“Who is your Brother?

September 22, 2019

Who is My Brother?

Sept. 22. 2019

Scriptures:  Mt.18:15-22, Mt.23:8-12, I Thess.5:11-24

We have recently had very excellent messages on the subjects of “neighbors” and “enemies”, and it would be good to take seriously the challenging conclusion that our assignment with respect to BOTH, if we aim to follow Jesus’ instructions, is actively  to love and serve them BOTH.
This similarity of responsibility renders quite irrelevant  the difficult challenge of deciding which is which, despite the pressure of our surrounding society to categorize nations, groups, or individuals with one or the other of those labels.  Please note that even when the New Testament refers to the destruction of those who choose to oppose Jesus and his Kingdom, that destruction is clearly an act of God – not an assignment delegated to any person, group, or civil authority.

There are two other classes of people, however, to which Scripture also refers: friends, and brothers.
Two Greek words are traditionally translated “friends”, the label chosen by our Quaker neighbors.  One refers primarily to political partisans (like Pilate and Herod), casual companions (children at play), or complaining workers and their boss (in a parable).  The other is an occasional synonym for “neighbors”, family members, or cordial companions.  I think the most significant observation regarding either of these terms is their almost complete disappearance in the New Testament after Pentecost!
After that time, the faithful consistently referred to each other as “brother”, although Jesus himself had started it.  All the synoptic gospels include the scene where he defines his “family” as “those who do the will of God.” (Mt.12:46-50, Mk.3:31-35, Lk.8:19-20) .The word does also still apply to physical family relationships, but from the time when Ananias addressed the newly-enlightened Saul as “Brother”, that was the term of choice among fellow-disciples.
Please remember that, as in many other languages, all nouns have gender, which simply governs the grammatical structure of the word.  (In Greek, for example, “hand” is a feminine word, and “leg” is masculine, regardless of the gender of its possessor.) The masculine gender of the noun adelphos  “brother”  does NOT intend to express the preferential treatment of males, although a feminine form is used when referring specifically to a particular woman.  The lexical point in the use of adelphos is an entirely different level of relationship among people committed to Jesus and his Kingdom.  Modern “translations” changing the term to “friends” in an effort to sound “inclusive” actually do violence to the text.  “Friends” is a much less challenging word.

This usage is not unique to the Christian community:  it is also used of other religious or military associates, and Peter, Paul, and Stephen even used it (in an ethnic sense) to address their hostile Jewish persecutors. However, the vast majority of the New Testament uses refer to committed fellow-disciples.

So, in the words of our favorite teacher, if you did your “homework”, “What did you find?”  Who is your brother?

(Members of the congregation suggested many of the descriptions represented here.)

Except for direct address, the word adelphos is more frequently used in the plural than in the singular.  The instructions in the epistles are addressed to “the brothers at —“(or “the saints at —“, which is always plural – another word worthy of study). The frequent address to “saints and faithful brethren” does not describe two categories of people, but applies two labels to the same groupFaithfulness is a group effort, not the achievement of a lonely hermit on a mountaintop.  Deliberate error or accidental wandering is to be called to attention and corrected by the group, not by some sort of “superiors.”  Jesus’ own instructions in Matthew 18 are an excellent example.  The oldest manuscripts do not include the phrase “against you”, and consequently the reference is to any error on the part of a brother.   Since our language does not distinguish between singular and plural forms of “you”, we fail to recognize that the “you” in v.15 and 16 is singular, but v.17 and 18 are plural.  Consequently, English speaking readers do not realize that the instructions for correction are aimed at the group –the whole local brotherhood — and not a clerical or legal authority!  Notice also that verses 18-20 are NOT a license for judgment, but an assignment for discernment of “what has (already) been decided in heaven”!

Remember that ALL of the epistles – of Paul, Peter, James and John – (except for personal notes to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon)—were written NOT as evangelistic tracts or official assignments, but as instructions for the corporate life to which the recipients –“the brethren” — were already committed.  This makes a HUGE difference in understanding those instructions.  They are addressed to the entire body of folks within the fellowship!
They were never intended to be imposed as laws or rules for society at large. People committed to be citizens of the Kingdom of Jesus are intended to operate differently from their surrounding culture!

Many, if not most, “Christian” groups go off the track toward one extreme or the other:  either, on the one hand,
1. Making political, legal and/or behavioral demands of people who are NOT committed to Kingdom-style brotherhood, or on the other, 2. Being hesitant, unwilling, or afraid to hold each other accountable to the New Testament.

We need to realize that the culture in which we live bears much greater similarity to the oppressive and licentious first-century Roman Empire than we like to admit — and 2000 years later, faithfulness to the standard described in the New Testament still requires greater departure from “accepted norms” than most folks are willing to recognize.

This is obvious in I Corinthians 5 and 6 – a subject much too large for inclusion here, except to note that all the instructions are plural –to the committed brotherhood,  not to any individual, and that the subject of intimate behavior is not infrequent in the epistles.  The point here is
1.  Paul expresses shock that behavior that “even the pagans” would not approve, is being condoned, and strongly urges correction.
2. He later (II Cor.2) commends the group for the success of their adoption of his suggested discipline
3. and urges that the repentant individual be restored and welcomed back into the fellowship.
It is assumed that within a faithful community, different standards apply.

The world hasn’t changed much, has it? And Jesus’ people are still called to support each other in a different way of life.

From the very early years, this has been a challenge.  As the message of Jesus’ Kingdom spread and folks of Gentile background and culture responded to it, a need was perceived to indoctrinate them into all the technicalities of the Jewish Law.  (A possible parallel to the present-day requirement of a “statement of doctrine”?)  The “conference” assembled at Jerusalem included, according to Acts 15, (v.4) “the church, and the apostles, and elders.”  A heated discussion ensued, and the (plural) apostles and elders made suggestions to the larger group.  The result was a response in a letter which detailed that “having come to one mind,” the apostles, elders, and the whole church had agreed that only those things associated with the Gentiles’ former idolatry needed to be addressed:  “blood, strangled things, and perversion,” adding, “if you keep yourselves from these things, you will do well.” (v.29).
Notice that this was not a decree from a hierarchy.  It was a conclusion reached “after the multitude had stopped arguing and listened” (v.12), and affirmed, “It seemed right to the apostles and elders and the whole church.”(v.22)
And (v.31) the letter was received “with great joy!”

The instructions to the congregation at Thessalonica are all likewise addressed in the plural.
It would be interesting (and a healthy exercise) to examine more closely each of the situations in the New Testament where differences had to be settled – and there were many!  Recognized leaders indeed facilitated some (not all) of them, but they themselves were also subject to correction.  See the encounter between Peter and Paul in Galatians 2.

It is true that Peter initiated the idea in Ac.1 to replace Judas with Matthias – but then we never hear of him again.
When people were needed to care for the indigent, (Acts 6), the apostles passed the responsibility for choosing them back to the folks who had perceived the need.
When Agabus, who had a reputation for responsible prophecy, spoke of an impending famine, (Ac.11) “some of the disciples” instigated a relief effort. ( Perhaps we should undertake a similar study of “disciples”.)
After Stephen’s martyrdom, (Ac.8), “those who were scattered went around preaching the Word.”
When Apollos (Ac.18) was preaching in Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila took on the task of correcting some of his errors, after which “the brethren” commended him for further work.

So “Who is my brother?”  Anyone and everyone who is serious about faithfulness to the Lord Jesus.
“Brother” is the highest – and ONLY – title legitimately applied to any follower of Jesus, according to his own instructions in Mt.23:8.
As members of Jesus’ own family, defined in all three synoptic gospels (Mt.12:46-50, Mk.3:31-35, Lk.8:19-20) no longer as only one’s physical family, but including all those who choose to obey, we belong to each other in unique and wonderful ways!  Brothers do not always agree:  but there is a bond, nevertheless — and also often a family resemblance!

