Christianity 201

November 7, 2021

Praying for What We’ve Already Been Given

The decade from 2007 to 2016 was a golden age for Christian blogs. One of ones we visited three times year, and linked to many times at Thinking Out Loud was Parking Space 23. Today we went back for a visit and found that they were still active until this spring when this piece by Jason Vaughn appeared. Click the link below to read directly.

Pray for What We Own Already

Paul’s first prayer in Ephesians really intrigues me. Compare what he prays for with commonly heard prayer requests. When I say, how can I pray for you, what do we often respond with? We mention issues, situations, or desired outcomes. This isn’t wrong. To clarify please do not feel guilty for asking for specific issues you want others to pray for. Instead, I propose some additional content to be added to our prayers on behalf of your church family, family, coworkers, and ourselves. Paul’s prayer, inspired by the Holy Spirit, allows us a glimpse into the apostle’s concern.

As Paul writes to the church, he thanks the Lord for this congregation and records how he prays. He says,

ESV.Eph.1.15 “For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you and your love for all the saints, 16 do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers; 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might 20 which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”

The testimony of the church leads him to give thanks. This is a church exhibiting faith in Christ and love for one another. These two attributes only exist through the work of the Holy Spirit, so thanking our Lord proves appropriate and gives Him the honor He is due. But then he reveals how he constantly prays, “that [our Lord] would give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him . . . the eyes of your heart may be enlightened” (1:17-18). Emphatically Paul asks God for the church to understand the revelation our Lord gives to us. He wants believers to know God. He wants God to grant us understanding of Him.

It is not enough for Paul that we be empowered to just live rightfully, but that we think rightfully too. (Paul doesn’t pit these against each other, ever. Instead he sees them as a married couple holding hands walking together). But what is it we should know? He lists three facts he wants us to understand: 1. To know the hope of His calling 2. the riches of the glory of His inheritance and 3. His surpassing greatness of His power brought about in Christ! (His resurrection, ascension and sovereignty, and headship over the church).

The familiar reader of Ephesians will note Paul addressed the first two points in 1:3-14. Herein lies a key observation. Paul wants the church to know and understand what we already have in Christ. The opening paragraph explains what we have in Christ, “every spiritual blessing.” (1:3) He does not hope we gain these truths nor do these truths only exist if we know or understand them. Instead, whether we understand them or not, if you are a believer, these truth do exist! It’s like buying a used car and you made this choice because of make, model, engine, and reliability, then as you drive the car you start to discover all the cool features, secret cup holders, bluetooth, and other neat features. You already owned them, but you did not know you owned them. This is exactly what Paul prays for. He wants us to understand what is true about us in Christ! It is lamentable to think about how many people have passed away on earth to only discover in the presence of God what he or she really had in Christ. Paul wants us to know this today!

When he says, “You will know the hope of his calling” he really means, He wants us to know and understand what we have in Christ. “The hope of his calling” was already explained in 1:3-14 and should draw us back to remember that amazing introductory paragraph. What is the hope our calling we have in Christ? It can be summarized simply — that we are “in Christ!” But Paul mentions six blessings regarding what it means to be in Christ. These are “the hope of our calling” and the “spiritual blessings” every believer has — not earned!

