Practical Proverbial, from Titus, 8 July 2019

To Titus, my true son in our common faith:  Grace and peace from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Savior.  Titus 1:4 (NIV).

As far as we know, Paul didn’t have any children.   Yet he refers to both Titus and Timothy as his sons.   That’s not uncommon.  You and I, perhaps we’ve felt a familial affection for people to whom we aren’t related yet have been caring, strong examples for us.   I’ve had mentors in the Air Force, and at jobs, and in my church and family.   How about you?

It’s the common faith that puts us on common ground.   The bottom line of that is, as always, Jesus Christ.  It seems pretty impossible to think that God, the supreme being, could have created everything and then not consider Him to be the fundamental we all share in common.  It simply defies logic.

And Paul was a logical man, using human experience and reason to appeal to a culture familiar with common experience and human reason.   He lived in a world ruled by Romans but largely shaped by the faith of the Jews and the Hellenistic culture of Greece.   The people of Paul’s day were familiar with faith, both Jewish, this nascent Christianity, and a hundred other faith practices of pagans.   They were familiar with the idea of God, even the common but radical idea that God would make Himself incarnate among us out of love, grace and peace.

That was a radical concept then; it’s still radical today.  It’s still contrary to a world where the strong survive.   Paul saw that real strength, however, came not from a sword or political power but, instead, from the grace of God.   He would greet his fellow believers in the language of their shared faith, and he would then pray over them the grace and peace from God the Father and His Son, Christ Jesus.

Common ground from which Paul would mentor and teach.   Paul’s people needed the common ground of believing there was a God who loved them, who endured their pain, who identified with their plight, who provided a way out.   The people of our time need that exact same reassurance.   Over a billion people (out of 7 billion) currently hold that faith, share that common ground.   That means a huge majority of our world either doesn’t know or doesn’t accept our common ground.   It means that we have a shared mission from Christ.   Share Him through how we live our lives.   Give an answer when asked.   More than that, give an answer by the things we do with and for others.   If we want to invite others onto the common ground of faith in Jesus, let’s do so by praying for them the grace and peace of Jesus by how we live today.   Let’s be mentors in the faith.

For further reading:  Romans 1:7, 2 Corinthians 2:13, 1 Timothy 1:2, Titus 1:5

Lord Jesus, help me to share You in how I live today.

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Practical Proverbial, from 2 Timothy, 24 June 2019

At my first defense, no one came to my support, but everyone deserted me. May it not be held against them.  2 Timothy 4:16 (NIV).

Paul was given to hyperbole, but here in this verse, he probably wasn’t being hyperbolic.   It’s likely that there actually were people around him who did physically support him – with food, with friendship, with camaraderie, with prayer.   That’ isn’t what he’s talking about.  When Paul was called before the Jewish, then Roman, authorities, he was probably alone.   He was probably left to defend himself with only the words of Jesus’ Spirit to guide him.  Everyone else, even his closest friends, either deserted him or sought self-preservation from the hell-bent Jewish and Roman overseers.

That’s understandable, you know.   We can only do so much.   While God calls us to boldly proclaim and love Him in all ways even unto death, He asks us more to model the attitude of self-sacrifice; the heart to give everything in His service.   That’s the heart Paul had, the kind of heart that guided him through the times when the government and the religious authorities actually persecuted him for proclaiming Christ crucified.

My Concordia Bible makes an interesting parallel between this verse, especially the last section of it, and Acts 7:60.  In the Acts verse, Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is being stoned to death by over-eager Jews.   Stephen had just rhetorically devastated these men, who had called him to testify as to why he was proclaiming the forbidden “way” of Jesus.   Stephen used that occasion to relate how the Jews had followed God in an up-then-down manner from the time of Abraham until that day.   He then bluntly denounced them for mocking God in their hearts because they had murdered Jesus, God Immanuel.   The Sanhedrin stoned Stephen for that, and it was Paul, then known as Saul, who had overseen the murder.

So it’s ironic that, in the verse from 2 Timothy, years after the death of Stephen, Paul asks a prayer for the people who have deserted him.   Stephen wasn’t alone in his dying moments:   he saw heaven open and Jesus.  Paul knew that he, too, wasn’t alone.   That even when his friends left him, he still had Jesus there to bring peace to his heart and forgiveness as its best desire.

We’re in that same boat, you know.  We are given to thinking we’re all alone, certain that the world is set against us and that only disaster and despair are ahead.   Yet it’s a mirage; it’s an exaggeration of our circumstances; hyperbole.   We are never all alone, even when we feel alone.   Stephen wasn’t.   Paul wasn’t.   You aren’t; I’m not.  Even in the worst day, Jesus endures with us, giving us strength to pray for the forgiveness of others.

For further reading:  Acts 7:60, 2 Timothy 4:17

Lord Christ, forgive, uphold, restore, and enrich those who would hurt me today.   Grant them and myself Your peace.

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.

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.