Our job is to serve each other, encourage each other, correct each other, challenge each other to greater faithfulness, and support each other in those efforts.

May we do so in faithfulness!


An Institution,or a Body? Conformed, or Transformed?

June 23, 2019

References:  Rom.12 and I Cor.12:12-27

Solomon raised a number of excellent and very significant questions in his recent message, regarding the function of a faithful brotherhood in our “modern”, multi-cultural society, all of which I would encourage us to explore carefully.  I hope you all kept the list of concerns that he provided, and that we can take a serious look at some of them together.   Far too often, it is easy to say “That is an excellent point/challenge”, and then go off and forget it in favor of “business as usual”.  That does not enhance our faithfulness.
Today, however, I intend to introduce a parallel question, that is related, but from a slightly different perspective:  “Can a church even become an institution of its surrounding society, and still faithfully represent Jesus?”  This question needs to be raised very deliberately and carefully by any group that intends to take faithfulness seriously and responsibly.

Such a question would not have been an issue at all in the first century church, where “Jesus is Lord” was the only “statement of faith” and where that statement alone frequently resulted in a death sentence.  “Institutionalization” is not an option for a persecuted minority.  It can only emerge from a position of power, or with the permission of people who wield power.

Jesus did not come to start – or to reform – a “religion”, or to establish an institution or a corporation.
Consequently, he never addressed the subject, except to rebuke James and John for their jockeying for positions of honor in his “cabinet” or “Board of Directors”.  “You know as well as I do, that is how the rulers of this world operate,” he explained, “BUT IT SHALL NOT BE THAT WAY AMONG YOU ALL!!!”  Jesus was intending to create something completely DIFFERENT!!

What constitutes the establishment of an institution”’?  It assumes at least four things, each of which is diametrically opposed to Jesus’ positions and principles.  Many, if not most institutions assume:
1. Power in or over (at least a segment of) society at large
2. The ability to make rules or demands of people who have NOT deliberately chosen to be subject to its control
3. Some external and easily defined means of judging who is “in” and who is “out”
4. Somebody (a person or group) “in charge”, to keep things running smoothly and under control.

This last necessitates the creation of a hierarchy, or chain of command:
1. To keep people in line, and to be sure that authority is properly delegated and exercised
2. To define and defend the status quo, and impose it upon everyone
3. To exclude or penalize offenders
4. To direct and regulate both offensive and defensive activity.

A primary concern of any corporate or institutional structure is its own survival and dominance.  This is the polar opposite of Jesus’ concern. There is no record anywhere of his being concerned about survival! You don’t need that if you are confident of resurrection!  The primary concern of his followers, likewise, was not survival, but faithfully to represent him.  Most of them did not survive very long.

The success/survival of an institution depends heavily upon the manipulative skills of its masters, in squashing any opposition, regulating the membership, and maintaining their own position of dominance.  Only from a majority position – a stance at the top of the food chain – is an institution capable of forcibly imposing its standards, not only upon its own adherents, but often upon society at large.  Only from a place of power can a group enforce by legislation what it may have simply failed to teach.  There is no place for any of this, or for coercion of any kind, in the Kingdom of Jesus!

Institutional attempts to define, analyze, and housebreak some sort of “Supreme Being”,  created in the image – or the imagination – of the hierarchy whose power depends upon it , are an exercise in futility, for one simple reason (besides the nonsensical assumption that such a “being” would be “supreme” at all, if it were so subject to the whims of its creators!).  That reason is simply that JESUS IS ALIVE!!!  He cannot be reduced to categories, activities, or principles invented by his own creatures!  He himself is superior to everyone and everything!  It is in Jesus that “all things exist/hold together!”(Col.1:16-17)  The most cursory perusal of the New Testament gospel accounts makes it obvious that Jesus had not the remotest intention of creating an institution! Instead, he chose to create a Body, which he carefully designed to continue the purpose of his own Incarnation – a word that literally derives from “becoming flesh” —  to reveal God’s true being and purpose to the world, by corporately and deliberately demonstrating his attitudes and his practice of life-giving, selfless service. If I may quote Brother Solomon again, “Jesus did not come to tell us what to think, but to show us how to live!  The subsequent functioning of the whole brotherhood, together, as the Body of Christ, is a major theme throughout all of the New Testament writings.

Most germane to the impossibility of an institutional option is Jesus’ explicit prohibition of any attempt to pattern the operation of the Kingdom after the methods and structures of the world, and its obsession with being “in charge”,  needing to regulate the opinions, behavior, or loyalty of its subjects, even though such methods may sometimes appear temporarily to be “successful”.  Paul understood that difference, writing in Romans 12 an eloquent description of the function of the Body, to folks who, living in the seat of the Empire, would have been well (and often painfully) acquainted  with the vagaries of the institutional system under which they suffered.  A Kingdom – a Body—whose only Head was the Lord in whose loving care they had learned to trust, was a prospect to be embraced with great delight and hope!

The value – indeed, the necessity—of the contribution of every faithful member  of the Body (even more specifically outlined in I Corinthians 12-14) was as unfamiliar in the first century as it is in the twenty-first!   This is a culture that does not exist among “the nations of the world” – then or now!  The culture of the Kingdom of Jesus involves a radical difference from ANY culture in the rest of the world – the primary reason being that EVERYONE IS ESSENTIAL!  If you don’t remember anything else that I say today, remember this:  YOU ARE IMPORTANT.  YOU ARE NECESSARY.  YOU ARE NEEDED, if the Body is to function as it should.   But what sort of culture is being advocated and cultivated, when so-called “church leadership” is carefully trained to function as CEO’s, CFO’s, and/or psychological counselors, whose purpose is to maintain, entertain, and regulate the activity of everyone in their assigned institution, rather than as enablers whose responsibility is to encourage and facilitate the unique and necessary contribution to the Body of every faithful person?  The enabler is a rare bird indeed.

I know a young man, deeply committed to the Lord and his ways, who was desirous of serving his people through a health initiative of a denomination to which he had related.  The leader of the project had known and appreciated his skill and faithfulness for a period of years, and requested that he be appointed for service.  That request, however, was denied by their denominational hierarchy, despite his excellent qualifications, simply because of the candidate’s conscientious refusal to sign a detailed “statement of doctrine” that included a number of assertions which, although amply footnoted with carefully arranged and edited “chapter and verse” references, went far beyond any ideas that could responsibly be derived from the New Testament.

Now, it is perfectly reasonable that enlistees in the service of the King be unequivocally committed to him personally, and to the way of life that he advocated and demonstrated.  But if you have carefully consulted Jesus’ teaching in the New Testament, it should be clear that Jesus on no occasion raised any theological or philosophical questions with those whom he called.  He asked only for personal loyalty and obedience.  There is no record of Jesus saying, “Peter, I’d like to borrow your boat, please …but by the way, first you need to sign this statement….”

In fact, most of the issues so adamantly insisted upon by avid “doctrine police” – and yes, by officials in the conference with which your group identifies! – deal with subjects which Jesus either chose not to address at all, or tackled head-on to correct popular misconceptions!  Here is a short list of a few of the “required beliefs” that would peremptorily exclude the Lord Jesus himself from the privilege of service or fellowship!  “Let’s start from the very beginning!”

Please note that I am NOT focusing on the truth or falsehood of any of these ideas:  I am only asking, “What did JESUS say?”

