To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.
1 Corinthians 9:20-23
Paul was a Jew. To remain there would have been more comfortable. It would have been familiar. But, Paul knew he had a call from God to reach out beyond the community with which he identified. After encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus, he was given a new mission. Paul was going to reach out to non-Jews, the Gentiles, to bring to them the good news of Jesus Christ.
He didn’t leave behind his Jewish brothers and sisters. He still appeared in the synagogues teaching, he still taught from the scriptures of what we now call the Old Testament, and he did all he could in order to “win Jews.”
But he worked hard to be able to build a bridge to another group of people. He needed to learn a new language and interact with a new culture. Paul worked tirelessly in following his calling to reach the Gentiles. And he does it all for the sake of the gospel.
Can you imagine putting in the the time it takes to learn a new language in order to follow the call of God in your life? Or how about giving up whatever strength we have in order to meet people in their weakness? He does it all to better reach them with the gospel.
This pattern that Paul follows is the one set forth by Jesus Christ. God came to humanity and became human. Jesus took on flesh, lived a life just us, endured temptation, humbled himself, faced persecution, and he did it all so that he may make for himself a people.
What do we give up to identify with someone God is calling us to serve? What are we willing to change? Is the goal of bringing the gospel to more people so captivating that we’d even consider changing?
Let’s not lose sight of Jesus in all this talk of Christian freedom and responsibility. Paul has spoken of how we should use our freedom and knowledge to love our brothers and sisters, and at times this leads us to sacrifice our rights.
With this discussion going on, how can we not look to Jesus who has done this for us?
There is one example that overshadows all others when we think of one who gave up his rights in order to love. And he did so to love a bunch of sinners.
Jesus Christ is the only perfect one. He is the only one who lived without fault, without transgression, but the people turned on him. The powers of this world sought to accuse him of wrongdoings. But the innocent one kept silent. The one who is the true judge allowed himself to be judged by sinners.
They took Christ to the cross and Jesus was tempted to call upon his rights. They mocked him saying that if he were really the Son of God, he’d come down from that cross.
But the Son of God, whose right it would be to show his power and judge the world, showed us that he is one who would forgo his right in order to love. Jesus, the strong and faithful, loved his weaker brothers and sisters by giving up his rights, and dying in our place. The strong took the place of the weak.*
*Quote taken from my sermon this last Sunday. Redundancy is the key to learning, right?
Paul continues in chapter nine on the theme of rights and freedoms, and again stresses that in this case he has given up his right. Instead of demanding support from Corinth, he labors for free among them doing so because he is willing to sacrifice his right in order to better preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
As you read chapter eight of 1 Corinthians, keep this short passage in mind. It is the opening two paragraphs from NT Wright’s commentary, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians. As usual, Wright opens with a short anecdote that relates to the passage, in this case about food that is sacrificed to idols and just how prevalent this practice would have been. It provides background on the ancient world that will be helpful for this week’s Bible reading:
There is a restaurant in Rome which is built around the ruins of an old temple. Two of the pillars are still visible. The restaurant makes a feature of them, and is proud of the ancient origins of the building where they now serve excellent pasta, great local cuisine, and fine Italian wines.
But what people don’t normally realize is that in the ancient world the temples normally were the restaurants. Each town or city had plenty of shrines to local gods and goddesses, to the great divinities like Apollo or Venus, and, in Paul’s day, more and more to the Roman emperor and members of his family. And what people mostly did there was to come with animals for sacrifice. When the animal was killed, it would be cooked, and the family (depending on what sort of ritual it was) might have a meal with the meat as the centrepiece. But there was usually more meat than the worshippers could eat, and so other people would come to the temple and share in the food which had been offered to the god.”
When Paul mentions the Passover he is calling to mind one of the defining events for the Jewish people. The final plague of Exodus was to be the death of the firstborns in Egypt, but God’s people are spared because he has made a provision for them. The blood of the firstborns is replaced by the blood of a lamb. Its blood is smeared on the doors of the homes and death passes over God’s people. Paul now says to the church that Christ is this Passover lamb.
