Tag Archives: Paul

A LOOK BACK: Dying for Both Sides

Read Galatians 2

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE

“Pray that I will be rescued from those in Judea who refuse to obey God. Pray also that the believers there will be willing to accept the donation I am taking to Jerusalem.” (Romans 15:31)

saint-paul-the-apostle-07

In the Bible, there is a man named Saul who was born in the city of Tarsus in the Roman province of Cilicia. He was well educated and rose up to be a scholar of the Torah, a Pharisee, and a zealous defender of the Jewish faith. When a new sect of Judaism broke out claiming that a Nazarene rabbi by the name of Yeshua bar Joseph was the messiah and that Gentiles should be included in the Jewish covenant, he lashed out against the group, having many of them arrested. According to Acts, one was even killed.

With that said, this Saul encountered the risen Yeshua, you may know him by his Greek name Jesus, somewhere in or around Damascus, which is a city in Syria. This experience transformed Saul into a follower of Jesus. Paul tells us in his letter to the Galatians that, following the encounter with Christ, he went into Arabia for a while and then came back to Damascus. After three years he went to Jerusalem and met with Jesus’ brother James, and his disciples Peter and John.

To make a long story short, Jesus’ brother James and Paul didn’t really get along…at all. Peter and John weren’t too crazy about Paul either. James believed that in order for Gentiles (non-Jews) to become a follower of Christ they had to first become Jewish, since Jesus was a Jew. Paul thought this was ludicrous, seeing Jesus’ death and resurrection as the opening up of the covenant to Gentiles. If they had faith in Jesus who was likened to a Gentile on the cross (being under God’s curse as the Torah claims of anyone hung on a tree), then they would be brought into the Jewish covenant despite not being circumcised or being bound to any one of the Jewish laws.

Though they struck a deal and Paul left thinking he had their blessing to go and preach the Gospel as he felt Jesus had called him to do, James, Peter and John never really accepted Paul’s vision. We find out from Paul in his letter to the Galatians, and in Acts, that James and his followers were counteracting Paul’s Gospel message and causing people to question this “self-proclaimed apostle” who had never been an eye-witness of Jesus. This angered Paul, as anyone would imagine, but it did not stop him from trying.

Paul had been gathering up a collection for the church in Jerusalem and he was going to bring that collection to them, hoping to reconcile their differences if it cost him his very life. Paul was afraid it would. His last written words, written to the church in Rome (a community he had never met), ask for prayers that the non-believing Jews won’t attack him (as he was a heretic in their eyes having abandoned his Pharisaic Judaism for this new messianic Judaism) and that the church in Jerusalem would accept his offering. Unfortunately, his prayers were not answered.

Paul was arrested, and eventually died, trying to get both sides (his and James’) to be unified, even if different, in the cause of Christ. Today, like then, the church is split on many fronts and we seem to get stuck on one side or the other. We fail to see Christ in the midst of our differences. Like Paul, we are called to see Christ in those who believe differently than us. We are called to find the balance of reconciliation, even while remaining true to what we firmly believe. There are many contentious issues dividing the church, yet there is still ONE Lord! Rather than deeming each other heretics, let us have the grace and the humility to see that Christ is indeed working in, through, and in spite of us all! Remember, he Gospel calls us to be a people who are unified in LOVE, even if divided by difference.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY

“You don’t get unity by ignoring the questions that have to be faced.” – Jay Weatherill

PRAYER

Lord, help me to see you even in those who think and believe differently than me. Humble me, I pray. Amen.

A LOOK BACK: The Problem with Modern Love

Read 1 Corinthians 13

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God.” (1 John 4:7 NLT)

love

As a Christian pastor in the United Methodist Church, I have officiated in plenty of weddings and funerals. That just goes with the territory and, quite honestly, I am always honored when people seek me out to celebrate in their mutual love, or when people request that I be with them in their times of loss and grief. After all, did not the Lord Jesus Christ do such things?

As any pastor can tell you, one of the most requested (if not THE MOST requested) Scriptures for weddings is 1 Corinthians 13. Because that scripture talks about an enduring love, people automatically link it to the marital union between two loving partners. I think that this, unfortunately, does a disservice to what the Apostle Paul was actually writing about. I can assure you that, as a self-imposed, celibate man, Paul of Tarsus was not thinking about marriage when he penned those immortal words.

As such, whenever I am asked to utilize that particular passage at a wedding, I make a point of bringing the true meaning of the text into my message before tying it into the marital covenant. This is is important because there is huge problem with modern love. What I mean by this is that the modern understanding of love is shallow at best. It is all about peaches and cream, fuzzy bunnies and puppie dogs, kisses and hugs, compliments and unconditional affinity.