  1. Creation. Neither the Old Testament nor the New (except for editorial footnotes added in the 19th and 20th centuries!) makes ANY statement regarding the “when, where, or how” of creation.  Everyone assumed that “God did it”.  Paul, in Eph.3:9 and Col.1:16, credits Jesus himself as the creator. Jesus himself uses the word only three times:  the discussion in Mt.19:4 and Mk.10:6 regarding the creation of male and female, and Mark’s version of the destruction of Jerusalem.   In the epistles, much more attention is given to the NEW creation, which begins with one’s identification with Christ, and HIS purposes. They didn’t reference the “old” creation at all!
  2. The “inerrancy” of both the Old and New Testaments. Repeatedly, Jesus made serious corrections to the OT – “You have heard it said…But I say unto you…” He consistently referred to “your Law”, and not once to “God’s Law”.  There are six such corrections in Matthew 5 alone, and many more scattered through the Gospel accounts. I would challenge you to count them!  Do you really want to say “Sorry, Jesus – our “doctrine” doesn’t allow that”?
  3. “Original sin”. This extremely prevalent idea is mentioned only once in the entire New Testament – and that was not by Jesus, but by his Pharisee opponents (Jn.6), as they scornfully rebuked a man Jesus had healed as having been “born in sin”. Even Paul, the hero of the “doctrine crowd”, spends the two first whole chapters of Romans, (the letter which folks most love to “cherry-pick” for “proof-texts”) establishing that the depraved condition of people was their deliberate choice, not their original condition.  Jesus himself never mentioned the issue at all.
  4. “Virgin birth”. This one at least is true, being asserted in both Matthew and Luke’s accounts, but Jesus himself never commented at all upon the circumstances of his birth. He repeatedly referred to God as “Father”, but plainly was not overly concerned with his own pedigree. None of the epistles mention it at all.
  5. “Penal Substitutionary Atonement”. This subject was never mentioned by Jesus. When repeatedly challenged on his right to forgive, neither he nor his challengers ever said anything about his death.  It was his identity with God that was – and is — the source of his authority to forgive, and also of the officials’ fury at him.
  6. The “fate” of nonbelievers. At the rare times when Jesus spoke of “eternal consequences” (Mt.25, Jn.5), they were predicated upon the behavior of the people in question. There is no reference to their theological opinions.
    The erroneous translation of the word “pistis“as “faith” – or “pisteuo” as “believe”, has spawned a lot of mistaken creativity.  A more accurate translation would be “faithfulness/loyalty/or trust”.
  7. Jesus’ promised return. Two things –and only two – are certain. 1. He IS coming, to assume his rightful role as King of Kings and Lord of Lords! And  2.  By his own testimony no one knows when that will happen.  Just as significant, and maybe more so, is his explicit warning NOT to follow people who pretend to know the details!

And those are just a few of the most obvious discrepancies.  I stopped at 7 because some folks get all excited about “numbers”, another thing that JESUS NEVER ADDRESSED.  But in light of that record, would the Lord Jesus himself be accepted as a “credentialed leader” in your church?  Very probably not!

Now, please don’t misunderstand.  This is not a call for a totally unregulated situation where everyone is blithely “doing his own thing” and “anything goes”. That would be just as destructive to a true Body as is the dominance of a single individual or group being “in charge”.  Notice the plethora of functions which Paul lists as “gifts” to the church in Romans, Corinthians, and Ephesians.  Not only do these NOT describe a controlling hierarchy, but EVERY SINGLE ASSIGNMENT is mentioned in the PLURAL.  It is only as “we all interact truthfully in love” (Eph.4:15) that we are enabled to “grow up” to perform our intended functions in /as the Body of Christ.

Just as the “institutional model” is dependent upon assumptions, so is the model of the Body.  A few very different principles include:
1. A voluntary association. The Body consists only of those who have freely chosen to participate.  It does NOT impose regulations upon society at large.
2. A deliberate, personal commitment, not to a list of propositions, but to a common purpose, faithfully to represent the presence of the Lord Jesus in the world.
3. A common standard against which to measure both personal and corporate goals, behavior and attitudes: those described and advocated by Jesus and his followers and recorded in the New Testament.
4. An overtly acknowledged willingness to be taught, corrected, and guided by the rest of the Body, with the New Testament as the only standard.

The operation of a Body is not efficient.  In fact, it can be downright messy.  Just look at a few of the things that had to be dealt with in I Cor.6, I Thes.4, II Thes.2, Heb.6, and many others, where moral, cultural, self-centered, or other issues had to be addressed and corrected.  An institution could cope with that sort of thing much more efficiently.  Just eliminate the offending parties.  “My way or the highway”.

But a Body does not amputate a member just because it is injured, or even one that causes an injury.  Only as a very last resort, after all else fails, must a person who refuses correction be excluded.    No institution can operate like that.  Its dominion and success, not to mention the prestige of its “masters”, are at stake!  Institutions depend on either clever human ingenuity and persuasiveness, or brute force and power.  The Body of Christ depends on nothing but the faithfulness of its members – and the power of God.

The life of the Lord Jesus will not flow through a Body whose fragments are all rushing off in different directions, taking their cues from some outstanding “leader” other than its rightful Head.  Neither will his life flow through a Body, most of whose parts are atrophied from disuse.

Until our fellowships are living examples of even former enemies being reconciled together by the resurrection power of God into a loving family

Until every brother and sister is enriched and encouraged by the ministry of every other brother and sister

Until we allow ourselves to be joined together, built together, grow together, into one Body, enhanced by every one of its diverse parts,
We will not, and can not, manifest the life of our Lord to the world that so desperately needs his presence.
We can never do this perfectly – but that is a sad and lame excuse for not trying.

It is long past time for faithful followers of the Lord Jesus to quit sniping at each other over their favorite theological constructs, and get about the business of accurately representing him to a world that so badly needs his touch.


Who is in charge in your church?

March 10, 2019

(A message delivered at our fellowship on March 10, 2019)

Through all the centuries since the first, groups that self-identify as “Christian” have developed many and varied ways of expressing  that identity.  For some, this has resulted in complex, multi-layered hierarchical systems to which all must submit.  For others, assent to detailed “statements of doctrine” or “confessions of faith” are required of adherents.  Some require a highly defined and strictly enforced code of conduct, life-style, or appearance.  And still others pride themselves on “not having rules”.  They do – often very rigid ones:  it’s just harder for an outsider to figure them out!  Virtually all of these are enforced by one or more individuals who are designated by various titles as being “in charge.”

What a contrast with the clear and simple instructions of the Lord whom they claim to represent, recorded in Mt.23:8-10:  “You all are not to be called “rabbi”, for you all have one Teacher and you are all brothers.  And don’t call anyone on earth “Father”, for your one Father is in heaven.  And don’t be called “leaders”, because your one Leader is the Christ!”  Kathegetes, “professor, guide, teacher”, is used only here, in the entire New Testament.  The King James translators called it “master” – which is usually their choice for 7 other, different Greek words, usually referring to a teacher, a supervisor, or the owner of a slave.

This instruction can be confusing to people who are used to competing for positions of power and influence.  We were once privileged to be part of a small group of followers of Jesus who took that admonition of his, very seriously.  It could be quite comical when each of us took a turn at the widely shared task of answering the phone.  More than once a caller would demand, “Please connect me with your minister (or pastor, or whatever his choice of “boss” titles happened to be)”.  It was necessary to ask, “Which one?”, because everyone had a different function!  The caller usually replied irritably, “I want to talk to the man who is in charge!”   “Well, that depends on your concern:  we all share different responsibilities!”  Sadly, the caller would occasionally slam down the phone, rather than make his request known to a person he perceived as “ONLY” the secretary!  He might have been talking to the very person he needed!
This sort of “organization” (loosely defined), was, however, completely in harmony with the history of that group, although we never saw it observed anywhere else.  In the mid 1700’s, when the Brethren came to “Penn’s Colony” as refugees, Ben Franklin asked them for a list of their officials, and a statement of their “doctrine”, in order to register them officially as a “church”.  Politely, but adamantly, they refused, with the statement, “We subscribe to no creed but the New Testament, and acknowledge no superior but our Lord, Jesus Christ!”  I will sign that statement any day – but no other!