But the Passover calls to mind not only the passing over, but also the final deliverance from Egypt. The people were to prepare themselves for on the same night that Israel is passed over and death comes upon many in that land, there were to leave. They need to be ready to go and go quickly. Exodus 12:11 says this:
In this manner you shall eat it: with your belt fastened, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. And you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover.
Having your belt fastened is what is at times translated, “gird up your loins.” The idea behind it is be ready for travel. Don’t let your robes hang low and trip you up as you make your escape. Don’t just have your shoes by the door, put them on. Fasten your belt, tie your shoes laces–in double knots, have your car keys in hand and not on the table. Be ready to go immediately.
This hurry is why they eat the unleavened bread. Israel would have no time for their dough to rise. They needed to make haste.
Then as God had told them, it all comes to pass. Cries went up in the night “for there was not a house where someone was not dead.” Pharaoh summons Moses and Aaron in the night and commands them to go. He says, ““Up, go out from among my people, both you and the people of Israel; and go, serve the Lord, as you have said. Take your flocks and your herds, as you have said, and be gone, and bless me also!”
There is a great urgency for Egypt to rid itself of such a people that have brought God’s judgment upon them. They fear what may come next. So with such urgency in the land, it was in God’s wisdom that he prepared Israel to make haste. This great exodus was no small undertaking and it would have taken much preparation, and God had guided them through it. Here is what happened, beginning in verse 34 of Exodus 12:
So the people took their dough before it was leavened, their kneading bowls being bound up in their cloaks on their shoulders. The people of Israel had also done as Moses told them, for they had asked the Egyptians for silver and gold jewelry and for clothing. And the Lord had given the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. Thus they plundered the Egyptians.
And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children. A mixed multitude also went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds. And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, because they were thrust out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.
The book of Exodus then recounts the length of time that Israel had spent in Egypt, emphasizing the ending of that time and the beginning of a new day for Israel. Now they are freed. Generations of slavery have come to an end. So, when death pases over the people and Pharaoh finally tells Moses and his people, “Go!”, the only proper response is to leave. God did not bring about such a miraculous deliverance for his own people from the great worldly power of Egypt for them to remain in captivity. Israel’s response to God’s work and Pharaoh’s charge cannot be to linger. When Pharaoh says to leave, they shouldn’t say, “Give me a minute.” They can’t stay a moment longer. They can’t remain in slavery. God makes this point when he tells them to prepare themselves and dress appropriately for they won’t even have time for bread to rise. When God makes the way for his people, they must go. He desires to free them from Egypt and deliver them into a land that had been promised to them.
Paul is calling upon this theme of deliverance in 1 Corinthians. When he mentions that Christ is our Passover lamb he wants you to remember the Passover. The Passover is not only the sparing of Israel, it is the catalyst of their freedom. Likewise, Jesus is our sacrifice, sparing us from the consequence of our sin. He has taken the judgment on himself. But this Passover lamb was not sacrificed so that we can now linger in slavery. The church in Corinth is making a mockery of the sacrifice and is misunderstanding freedom in Christ. The arrogant sinning that is going on is nothing but a return to slavery. Paul wants them to understand and then live into a true freedom in Christ. His sacrifice is what brings us freedom to flee from captivity, leaving behind the chains of sin and the dominion of death.
Knowing that Jesus is our Passover, we ought to make haste to flee from sin and rush into his arms. We experience true freedom in him. We know the life we are intended to live when we are in Christ.
Using our freedom in Christ to return to sin is a return to slavery. Rather, just as Israel prepared itself to march out of Egypt into God’s guidance, we too must prepare ourselves. We are called to rid ourselves of such bondage, casting aside whatever weighs us down and entangles us because we have a race before us that we must run (Hebrews 12:1-2). We must be ready for a march into God’s promised land. We have a kingdom to be stewards of in this fallen world. We have a life of freedom that leads not to death, but to newness of life and life everlasting. So in our continuing work to leave the captivity of sin and live the life of a freed people, captive only to the righteousness of God, let us prepare ourselves as we are instructed in Ephesians 6, keeping in mind the way the Israelites were to prepare themselves on the night of their deliverance:
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.