This modern understanding has been propagated by enless jewelry advertisements, happily ever-after romance novels/films, motivational speakers, prosperity preachers, societal pressures, and new age and/or civic theology that renders love into an emotional experience to be had within oneself. In a nutshell, love is rendered into a feel-good, warm and fuzzy experience centered around our over-inflated egos.

We tend to see love in those who make us feel good ourselves and in those who tell us how beautiful, great, smart, and awesome we are. Conversely, we tend to not see love in anyone who disagrees with us, calls us out for being wrong, encourages us to change course, or stands in our way from getting we want. After all, how could someone possibly love us and disagree with how great we are,    right?

Let me really clear about this: LOVE IS NOT ABOUT SELF-WORSHIP! It is not about us at all. LOVE IS ABOUT GOD. In fact, GOD IS LOVE. When Paul is writing about the characteristics of love, he is actually writing the characteristics of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. In other words, despite our often misconceptions of God, Jesus revealed to us that God was patient and kind, forgiving, slow to anger, and keeps no record of being wronged. God does not rejoice at injustice, but rejoices whenever truth wins out. God never gives up, never stops being faithful, is always hopeful, and endures through all things.

God loved us so much that, in order to redeem us in that love, God became a human being and lived among us. As that human being, God taught us what TRUE LOVE is all about. Love is sacrificial, it is in service of others, it holds people accountable to who they were created to be as opposed to who they are, and it is persistent in being present with others even when to do so comes at a great cost. Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God, who is love. As Christians, we ough to be the embodiment of Christ, who is Lord, and bear that LOVE out into the world.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Love is not just a verb, but a noun that calls us be verbs.

PRAYER
Lord, you loved me even when I have not loved you back. Help me to model that love in my life and act it out in the world. Amen.

God’s People, part 293: Philemon & Onesimus

Read Philemon 1

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NLT).

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Part 293: Philemon & Onesimus. Philemon is certainly Paul’s shortest letter and it is one of his most intriguing letters as well. It was most likely written by the Apostle during his imprisonment in Ephesus and it is a letter that bears so much import and urgency that Timothy was listed as one of the people sending the letter with Paul, possibly acting as a notary to verfiy authenticity.

What was so important that Paul drafted a quick and urgent letter, sending it with his most trusted disciple in order to ensure it was properly delivered? The letter was written in regard to a runaway slave named Onesimus. Before I get into the specifics, we need to acknowledge proverbial monster under the bed: SLAVERY. Slavery was a given in the ancient world. They were seen as a part of the natural order of the world. What’s more, though hard to do given our own Euro-American context, we have to lay aside our understanding of what slavery is.

In the ancient world, people were captured in war, or by their debts, and were enslaved. This wasn’t just a Roman reality, but an ancient world reality. There were slaves in Israel, in Mesopotamia, in Greece, in Rome, in Asia Minor, and throughout the entire world. There were elements of slavery that were similar to what we understand slavery to be. Slaves were not free to runaway, they were not free to do as they pleased, and they were expected to fulfill their role in society obediently. There were slaves that were beaten and abused and there have always been cruel slavemasters. Those are realities of human enslavement sadly.

With that said, especially in the context of the Roman empire, there was upward mobility for the slaves that excelled. Slaves could earn their freedom and become a part of free society. Some slaves even became members of the senate and other positions of power. In Euro-American slavery, there was no such reality. Slaves were not seen as people with potential, but animals who were nothing more than property.

That is what made American slavery so heinously distinctive from any other form the world has known. In fact, John Wesely once wrote to Wilbur Wilberforce, who successfully put an end to the British slave trade, “Go on, in the name of God and in the power of His might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.” Wesley despised all forms of slavery, and having been the Rector of the Savannah parish in the Georgia colony, he knew full well that American slavery was “the vilest that ever saw the sun.”

What I have written, thus far, is only meant to provide historical context to the word slavery and what it meant in Paul’s time. I am certainly not justifying any form slavery in any society. All slavery is immoral, evil and in the spirit of antichrist. In Paul’s time, though, abolishment of slavery was not an issue even being thought of, let alone considered. What this means is that, while the letter to Philemon shows that Paul was ahead of his time, he doesn’t go as far as we in the twenty-first century would like him to.

Back to Onesimus, who was a slave owned by Philemon. He found Paul in prison and pleaded for his help because he ran away from Philemon and evidently stole something in the process. It’s unclear how Onesimus was being treated or whether or not Philemon was a cruel master. What we do know is that Philemon led church in his house and even Philemon converted to Christianity.

