating Hymenaeus and Alexander.   In the first days of the growing Christian faith, to be excommunicated was a desperate action.   Theirs was a world of physical persecution and very real threat of death at the ‘righteous’ hands of ecclesiastical authorities (Jewish, Roman or Greek).   To be consigned to that was a desperate thing.   Paul did this because these men had crossed a line, saying or doing things that were blasphemous and intolerable.  If they were allowed to continue unaddressed, it could have threatened the nascent church; some things are intolerable for a reason.   Most important, Paul did it to teach the offenders so that they might turn and re-embrace the Lord.

Is that so different from firing a wayward employee?   Or telling a friend “if you keep doing it, we can’t be friends.”   It would be an awful thing to be ‘handed over to Satan’ to be taught a lesson, yet sometimes that’s what God may just call us to do.   Just make sure it’s for the right reasons.   Many years ago I watched a pastor excommunicate a member.   I was a member of the church council and the pastor, the church leader, wanted a member excommunicated because the member was saying terrible things about the church, even demonic things.   The thing about it was that the poor guy was schizophrenic and off his meds, yet the pastor insisted he was sensible and had his wits about him.  We voted to excommunicate him (I voted no).   That seemed like an abuse of excommunication.   For this and other reasons, my family and I left the church a few months later.

I wonder if the man or that pastor ever turned to Jesus.

For further reading:  2 Timothy 2:17, 1 Corinthians 5:5, 1 Timothy 2:1

Lord, teach us to be wise with the powers of instruction that You give us.

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Practical Proverbial, from 2 Thessalonians, 13 August 2018

May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word. 2 Thessalonians 2:16-17 (NIV).

Have you noticed that Paul likes flowery benedictions?   He does this in most of his letters; why?  Simple:   praise and encouragement.

In these verses, (as you can see) that theme of encouragement is especially prevalent.  Think about it:  in Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, he spent considerable time teaching about patterns of living in a pagan world (which was what Asia Minor largely was).   In this second letter, Paul used his time to talk about the end of times and the persecution that would happen.   Persecution was a subject his friends in Thessalonica would understand because they lived in a Roman world hostile to the nascent Christian faith.  Their city was a cosmopolitan trade hub, the largest city between Rome and Byzantium and they saw first-hand the worst the Empire could offer.  They were familiar with the brutality lashed out against anyone who ‘made waves.’   And they were familiar with people who had known Jesus of Nazareth personally, had seen and heard Him, in person and had followed Him and His teachings in the few short decades since He departed.

If you or I lived in first century Asia Minor, we might need some encouragement, too.

That’s why Paul moves to end his letter this way.   He gives praise to God, stating the reason we should do so (“who loved us and by his grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope”), then prays encouragement over the reader (the rest of the verse).

By the time Paul ministered to the new church in Thessalonica, that city was already almost 400 years old; today it is nearly 2400 years old and is the second largest city in Greece.  His friends there understood that they would need to praise God and be encouraged in the time to come because persecution would indeed come.   Within 20 years, all the apostles except one would be murdered (including Paul), and the church scattered.   Those who held onto believing in this Jesus would need to focus on praising Him in adversity while being encouraged by constantly learning and re-learning the truth of His encouragement.

Two millenia later, have things really changed?  Thessalonica is still a major city.   Some people still follow Jesus while most of the world does not.  People overseas are still dying for Christian faith and people here are blacklisted for it.  And the gospel is still on the move, teaching about God’s grace and His eternal encouragement of how His eternity matters most here and in the here to come.  I’d say Paul’s flowery benediction has served well.

For further reading:  Philippians 4:20, John 3:16, 1 Thessalonians 3:2, 2 Thessalonians 3:1.

Lord Jesus, thank You for these words you inspired Paul to share.   Let them encourage people to faith in You today.

Practical Proverbial, from 1 Thessalonians, 5 April 2018

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality.   1 Thessalonians 4:3 (NIV).

Buckle up, my friend.   It’s gonna be bumpy for the next few days because Paul is saying, with the authority of Jesus, some uncomfortable things.   He’s speaking in love, but he’s saying things that are unpopular, things we don’t want to hear.   They’re convicting, and you might be convicted.   Your first impulse might be offense, or even anger, so buckle up and stay on the ride because it’s worthwhile.

