Shhh, listen. The gospel is whispering

22 06 2020

The other day I was reading ROADMAP TO RECONCILIATION, by Brenda Salter McNeil, when I came up a quote which I immediately recognized as drawn from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

As we conclude our study of that epistle, and as we are currently living through a time of unrest due to discrimination, I wanted to bring this scriptural teaching to our attention.

We believe

  • that Christ’s work of reconciliation is made manifest in the church as the community of believers who have been reconciled with God and with one another (Eph. 2:11-22);
  • that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ; that through the working of God’s Spirit it is a binding force, yet simultaneously a reality which must be earnestly pursued and sought: one which the people of God must continually be built up to attain (Eph. 4:1-16);
  • that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered, and accordingly that anything which threatens this unity may have no place in the church and must be resisted (John 17:20-23);
  • that this unity of the people of God must be manifested and be active in a variety of ways: in that we love one another; that we experience, practice and pursue community with one another; that we are obligated to give ourselves willingly and joyfully to be of benefit and blessing to one another; that we share one faith, have one calling, are of one soul and one mind; have one God and Father, are filled with one Spirit, are baptized with one baptism, eat of one bread and drink of one cup, confess one name, are obedient to one Lord, work for one cause, and share one hope; together come to know the height and the breadth and the depth of the love of Christ; together are built up to the stature of Christ, to the new humanity; together know and bear one another’s burdens, thereby fulfilling the law of Christ that we need one another and upbuild one another, admonishing and comforting one another; that we suffer with one another for the sake of righteousness; pray together; together serve God in this world; and together fight against all which may threaten or hinder this unity

Reading this statement brings to my memory the occasion when I took communion in a church in South Africa. It was a liturgical church, with many mixed ethnicities. The practice was to walk toward the front and receive a wafer from the priest, who would wipe the rim of the communion chalice and serve the next person in line. This was during a period of time when there was much publicity about the HIV outbreak.

I think of that occasion because, like this doctrinal confession, my taking communion with a common cup was, for me, a courageous act of faith.The doctrinal statement which I have excerpted above is a courageous act of faith on the part of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of Southern Africa during the apartheid era. Called the Belhar Confession, it was formally adopted by the denomination in 1986 as a theological confrontation of the sin of racism. 

Somewhere along the way, many of us adopted the notion that discipleship is risk-free and the gospel anemic. Truth be told, the good news of Jesus and His teachings are dangerous and revolutionary. It calls us to quiet activism, to sacrificial hospitality, and extravagant love.

The body of Christ, connected to Christ the head, is a reconciled and reconciling community. It’s counter-cultural power for good whispers quietly, and many people, even believers, fail to hear its call.

I declare my independence from rancorous diatribes filling today’s social interaction.

I reject the accusatory barbs by Christians, as anti-Christian.

I affirm love which has not lost sight of truth.

I decry divisive prejudice while honoring distinct cultures and views.

I appreciate protest for the “other,” but see greater hope in true friendship with another who is different.

If you would like to read the entire Belhar Confession, click here.
As a good resource for moving forward in reconciliation, see Roadmap to Reconciliation, by Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil here.

Confronting an “evil day”

5 06 2020

As a human family, we are passing through truly unprecedented times with the onslaught of Covid-19.  Some countries are experiencing catastrophic consequences, especially in crowded, poor communities.

On the heels of pandemic came the outpouring of frustration and anger triggered by the senseless killings of three African-Americans in U.S. cities. Protests, burning, and looting has ensued.

Few would disagree that we are living in an “evil day.”  Paul wrote, “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day” (Eph.6:13).

An evil day

  • can be a season, a period of time
  • must be withstood by the people of God
  • is an unusual outbreak of evil against good
  • is connected to, and likely sourced from the rulers of darkness of our age
  • is likened to the wiles (or schemes) of the devil
  • it is resisted and overcome using the whole armor of God

As we saw in the previous study (What’s the real battle?), ultimately the evil day is caused not by people but the wicked forces or spirits which propel them.

