Friday, June 23, 2017

How Much Is Enough? (II)


Continuing our reflections on “greed” and “the greedy person” in Ephesians 5:1-6:

In not previously understanding the import of what Paul was writing, not only was I not challenged by this passage, but I did not challenge others when preaching and teaching Ephesians. In not understanding the distinction between covetousness as found in the Ten Commandments and covetousness (greed; the desire for more, and then more, and then more) as it is typically used in the New Testament, I failed to see the radical countercultural message that Paul was preaching – countercultural for his day, and radical in our day of consumerism. Yes, I knew that “covetousness” as used in the NT was broader than Exodus 20:17, but I hadn’t thought about the distinction critically and I hadn’t thought about the likelihood that many professing Christians have not been challenged by the thrust of what Paul is saying. Was it that I didn’t want to deal with it in my own life? Was it that I didn’t want to offend others?

I am deeply convicted that I missed this, avoided it, failed to study it, failed to think about it deeply, failed to present the text faithfully to others.

When Paul, in verse 6, writes, “Let no one deceive you with empty words…” I wonder if some of the empty words included, “Getting more, more, and then more doesn’t matter. It’s only stuff, only things, only recognition, only power, only position.” We would never think that today, but maybe in Paul’s day people thought that.

Paul writes that a greedy person is an idolater; that may have been true in Paul’s day but certainly it couldn’t be true today; or if so, it must only apply to those who go over the top in their pursuit of wealth, position, power and fame. Certainly as citizens of the United States we have a civic obligation to pursue (the good) life, liberty (do what we want), and happiness. Little wonder that most of the time we vote from the pocketbook. 

Many of us think that not to have other gods “before Me” means that we make God number one, but that is not what Exodus 20:3 means. It means, “You shall have no other gods in My Presence,” and that means that we shall have no other gods…period, end of story. God is to have no competition in our lives – we are to love Him with all of our heart, all of our mind, all of our soul, and all of our strength (Mark 12:30). Of course our response is typically, “Yes…but”.

Jesus says in His first recorded extended teaching, “You cannot serve God and riches,” (Matthew 6:24); we read it and then we qualify it with, “Yes…but”.

In my preparation for the small group study of Ephesians 5:1 – 6 I was struck by the fact that greed was written about and discussed by ancient Greeks and Romans, including greed’s impact on the greater community; while ancient thinkers wrestled with “how much is too much?” and the care of the community as a whole – we seldom, if ever, discuss it – whether within or without the church. How often do we make greedy people American idols and cultural superstars? Doing so gives us permission to pursue our own game of more, then more, then more.

A friend of mine, after thinking about this subject, remarked in effect, “When I want more I call it ambition, when someone else wants more I call it greed.”

Where is the Cross of Christ in our desire for “more”? This thought has challenged me for years, both personally and in ministry to others. In my involvement in marketplace ministry, both in Virginia and Massachusetts, I have long thought that when we do not challenge marketplace leaders with how the Cross informs wealth and the acquisition of more and more that we do them a disservice. I have seen theologians and others quick to justify the American Dream and yet never raise the issue of the Cross of Christ and how the Cross should determine our economic and vocational thinking.

Whether the disciple is a laborer or the owner of a billion dollar business – a Christian’s vocation is to be a vocation centered on the Christ of the Cross and the Cross of Christ. A dollar earned that is not laid at the Cross is a dollar ill-used.

“Make sure that your character is free form the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you, so that we may confidently say, The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid. What will man do to me?” Hebrews 13:5 – 6.

This passage in Hebrews has been a reminder to me over the years that learning contentment is a form of trust in God and a witness to the world and the unseen realm.

Our economic culture is built on creating discontent, if we are not discontented we will not purchase more, and more, and then more. We are so imbued with this ethos that we see no danger in it. We are ironic slaves; slaves to pleasure, slaves to acquisition, slaves to silence on these subjects – both in the world and in the church – whoever saw a society of slaves that had so much?

Thinking about writing about this is akin to a criminal writing his own indictment…not pleasant.



Thursday, June 22, 2017

How Much Is Enough?