One of the dangers of “chunking down” Bible verses is taking them out of context.   It’s a dangerous thing to randomly pick a verse, read it, and draw huge conclusions from it even though every verse in Scripture is God’s real word.   So, here, it’s wise to remember that, in many of Paul’s letters, he reminds his friends to flee from sexual immorality.  Run away when you’re tempted.  Sexual purity is a theme in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon (just to name a few), and anyone who has remotely heard of Genesis has heard of Sodom and Gomorrah:  the ultimate lesson on sexual immorality.

Every ancient culture except Israel focused in one way or another on sex, including idolatry of sex, sexual activities, or fertility.   When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he wrote to people familiar with Eros, Aprhrodite, and the lascivious practices of Roman worship.  He reminded them that Christ gave Himself as the bridegroom for His bride, the church.  Is it surprising, then, that God asked His bride to be virginally pure for that Bridegroom?

How do you think that worked out for the Thessalonians?

They were people just like us.  They thought about and focused on sex as much as we do.   They had emotions and sexual needs.  Paul cautioned them that they were to be sanctified, set apart and consecrated as holy.   The first way to do that was by changing their behaviors on sex.   Commit to monogamy; end adultery; save your sexual activity for your marriage; retrain your brain from thinking about sex and lust and the idolatry of it.   Let Jesus do work His way in you.  Paul’s command is to revere faith in Him and the gift of life He gave, and it’s awful hard to revere Christ when you’re (literally) screwing around with someone.

I’ve spent a lot of my life cherishing sex, even worshipping it.   I’ve misused it and that caused problems for me and others.   Paul is speaking to me here, cautioning me that Jesus beckons me to a better way.   Thank God He did this because you and I need His help if we are going to master this emotional, biological and even spiritual drive in our lives in a world determined to misuse it.

For further reading:   1 Corinthians 7:2-9, 1 Thessalonians 4:3.

Lord, forgive me for the ways I’ve misused Your gift of sex.   Help me to revere You through my sex life.

Practical Proverbial, from Hebrews, 29 November 2017

Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.  Hebrews 13, verses 17-18.

Pastors, presidents, parents, bosses:   they are our leaders.   So are mentors, quarterbacks, famous actors, media figures, teachers, and drill sergeants.   Every group has leaders and followers; it’s human nature.   Some leaders have natural aptitude for it; some have elected authority; some have power they have simply assumed from those around them or the situation in which they find themselves.   Some leaders inspire you to want to follow them in anything; some leaders are complete jerks.   Some are virtuous; some are murderous Communists.  Whether these verses are talking explicitly about ecclesiastical leaders alone misses the fact that these verses actually do apply to all situations.

God allows leaders to be vested with (and use) authority that originates with Him.  Just before ascending after His resurrection, Jesus said that “all authority in heaven and on earth” had been given to Him.   God the Father owned it and vested it into His Son.  That means Jesus is where the buck really stops.   And because of that word “all,” through delegation, if someone on earth has any kind of authority, they have it because Jesus directly or indirectly gave it to them.   Even people who don’t believe in Jesus have this endowment.

Yesterday evening I was having an online discussion with a friend who doesn’t profess conventional belief in God.   I don’t think of him as an atheist, or even an un-believer as I don’t think his heart is hardened against God.   Indeed, I’m hopeful that God is working on him as we speak.  He’s going through a terrible time right now, and I hope and pray that He learns to seek comfort from the Lord.   He’s having a leadership crisis because he has lost faith in many of the leaders in his life (work, family, etc).  If you told him that these verses required him to have confidence in these leaders he might rip your head off.

Yet think about the writer of Hebrews.   He was saying these words and echoing his contemporary, the Apostle Paul.  Paul exhorted his fellow believers to submit to authorities, and many of those believers were being actively persecuted by those authorities.   Paul himself was imprisoned and tortured by both Roman and Jewish officials.  Unless you have been tortured by ISIS, you and I may not be able to comprehend what kind of character it must take to put trust in leaders who are evil.   But we’ve all worked for bosses who didn’t seem to know how to lead; sometimes those bosses have been us.   And we can each tell stories about parents or people we looked up to who let us down or didn’t do things they should have.

The verses are another of God’s reminders to us that we are to remember that those in charge are in charge because He allows it.   He allows their selection (or assumption of power) because it serves His purposes (even when we don’t understand what those purposes are).  I don’t know what purpose was served by God allowing tens of millions of innocent people to be murdered by Communists in the last hundred years but I do know that God worked to turn that evil for good purposes after.   I don’t know what good purpose was served at Auschwitz, but I do know about the stories of faith and love from people who survived there.   I don’t know what good is accomplished by allowing pedophile priests to rape kids, or presidential candidates destroying classified information, or the exploitation of people for profit and power, but I do know that good people come out of those situations even stronger.   It’s tough to admit but we, as people, have the power to stop many of these things, yet we don’t, and then we blame God when they happen.   But a tangent of this is also true:  when good prevails, you can count on the fact that it was because God was at work through it.