Since it is a spiritual battle involving spiritual weapons, we need to know this: 

What are the elements of the armor and what do each of them accomplish?

Some expositors make much of the individual pieces of armor, and liken them to the battle gear of Roman soldiers. There is emphasis too on the body parts that are protected, such as the head and heart. I want to focus on the spiritual impact and necessity of each element, and why they are so vital in extending Christ’s victory and rule.

1. THE ENTIRE ARMOR IS NEEDED. “Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil” (6:11).  Note, it is possible to defeat the devil! Victory is possible in the evil day, and every day. This instruction about battle should not cause us to fear, but to fight. We may be vulnerable, but God is invincible.

Paul is going to proceed to mention seven specific armor elements, but I am convinced that they are suggestive of the fact that in Christ we have absolutely everything at our disposal that we could possibly need, beginning with our position in Christ as beloved and blessed (recall our study, Cascade of blessings).

2. WITHSTAND, AND STAND. “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand (6:13). If you are outdoors when a strong wind rises, you are wise if you brace yourself for the gusts. You withstand.

An evil day, such as the one we are in, requires special withstanding. We must be spiritually alert, watching for the wicked intentions of principalities, and calling believers to stand guard for Jesus’ cause. And having resisted, we must maintain our ground with vigilance.

3. TRUTH, LIKE A WAIST BELT.  “having girded your waist with truth” (6:14)

As Paul earlier wrote, “speaking the truth in love.“(4:15) Truth counters “dissensions, heresies” false witness, theft, fraud, etc. (Gal.5:20)

4. RIGHTEOUSNESS, AS A BREASTPLATE. “having put on the breastplate of righteousness” (6:14)

We were chosen to be “holy and without blame before Him in love” (Eph.1:4). As such, we fight adultery, drunkenness, and revelries.

5. THE GOSPEL OF PEACE, AS FOOT WEAR. “having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace” (6:15)

Jesus brought peace, removing enmity between Jew and Gentile. Peace overcomes hatred, bigotry and violence. True peace is not a covering over of simmering hatred, but is true reconciliation which brings inner oneness with the other.

6. FAITH, AS A SHIELD. “above all, taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one” (6:16)

The wicked one launches “fiery darts” of doubt, jealousy, and outbursts of wrath (Gal.5:20). Faith quenches these flaming assaults.

7. SALVATION, AS A HELMET. “And take the helmet of salvation” (6:17)

Evil principalities tempt us with idolatry, despair, sorcery selfish ambition, and murder. But in salvation, both in being born again, and progressively throughout life, we are delivered.

8. THE WORD OF GOD, AS A SWORD.  “and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (6:17)

We possess the word of truth given to us and written down, we hear from the Spirit of God in our ongoing relationship with Him. And we speak the truth as a part of our warfare.

9. PRAYER, AS THE HEART TO ENGAGE THE ENEMY. “praying always…” (6:18ff)

Without prayer, we lose touch with our Master and therefore lose sight of the victory we are promised. Prayer keeps us “watchful.” By prayer we persevere. And by prayer we reach out to encourage all saints everywhere. Prayer gives boldness to speak, even when imprisoned. The relationship with God maintained through prayer energizes every element of our armor.

What does it look like for you to intentionally put on these elements and confront this evil day?

What’s the real battle?

4 06 2020

Ephesians has revealed the inter-connectedness between earthly activities and heavenly realities. As we explore our spiritual position and blessings (chapters 1-3, “orthodoxy”), we walk out our faith in our new identity and transformed relationships (ch. 4-6, “orthopraxy”).

As Paul concludes his letter, he again ascends the heights and reveals the interplay between believers on earth and principalities in heavenly realms. If we don’t get this right, we will name the wrong enemies, and therefore fight the wrong forces. So let’s consider a few key questions for better understanding.

What is the source of the battle imagery?

There is an Old Testament prophecy in Isaiah 59 which lays out a background for the battle unveiled in Ephesians. In Isaiah’s time, society had fallen into wickedness, where justice and righteous leadership was in short supply.

“Then the LORD saw it, and it displeased Him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor” (Isa. 59:15-16).