As a side note, it was not uncommon for mistreated slaves to run away and seek assylum from their master’s master. This was what Onesimus was seemingly seeking to do. Paul, being Philemon’s spiritual “master”, wrote a letter to him telling him that he had received Philemon and he was now sending him back home. (This is where we scratch our heads and say, “Really Paul? Was that a good idea?”) With that said, Paul did not leave it there; rather, he strongly appealed to Philemon to not only welcome Onesimus back mercifully, but to welcome him back as a Christian brother. You heard me right, Paul was telling Philemon that, being that Onesimus was a Christian, he should not be welcomed back as a slave. Paul uses judicious and rhetorical wording, but he is not being soft at all. He even wrote, “That is why I am boldly asking a favor of you. I could demand it in the name of Christ because it is the right thing for you to do. 9 But because of our love, I prefer simply to ask you…” (vv. 8-9a).

Again, we don’t find Paul taking on the whole of the Roman slave system, nor does he even address whether Christians should own a non-believing slave or not, but we do have Paul addressing slavery within the context of the Christian church. It’s a NO GO. Paul made it very clear that all Christians should be considered family, not owned as slaves. This does give us a pretty clear view of Paul’s thoughts on slavery, even if he does not go as far as we would like him to. What’s more, we do know that Philemon did as his teacher asked. We know this because Onesimus went on to be a prominent Christian leader and is probably the same person whom Ignatius (died 107 AD) named as Bishop of Ephesus.

What’s important to note here is that Paul, just like Jesus, saw justice to be a part of the Christian witness. We cannot be witnessing the power of Christ in the world, when we are living in solidarity with the world and it’s way of doing things. This should challenge us in our daily walk as well. Do we reflect Christ? Or do we reflect our world? Do we promote Christ, or do we promote partisan politics and our own twisted worldviews. For Paul, and for me, the answer is simple, if you are a Christian, you are obligated to foresake that which stands opposed to Christ. I pray we all seriously reflect on this.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“I received therefore your numerous body in the name of God in the person of Onesimus, whose love surpasses words, who is, besides, in the flesh your bishop.” – St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch[1]

PRAYER
Lord, help me to incorporate justice into my Christian faith and give me the strength to fight for it. Amen.


[1] Srawley, J. H. with St. Ignatius. (1910). The Epistles of St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (Second Edition, Revised, Vol. 1 & 2, p. 42). London; Brighton: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

God’s People, part 292: Opposed & Abandoned

Read 2 Timothy 4:9-18

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“As for me, my life has already been poured out as an offering to God. The time of my death is near.” (2 Timothy 4:6).

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

The Prison Cell of the Apostle Paul

Part 292: Opposed & Abandoned. Before we discuss the Scripture passage at hand, I first want to address the two-ton elephant in the room. When it comes to the pastoral letters of 1 & 2 Timothy, most modern scholars do not consider them to be authentic Pauline letters. What that means is that most scholars do not believe Paul wrote them. The evidence they point to consist of different writing styles, missing theological themes such as the unity of Christians in Christ, and also the fact that the letters presume a more structured Church heirarchy than existed in Paul’s time.

Some scholars argue that 2 Timothy was authentic, while 1 Timothy and Titus are not. To be clear, inauthentic does men unauthoritative. It was common in the ancient world for students to take on the persona of their teacher, writing their teachings down for others to learn from. Of course, said students would also add to those teachings. Plato was the most famous student to do this, as he wrote under the persona of Socrates.

Still, the debate of authorship continues on. It must be stated that it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that serious doubt was cast on Pauline authorship. The early Church Fathers, dating back to the second century accepted Paul as the author. This doesn’t mean they were correct, but they were much closer to Paul’s world than we are. Regardless of the authorship debate, for the purpose of this devotion, I will be referring to the author is he refers to himself in the letter.

At the end of his letter to Timothy, Paul wrote about a number of troubling things that happened to him. I must be noted that Paul is writing what has been considered to be his last epistle before his death, which means that he was writing it (or having it written for him by his secretary) from within the Mamertine Prison in Rome. It is in this context that we need to place Paul in order to understand the deep pain he was feeling.

In verses 9-10, he was pleading for Timothy to come to him as quickly as possible. “Demas has deserted me,” Paul wrote, “because he loves the things of this life and has gone to Thessalonica.” In other words, Paul’s last remaining caretaker left him alone in prison abandoned. We cannot possible know what drew Demas to do so, or what Paul meant by saying that Demas loved the things of this life, but the implication is clear enough. Demas’ style was being cramped staying there and caring for Paul in prison and so he left.

Paul was literally abandoned, rotting within a prison cell, with no one to look after him. This was the same Paul who poured blood, sweat and tears into people like Demas. This was the same Paul who treated his disciples as if they were his own family. This was the same Paul who put his fullest trust in his followers. Yet, none of them could stay with him anymore. The loneliness, the spiritual and emotional pain, must have been unbearable. Christians should not abandon their sisters and brothers in Christ; yet, tragically, we often do.