Over the past few weeks I’ve experienced deep conviction when preparing to share God’s Word with others; so much so that I felt a physical burden and inner distress. While I often bear inner distress when meditating on the Word, in prayer, and in intercession; and while this distress can manifest itself as a physical burden – the two instances over the past few weeks were pronounced. As I write this I am also aware of pain in other areas of life that Vickie and I have experienced in June. While I don’t often write of my own experience from this point-of-view, I am doing so now because I want to provide a framework for the deep conviction and challenge I am experiencing as a result of engaging Ephesians 5:1-6 and Paul’s (God’s) words concerning greed and the greedy person.

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. (NIV).

You may note that I’m using the NIV on this one; this is one of the few times that I think the NIV does a better job than either the NASB or ESV for the English reader. The other two versions use “covetousness” or a combination of “covetousness” and “greed”, but I think that neither quite hits the mark for the contemporary English reader, as I will explain below – and there may even be better words for “greed” and “greedy” for our generation to better understand what Paul is saying. From a technical viewpoint, covetousness is a fair rendering of the Greek word Paul uses – so I want to be clear that I don’t think the NASB or ESV is mistranslating the word(s) used in this passage – I just think we can miss the impact of what Paul is saying by using that English word.

When most Biblically literate, or semi-Biblically literate people, think of the word “covet” they think of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” [Exodus 20:17]. We think of coveting in terms of wanting what belongs to someone else, for this is the thrust of Exodus 20:17. Therefore we think that as long as we don’t desire to obtain that which belongs to others, as long as we don’t desire to take what belongs to others, that we are not coveting – and herein lies the problem with using the words “covet” and “covetousness” in translating the group of Greek words in the New Testament that we find in Ephesians 5:1 – 6 – the Greek words have a much broader thrust than found in Exodus 20:17 – they mean wanting more, then more, and then more. They are not confined to wanting what belongs to someone else – while wanting what belongs to others is included in their meaning, they really mean wanting more, then more, and then more. In other words, they mean wanting more whether or not the “more” belongs to others in the sense of Exodus 20:17 or not. More is more whether obtained lawfully or not.

Furthermore, while material things are included in wanting more, so are position, reputation, recognition, and power – more means more whatever the “more” might be.

This way of life, Paul writes, is idolatry (see also Colossians 3:5). Also note that in Romans 1:29, Ephesians 5:3, and Colossians 3:5 that greed is classed in proximity to sexual immorality. Christians who highlight sexual sins in others would do well to look at their accumulation of “things” lest they think they are free from the toxicity of lawlessness; they would also do well to consider that an insatiable lust for power, position, recognition, money, and material things can morph into a lust for bodies. This is no game (Ephesians 5:5-6), people who give themselves over to these things will not inherit the kingdom of Christ and God; and lest we say, “Oh, it can’t be all that bad,” Paul uses the word “any” – “…has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God.”

We can’t serve two masters, we can’t worship the True and Living God and worship ourselves and more and more and more – it just can’t be done.

Yet, Americans have been programmed to be consumers, we have been raised and brainwashed to want more and more and then more. When we do happen to ask, “How much is enough?” At the least we say, “Just a little bit more.” Our identity is that we are consumers. We are communicated to by business, government, and sadly by most churches as consumers. We live in the opium den of consumerism and narcissism – whether in or out of religious gatherings. Our economy is built on getting us to purchase and accumulate more and more and more. We live in a land of unbridled desire, lust, and greed – we are idolaters, sacrificing ourselves and our children and grandchildren on altars of more, more, and then more.

After 9/11 we were told by our leaders to respond to the attacks by shopping. What will historians say to that?

I was convicted when preparing a Bible study on this passage because when preaching through Ephesians in prior years I missed the impact of the word group translated “covetousness”.  I wrongly thought I knew what the word meant and I didn’t and I therefore did not serve my congregation well. I was also convicted about others things which I will share in future posts.

Are you after something “more” today? How much is enough for you?

To be continued…



Friday, June 16, 2017

Hebrews Chapter Eleven: 12


“All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” [Hebrews 11:13].

Where is the “quick fix” in Hebrews Chapter Eleven? It doesn’t exist. Not only does the quick fix not exist in this passage, but the intermediate fix doesn’t exist either – nor even the long-term, if by long-term we mean fulfillment in this lifetime. And yet, there is fulfillment, there is satisfaction – but it is not what the world or the church expects; it is not fulfillment found in the City of Man, but rather in the City of God.