Is this not exactly the sort of “organization” that Paul describes in Eph.4:7-16?  As is frequently the case, most English translators have ignored the very clear fact that there are two different words in v.7 and v.8, both of which they have rendered as “gifts”.  In v.7, Paul uses the word “ charis “  — more frequently (and accurately) translated “grace”, singular in form, which is indeed given individually “to each one”.  But for the specific, plural enablements or responsibilities in the brotherhood, he uses the more specific, plural word, “domata”, “gifts”. These are given TO the brotherhood, THROUGH each person!  From that point on in the passage, everything is expressed in the plural. Particular “gifts” are assigned by Jesus, and mediated through each person, to the entire group, in order “to make everyone complete”, to “grow up”, in order that the Body may function properly!  YOU DO NOT “HAVE” A GIFT.  YOU ARE a gift, to the brotherhood to which you are committed!  And you may have to serve different functions at different times, as need arises.

It would be an excellent exercise for any/every group of the Lord’s people to work together to discern from the New Testament the proper function of each of these folks who are God’s gifts to the Body.   It would be an easy project to do as a group, simply to identify the “jobs” called for, here and elsewhere in the New Testament, and the people and the qualifications needed, by examining together each use of each word or function, in the New Testament. We would be happy to facilitate such an effort.
Here is a brief, but very incomplete summary of the functions that are needed, in any – really every – congregation – including ours!  It should be fleshed-out by careful congregational study.

  1. Apostles.
    Some of the references to apostles appear to be to the original (remaining) eleven disciples who had traveled with Jesus, but that is not an exclusive label. The literal meaning of the word refers to anyone, or anything, sent anywhere, for any reason! The verb form is used for everything from the “sending” of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, to Jesus promising to “send back” the donkey he borrowed for Palm Sunday! (Not exactly a symbol of elevated status!)  In Acts, and the epistles, the noun (personal) reference is frequently to the individuals who had initially introduced the message of Jesus to a particular group, so the fact  that they are  listed first is clearly chronological, not a matter of status.  Some of them shared a mediator role with “elders” at the Jerusalem Conference (Ac.15); others furnished support to new congregations by occasional visits, correcting errors or mediating disagreements. Apostles were usually itinerant, not identified with a single group or location, unlike the elders, with whom they frequently shared responsibility.
  2. Elders
    Elders are not mentioned in the Ephesians list, but the missionary apostles (like Timothy and Titus) were repeatedly encouraged to appoint trustworthy “elders” (always plural) in each congregation. The word “elder” (presbuter) appears in both genders. “Elders” are both male and female. Although traditional translators have often substituted “wives” for the feminine form of the word, there is no such distinction in the text. Translators have distorted the picture. The word simply means “old people”.  Elders were assigned advisory duties in each congregation, sometimes called upon to act as overseers, “shepherds” (the word that some translators changed to an “office” of “pastors,”), and teachers.
  3. Prophets
    These are also nearly always plural, although they may also “label” an individual who frequently and faithfully exercised that function, like Philip’s daughters (Ac.21:9), and Agabus (Ac.11:28 and 21:10). Their “job”, according to I Cor.14, is to “speak to people for edification, admonition, and encouragement.” They were entrusted to deliver a direct message from God for a particular situation: the relief of famine victims, warning of dangers, instructions for action, etc.
    This passage is often avoided because some people have problems with its secondary reference to the use of “tongues” – which, although worthy of serious attention, is beyond the scope of this study.  But ignoring the whole chapter because one aspect is occasionally abused, has robbed the church of a desperately needed resource.  After trying to correct what were probably genuine abuses among that particular group, Paul asserts plainly, (I Cor.14:31), “You can ALL prophesy in turn, in order that ALL may learn, and ALL may be encouraged!”   Are there any among us so mature, that we no longer need to learn and to be encouraged?
    Also overlooked is the admonition that when a prophet speaks, the rest are instructed to JUDGE whether the message is indeed from the Lord!  “Judging” is NOT a “nasty wordor a bad attitude, but a necessary safety precaution, entrusted to the whole Body of the faithful!  Prophecy is NOT a free-for-all, and judging it is NOT the job of someone designated as a “superior” or a “credentialed leader”.  Both are tasks assigned to the whole congregation of committed people.
  4. Evangelists
    You may be as surprised as I was to see that this word appears in the New Testament only three times! It is used here, and also of Timothy and Philip once each. It is a function, not a title, and refers to a “bearer of GOOD NEWS”. In the secular culture, it was used of a herald bringing news of a victory in a battle! There is absolutely NO New Testament connection to the “fire and brimstone” that carries that label in modern times.  Look it up!  Better yet, look at ALL the references to the word “gospel”!
  5. Shepherds and teachers
    These are primarily local. ALL ARE PLURAL, and all are functions of the elders.Notice that there are no “priests” on the list.  That designation belonged to the Old Covenant, not the New.  Priests, with a few exceptions, were antagonistic to Jesus and his message!  The proclamation of the Kingdom was – and IS– the responsibility of EVERY citizen!  In fact, Peter (I Pet.2:5 and 9) asserts that ALL of us who belong to Jesus comprise a “holy” and “royal” priesthood!
    The so-called “Great Commission”, Jesus’ parting instructions in Mt.28, although originally addressed to the eleven remaining disciples, have been subsequently expanded by his followers to include all the faithful – but they have been followed only PARTLY.   Jesus assigned them (us?) three tasks: to make disciples, to baptize, and to teach! Have you ever seen that fully in practice?  Check it out!  Jesus prescribed NO OFFICIAL POSITIONS as a prerequisite for ANY of his instructions! !  Why, then, do we assume that some things require “clergy” – a word that NEVER appears in the New Testament?
  6. Servants/deacons
    This word, diakonos, -e  , from which the English word “deacon” is derived, also occurs in both genders, and refers to ANY people rendering ANY kind of service to ANYONE, from preparing and serving a meal, to carrying a relief-offering to famine-stricken brethren.  New Testament references include Peter’s mother-in-law, the women who traveled with Jesus and his disciples “ministering to their needs”, the 7 appointees in Ac.6 looking out for the widows, as well as those mentioned in epistles: Timothy, Erastus, Epaphras, Steven’s household, Phoebe, Onesimus, Mary and Martha, and many others.

Every one of these categories includes far more (of both responsibilities and people!) than time allows in one session.  I would strongly encourage that we undertake a  very careful study in order to be sure that ALL OF THESE are sought, welcomed, included, and heeded in our fellowship – remembering the responsibility of the WHOLE BODY to “JUDGE”/evaluate each one’s work, to assure that we are led in faithfulness.

Please notice also that NONE OF THESE WERE “HIRED” for a job, from either inside or outside of any local group.

So who is – or ought to be – “in charge” here?
Hopefully, Jesus – through his Holy Spirit, speaking TO and THROUGH ALL OF US who are committed to carefully discerning and following his instructions!


The most neglected message of the Christmas season: “Fear not!”

December 23, 2018

This was presented to our fellowship this morning.

“Fear Not!”