The only person to stay with Paul was his beloved disciple, Luke. Luke, being a physician, knew the importance of caring for people; however, Paul knew what a burden it was on one person to take on all the responsibility of care and so he was asking for Timothy to come to him as well, asking him to bring Mark with him. Demas, Crescens, and Titus all abandoned Paul. That kind of hurt cuts deep and Paul also knew his expiration date was coming soon. That was the Roman way for prisoners, especially under Nero as Caesar.

To make matters worse, he was being opposed by someone referred to as Alexander the Coppersmith. We don’t know what kind of opposition it was or why Alexander was opposing Paul to begin with; however, Paul states that this coppersmith had done him much harm. It seems possible that this Alexander may be the reason Paul is imprisoned in Mamertine. He seemed to oppose what Paul was teaching and brough formal charges against him. Paul also stated that when he was brought before the judge, no one went with him. He had to stand trail by himself with no support from whoever was with him at the time. It seems clear that Luke had not been there. Whoever was with him abandoned him to his fate.

This kind of abandonment happens all the time. In the Church I have seen it happen to different groups of people. For instance, if a church member is alleged to have committed a crime, I have seen Christians look down their judgmental noses and distance themselves from that person. Given our Christian theology of sin, we know we are all sinners and we all do wrong, yet we commit the gravest sin by taking on the role of God and judge our sisters and brothers. Ironic, no?

I have also seen the church abandon people they call “shut-ins”. For those not familiar with churchese, “shut-ins” are people who cannot physically come to church do to health conditions. These are mostly elderly people, but they can be any age. How do church’s abandon “shut-ins”? Simple, they don’t call, they don’t write and they don’t visit people who are no longer able to attend. They sit back and expect the pastor to do all the visits as if the pastor is the church. If the pastor can’t visit as often as they they s/he should, they take issue with the pastor rather than offering up their help.

Abandonment is a serious issue in the church. Friends, we should never abandon anyone. This is simply not Christian behavior. We see how Paul was abandoned to rot in jail until he was beheaded and we cannot fathom the pain that caused him. It must have been devastating. It is equally devastating to abandoned Christians today when we fail to value them equally due to their not living up to our expectations and/or not being able to be present in the church. Let us open our hearts to Christ and follow him as Luke and Timothy did. Let us be present for peple in need. Amen.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
While love sometimes lets go, love never abandons.

PRAYER
Lord, help me to be faithful and true. Steer me away from abandoning of others. Amen.

God’s People, part 287: Caesar’s Household

Read Philippians 4:21-23

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“For everyone here, including the whole palace guard, knows that I am in chains because of Christ” (Php 1:13).

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Part 287: Caesar’s Household. For most people who have not been trained in Biblical literature and Church history, it is not necessarily understood what Paul means by greeting Caesar’s household. Is he referring to Caesar’s immediate family and/or extended family? Could it be that Caesar’s mother, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles all knew Paul and believed in the Gospel? That would be incredible if it were true.

Or does “Caesar’s Household” mean something else entirely. Is it possible that Caesar’s Household is not referring to Caesar’s family but to a different group of people entirely? What could Paul possibly mean when he says that those in Caesar’s Household sends the church in Philippi their greetings? Clearly, here are a few things that need to be unpacked if we are to understand the meaning of Paul’s words.

First, this wording is a clue as to where Paul was writing from. We know that Paul was imprisoned when he wrote this letter; however, there is scholarly debate as to where Paul was writing from. The two options that are most prominent is that Paul was either writing from Caesarea prior to being sent to Rome, or that Paul was writing this in Rome. Caesarea was a prominent city in the ancient Roman Province of Judaea. It was built in honor of Caesar Augustus and, in 6 AD, it was made the capital of Judaea. The Roman governors were stationed there and would travel to Jerusalem only when occasion called for it, such as huge events like Passover.

While it is possible that Caesarea was the location, I find it less compelling than Rome. In Rome, Paul would have been much closer to the current Caesar, where his household (whoever they were) would have been living. To me, Rome is the location that makes the most sense. Again, Caesarea is quite possible, but the arguments for Rome seem the most convincing to me.

So, then, if Rome was the location of Paul’s imprisonment, the epistle (or letter) to the Philippians would have been written sometime after 60 AD, which is the year that Paul arrived in Rome. It is likely that the letter was written sometime between 60 and 62 AD, with 62 AD being the likely year it was written. This would have been toward the end of his first imprisonment in Rome, where he was under house arrest and was unhindered in preaching and teaching those who visited him.