  1. “That we would be holy and blameless before Him” (1:4) For every believer this is a relief! We know we are sinful, not holy, and cannot save myself. I know that God’s requirement for his children is that I would be holy as He is holy. But unfortunately I cannot do anything to earn or obtain that holiness. But enter God who chose us, His children, to be holy and blameless before the world was even founded!
  2. “Adopted as sons in Jesus Christ” (1:5) Not only have I been made holy, but God adopts me into His family. Believers are children of God, enjoying every promise from God, especially those found in the New Covenant: forgiveness, indwelling Holy Spirit, justified, to know God personally, the hope of the resurrection, and a seat at the banquet table with our Lord Jesus Christ.
  3. “In Him we have redemption” (1:7) God redeemed us, not based on our work, but based on Christ and His work on the cross where God is both just and the justifier. No longer are my sins remembered against me, instead God forgives us. Why? Again, not because we have something that God needs, but rather, “according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us!” (1:7-8). This is humbling, and rightfully so! Hopefully it causes us to give thanks to Him for his mercy and grace!
  4. “He made known to us the mystery of His will” (1:9). This is the right time for our Lord. We know the mystery the prophets looked into, but didn’t know what time Christ would be revealed. Well now, Christ has been revealed and we know the mystery of His will. We live in a great season where Christ has come in the flesh, died, buried, resurrected, and ascended to glory. We no longer have to ask, “When is the Messiah coming.” Instead we already know, He’s come (and will come back again). We walk with a confidence existing only because Christ has conquered death on the cross.
  5. “We were made an inheritance” (1:11). Looking at two sides of the coin. On one side, we are adopted as children. On the other side God made us His inheritance. The covenant keeping Lord made us New Covenant children. We are His chosen ones. We are precious to Him as any good father would be to His children. It’s this truth that allows us to confidently say, “God loves me!”
  6. “You were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise” (1:13). Every believer, each of his children, His inheritance has indwelling him or her, the Holy Spirit. This is a New Covenant promise true for everyone who believes (1:13). The true God, Holy Spirit, indwells us guaranteeing our place in God’s presence around the banquet table!

Every one of these truths is fully true whether we understand them or not. But Paul, with a pastor’s heart wants the church to understand each of these truths. Why? Because there is hope in them! Life can be difficult. Our trials can lead to despondency, despair, and all sorts of difficult emotions. But to live every day understanding these truths are not only true when we have good days, but bad days too, helps us praise and thank our Lord, joining Paul who opens Ephesians with “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” Nothing in this world compares to what I have in Christ. Remembering this spurs us on to honor, thank, and love others regardless of the context, trials, and hardships we deal with daily.

This hope should serve at the core of our thinking and therefore living. As we seek to love our church family, spouse, kids, and everyone God puts around us, we desire each person to know this same hope. Join Paul’s prayer and make sure you add this content to your prayers on behalf of yourself and others. God wants us to know His gifts given to us through Christ.

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May 25, 2020

God Directs Our Paths | Keeping Our First Love

This is our eighth time highlighting the writing of Mark McIntyre at Attempts at Honesty. I love his tag line, “Reflections on the interplay of the Bible and Culture.” That should be where most of us live!

Because these pieces are shorter, today you’re getting a 2-for-1 special! As always, you’re asked to click the article headers below and read these at his site.

Along the right paths

One of the advantages of reading a different version of the Bible, one that you are not familiar with, is that a different reading can trigger an insight that you never saw before.

This happened to me this morning as I read Psalm 23 in the Christian Standard Bible. In that translation the verse 3 reads:

He renews my life;
he leads me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.

Psalm 23:3 (CSB)

I’m not enough of a Hebrew scholar to know if “right paths” or “paths of righteousness” is the better translation. But I am encouraged by the CSB translation.

It is easy to wonder sometimes if we missed a sign post along the way. Things don’t turn out the way we thought they would when we were in high school or college. The actuality may look very different than what we envisioned.

But, David reminds us in this Psalm that God remains the Good Shepherd who guides us and provides for us. If we continue to look to him, especially when circumstances are difficult, we can be assured that he will lead us onto the right path.

From Psalm 23:3, I surmise that the path that we’ve been on has been the right path. We may have needed rescuing after getting lost, but we can trust that God knew about it before hand and despite our foibles has kept us on the correct path.

I will again share my favorite verse in Scripture, Philippians 1:6:

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 (ESV)

If we follow the Good Shepherd we can’t get lost.


You have left your first love

The haunting words of the title of this post are taken from Revelation 2:4 in the middle of Jesus’ message to the Church in Ephesus. The full verse says,

But I have this against you, that you have left your first love.

Revelation 2:4 (NASB)

The message to this church starts off so well. I can visualize the faces of the Ephesians as they first heard the message. I see the barely suppressed smiles as they heard their toil and perseverance praised by their Lord. Image the sense of satisfaction as their diligence in keeping the teaching pure was highlighted along with their willingness and ability to combat error.