Besides, those in charge will have to give an accounting for how they used the power entrusted to them.   Did they use it in ways to further God’s Kingdom?   Was love increased because of things they did?   To God be the glory or was it to the person waving the flag?  It’s important to remember that we must not hold God to standards that we ourselves won’t abide by.  Thus it’s a fool’s game to blame God for all evil because doing so simply means we’re putting ourselves in His place as God.   I don’t know of anyone who’s worthy of that.

I’ve been fired from jobs, and it’s hard for me to do honor to my former employers but that’s what God calls me to do.   There are leaders in our government whose words and actions I detest, but Jesus tells me to abide and follow them.   Some of what elders and mentors tell me is tough to hear, and some of it is dead wrong, but the Lord still tells me to respect them.   All of this is true because God entrusts them with the authority they have and we all serve His purposes in one way or another.

For further reading:  Isaiah 62:6, Acts 20:28, 1 Thessalonians 5:25, Acts 23:1, Romans 15:33, Matthew 28:18.

Lord, abide with humanity’s leaders.   Empower them, instruct them, guide them and forgive them.   And teach me to do the same as I follow them.   When I follow, I’m following You.

Practical Proverbial, from Mark, 29 March 2016

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.  “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. Mark 16, verses 1-8.

Put yourself in the shoes (ok, sandals) of those women.   In the same way Luke described the shepherds who saw Jesus on the day He was born, “they were sore afraid.” These poor women were grieving, and they had come to the garden tomb after the Passover Sabbath to anoint Jesus’ dead body.   It’s true that they had revered Him as their Lord, the promised and hoped-for Messiah, and the one who would make all things new.   But He was dead now.   The Jewish priests had arranged for His murder.   The all-too-willing Romans had carried out the murder.   The disciples were hiding, afraid for their lives.   And Jesus’ body was buried in a stranger’s fresh tomb.   They had contemplated this thing, probably talked about it, all through the long Saturday Sabbath. Very early on a cool Sunday morning, these three followers of the wandering rabbi went to the cemetery to do their duty.

Imagine their surprise.   Imagine their shock.   Imagine being overwhelmed at what they were witnessing.   Imagine that they were probably scared to death. All they had expected to find was the big stone in front of the tomb, maybe a Roman guard there to make sure nothing was out of place.   Out of place indeed; it was a whole new level of that.

“Don’t be alarmed,” said the angel.   Would you be alarmed if a brilliantly dazzling supernatural man told you not to be?   I’d be speechless. And as if that wasn’t alarming enough, the angel gives them the greatest news since God said “let there be.” “He has risen.”

“He has risen.”

Would you be surprised, shocked, overwhelmed and terrified?   It would be sensory overload, something racing too fast for your brain to fully absorb, like something you dreamed could happen but didn’t really think ever would.   I mean, let’s be real.   The Messiah had been talked about for thousands of years; it was almost like a legend, even in a time when legends were still popularly believed.

And yet here it was, happening in front of their eyes.   Put yourself in their place. How would you feel?

Lord Jesus, I confess I would be scared and overwhelmed like the women were that Easter morning.   Forgive my unbelief and help me to understand more of Your supernatural power.

Read Mark 16.  

Practical Proverbial, from Mark, 15 March 2016

A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.  Mark 15, verses 21.

How often are you made to do something you really don’t want to do?

Consider Simon from Cyrene.   He’s not native to Jerusalem; he’s visiting there.   One Friday morning, when the city is full, he is caught on a street that would come to be known as the Via Dolorosa.  Perhaps he’s minding his business; perhaps he’s there with family.   We don’t particularly know why he was there; we really don’t know much about him other than that he was from Cyrene, which is in northern Africa.   All we know is that he was Shanghai’d into helping Jesus walk to His death.

Back to here and now. If I haven’t said it before, I don’t like batting cleanup.   If you’re not a baseball fan, to bat cleanup is to be the fourth hitter in a lineup.   Three guys get on base, so the manager sends a hitter to bat who can hit them home.   In a way it’s an honor; in another way it’s a burden.