Before we continue, it is remarkable to realize that Paul’s appealing to Caesar, as he did at the end of Acts, resulted in him being cleared of all charges and released from house arrest in 62 AD. Of course, he did end up in prison again after than, under the great persecution of Nero, where he was eventually martyred. Still, his gamble in Caesarea paid off and, as a result, the Gospel was spread even further in Rome.

So, who are among those in Caesar’s household? They were Caesar’s servants, some of his military officers and soldiers. In fact, his whole Praetorian guard, who where the equivalent to the U.S. President’s Secret Service, had heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ and, no doubt, some of them had converted to the Christian faith. How incredible that Paul was able to utilize his house imprisonment to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to as many as he could. Such bold faithfulness led him to witness that message spread to even those who were charged with protecting Caesar? It is also no wonder, then, that Caesar would end up seeing Paul, and Christianity, as such a threat.

This should definitely challenge us, as Christians today. How bold are we in our faithfulness? How true to Christ’s Great Commission are we? In the U.S., and the Western world overall, we have come to view our religious beliefs as a private and personal affair; however, that is the antithesis of the Gospel. That is why Christianity is declining in the West and miraculously booming in other parts of the world such as Africa and Asia. In fact, those places are now sending missionaries to America. I know, as I have met and befriended some of them.

We as the Church in the West need to learn the importance of evangelism. We need to stop hiding Christ’s Gospel and to start really sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. We have to stop expecting people to come to us and start seeing the urgency of us going to them. It is then that we will begin to see the beginning of another Great Awakening of revival.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Oh, how great peace and quietness would he possess who should cut off all vain anxiety and place all his confidence in God.” – Thomas à Kempis

PRAYER
Lord, revive in me a passionate boldness in my faith. Amen.

God’s People, part 283: Epenetus

Read Romans 16:5

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”  (Galatians 5:22-23, NRSV)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Part 283: Epenetus. There isn’t a whole lot to write about Epenetus, who is only mentioned in one verse in the entire Bible; however, it is important that we do mention him because of the distinction that Paul gives him in that verse. Paul wrote: “Greet my dear friend Epenetus. He was the first person from the province of Asia to become a follower of Christ” (Romans 16:5, NLT).

Thus, as can be seen from Paul’s own words, Epenetus was the first person to convert to Christianity in all of the Roman province of Asia, which includes modern day Turkey and Greece. Thus, in many ways, Epenetus was the beginning of Western Christianity. Prior to that, Christians were relegated to Judaea and Syria and the surrounding areas. There were, of course, Christians who spread the Gospel east into the continent of Asia; however, Paul was responsible for bringing the faith West through the Roman province of Asia to Rome.

Paul refers to Epenetus a dear friend, which makes sense given the amount of time he would have known him for by the writing of this epistle (letter). Epenetus would have first met Paul somewhere between 48 and 52 CE, either during Pauls’ first or second missionary journey. Traditionally, Epenetus was from Ephesus, though Paul does not specifically say that he was and, so, it is possible that he met Paul as early as 48 or 49 CE. By the time Paul wrote Romans, it was 57 CE and he had known Epenetus for many years.

Epenetus was among the group, led by Phoebe, bringing the letter of Paul to the Romans. Paul asks the church to greet him, stating that Epenetus was the FIRST to convert to the Christian faith in the province of Asia. This is important to Paul to mention because it meant that Epenetus was the first fruit of the mission to the Gentiles, a fruit that would not have been born had it not been for the receptiveness of Gentiles from the province of Asia, such as Epenetus.

There’s not much more to write about him, but it is clear that Paul was showing the Roman church the glory of God through Epenetus. We may start small, but God takes those small seeds and grows them into and untameable and luscious garden filled with the fruit of the Spirit. Apart from God, our efforts would be futile; however, with God, our efforts grow immeasurably.

This should challenge us. As Christians in the modern world, there are a host of challenges that might scare us from spreading the good news; however, do we trust that God can see us through those challenges and immeasurably grow our efforts. Let us be truthful, the challenges we have to day may be slightly different than the challenges in the first centuries of Christianity; however, that makes them no less challenging.

The question for us is this: will we persist in spreading the Good News to all people and communities we come across? If so, how will we spread it? Through personal witness, through acts of kindness, through generosity, through the way we conduct ourselves, or through other means? Our efforts may seem small and miniscule; however, through God, there is nothing that will be able to stand in the way of people coming to know Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Let us, then, accept this challenge openly and see it through, for Christ’s sake.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
There is no limit on Christ. Through Christ, all things are possible.

PRAYER
Lord, renew my faith in you so that I may take risks for your kingdom and bear witness to your miraculous work. Amen.