The Most Neglected Message of the Season

It has long been customary, among churches that define themselves by the careful observance of “doctrines” to which their adherents are required to subscribe, to create an especially obligatory “sacred” atmosphere around certain “seasons” representing particular segments of their perceived history.  Other, less formal assemblies (who are just as concerned with being faithful) have chosen to emphasize some of these “seasons” or “feasts”, as they are called, and to minimize or ignore others.  And some, who do not enjoy – or who even take offense at – what they call “pageantry”, ignore it altogether. (Did you know, for example, that celebrating “Christmas” was illegal in Puritan New England?  They objected to the suffix, “-mas”, because it was derived from the Catholic observance of the “Mass”.)
It is difficult to find specific Scriptural instructions either for or against any of these positions, so I am not concerned this morning either to attack or to defend any of them.

The celebration of Christmas, supposedly the time of Jesus’ birth, is one of many groups’ favorites. Setting aside the strong probability that this actually happened in the spring, and not mid- winter at all, I do, however, find their choice of “words” to emphasize at this time of year quite seriously lacking.  One can easily wax eloquent about such ideas as “light, hope, faith, love, peace,” and other similarly idealistic topics – and none of these is “wrong”.  All are quite legitimate ideas to promote – at any season.

But I would prefer today to direct your attention to one of the most common admonitions, both by Jesus himself, and by the earlier “messengers”, both human and super-human, who announced his coming, but which is almost universally ignored by people who claim to represent him, and which I have never found on any list of “Advent” topics.

That message is “FEAR NOT!” – “Don’t be afraid!!!”  And is there any message that this sad world needs more than that?

Of all the imperatives in the New Testament, it may well be that this one stands in the sharpest contrast to the voices that constantly bombard our consciousness.  Economic, political, medical, social, and yes, even “religious” spokesmen, of every persuasion, assault their already apprehensive audiences with the same message:

 “Be afraid!  Be very afraid!”

Jesus, in contrast, as well as virtually all the supernatural participants in his recorded history, consistently greet despairing, worried or startled people with a reassuring, “Fear not!  DON’T be afraid!”

How have these encouraging words become so universally ignored among people who claim to represent Jesus? Indeed, the students at the “Christian” high school where Aaron taught years ago, overwhelmingly gave “fear of what would happen to me if I did not”, as their primary reason for committing themselves to the Lord!  And a fellow-teacher at that same school, who called himself an “evangelist”, questioned the validity of my own conversion when I said that I had never been “afraid of God,” or of meeting him!  This is not only tragic:  it is an exceedingly shameful misrepresentation of the One who commissioned us to share his “Good News”!  That, by the way, is the literal translation of both “evangel”(Greek) and “gospel” (an old English equivalent).

So let’s look at the New Testament!  That is still, as it always was our best source of information.

Before Jesus was even born, the message predominated:  Fear not!

Please read each of the indicated references as you come to them.

Gabriel’s message, to both Joseph (Mt.1:18-20)

and to Mary (Lk.1:26-32) began with the same admonition:  “Fear NOT!” “Don’t be afraid!”

To the elderly priest, Zachariah, in the temple, (Lk.1:9,11-13) it was the same.  This must have made a strong impression, because look, then, at that gentleman’s response (Lk.1:67, 72-75) at the birth of his own son, who was to be part of the plan! “Enabling God’s people to serve him WITHOUT FEAR!”

Later, the shepherds, frightened by the sudden apparition in their peaceful fields, got the same message (Lk.2:8-10)

During Jesus’ ministry, the same refrain keeps repeating – we will just pick a few of the many incidents:

Mk.4:35-40 – the storm at sea.
Another storm story appears in three of the gospels:  Mt.14, Mk.6, and Jn.6 – the account of Jesus, who, rather than taking a much-deserved nap, had been left behind, and came walking toward them on the water.  The disciples are terrified at the sight, but his greeting combines two of his “trademark” statements:  “Don’t be afraid” and “I AM.”  This latter phrase deserves a whole study of its own – suffice it here to say that it is Jesus’ common statement of his identity with the Father, using God’s Burning Bush statement to Moses, which was forbidden to ordinary people.

Luke chose to highlight a different encounter on the lake, one that contemporary “evangelists” would do well to imitate.    Lk.5:4-11 describes an “ordinary” fishing trip that turned out anything but ordinary!
Overwhelmed by the huge catch of fish, (Quite an extravagant “thanks for the use of your boat”!) Peter reacted in the way too many preachers expect (or demand) of their hearers:  “Leave me, Lord, I’m a no-good sinner!”  But far from pouncing on that “confession” and flogging him with it (notice:  that was Peter’s diagnosis, not the Lord’s), Jesus replied, more in keeping with his own consistent character, “Don’t be afraid”, Peter:  I have a job for you!”  What a gracious welcome!

Lk.8:49-54 – describes an interrupted “healing” trip, where the interruption did not prevent his ministry to either need.

Interestingly, all the accounts of Jesus’ Transfiguration, which understandably “spooked out” the watching disciples, also record the antidote for their fear:  “Listen to him!” (Mt.17:5-8).  If we listen / pay attention to Jesus, fear must take a permanent back seat!

Even when he is warning them about the very real dangers of their mission, the accounts in both Matthew and Luke are peppered with “don’t be afraid!

And as the amazed disciples stood in wonder staring at the empty tomb, the heavenly messenger had exactly the same message:  “Don’t be afraid!”  (Mt.28:1-10).

It is especially sad when people who trace their beginnings to the Swiss Brethren, one of the first of the Anabaptist groups,  (an original “back to the Bible” movement), fall for a “gospel” of threats and fear – which is no “gospel” at all!  The word means “GOOD news” in sixteenth century English.
A focus on fear is a MAJOR rejection of both the first century church’s attitude and the 16th century Anabaptist principles.  Those early brethren waded INTO fearful situations; they did not threaten others with doom!
Our spiritual ancestors willingly faced burning, drowning, exile, and all sorts of horrible treatment, BECAUSE they espoused a new definition of Christian faithfulness, which had no connection whatever to any dogmas compiled by hierarchical officials, be they ecclesiastical or political.

Several historical scholars have summarized this definition to include:

1. Discipleship. The classic statement was “No one can truly know Christ except he follow him in life.”
2. A voluntary (neither automatic nor hereditary) community, deliberately formed by committed adults
3. Study and interpretation of Scripture in the hands of the ENTIRE community (not the clergy: there was no clergy in the first century! “Clergy” was an artifact of the Constantinian alliance between “church and state” – which at the time were allied against those faithful brethren, as they also were in the 16th century.)
4.The priority of the New Testament, with the Old viewed as merely preparatory.

It was, in short, an effort to restore the New Testament Church – according to the pattern of Jesus’ first followers.

After a lengthy series of warnings about the very real perils of the life that he advocated – Jesus concluded with this admonition: (Lk.12:22),
Fear not, little flock:  it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom!”

Please notice something else about this and all of Jesus’ similar instructions: except for those specifically addressed to a particular individual, they are all given in the PLURAL, not singular.  Both fear and confidence are heavily influenced by one’s surroundings. Faithfulness is – and always was – intended to be a group effort, a mutual affair.  Jesus never advocated the introspection of the lonely hermit on a mountaintop.  He both practiced and preached the Kingdom in the messy context of real life.
And in this often very messy context, faithful representation of the Lord Jesus will always seek to alleviate, never to instill fear. Together, people can do a much better job of overcoming their fear, or, if necessary, enduring it.

This poor world has more than enough fear already.  An accurate presentation of “the Gospel” is the same today as it was to the terrified shepherds on the hillside so long ago:
Don’t be afraid!  I am bringing you GOOD NEWS!”