There was much good that was going on in this church. But then their satisfaction turned to horror as they heard, “But I have this against you . . .”

They had lost their first love.

How could this happen? How could they be so on track theologically and be so wrong relationally? It is not just an academic question. This is a question that church leaders should be asking in every culture and in every generation because we are prone to repeat this error.

We all have an inner Pharisee that can reshape our thinking and behavior and cause us to repeat the Ephesians’ error. We need to be vigilant to monitor what we do and also be vigilant to know when our motives for doing the right thing become wrong.

There is another danger for us. We are also prone to over correcting and swinging too far the other way. We can be so relational that we don’t offer the confrontation that is necessary to keep the church grounded in a solid understanding of “what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man” (WSC Question 3).

I have been in churches that were so focused on being loving that they allowed error to propagate within the members and did little or nothing to correct it. Lives were damaged as a result of the leaders’ negligence.

Those who over-correct in this way, while claiming love as their motivation have also lost their first love because that love should be focused on the one who is the Truth (John 14:6). Jesus was able to speak the truth at all times and to every person with whom he had contact. He also had the ability to make them feel loved as he did it.

By allowing either extreme to flourish in our churches, we are demonstrating that we have lost our first Love. If we love the one who gives the perfect example of unapologetically standing for the truth of Scripture while at the same time demonstrating love for those he encountered, then we will constantly seek to follow his example and “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15).

I feel led to point out that the “sinners” were the ones that loved Jesus and were permanently changed by that love. The truth was both relational and confrontational.

 

April 19, 2018

Utter Mess, Utter Grace

by Clarke Dixon

1 You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2 in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3 All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4 But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5 even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ– by grace you have been saved– 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– Ephesians 2:1-8 NRSV

According to the apostle Paul we were all once in an utter mess, and in fact some people still are. While events around the world may confirm for us that yes, some people are in an utter mess, methinks there are many would say “others yes, but not me.”

Imagine, for example reading Ephesians 2:1-3 and then saying to a non-Christian friend that you just learned that they are ’dead in their sins’ (verse 1), or a follower of Satan (verse 2), or ’children of wrath’ (verse 3). Many fine folk would, I think, say something like “well that does not sound like me, I feel quite alive thank you, I have never been involved in Satan worship, and if there is a God I should not be judged by such a God for I am basically a good person.” How do we reconcile what we learn from scripture about our fallen nature with what a lot of what people think and feel?

First, you don’t need to feel dead to be dead. This mention of being dead takes us back to the story of the fall in Genesis. God said to Adam “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16b,17 ESV). Now we know that on the day Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit they did not die, but on that day we can say that death entered into the world, death becoming their inescapable future and a sure bet. In this sense when we are without God today we are “dead in our sins,” it only being a matter of time before death catches up to us.

Nor do you need to worship Satan to be listening to his voice. Again we go back to the story of the fall where we find the serpent tempts Eve, not to worship him, but to stop trusting God. Most people would never admit to worshipping Satan, but when pressed, might admit to not trusting God.

But what about the unbeliever who seems to be perfectly moral, in fact more moral perhaps than most believers; can we really say they are “children of wrath” deserving of what is commonly known as hell? According to the Bible you are either a child of wrath (Ephesians 1:3), or a child of God (see John 1:12). Many would like to say that by their moral actions they show themselves to be closer to being a child of God than a child of wrath. But this is like saying that a pregnant woman is a little bit pregnant, or very pregnant. I have heard and used such expressions but of course one is either pregnant or not. You are either a child of wrath or you are a child of God, you cannot be somewhere in between. Further, the symptoms may not be a good indication of truth.

There was once a show on TV chronicling the stories of women who gave birth despite not noticing any indications or “symptoms” of pregnancy until the last minute. You could say that with my middle-aged-spread — which began in my 20’s! — I have more symptoms of being pregnant than what some of those women experienced! What matters is not the symptoms, but the truth. And it does not matter how righteous or moral a person appears to beall have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 NIV).