God’s People, part 282: Phoebe

Read Romans 16:1-2

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  (Galatians 3:28, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Part 282: Phoebe. Throughout church history, women have often been seen as “less than” men when it comes to the titles, functions, and duties within the church. Utilizing verses from Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy, and a more-than-likely misplaced margin note accidentally inserted into 1 Corinthians, the church has told women that they are not to teach men, that they are to remain silent, and submissive to male authority. This, obviously, has hurt the church in more ways than one and, it has caused many modern women (and men) to leave the church.

Sadly, this ages old interpretation of Paul’s writing is inaccurate and has damaged the church’s witness to the world. Honestly, some of the most faithful and loyal witnesses of the faith have been women. It was Mary Magdalene who first preached the Good News to the disciples, making her the Apostle to the Apostles. In fact, Paul mentions numerous women serving in all sorts of capacities in his earliest of churches.

Take Phoebe for instance. In today’s Scripture reading, we see that Paul writes, “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deacon in the church in Cenchrea” (Romans 16:1, NLT). Cenchrea was a village in the city of Corinth. Not only does he mention her at the top of his final greeting to the Roman church, which bears much significance, but he called her a deacon, which means that she was a leader in her church. If Paul were against women in leadership, this would certainly contradict his own mindset on the issue. The fact that Paul joyfully acknowledges Phoebe is proof that he never had such a mindset.

Let’s not stop there, though. Paul goes on to write, “Welcome her in the Lord as one who is worthy of honor among God’s people. Help her in whatever she needs, for she has been helpful to many, and especially to me”  (Romans 16:2, NLT). Paul mentioning her first in such a way indicates much to us. First, she was being sent as Paul’s emissary to the church in Rome, who clearly did not know Phoebe of Corinth.

Thus, he sends her with not only her name and leadership position (deacon), but he sends to them instructions on how she is to be treated as well. Deacon Phoebe was to be welcomed as one worthy of honor among God’s people. She was to be helped in whatever she needed or required, for she had been helpful to many, including Paul. There is no one else who Paul talks more highly of, in all of his letters, than Phoebe.

Phoebe was sent to deliver Paul’s letter to Rome and, with her, Paul sent an entire delegation to help her. Paul expected the men…and the women…to treat Phoebe as if it were Paul they were welcoming in. This, my friends, is more than enough evidence for us to recognize that Paul had a fairly egalitarian view when it came to serving Christ. While the majority of Pauls companions and co-workers were men, as was too be expected of the time he lived in, Paul mentions a number of women who were instrumental in leadership and in witnessing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This should challenge us. There are many Christians today that hold a “Complimentary View” of leadership. “Complimentary” is a nice word for a tired interpretation of the Bible. It simply means that God created men for leadership, and women to be subservient to men. People will try to smooth that fact over, but that is the truth of the Complimentarianism.

We as Christians need to see that Paul was, in fact, much more egalitarian in his view of leadership. I am sure Paul did not think of it like we do, and probably would not have used those terms; however, if someone showed themselves to be a leader, filled with the Holy Spirit, Paul did not restrict them or stand in their way because of their gender. As such, neither should we. Let us all work together, women and men alike, for in Jesus Christ we are one.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Let no one deem unworthy whom God has deemed worthy.

PRAYER
Lord, help me to see all through your eyes and give me the humility to treat all of your servants, women and men alike, with equality, equity and dignity. Amen.

God’s People, part 181: Rome

Read Acts 28:17-31

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

281: Rome. As was mentioned in the previous devotion, there was a church already established in the city of Rome. We know that this church was not established by Paul himself; however, word of the church and their faith had reached Paul and he very much wanted to visit them. We know this from his own writings to the church in his epistle to the Romans. In that letter, he wrote:

My ambition has always been to preach the Good News where the name of Christ has never been heard, rather than where a church has already been started by someone else…In fact, my visit to you has been delayed so long because I have been preaching in these places. But now I have finished my work in these regions, and after all these long years of waiting, I am eager to visit you. I am planning to go to Spain, and when I do, I will stop off in Rome. And after I have enjoyed your fellowship for a little while, you can provide for my journey.”  (Romans 15:20, 22-24, NLT)

Paul’s own words tell us that he had never been to Rome before and that someone else was responsible for bringing the Good News of Jesus Christ to them, founding them as a church. By church, it is not meant that they had a physical location to worship at that we now commonly know as a “church”; rather, the church is the group of Christian believers that are gathered in a geographical location, who probably worshiped at multiple different houses throughout the city.