Too often when we think of “faith” we think of the quick fix; faith to overcome an immediate problem, faith to have a “breakthrough with God”, faith to get what we want, faith to “receive something from God”, faith for an experience. While we do see examples of faith for the “immediate” in the Bible, faith for the immediate is not the context of Scriptural faith – it is a component of Scriptural faith, but not the context.

Biblical faith is faith for the long haul; it is not drag-racing faith, or oval-racing faith, or road-racing faith – it is over-the-road faith, it is faith moving us, calling us, to a destination and informing our way of life on our pilgrimage to that destination. It is cathedral-building faith, it is not “let me build a house for myself faith”. I can build many houses for myself in a lifetime; I cannot build a cathedral in my lifetime. A house for myself, or a cathedral for others, which is it to be? A house for myself will showcase “my” workmanship; a cathedral will showcase “our” and “His” workmanship. Which is it to be?

The faith of Hebrews Eleven is faith for endurance, faith that gives us eyes to see beyond the natural and immediate (2 Corinthians 4:16 – 18), faith that strengthens us to say “no” to the City of Man and “yes” to the City of God – it is faith for the journey, not faith for the quick fix and let me get what I want when I want it and how I want it.

Quick-fix faith with its incantations and formulas robs the people of God of their citizenship in heaven, for it teaches them to think and live short-term. Quick-fix faith does not mold our souls, it fattens our selfishness and promises to fulfill our temporal desires. The soul formed by the Word of God and the Spirit of God is a soul being transformed into the image of Jesus Christ, it is a soul wedded to the Cross of Christ and the Christ of the Cross, it is a soul in which the Seed of Resurrection has been planted.

Hebrews 11:13 tells us that the fathers and mothers of faith did not receive the promises; yet in not receiving them they did receive them; in not receiving them they were assured of receiving them…for they refused to trade their birthright for a mess of short-term and quick-fix potage.

Someone has written that we live in a liquid society, that our “culture” changes constantly and there are no longer any fixed points by which to navigate. The man who built his house on the rock (Matthew 7:24 – 27) need not worry when the storms came, but the house built on sand, “great was its fall.” The words of Jesus in the NASB concerning the house on the rock are “And the rain fell, and the floods came, and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock.”

How does one build a house on the rock? “Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and does them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock.” We build as we obey Jesus, and as we obey we are formed into His image, not the image of our liquid culture. Grace through faith and faith through grace animates our lives and teaches us to obey; our obedience nurtures our faith and teaches us to receive His grace.

Short-term quick-fix faith in popular Christianity is not the faith that trains our souls, our hearts, our minds, our bodies; it is not the faith that teaches us to love God with all that we are and to lay down our lives for others. Living in a liquid culture, in the City of Man, means that we are ever awash in the flotsam and jetsam of the storms of this age, an age which is passing away – all we can hope for are short-term solutions. Living in the permanent culture of the City of God means that we are “in the world but not of the world” and that we are receiving that which we will receive; we are knowing that which we will know fully (1 Corinthians 13:12).


The faith of Hebrews Chapter Eleven is the faith of pilgrimage and destination. Are we on pilgrimage or have we pulled off the road to eat fast food?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Reflections on Bonhoeffer’s Life Together – 92


“Then, along with the other’s freedom comes the abuse of that freedom in sin, which becomes a burden for Christians in their relationship to one another.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 79.

During our exploration of Life Together I have remarked, from time to time, that it would be nice to be able to talk to Bonhoeffer about what he meant when he wrote this thing or that thing, about what he envisioned for the Body of Christ when he described facets of life together, about how his own experience informed his thinking and writing. I find the next three paragraphs of Life Together to be especially the case. I’ve been pondering these paragraphs for a while before writing about them and even now am reluctant to do so because: I have questions for Bonhoeffer about his meaning and how he saw sin and forgiveness in the church in practical daily life; and I cannot possibly share my own thoughts about the matter comprehensively through the medium of a blog – to do so would change the character of this series on Life Together. As it stands, these paragraphs leave many unanswered questions in terms of what Bonhoeffer thought sin and forgiveness should look like in the life of the church – someone who knows Bonhoeffer’s writings better than I do (his sermons and letters and lectures) will likely have a better understanding.