Consider the righteousness of Adam and Eve. When they were convicted of sin and banished from Eden they had no prior history of sin, and in sinning had not harmed anyone directly, nor done anything that most people might consider “immoral.” What they did was fall short of the glory of God, trusting the words of Satan over God, and so became children of wrath.

However, verses 1-3 are not the main point of our passage. They are verses that some will not get past in their denial of their need for a Saviour, but they are not the main point. Here is the main point: “But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:4, 5 NIV). This passage is not really about sin or death or hell, but is about God’s grace, mercy, and love. No one need fear hell for anyone can trade in their status as a child of wrath for a new family tree, becoming a child of God and recipient of his grace though faith. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8 NIV).

We can imagine God’s grace and our faith like this: we are stuck in quicksand and there is no way out. However, God reaches down and lifts us out in the palm of his hand. God’s love, initiative, and reach to rescue is the grace by which we are saved – we would be sunk without that. Our trust which keeps us in his hand is the faith through which we are saved – we’d jump back into the quicksand without that. What most people do not realize is that while we are alive we all, everyone included, experience a measure of God’s grace. That we can live at all, breathing, relating, enjoying life is a sign that we are experiencing God’s grace. God is under no obligation to grant us life but he does so as a sign of grace. This should help us to understand what we know of as hell. We tend to think of hell as punishment reserved for those who have done evil things to other people, making salvation and hell a matter of morality. Many naturally consider murderers as deserving of hell, but regular law abiding folk as not for example. But in the Bible, separation from God (hell) does not come just because one deserves it. It also comes because one desires it. Having experienced God’s grace by breathing some will curse the God who gave them breath and say “I don’t need you.” Having experienced the grace of God through loving and being loved, some will curse the One who has loved them the most and say “I don’t want you.” And so some choose to jump out of the hand that has been holding them, the hand that is ready to save them if only they will turn to in repentance, and not away from, the Giver of Life.

We have all at some point been in an utter mess, dead in sins, under Satan’s influence, and children of wrath, but utter grace is there for anyone who will take and trust that nail-scarred hand reaching for us in grace.!


All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV. Clarke Dixon is the Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Cobourg, Ontario.

Today’s post is from Clarke’s archives and was originally written in April, 2013.

clarkedixon.wordpress.com

August 17, 2017

Neither Magic Nor Rocket Science, Ephesians 6:12

by Clarke Dixon

12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Ephesians 6:12 (NIV)

You can imagine the first readers of Paul’’s letter becoming excited with these words as many of them would have been new believers who had previously worshiped pagan deities. They had known all along that there were spiritual realities beyond what could be seen, that there were spiritual forces at work, and indeed this had always been a part of their pagan world-view. You can imagine also the ideas creeping back as to what to do about these forces of evil in the heavenly realms. What libations can we pour out? What oracles must be consulted? What offerings must be brought? Tell us, Paul, what to do that we can influence these spiritual forces!? What does Paul come up with?

13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. 14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. Ephesians 6:13-18 (NIV)

In other words: Be honest. Be good. Be ready to forgive and make peace, showing others the way to God’s forgiveness and peace. Keep the faith. Trust in God’s power and love. Trust in God’’s Word. Communicate with the Lord. Do we notice how down-to-earth this list of things to do in the face of evil spiritual forces really is? There is no magic to be performed here, no rituals that will protect from evil or influence the spirits as those coming out of pagan religions would be used to. Rather there is the encouragement to be godly, to be becoming more like God. The reference to the armor of God is a reference to His character traits and His resources as the Old Testament references make clear (see post on Ephesians 6:1-20). Tap into that, not magic or ritual.