To the earliest Christians, the Church or ekklesia (Greek ἐκκλησία, pronounced eh-ck-lee-sia) means an assembly or gathering of people. It matters not where they gather, but what they are gathering for. In the Christian context, the church is a gathering of Christ followers. Thus, Paul was writing his letters to the body of Christians in the specific cities he addressed them to. In the case of Romans, Paul was addressing the body of Christ followers in the city of Rome, regardless of where they met and worshiped.

While we do not know who established the church in Rome, it is safe to believe that it was someone who may have known, or at least known of Paul. Paul writes his letter to a people he presumes will know who he is. Whether it was a close associate of Paul or some other Christian who spread the Good News there, it makes perfect sense that the Christian faith would spread quickly to the heart of the empire. After all, there was a large Jewish community within Rome and, no doubt, Christians would have traveled to, and been present in, the Jewish community in the imperial city.

Paul did eventually make his way to the believers. In our Scripture today, we see that Acts concludes with Paul under house arrest in Rome awaiting trial and, of course, spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people while he waited. Paul was in the lion’s den, as it were, and yet he boldly proclaimed the Gospel despite his impending trial.

While Acts ends the story at Paul’s arrival, the truth is that the Gospel message would eventually cost Paul his life. More than likely, he was beheaded during Nero’s persecution of Christians. The reason was that Nero scapegoated Christians for a large fire that got out of control and burned half of Rome down. Historians contemporary to the time speculated that Nero started the fire himself; however, Christians received the blame and were put to death in the most horrific of ways, making Paul’s death look like a walk in the park.

Prior to his death, Paul was visited and cared for by friends and by other Christians in the Roman community. He was loved and cared for by his fellow sisters and brothers in Christ. This should challenge us to remember that the church is just that: a community of believers who are charged with visiting and caring for each other. The church is a community of believers called to live out their love for on another, despite differences that would otherwise separate and divide them. Let us, as Christians today, remember that the mission of the church is no different now than it was then. Let us visit each other, care for each other, and love each other just as the Christians in Rome did for Paul.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
Love wins. Let us be on the winning side.

PRAYER
Lord, teach me to be like Paul and the earliest Christians. By your grace, help me to love and to care for my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ, living into Christ’s new commandment for those who follow him. Amen.

God’s People, part 280: Believers

Read Acts 28:11-16

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“I am planning to go to Spain, and when I do, I will stop off in Rome. And after I have enjoyed your fellowship for a little while, you can provide for my journey.”  (Romans 15:24, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

The Appian Way

Part 280: Believers. It is often hard for us, as modern Christians, to picture what early Christianity was like. Too often, we think of an old-time religion where everyone got along, agreed with each other, and were monolithic in their understanding of Christ and his mission. I pray, that as we have been journeying through the New Testament in the Bible, you are seeing first-hand that Christians did not have it as together as we might have imagined.

Even among the Twelve Apostles, there were differences in understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. Peter, at first, sided with James’ brother that Gentiles could not be included into the The Way unless they first converted to Judaism. Jesus was a devout Jewish rabbi and he came to the Jewish people; therefore, Gentiles needed to first accept the God of Israel and convert to the faith of Abraham and the Laws of Moses, before they could truly follow the Messiah.

It actually does make sense when you give it thought from the perspective of Jewish followers of Jesus. Yet, Paul vehemently disagreed with James and the Apostles that supported him. For Paul, a former Pharisee, the question did not start with Moses’ Laws. Yes, for Jews (including Paul), those laws were sacred and holy and vital to the Jewish faith. Also, it is true that God made a covenant with the Jewish people at the base of Mount Sinai, where he gave them the Torah (aka the Law). With that said, the covenant made to Abraham predated the Torah, and it was in that covenant that God promised to bless ALL THE NATIONS as a result of Abraham’s faith.

Thus, it is FAITH that mattered most. It was FAITH from which we were saved. It was FAITH to which the Law pointed. Those who live in FAITH in Jesus Christ, who fulfilled the Law, are SAVED by virtue of their faith in God’s only Son, just as Abraham was saved by virtue of his faith in the only true God, as opposed to the Law. This was what Paul taught to the Gentiles, that it was their faith that saved them. That they were included into the family of God through their faith in Jesus Christ.

Truthfully, in today’s Scripture, we see the fruit of Paul’s labor. In their travels beyond Malta, Paul and his fellow travelers came across more Gentile believers in Jesus Christ. When a south wind blew their ship to the coast of Puteoli, which is now modern day Pozzuoli (a city and commune of the Metropolitan city of Naples, Italy), Paul, fellow travelers, and crew were greeted by a group of believers who invited them to stay with their group for a week.

From there, they traveled to Rome and were met by Roman believers who traveled the Appian Way and met them in the Forum. The Appian Way was an extremely vital Roman road that was not only well traveled, but was the very road 6,000 slaves were crucified along following the defeat of Spartacus in 71 BC. Even more believers joined them at the Three Taverns.