In the opening of Nehemiah hears the sad news of what state Jerusalem is in and in response he weeps and mourns for days. I think if we saw this godly sort of grief happening we might think something was wrong–not with the situation of Jerusalem being in ruin–but rather with Nehemiah. Days of mourning? We might try to tell him to think about something else. Do something to get if of your mind. Don’t be so glum.
But this is not a mourning that bears no fruit. He is deeply affected by the news he has heard and it leads him to action. His sorrow leads him to put everything on the line, going to the king and asking leave to return to Jerusalem. Once there it leads him to repent with his countrymen. It leads him to give generously from his wealth to sustain the building projects. And this is not just a simple construction site. It is full of danger. Nehemiah is moved at this news and does not just write a check and send it off, while staying in safety. He goes to the city and together with the people stands guard against his enemies who intend to attack. To rebuild the walls is not an easy endeavor and it is a dangerous one for all who are involved. God used Nehemiah’s mourning to him to action and sacrifice in order to accomplish God’s will.
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come,and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. Hebrews 6:1-4
I must confess I have slowed in my readings (and writings) of Hebrews this week for two reasons. One – because I was away on study leave enjoying teachings of NT Wright and the beauty of fall in Princeton, NJ. Two – because we began with this extremely troubling passage. I wanted to find some more time this week to study it, but here we are on the eve of week six and I wanted to say something.
It appears as though this passage is saying that someone can come to Christ, be “saved”, and then fall away. If this were to happen, there’s no turning back. Almost like saying you can come and be forgiven for any sin, but only once.
So this is troubling for all the worry it would cause if we can lose our salvation. It would change where I stand before God from solid rock to shifting sand. These verses are also troubling because we read elsewhere passages like (and this is just a small sampling):
My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish;no one will snatch them out of my hand. John 10:27-28
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39
And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6
So how do we reconcile these passages? Some of the ways I’ve seen this described go like this:
This hypothetical person can’t be forgiven because they do not want it. They have turned their back and it isn’t so much that they can’t, but that they won’t be forgiven. This still has the issue of the possibility of falling away, but the argument can then continue by proposing that no one who would turn their back on Christ would have been a true Christian in the first place. The description of being enlightened, tasting heavenly gifts, and so on are descriptions of enjoying certain corporate benefits of the church. Or maybe it is some individual understanding, but it is not the same as being gifted the saving faith in Jesus Christ.
Quick review: So far the possible readings are that you can’t be forgiven because you don’t want it, or (with some possible overlap) that this hypothetical person hasn’t truly fallen away because that’s impossible and they were not a Christian to begin with.
Another take on this passage that tries to hold on to the witness of other parts of Scripture is that this passage is describing a non-sensical if-then statement. If a person were to fall away then for them to repent and come back would mean Christ is recrucified. But Christ can’t be recrucified. Hebrews itself has already talked of Christ’s once for all sacrifice and how his death on the cross was completely sufficient. If that is the case, and he’s now been raised from the dead, how could he and why would he be crucified again? So if Christ can’t be recrucified, such as it is an impossibility, then the circumstances that would lead to it are also an impossibility. If Christ has died for your sins then you would never have need for him to return to the cross again. If you’ve been redeemed, then you can’t reverse the process and this is in fact an argument against the mere possibility of falling away.
Those are some of the interpretations out there. Again, some just read it as though you can lose your salvation. But I don’t believe that God’s plans can be foiled. If he has chosen you and me, then he has the power keep us in his grasp. I wish I had a plainly obvious way of reading this that would just click. We must read Scripture in light of other scripture which can make things complicated But I believe the greater theme is that of God’s sovereignty.
What I do try to take away is a challenge to remain vigilant. We ought to keep ourselves committed to Christ and to following after his call. We need to be ever vigilant, while also resting confidently in the security that the work of our salvation is thankfully a work wholly of God.