Sometimes in our attempts to be spiritual today we can unwittingly introduce pagan-style superstition into our faith. My wife once worked at a Christian bookstore not far from an army base, and as preparations were made for a deployment of soldiers, suddenly crosses and Saint Michael medallions became hot sellers. While wearing a cross can serve as a powerful reminder of God’s love, and for Roman Catholics the Saint Michael medal can be a reminder of God’s protection, I have no doubt that there are those that think that actually wearing such increase your chances of being protected. This kind of thing is pure superstition. Sought after items too, were St Joseph statues as some believe you will sell your home faster if you bury the poor fella in your yard. Even better if he is upside down! This too is superstition. Our prayers themselves can also become superstitious. Some think that if we just say the right words, or keep up with some regimen, our prayers are more likely to be answered. Do we do this kind of thing in our communications with our loved ones? Of course not, then why would we with our Lord? When it comes to prayer, He wants to engage with us, not our superstitions.

In Ephesians Paul is encouraging us to be aware of spiritual realities and spiritual forces, but our faith, in both belief and practice, turns out to be a really down-to-earth thing. Let’’s watch out for superstition creeping in.

At this point we need to consider an objection. Some will respond with: ‘Well is not the whole Christian faith one big superstition?’

We do not have the time to go into detail here, but no. Belief that God exists has much to commend itself. Let us not forget the likes of C.S. Lewis who came to Christ, not through a preacher’s appeal like at a Billy Graham crusade, but through thinking about it for a long time. In fact, the Christian faith is tied to a historical, or perhaps we might say “down-to-earth” event, namely the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Look at the beginning of Christianity and you will not find the spreading of a superstition or philosophy or the like, but rather knowledge of a historical event. You will not find the making public of ideas hatched in private. You will find the making more public something that had happened in public, the meaning of which was being worked out in public. (I forget the name of the blogger who should get credit for much of the last two sentences.) Christianity from day one was a very down-to-earth kind of thing; spiritual realities based in historical realities. In fact so ’down-to-earth’ was their faith that the early Christians were accused of spreading atheism since they encouraged skepticism towards all superstitious belief.

This brings us to the other extreme our passage will guard against. If some tend towards believing anything, even that which smacks of the superstitious, there are those who will believe nothing. Our verse is an affirmation that there are “spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” Some want to believe that there are neither spiritual forces, nor heavenly realms, that all that you can see, is all that there is, or at least all that is worth knowing about.

But is that a good way to look at things? There are many things that can not be seen, but are known. For example, though some may have seen a brain, no one has ever seen a mind. You cannot examine a mind under a microscope. We know the two are connected somehow, but we have no idea how. There are now about eight billion people in the world which works out to about eight million minds. That is eight billion bits of evidence that things exist which cannot be seen. A mind, however, can be experienced. So can God.

Also, history proves that hidden things can become apparent. There is much that could not be seen in the past which we now know about. Many of the things we believe about our planet and universe would not be believed by the ancients as they did not have the same access to such knowledge. Travel back in time and share what you know, and you will be faced with many sceptics. Travel forward in time and you will find realities like judgement and salvation being very much observed and experienced. The Bible gives us a window on truths that have been observed in the past, such as the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, but also a window on truths that can not yet be seen.

The teaching of the Bible is clear: There are spiritual realities around us that we should not expect to see. However, the existence of spiritual forces does not invite us into a world of superstition, but rather deeper into living for Jesus.

Clarke Dixon is a pastor in Ontario, Canada. Read more at clarkedixon.wordpress.com

April 4, 2010

Sit, Walk, Stand

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A group of guys I know are studying Watchman Nee’s book, Sit, Walk, Stand.  It turns out the entire book is based on the book of Ephesians.   It’s a very short book, but you have to linger over each page to get the full impact of what he’s saying, so I’m taking my time.  He spends 30 pages in the first five chapters, but devotes 24 pages to the last chapter, Ephesians 6, which I’m starting tonight.

In the meantime, here’s a quotation that was already underlined in the copy I’m using, which I believe belonged to my father:

Nothing is so hurtful to the life of a Christian as acting; nothing so blessed as when our outward efforts cease and our attitudes become natural — when our words, our prayers, our very life become a spontaneous and unforced expression of the life within.

And just a few pages further on:

It is better to have no doctrine than to be a contradiction… The whole principle of the Christian life is that we go beyond what is right to do that which is well-pleasing to Him.

For more about Watchman Nee click here.