These believers came because of their faith in Jesus Christ and their love for Paul who had corresponded with them. Paul had not ever been to Italy or Rome, yet, it was his advocacy for Gentile inclusion that had helped churches form in places that he had yet to travel. Their faith in Jesus Christ and their inclusion into the family of Christ is what empowered them to meet Paul and care for him. Luke tells us that Paul found encouragement in their presence and thanked God for them.

The fact of the matter is this, Christian fellowship is more than just a friendly gathering of like-minded people. I am sure that Paul could have found theological or intellectual differences between those believers and himself. What mattered most was their common FAITH in Jesus Christ as Lord. That is what bonded them together in Paul’s time of need.

We, as Christians, ought to be reminded that our common FAITH goes a lot further than our differences. We have been included into God’s family through Jesus Christ our Lord and, truthfully, it is through Christian fellowship where we become encouraged and invigorated to carry on in the mission and ministry of Christ, no matter what our circumstances are. This is why being a part of a Faith Community is SO IMPORTANT. We were not created to be islands, but to be in communion with fellow believers, who share and encourage our FAITH.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“God is so unique in giving His people ways to fellowship, witness, and remember what a mighty and merciful God He is.” – Monica Johnson

PRAYER
Lord, help me to open myself to Christian fellowship, that I might fully live into my Christian faith. Amen.

God’s People, part 278: Julius

Read Acts 27:1, 3

ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12, NLT)

When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.

Part 278: Julius. The previous few devotions have followed Paul from the Temple of Jerusalem through a couple of years of imprisonment and trial in Caesarea. We learned that Paul had not only used his Roman Citizenship to his advantage in terms of fair and just treatment under the law, he also used it to appeal his case to Caesar’s court in Rome.

This does not, by the way, mean that Nero Caesar (who was emperor at the time) would be the one hear his case; rather, appealing to Caesar meant simply that he wanted his trial to take place in Caesar’s court in Rome, where judges representing Caesar would hear Paul’s case. While it is possible that Caesar might have heard Paul’s case, it is very improbable that he had any personal invlovement.

Still, once the appeal had been made, Festus had only one thing to do and that was to send Paul to Rome. Of course, the quickest and least expensive way to transport a prisoner from Jerusalem to Rome was via the Mediterranean Sea. That is why Judaea was so important to Rome, because of its strategic location along the coast of the great sea.

Thus, Paul was put under the care of Captain Julius, who was to transport him on his ship from Judaea to Rome. I want to pause their for a split second. The number one responsibility of Julius was to ensure the safe arrival of Paul to Rome so that he may be tried in the Roman courts. Should Paul have pulled any shenanigans and escaped, Julius’ life would have been forfeit. It was NOT okay to fail Caesar.

So, it is curious to see how friendly Julius was with Paul. In fact, friendly does not do justice to the way that Julius treated this prisoner. He was not only kind to him, but showed him an exorbitant amount of respect and TRUST. For instance, while they were docked at Sidon, Julius allowed Paul to leave the boat and be visited and tended to by his friends.

If Paul had escaped, it would have been not been good for Julius; yet, the captain trusted Paul NOT to escape. This shows what a man of honor and integrity Paul must have been. Julius trusted him so much that he was willing to let Paul leave the ship to spend time with friends. Paul, as it were, would not forget that kind act of trust.

We do not know if Julius ever became a Christian or not. The chances are that he didn’t; however, Paul respected him and his entire crew. During a major storm, Paul not only comforted them, but assured them that God had shown him in a vision that NONE of the crew would be harmed. As it turned out, all of the crew indeed did survive the shipwreck. No one was harmed or died, just as Paul promised.

So, what do we make of this? Simple. Kindness goes along way. In regard to Paul, he was a person of honor and integrity and Julius could tell that about him, just as one knows that they are going to instantly click with someone they’ve just met. In regard to Julius, he was willing to give Paul his trust and, as a result, Paul was able to be cared for.

In Paul and Julius, we see models for how we ought to be. Paul shows us that we ought to be people of honor and integrity. Julius, though he may not have recognized it, placed his trust in God and did what he believed was right and just for Paul. His kindness not only blessed Paul but, in the end, it became a blessing to his entire crew. Let us, therefore be a blessing to others through our honor, integrity, and kindness through placing our trust in God and treating others as we would like to be treated.

THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“We have committed the Golden Rule to memory; let us now commit it to life.” – Edwin Markham

PRAYER
Lord, help me to live by your golden rule, to be a person of integrity and honor, and one who shows kindness to others. Amen.