I think that life together needs to be worked out in life together, and as I interact with these three paragraphs I am deeply mindful of this. What I mean is that the relationships of the Body of Christ are dynamic and organic, they are full of life and are animated by the Holy Spirit. I am not aware of any static Biblical language regarding the Church of Jesus Christ. Consider that we are “growing into a holy temple in the Lord” (Ephesians 2:21); that we are “joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Ephesians 4:19).

The Body of Christ is incarnational, it is human and Divine, frail and mighty, sometimes it sees clearly, sometimes dimly – at all times the members of the Body desperately need the grace, and mercy, and life of the Head of the Body, our Lord Jesus. We are different than the first Adam, who became a living soul; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit and it is He who lives within us; the first Man was made of dust, the second Man is the Lord from heaven – our identity is not in the first Man but in the second Man (see 1 Corinthians 15:45 – 49). We are learning to bear the image of the heavenly Man (2 Corinthians 3:17 – 18).

This is important for a Biblical understanding of sin and forgiveness within the Body of Christ, and it is important in terms of what our expectations should be. If our core identity as Christians remains that of sinners – then we ought to expect sin and sin and more sin, for sinners sin as a way of life. On the other hand, if our core identity in Jesus Christ is saints, which is the term the New Testament uses for Christians more than any other term, then we ought to anticipate obedience to Christ as we love Him and others, and as we affirm one another in Jesus Christ. This is not an exercise in positive thinking, it is an exercise of belief in the Word of God, about what God says about the work of Jesus Christ and the reality of that work in us, about His empowering presence within us – as individuals but also, I think, more importantly as His People.

Bonhoeffer writes (page 79), “The sins of the other are even harder to bear than is their freedom…”

The first hurdle we have with the first paragraph are the words “sin” and “sins”. Much of the professing church lives as if it does not think there is such a thing as sin, or it uses the term in the sense of “imperfection” or “mistake”. Sin has been reduced to psychology and therapy, it doesn’t require obedient repentance (the only Biblical repentance). Then there are other Christians who trivialize sin by focusing on cultural norms within their church traditions and elevating those norms to Biblical commandments.

Jesus Christ died on the Cross and experienced the wrath and judgment of God bearing our sins and our sin nature to bring us back to God so that we might live in intimacy with Him and with one another. Sin in all of its forms is hideous, dark, and deadly. When we make sin a matter of psychology or a matter of cultural norm we lessen our perception of its hideousness and we justify ourselves and our truly sinful actions and thinking. When we repent of deviating from religious cultural norms we need not repent of Biblical sins – which are indeed true sin – death-dealing sin.

We are at the place, in much of the professing church, where it is deemed culturally sinful to speak of Biblical sin. When we do this we preclude the follower of Christ from seeking true forgiveness for true sin lest someone be offended. It is as if a person with cancer is prohibited from calling the disease cancer and seeking cancer treatment because the “C” word is unpleasant – he or she may have a allergy pill but not surgery, chemo, or radiation because those treatments are unpleasant and painful. Therefore we have people desperately seeking the closure and redemption and healing that can only be found in Jesus Christ in Biblical obedient repentance, but who are precluded from doing so because we will not acknowledge the reality sin. We have hospitals that no longer have treatment rooms or surgeries – we only dispense medications to relieve pain and perform palliative care. Our pastors and teachers are often more like hospice workers than Biblical servants – the difference being that congregations and their leaders deny Biblical sin while hospice workers and their patients know that death is approaching.

Much of the professing church does not know what repentance is, it thinks it is confessing sin but it is much more than that – it means turning around and following Jesus Christ in obedience, this is why I’m styling this as obedient repentance, it is more than confession of sin, more than “I’m sorry” – it is following Jesus.


Perhaps every church ought to ask itself, “Do we believe in Biblical sin? Do we understand the Biblical view of sin? Are we living with an awareness of what true Biblical sin is?” 

If I think pancreatic cancer is simple indigestion I will regret it.

Friday, June 9, 2017

How Do We Vote?


This is an excerpt of Paul’s testimony before King Agrippa (Acts 26):

“So then, I thought to myself that I had to do many things hostile to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And this is just what I did in Jerusalem; not only did I lock up many of the saints in prisons, having received authority from the chief priests, but also when they were being put to death I cast my vote against them. And as I punished them often in all the synagogues, I tried to force them to blaspheme; and being furiously enraged at them I kept pursuing them even to foreign cities.”