It is a message our world desperately needs. Proclaim it faithfully!

Let our celebration of Jesus this Christmas season – and always – echo his most-often repeated message”

“FEAR NOT!”

Thanks be to God!


Printed copy of the PNT

November 10, 2018

This is a contribution by a reader who kindly suggested making you aware of his success at making a print copy of the Pioneers New Testament. Thanks to Felix for sharing. Please see his comment on the Download the PNT page for more detail.  Here are some photos of the finished product which Felix shared with me:

 


“Why are you here?”

September 9, 2018

This is the message delivered at our small fellowship this morning.  I think it is relevant for a great many groups of the Lord’s followers.

“Why are you here?”

Readings:  Ephesians 4:9-16 and I Corinthians 12

This message grows out of a recent conversation in which a member of our group replied to the question, “When are you going to preach?” by responding that he was not sure he had anything much to say.  I took issue with that:  because I firmly believe that every one of us was put here on purpose.  Every one of you has been brought here for a reason:  because either you are, you know, you have, you understand, or you can do, learn  teach, or become something that the rest of us NEED, in order to function as the Lord intends that we should.

If we seriously call ourselves God’s people, we have work to do.  There is a hurting world to heal and comfort, a Kingdom to be built, realized, and shared, and this can only happen if “every part is working with the strength that God supplies.” 

One of the most common references to the church in the New Testament is “the Body of Christ.”  In addition to the passages already read, Paul wrote to the Colossian church that with Jesus as the Head, “all the Body, supplied through its joints and ligaments, and knit together, grows with a growth that comes from God.”  (Col.2:19). As you know, I do a lot of knitting.  And I know all too well what a mess I have if one stitch is dropped!  The whole thing is ruined!  With Jesus no longer physically present, this is the ONLY way he can be seen by the rest of the world.

The contribution of every part is essential to the growth and function of a body.  By far the most extensive treatment of this topic is found in I Cor.12, which should be the subject of a careful study of its own.  Our human bodies are intricately and carefully designed by their Creator.  Each part has a necessary role to play in order that the whole may function properly.  “You all, then, are the Body of Christ, and individually, you are parts of it.” (v.27). In fact, the choice to be joined to the Body of Christ should be the last individual act of a person’s life.  From then on, he is no longer a separate individual, but a part of a larger whole: the Body of Christ.  Alone, a hand, a foot, an eye, an ear, cannot survive long.  Neither can it fulfill its proper function without the contribution of the rest of the Body.    An individual part can’t even be in a proper relationship with the Head without the necessary connecting parts!  A finger is of no use unless it is attached to a hand, which itself must be attached to an arm, which is utterly dependent upon a shoulder – Were each individual part to be attached directly to the head, the result would not be a Body, but a monstrosity!  “Just Jesus and me” simply does not work.  Only together can God’s people become his presence in the world.

Some of the most detailed instructions in this regard occur in Ephesians 4.  Paul speaks of various functional persons having been given by God to the church:  apostles, prophets, teachers, etc.    He maintains that all of these exist for a single purpose:   “for work of service, and for building the Body of Christ.”  They are neither officials empowered to rule over the rest, nor employees hired to do all the “work of the church.”  They are simply members of the Body, entrusted with the responsibility to lead and facilitate the work of all the others!

Paul also illustrated the indispensability and mutual dependence of every part of the human body in I Cor.12, stressing that no part can claim greater value than another, nor divorce itself from its need for all the rest.   The members of the Body are intended to support, build up, and serve each other. The leadership functions are intended to help them learn to do that.  Notice that these leadership functions are “gifts” given to the church, not to individuals.

The grammatical structure makes this abundantly clear.  Different individuals are “given” to the Body, in order that it may perform necessary functions.  A careful perusal of the end of the I Cor.12 passage makes it obvious that the list Paul provided does NOT represent a hierarchy as some groups assume, but most likely the chronological order of the supply of those functions.  Apostles, for example, were usually the ones who introduced Jesus and his Kingdom to a group.  Prophets then explained and expanded the message, and often suggested practical applications of it (the offering for famine relief, for example) , teachers guided and guarded the flock,  and equipped them for service in the many ways listed – not only to the group, but also to any people in need.

In neither the Ephesians nor the Corinthians passage are “gifts” represented as the possession of the persons exercising them.  Nowhere are they said to have become the “property” of the individuals concerned.  Contrary to popular assumptions, you do not “have” a “gift.” Nobody does.  You ARE a gift to the portion of Jesus’ Body with which you are associated!

There have, on numerous occasions in the history of “churches” and “Christian teaching,” been campaigns in which people are urged/encouraged to identify “their gift” and put it to use in some vague category of “service.”  “Which item on this list are you good at?” can be a very threatening – and exclusionary! — question.   It is usually an attempt to fill some sort of empty “slots” in a predetermined hierarchical structure, and to exclude anything and anyone not already on the agenda.  This is not a New Testament activity.  “Gifts” are elevated or disparaged according to the biases of the “leadership”.  Hapless souls are urged to choose among items on a codified list which is their “gift” as if it were a merit badge of some sort!   Such exercises miss the point completely.  The Biblical message is simply, that in a healthy Body, when a need arises, the Lord has a member of that Body available and empowered to minister to that need.  These are not status symbols, or permanent assignments: they are simply the wherewithal to get a job done!  If the Lord assigns a job outside the Body, He likewise provides one or more members with the ability to accomplish the task.  These empowerments should never be viewed as status symbols or diplomas!!  They are simply a delivery system to bring the power of God to bear upon the human situation!  None of the “gifts” suggest any outstanding merit on the part of the person entrusted to deliver them, any more than the postman is responsible for what you get in the mail!  The “gift” is from the Lord.  The one who receives the “gift” is the person who needed it!  Perhaps the person who delivered it is the “pony express”! Or maybe Fed-X or UPS.

Different individuals may serve different functions at different times.  There is a very good reason why all this discussion leads directly into Paul’s better-known dissertation about “love.”  That’s the only way it works!

The lists of “gifts” in the New Testament differ slightly, and none pretend to be exhaustive.  None of them have anything whatever to do with natural talents nor learned abilities.  They are no more and no less than the supernatural provision of God for the needs of his people.

The manifestation of the Spirit is given to/through each one for everyone’s benefit.”

We are each set in the Body for a particular purpose in the plan of God, for the good of all the members. The Spirit hands out the assignments.  We need only to be available.

Sadly, such usefulness is foreign to the experience of many, if not most, of the Lord’s people, who assume that a single individual needs to be “in charge.”  As in our human bodies, parts that are immobilized or unused eventually become unusable.  Weakness, disease, and even paralysis may result when a member gets no exercise in its intended work.  There are many members in the Body of Christ in dire need of intensive “physical therapy” if they are ever to function as their Lord intends.

There were no bench-warming spectators in the New Testament church.  “Church” was never intended to be a “spectator sport” where the vast majority are not participants but are reduced to being mere observers of a performance by a handful of professionals.  A congregation is NOT an audience! In fact, in the functioning Corinthian church, everyone had so much to contribute that some regulation was necessary, in order that that their contributions could be shared in an orderly manner.  The latter part of I Cor.14 provides a scenario for how this can work.

When the assembly comes together, EVERYONE is expected to bring “a psalm, a teaching, a revelation, a tongue, an interpretation” (v.26).  Instructions are very specific, making provision that everyone’s contribution may be heard. And do not forget (v.29), the admonition that those listening must “judge” what has been said!  Whenever a contribution of any kind is offered!