At work, I have a penchant for working in positions where, very often, my role is to finish the work done by others.   To be honest, it aggravates me.  I don’t like having to come in part way through an effort and be stuck with someone else’s choices.  Yet the irony of this is that batting cleanup is my specialty.   I’ve developed skills, abilities, and intuition that allow me to apply myself in going in and bringing order to chaos, and successful completion to endangered crisis.  This is just a niche in which I’ve carved out experience.

Do you think Simon of Cyrene probably had experience carrying crosses?   I’m betting not.   But he was forced into a situation where he had to bat cleanup.  He probably didn’t go to Jerusalem that Friday morning thinking “I’m gonna help a man die today” but that’s the way it turned out.  The Romans saw that Jesus was exhausted, that He couldn’t walk another step while carrying that heavy cross.   The cross was probably between 100 and 200 lbs, and remember that Jesus had been awake since Thursday morning and had spent the last few hours being viciously tortured.   He was in agony, made even more agonizing knowing that the pain was only beginning.   No Roman soldier would be forced to carry that cross, so they pulled Simon out of the crowd and forced him at sword-point to help the King of the Jews.

Sort of makes my complaining about work seem pretty trivial, doesn’t it.   I mean, if my cross to bear is the ability to swoop in, help someone be successful, and get paid handsomely for it, tell me where is there any cross to bear?

You know the answer.   No, as always, this isn’t a guilt trip for you.   It’s simply to help you ask yourself:   how often are you asked to do things you don’t want to do?   Then, how much of a burden are they?   Are they pulled-out-of-a-crowd-and-forced-to-carry-a-cross-for-a-convicted-innocent-felon burdensome?   Are they the burdens of Jesus?   You and I aren’t God and can’t be God, but we can change our lives to live as He asks us.   What are you prepared to do?

Lord, take my burdens.   Forgive me my shallowness and my sins, and help me to change to better live as You would ask me to.

Read Mark 15, verses 16-47.

Practical Proverbial, from Mark, 3 March 2016

Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, made their plans. So they bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate. Mark 15, verse 1.

You have to start early in the morning if you want to make a full day out of something. Wanna catch the big fish while they’re biting?   Gotta get to the lake early in the morning, before they feed.   Want to finish a bunch of Saturday chores?   Get up and get going early.   Want to put in extra hours on the job?   You guessed it:   up and at ‘em already.

So it was with the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council. They’d been up all night, conspiring and working out this little charade for Jesus’ mock trial. When Judas came to them with his idea of how to betray Jesus, they probably convened a quiet emergency meeting to decide what to do about it. It took planning, scheming, communicating to make the arrangements so that all would be ready when Judas gave the signal.

That Thursday night, the Sanhedrin, like Jesus, probably stayed up all night. They weren’t sure just when Judas would show up, so they met, ate and drank together, and walked through their plan.   It wouldn’t do to have anything go south, so they rehearsed who would say what and what they would say.   I bet they practiced their lines, talked about the best ways to box Jesus into rhetorical corners.   When Judas showed up and said that his Master would be vulnerable in the garden just outside the city walls, they put their plans into motion.   Summon the guards; pay off the gullible; lie to save face.

A few hours later, the guards bring a tired but determined Jesus to meet with the council and they begin to interrogate Him. The plan is unfolding as expected except for one small detail.  Jesus won’t play along.   He doesn’t answer their questions; He doesn’t meet their scolding, their threats, their violence with the reactions that were predicted. Jesus says nothing, doesn’t act out.   Indeed, His countenance looks like He’s not even angry with His accusers.   Jesus looks like He actually feels sad for them, that He feels worse for how THEY feel that for what they are doing to Him.

This only makes them furious.

Their plan now thwarted, the Sanhedrin elders move to Plan B.   If Jesus won’t talk to them, He’ll definitely talk to the Roman governor.   The goal in this unfolding end-game is for Jesus to die.   The priests know they don’t have that kind of muscle, that only the Roman overseers can order the death of a Judean. Even though He has done nothing to physically intimidate them, they tie up Jesus as if He’s some kind of physical threat, and then they (literally) drag Him off to the governor’s palace.   There, they believe, Pontius Pilate will extract from this ‘Messiah’ the proof needed to sentence Him to death.

That is, of course, if Pilate agrees to cooperate.   That is, you know, if Jesus decides to talk.   Was there a Plan C if Plan B failed?

When you’re conspiring against the King, you need to get up very early in the morning.   Even then, things might not turn out the way you expect.

Lord Jesus, have mercy still on those who conspired against You.   Forgive them and me for our sins.

Read Mark 15, verses 1-15.