Earlier in Acts (8:1-3) we are told by Luke that during the murder of Stephen that “Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death…Saul began ravaging the church, entering house after house, and dragging off men and women, he would put them in prison.”

The picture that Paul paints of himself before Agrippa shows us that he did not only cast his vote against Stephen, but that there were others who Paul voted for death. How many? We don’t know. Did Paul know? Did he keep count? Could he see their faces? Could he hear their cries decades later?

Paul uses the word “enraged” twice in Acts 26 to describe himself – what did it look like when he “tried to force them to blaspheme”? Threats? Torture?

Saul the pursuer would become Paul the pursued. The Saul who put others to death would become the Paul who gave himself so that others might have life. The Saul who tried to force others to blaspheme the name of Jesus would be the Paul who gave his life for Jesus. The Saul who sentenced others to death would become the Paul who would suffer for Jesus Christ to the point where he felt as if he were living under a sentence of death (2 Corinthians 1:9).

But what about me? But what about you? But what about us? How do we vote? Do we vote for or against others? Christ died for all – do we live for all? Do we desire life for all, or only for those who are like us, who agree with us, who are beneficial to us?

Jesus says, “You have heard that is was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…Therefore, you are to be perfect (mature), as your heavenly Father is perfect.” [Matthew 5:43ff].

If Christians are to be polarized, let us be polarized away from evil and vitriol, away from the ways of this age, away from hatred and animosity; and cling to the love and grace and truth of Jesus Christ. Let us not be enraged with the spirit of this hateful age, but engaged in the grace and love of Jesus Christ toward others, both within and without the Kingdom of God.

Paul knew what he had once been. What about us? Are we what Saul was, or are we what Paul was? Do we vote for death in the lives of others; or do our lives, the way we live, the way we speak, the way we pray – vote for life for others? Are we living for Jesus Christ and others, or are we living for ourselves?

Are we religious types who will justify ourselves at the expense of others? Or do we know what Paul knew, that outside of Jesus Christ we are toxic and capable of anything and everything that is wicked and foul? Where is the rage in much of the professing church in America coming from? It is not from God.

Are we casting our votes for others or against others?

Our voting record is recorded day after day; word after word; action after action. On that Great Day when we stand before our Lord to give an account of our lives the words “conservative, liberal, left, right, progressive” will mean nothing – our votes along those party lines will mean nothing. But our votes for life, for others, for Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2) – those votes will mean everything (1 Corinthians 3:1 – 23).


How will I vote with my life today? What about you?

Thursday, June 1, 2017

He Restores My Soul


We don’t hear much about the soul these days. Why is that? As a boy I learned the bedtime prayer that asked God to keep my soul during the night and that, “…should I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” Whatever happened to the soul?

We read in Genesis 2:7 that Yahweh God formed man from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and that “man became a living soul.” Before we read of the heart or the mind we read of the soul. I have known folks who get wrapped up in distinctions between the heart and mind and soul and insist on lines of demarcation – I think this often leads to unhealthy introspection and even Gnosticism – the Biblical approach to who we are is holistic – after all, we were made in the image of God. Within a holistic context we can allow the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts and minds…and souls.

This pilgrimage of life is a pilgrimage, in Christ, of restoration – our Good Shepherd is restoring our souls. Our souls have been soiled, corrupted, sickened, and darkened. Jesus comes as our Good Shepherd to make us lie down in green pastures, to lead us beside still waters, to restore our soul (Psalm 23). His Law, His Word, restores our soul (Psalm 19) as we walk in His paths of righteousness.

Only Jesus Christ can perform this restoration, we can’t do it – we can cooperate in the process as we behold Him, but even our cooperation is enabled and animated by His grace and the Holy Spirit.

I am told that the old Methodists used to ask one another, “Brother (or sister), how is your soul?” Not a bad question to ask. It’s a better question than, “How is your day going?” I may have good days and bad days, but let’s hope that whether my days are good or bad that my soul is experiencing the restoration of Jesus Christ.

While Psalm 23 has movement in it, it begins with rest; rest in green pastures and rest beside still waters. Jesus tells those who are weary and bearing burdens to come to Him for rest (Matthew 11:28-30) and that “you will find rest for your souls”. The soul at rest in Jesus Christ is the soul experiencing restoration, and the soul experiencing restoration is the soul on pilgrimage, a pilgrimage that can declare, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of Yahweh forever.”


How is your soul today?