“For you can all prophesy, one at a time, in order that all may learn and all may be encouraged” (v.31).  Is there any one among us so mature, so complete, that he no longer needs to learn or to be encouraged?  And who is wise enough to predict from which brother or sister the needed lesson or encouragement might proceed?  The emphasis is on the Body’s need for the ministry of EVERY brother and sister!

Perhaps we should set aside an extended time to discern together what each of us has been placed here for!  In the New Testament church, responsibilities were assigned in many different ways.  Here is a quick overview of some of them.

Jesus, of course, personally chose twelve of his disciples, and later 70 more, to whom he delegated the responsibility to “preach the Kingdom” ahead of his own arrival (Lk.10:1).  After Pentecost, his methods were more varied.
Sometimes, as with the early (Ac.3 and 4) accounts of Peter and John, their assignment was simply a case of acting faithfully, when an opportunity arose, on the instructions they had been given years earlier (Lk.9:2, 10:9).

In Ac.6:1-6, the congregation perceived a need, and was instructed to suggest godly individuals to take care of it, who were then “appointed” by the apostles.  Interestingly, at least two of these quickly “outgrew” their original assignment, with Stephen (ch.7) becoming a powerful advocate for “the Way”, and subsequently being martyred, and Philip (ch.8) becoming an itinerant evangelist.
Philip’s case is interesting.  His trip to Samaria may (or may not) have been on his own initiative, but after his successful mission there (8:26), a messenger instructed him to head for the Gaza road, and (v.29) the Spirit directed him to the Ethiopian’s chariot, and then (39-40) even “carried him off” after the assignment was completed!  Perhaps in order to receive a “specific assignment” we need to be busy at the tasks we already perceive!

Ananias, on the other hand, (Ac.9:10-19) is introduced simply as “a certain disciple” – just one of the folks in Damascus.  But the Lord spoke to him directly, in a vision.  And although at first he argued about it, his obedience gifted all the rest of us, down through the centuries, with the ministry of Paul!  We never hear of Ananias again.  He just happened to be listening when the Lord needed to recruit someone.
Peter also was busy (Ac.10) when the Lord directed Cornelius (by means of a “messenger”) to send for him. (A very simple investigation reveals that “messenger” and “angel” are totally random translations of the same word).  Knowing that the assignment would give Peter cultural problems, the Spirit designed an object lesson, as well as explicit directions to respond to the summons.  Wisely, Peter included other brethren as witnesses, who aided in responsibly reporting to challengers, later.
Barnabas (Ac.11:22-26) was sent by the apostles to Antioch, to check out the gathering there.  He had already established a reputation for gracious faithfulness (4:36, 9:27).  He seems to have recruited Saul on his own initiative (v.25).
We are not told how Agabus (Ac.11:28, 21:10) became known as a prophet, but his word was taken seriously by the group at Antioch, who immediately organized famine relief.  Paul later refused his counsel, but his prophecy proved to be correct.

Then of course, there is Saul/Paul.  It is important to note that not all of his instructions were as dramatic as his Damascus Road encounter with Jesus (Ac.9).  I don’t know why so many folks seem to think that is the one that should be normative.  After he was committed to the Lord, it did not require such drastic measures to get his attention!  The congregation at Damascus (9:24-45) sheltered, accepted, and nurtured Saul, and helped him escape the city.  Barnabas enabled his acceptance by the other apostles (v.27). The Holy Spirit spoke to the prayer meeting in Antioch (Ac.13), to commission their first journey, and they were sent out by both the group (v.3) and the Spirit (v.4).  During the trips, however, the “leading” seems to have been more a matter of necessity!  When they were run out of one town, they went on to the next!  The account of the second journey is interesting.  The second trip was undertaken at Paul’s own initiative (Ac.15:36-41), and the Lord is neither blamed nor credited for the argument with Barnabas that resulted in their separation.
Wouldn’t you like to know how they were “forbidden by the Holy Spirit” to preach in Asia, and how “the spirit of Jesus would not allow” their next attempt, to Bithynia?  It was only after these frustrations, that Paul “saw a vision” and his group “concluded that God had called” them to Macedonia.  Interestingly, we are told that it was simply Paul’s annoyance (16:18) that precipitated the healing of the fortune-teller.  Later, another vision reassured him of the Lord’s protection in Corinth.

Honesty requires the conclusion that there are more questions than answers in the latest Acts account. After two years in Ephesus (19:21), Paul “set out in the Spirit” to go through Macedonia and Achaia to Jerusalem.  Both of those are in the opposite direction from Jerusalem.    He was warned of trouble by many brethren (20:22, 21:4, 21:10), but consistently rejected their counsel.  Yet later he took the advice (21:18-26) of the elders in Jerusalem, which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment.  Please note that in no case are any of these decisions attributed to “God’s will”!  It is presented simply as narrative.   Those who claim to explain it as “God’s plan” cannot draw any direct evidence from the New Testament.  It is clear, however, that the power of God was entirely adequate to use what may have been mistakes, or even just stubbornness on the part of his devoted servant Paul, for his good purposes. This should be an encouragement to us all!

Other disciples did allow themselves to be “led” by the counsel of brethren.  Paul recruited both Timothy (Ac.16:3), who was highly recommended by his home congregation, as an assistant and apprentice, and Silas, (Ac.15:40) who shared his second journey.
Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders” (Ac.14:3) in every new congregation, and urged Titus (Tit.1:5) to do likewise.
From Corinth, where he had met and worked with Aquila  and Priscilla (Ac.18:1-3), Paul took them along to Ephesus, (18:18), where they in turn corrected the teaching of Apollos, preparing him for more responsible service, to which the Ephesian brethren subsequently recommended him.

I know this is just a fly-by survey:  the point is, we are all in this game together!  And the Lord graciously manages to make use of our sometimes – or maybe often – bumbling efforts to be faithful.
So we must continually be asking, asking ourselves, and one another, “Why are you/we here?”

What do I need to learn from you or you from me?

What can we do or be together that none of us can do or be alone?

Let’s help each other, both to ask, and to answer, such questions in faithfulness!

 

 


Redemption: “Get-out-of-jail free”, or “Under New Management”?

April 8, 2018

The following was prepared for our small fellowship.  After its presentation, I was severely taken to task for failing to parrot some “doctrines” of a “statement of faith” advocated by a member.  I welcome any New Testament based comments.

Redemption:“Get out of Jail Free” or “Under New Management”?

In spite of the fact that the Easter season, and indeed, every Sunday!, is supposed to celebrate Jesus’ glorious triumph over death by his resurrection, and, as I have pointed out previously, his complete superiority over everything that once separated earnest worshipers from God, demonstrated by the destruction of the temple veil, far too many people still choose to focus most of their attention on self-flagellation for having supposedly “caused” his suffering and death –  often mistakenly calling it “redemption” – despite the fact that JESUS NEVER SAID THAT!  I would challenge anyone to find one single place where he did!  These are entirely separate concepts. The former (the definitive defeat of death and the opening of access to God) are well documented in the gospels and the epistles; and the latter (assuming personal, individual responsibility for causing Jesus’ suffering and death) is completely absent from both gospels and epistles.  I am not quite ready to join the “red-letter Christians” who accept only direct quotations of Jesus, but I do consider those to be of greater authority than anything else.

People exacerbate this problem by continually lamenting what they represent as the dreadful “cost” or “price” of their “redemption”, which they interpret to require yet another mournful excursion into their own “unworthiness” or “sinfulness”, for which the slightest infraction is assumed to “deserve” capital punishment!  I have yet to be shown a single culture in the whole world that imposes a death penalty for every misstep!

