Committed to Preaching an Offensive Gospel

Paul writes in chapter one about how the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the cross in particular, may be offensive. To some we see it for what it is, the heart of the good news. Others see it as folly, weakness, or a stumbling block to belief.

At times people may desire to overcome the offensiveness of the crucifixion and make the message more appealing to the world. We may even do so with the best of intentions, so that more people may hear the message. But Paul is committed to the message of the cross of Jesus Christ and he will not sugar coat it. He knows that it is a hindrance to Jews and the idea of worshiping an executed criminal is simply absurd to the Greeks. But he can not gloss over the crucifixion.

In our attempts in today’s world to make the message of Jesus Christ more “relevant” or sensitive to our modern culture, we cannot lose sight of what we preach. God is pleased to save those who believe through a foolish message. We ought not water it down for in so doing we will lose its fullness. The cross of Christ may offend. A gospel of grace–as wonderful and freeing as it is for believers–is not always accepted as good news. But we must trust in God’s wisdom and in his message, not concerning ourselves with whether we appear as fools to this world.

Paul, a very educated and eloquent man, did not seek to sidestep that which he knew would cause problems for his readers and listeners with lofty speech and convincing rhetoric. I’m sure he could’ve concocted a message that would be far more appealing. But Paul had no desire to merely entertain. No he decided to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified.

God’s Calling in 1 Corinthians 1

Calling on Jesus

Exciting discussion occurred around my breakfast table this morning–which is a relative term since I’m not that excitable early in the day. But my wife and I were talking about the different ways to translate the opening lines, and in particular, the way in which the word “call” or “called” is used.

In this week’s reading I counted four instances of the word and three of them fall in the first two verses. From the ESV here are verses with the words bolded:

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes.
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours…

Ken Bailey translates this differently, keeping the calling as something God does throughout, which changes the last phrase to:

…Together with all those who are called by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

This use of “called” is not quite the way someone is “called” Harry in the UK (ie. the way we use “named” in the US). But according to Bailey, it’s not so far off. Being called by the name of Jesus is an action that claims us as belonging not to ourselves, but to our Lord Jesus Christ, for “God’s name is called upon the things that belong to God, be they objects like temples, or people.”1

Either way, the calling is a meaningful action. It is God’s calling to himself a people, calling them to be his own in Jesus Christ. This is God’s action, graciously taking a divided, sinful people and making them into his church. This is God finding a villain to the early disciples, Saul, and calling him to now be an apostle of Jesus Christ, Paul. It is God calling us to take part in the story of Jesus Christ.

Whether one translation is better than the other does not keep us from seeing that in these verses we find that our identity is founded in Jesus Christ and thanks be to God for such a call. Paul wants our attention turned to Jesus and his opening is all about Jesus–just take note of how often his name is repeated in this chapter. And now we are to be about him and our calling on him is all it takes to bind the church in Corinth with saints in every place. This introduction reminds us that it is less about us and more about the one who has called us, sanctifies us, and blesses us in Christ Jesus, our Lord.

  1. Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Middle Eastern Eyes, 60. ↩

A Book of Grace

Mr. T says, “I Pity the Foolish Galatians”

Paul’s style throughout Galatians is great. He has been a servant of Jesus Christ for years but still writes with such passion and urgency as if he is just coming back from meeting Christ on the way to Damascus. He knows what is at stake with the churches in Galatia who have fallen prey to false teachers and have subsequently turned from the gospel, and in so doing, have turned from the one who has called them.

He make God’s grace an emphasis of the letter–that God has called us, that Christ gave himself for our sins, that he has delivered us, and that any work that is required of us has been accomplished, therefore our works can not contribute to our being saved. He emphasizes grace through and through. Sometimes it is bold and confrontational as he challenges these churches, like when he quickly jumps into the meat of the letter with words like “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ” or when he calls them “fools” for now trying to bring in some sort of works righteousness into a gospel of grace.

But sometimes his lifting up of God’s grace, his movement to us and for us when we cannot merit it, is more subtle. It sounds almost offhanded in 4:9. Paul writes about the difference between where we all once were, enslaved to false gods, compared to being heirs of God. He writes, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, who slaves you want to be once more?”

I love this verse. We are reminded even in knowing God that he has initiated. He is the one who has begun all things and he is also the one who has done all things for us. We have not come to know God, but to be known by him. How humbling is the verse, and for that matter, this whole book? We can never measure up to God nor can we ever merit his love. But he has called us by name, he has made us his own. Because of the death of Jesus Christ we can be freed from slavery to false gods and embrace the free grace of God.

Kicking Off Quarter Two, Week One

Year in the Bible, the BIG story so far

Today we had a lunch after church to celebrate the end of our first quarter of Year in the Bible. Looking back it is a great amount of reading that has been finished and so many of the big stories of the Bible have been covered. You’ve really accomplished a lot in just a few months.

Noah Ark – One of the many well-known stories of quarter one.

We’ve gone from creation to God’s people readying themselves to enter the promised land. In between God has shown himself to be faithful and true, strong and mighty, full of grace and mercy, as well a God of judgment who does not tolerate sin. God has chosen a people for himself, beginning with Abraham, and has provided all that was needed. But God’s provision and sufficiency ironically never seem like enough and Israel always turns away. God meets this faithlessness with his grace. There is judgment, like 40 years of wandering, but God never ceases being a God for us.

God is never revealed more clearly as for us than in Jesus Christ, of whom we read about in the New Testament. We read John and Luke who present to the reader the gospel, and that is the story of Jesus Christ. God is for us and has stopped at nothing to make us his own, and this means that God came to earth in Jesus Christ and took our sin upon himself, dying the death that we deserve, so that we can be reconciled. Now we a sinful people can be with a holy God.

In response to such an amazing, world-changing event, the lives of the disciples of Christ can never be the same. In the book of Acts we see the way in which the church exists in light of the death and resurrection of Christ, as empowered by his Spirit.

Now in quarter two we take up both of these strands and follow the story further along. The promised land, which has been held out before Israel, is finally occupied in the book of Joshua. We’ll then see Israel move from prophets and judges to a nation that wants and gets a king for itself, just like all the other nations. This summer quarter will also give us a chance to read all of the minor prophets who speak against the nation, calling for its people to return to God and to his ways.

The church that finds its footing in the Roman empire is still in need of help and encouragement and we’ll read many letters that were circulated to do just that. These are the letters of Paul and Peter, who sought to build up the people and strengthen the small group of believers who would one day rise up from under the oppression of a hostile culture to be a force for the kingdom of God.

That’s what we’ll have to look forward to this summer quarter of Year in the Bible, starting this week. Hope you can stay with it. I’ll be praying for you and for your time spent with God in his word.

Spring Cleaning

Mr. Clean, a levite?

There is a great concern in Leviticus for cleanliness and purity. There are sacrifices in order to be cleansed from sin and long lists of actions that are clean or unclean. An important role of the levitical priests is to help the people determine clean from unclean. Their job starts to sound like that of a doctor with all the descriptions of examining skin and sores and making appointments for follow up visits. I for one am glad my job description as pastor does not include diagnosing leprosy.

What is fascinating is that there is no great divide between physical cleanliness and what could be called moral cleanliness. God’s law for the priests is concerned with his people being clean in every way. This is not the way we tend to think today. If you were to go to church and hear a sermon about being clean, you might expect it to be entirely about spiritual things, things like prayer and confession, attitudes and motives, sin and morals. But you might be caught off guard if the preacher then spoke about toilet bowl cleaner, vacuuming, drinking enough water, and exercising. That stuff is physical, not spiritual, right? Why would the church care about whether my body or house is in order?

But it is a modern notion to completely cut off the physical from the spiritual. And it is foolishness to think that what we do with the body has no bearing on the spirit. We see in Leviticus that God cares about the wellness of his people in every area of life. And God does the same now. He doesn’t care about just a bit of our life. God cares about all of us, more than we can imagine.

I’m not saying God cares more that you eat wheat grass and work out two hours a day than he does that you love him and love your neighbor. But there is not one inch of our lives, as seemingly insignificant as they may seem in the grand scheme of human history, that our God isn’t concerned about. His love and care extend beyond Sunday mornings and beyond church doors. He follows you into the workplace and in the home, morning, noon, and night.

To be clean is a whole life commitment. This perspective demands more and is difficult, but be comforted knowing that God has always provided ways for forgiveness and cleansing. Ultimately it is only God who can make us clean. By the blood of Jesus Christ are our sins washed way.

Abundant Life is Not Abundant Possessions

The section we read this week from Luke dealt with possessions in a few different ways. Jesus asks his twelve to go out to proclaim the kingdom of God and tells them to leave behind your possessions–no staff, no bag, no money. When later in chapter ten Jesus sends out seventy-two, his instructions are very similar. He sends them out carrying no stuff.

The Rich Fool thinks swimming in solid gold is a pleasurable experience.

Chapter twelve has the parable of the rich fool, who puts so much stock in what he has today, but forgets that he has no guarantee of his future. The fool puts his present day in order neglecting the eternal and is called out as God says, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”

This goes along with the sentiment, “you can’t take it with you.” Why invest so much in what cannot last? Why worry yourselves about things that will perish, while all the while neglecting what will last forever?

The warning is against those who lay up treasure for themselves and are not rich toward God. Being rich toward God matters far more than any other so-called riches, for as it says earlier in the chapter, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Instead we have life and abundance in Jesus Christ. He says in John 10, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

If abundant life is what we seek, we are better to look beyond our stuff. We should look to Christ and set our minds on things that are above, where Christ is, and not to things on earth (Col 3:1-2). Only in that relationship will we be satisfied. That relationship is what lasts and is of eternal value.