This was certainly NEVER the focus of either Jesus or any of the New Testament writers. I think, choosing the most charitable option, that its prevalence probably grows, at least in part, out of at the very least a gross misunderstanding, if not deliberate ignorance, of the original words connected with the concept of “redemption.”  It is my hope that, by considering this topic, we may recover (or discover) some of both the beautiful wonder and the serious responsibility that is implicit in the concept of “redemption”.

In order to do this, it is necessary to correct our understanding of several terms that have been seriously distorted by what passes for “Christian teaching”.
Let’s start with a common phrase that is frequently used of a person who exerts tremendous effort toward a goal – any goal.  When you hear that someone has “given his life” to the pursuit of a cure for a particular disease, do you assume that he died in the course of his work?
Or when an investigator lectures about the scientific, historical or archaeological discoveries to which he has “given his life” – Is he dead?
Then when Jesus clearly states (in Mt.20:28) that his own purpose “to serve, and to give his life as a ransom” is supposed to be a model for the service to one another that he expects of his followers (who at the time of that conversation were jockeying for positions of power and honor), why do you assume that he is referring to his death, instead of to his selfless life?  Context, as usual, is critical to the understanding of any statement.

Similar misunderstandings surround the word translated “redemption” and “ransom” (both of which are used by English translators, to represent the SAME Greek word). Although another word – the one commonly used for the ordinary commerce of buying and selling – occurs in a few places, the principal one is represented by both English translations. Classically, it refers primarily to the ransom of prisoners of war, who had been enslaved by a conquering nation (in this case, Rome), which was common practice in many ancient cultures.

Nobody in the first century had to ask the meaning of the word “slavery” or “slave”.  The concept was painfully familiar.  The word “doulos”, although often translated “servant”, almost always referred to slavery, regardless of whether it described one born into bondage, a person captured as a prisoner of war,  or a child sold by indigent parents.  Slaves were wholly owned possessions of their masters, even though some held positions of great responsibility, or were even officially adopted into the master’s family.  It was also not uncommon for a faithful slave to be set free, either by his master’s generosity, by having earned and purchased his freedom, or by having been “redeemed” or purchased by someone else.

Insight into the varied status and responsibilities of slaves is available throughout the New Testament: for example, notably,
Mt.8:9 – they do what they are told
Mt. 13:27 – they refer problems or uncertainty to the master, and receive instructions, which they are then expected to follow.

There are many others.  I highly recommend to you the exercise of scanning the gospels for other examples.  In doing so, remember that “servant” and “slave” represent the same original word.
Paul makes an eloquent case in Romans 6:16-20 that a person is a servant/slave to whomever or whatever he chooses to obey.  Autonomy is not an option: never was, never will be.

Under Roman law, a redeemed slave could not only gain his freedom, but could even acquire Roman citizenship, which gave him many legal rights and privileges not available to others.
People “redeemed” by Jesus are also eligible for citizenship in his Kingdom!  But sadly, not all accept that generous offer.

Please notice (and confirm by searching the New Testament) that neither slavery nor ransom from that condition has anything whatever to do with “offenses”! People convicted of wrongdoing were beaten, imprisoned, and sometimes executed, but not enslaved. Likewise, it has nothing to do with “sacrifice” – another word, incidentally, which JESUS NEVER USED in reference to himself or to anything he did.  Check it out – using a genuine translation, not a paraphrased version, of the New Testament.  The six uses of the word “sacrifice” in the gospels are never applied to Jesus, and the majority of the uses in the epistles refer to idol worship, or the formerly required Jewish temple rituals.

Notice also that “redemption”, also occasionally represented by the word for simple purchase, does NOT confer total autonomy!  Far from the much-trumpeted concept of escape from the consequences of bad behavior (the “Get out of Jail Free” card in your Monopoly game), “redemption” represents simply a change of ownership: no more and no less.

Here is the beginning of an impressive list of oppressors from which our Lord has “bought” or “redeemed” his people:
Gal.3:13 and 4:5 – the curse and bondage of the Law
Titus 2:14 – ALL lawlessness
1 Peter 1:18 – the empty /futile ways of our ancestors  (the only reference to “blood” – and that is connected to the Passover, the feast of freedom from bondage, and nothing else).
Ephesians 1:7 – our transgressions
Colossians 1:14 – our failures
and you can find many more.  Please note that the latter two, “transgressions” and “failures”, which many people prefer to lump together and label “sins”, (although the New Testament does not), are literally “taken away”, not simply overlooked, and certainly not “forgotten”.

Using slightly different vocabulary, Paul reminds the folks in Colossae, “He (God) has delivered (rescued) us from the power of darkness, and has transplanted us into the Kingdom of his beloved Son!” (1:13)

Those whom Jesus has “redeemed” have been graciously offered citizenship in his Kingdom!  But please remember that citizenship entails BOTH privilege and responsibility.
Paul’s reminder to the Romans, mentioned earlier, is still very much in effect:  we are servants/slaves to whatever power we choose to obey!!

Do not forget that redemption is much more than mere escape from negative things and circumstances! The deliverance described in Col. 1:13 is into the Kingdom of the Son of God!
It includes (Rom.3:24) being made (not merely “considered”) just (which is the same word that some folks call “righteous”), (Rom.8:24) being adopted as sons of God, and having been set apart as the possession of the Lord Jesus (I Cor.1:30 and Eph.1:14),by his seal of ownership, the Holy Spirit, who alone is able to make kingdom living possible for us mere mortals!  It’s about life – not “after you die”!

On a practical level, having been “bought” by our Master, it is reasonable to expect (I Cor.6:30) that we become eager to reflect honor upon him; (I Cor. 7:23) that we refuse to allow ourselves to become enslaved to anything or anyone else; and (II Peter 2:1) that we make every effort not to deny or discredit him in any way.  For all the “redeemed” there is one single assignment:  reflecting, however imperfectly, the whole personality of the One who has redeemed us.  Such an assignment assumes that our lives will be radically altered, in order to represent him correctly and faithfully!

This is a concept that is often ignored in groups today that label themselves “welcoming”.  It is perfectly true that all are indeed welcome, regardless of their previous situation or condition – but all must also be changed! Not a single aspect of our life is exempt!  We are under new management!
The question “Can you be a Christian if you –-?”
(fill in the blank with your currently preferred no-no) is totally irrelevant.

There exists no check-list of qualifications or requirements, after which we can relax. The re-direction of our lives is an assignment that lasts for our entire lifetime! If we choose to accept citizenship in Jesus’ Kingdom, as ransomed, redeemed people, we will NEVER outgrow our need for course-corrections!  Our whole life needs a total overhaul to conform to his ways.  It must be obviously and always “under new management”!

Even if this were “all there is”, the condition of those so “redeemed” would be glorious! But there is more! In Eph.1:4, the Holy Spirit is described as simply the “down-payment” on the inheritance of the folks redeemed from every nation and tongue, to enable our faithfulness until, with those gathered around his throne, we celebrate the final triumph of the King!  What a day that will be!

You may have noticed that there is one question that we have not addressed:  “To whom was the ransom owed or paid?”  This is neither oversight nor deliberate avoidance.  The reason for its lack is simple:  Although centuries of “theologians”, preachers, and teachers of many persuasions have adamantly (and often arrogantly) proclaimed the accuracy of their theories, The New Testament itself does not speak to that issue.  Since this is a New Testament study, I will not presume to do so, either.

Our attention can much more profitably be focused upon faithfully seeking to fulfill the purpose of the One who has redeemed us for himself!

He has graciously provided us with very clear instructions for that effort, the resource of the power of his Holy Spirit to teach and enable us, and the supportive companionship of each other, with whom to learn to demonstrate his style of living, “under new management!”

Thanks be to God!