So the Lord, seeing this lack, takes it upon Himself to rise up as a Warrior to unleash His fury over His wicked enemies.

“Therefore His own arm brought salvation for Him; and His own righteousness, it sustained Him.”

Isaiah describes the Messiah-warrior suiting up:

“For He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on His head; He put on the garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as a cloak.”

The battle, and the victory, appear on the horizon:

“So shall they fear the name of the LORD from the west, and His glory from the rising of the sun; when the enemy comes in like a flood, the Spirit of the LORD will lift up a standard against him” (Isa. 59:19).

How does Jesus fulfill this prophecy?

Ultimately, Isaiah’s prophecy was a preview of the colossal battle that Jesus the Messiah was destined to undertake. The “standard” He has now raised against His enemies is the cross of His sacrificial death. He has been victorious, and has authority over every echelon of wickedness in the heavenly realms. Christ is raised and seated “far above all principality and power and might and dominion,” where the Father “put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church” (Eph.1:21-22). 

But Jesus’ enemies fight on, and we, the Church, as citizens of His kingdom, are enlisted in the battle. Wicked forces oppose Jesus’ rule and reign, desiring to foster evil world wide.

What is the part of Jesus-followers today?

We have been given the victorious armor of God. It is battered and bloody from use, but it is powerful and accustomed to winning!

The armor is not make-believe, but consists of moral, spiritual forces which further God’s rule. These weapons actually help Jesus beat back the rebel forces of evil over which He already has authority.

Who has this armor and how do we use them?

Each of us has all the elements, and corporately we share them. We are each soldiers, and together we are an army. Individually, we suit up in the victory of Jesus each day. Your local church, and the Church in your city and country have this calling and equipment.

Book have been written on making use of the armor. If I may simplify, we believe in the reality of the armor. We put off wicked thoughts and deeds with God’s help, and put on thoughts and deeds consistent with the armor.

What do the weapons oppose?

We are fighting against all the expressions and strategies of the kingdom of evil, originating from Satan himself. Here is one list of the forces which oppose God

“Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21).

Imagine the brokenness of our world if Satan had his way! Do you see how important our battle? The survival of our planet is proof that the Church has persisted in the battle.

Paul clarifies we are not fighting the people who practice evil, but the powers of evil which purvey all manifestations of wickedness. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities … in the heavenly places” (Eph.6:12).  We must see the good in people, as image-bearers of God, and work against the evil that motivates their deeds.

That’s a lot for this post. Next time we will consider: What are the elements of the armor and what do each of them accomplish?

May Your Children Dance

25 05 2020

Every boy is told to grow up and act like a man, every girl to become a woman.
Take responsibility.
Make good of yourself.

Yes, there is a way we must put away childish things. A child must learn to obey parents, to respect aunties and uncles.
This is right.
It orders the family, and such families bring order to our world.

But happy are we when as adults we remember our childhood, and keep it within easy reach,

when slacks get dirty at the knees from steering hot-wheels through the dirt,

when breezes flow across our face as we ride a bike around the block,

and when trucks or dolls or crackers are left in disarray after play.

Imagine what could come from the apostle’s word, to bring children up in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph.6:4). How do we as parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents nurture our youngsters into the joy and meaningfulness of experiencing Jesus?

I have always been hesitant to dance. I didn’t know any styles or routines. And still don’t. But some years ago I began to try. Even now, if I come to a wedding reception or birthday party, I try to overcome my ingrained, adult hesitancy, take my wife’s hand, and become a boy again, careless and carefree at least long enough to embarrass my children or peers.

Raising small children means learning to dance together, understanding each other at every new stage of life.

Teaming up with adult children is just as vital, and challenging. It means learning to dance together today, which may be different than yesterday.

Is there someone who needs your permission to dance today?

Is that someone you?

P.S. A friend passed along this wonderful song, I Hope You Dance. Check it out.

White Hot Marriage

19 05 2020

As we progress through Ephesians, the Bible now gives us a picture of a Christian marriage that is so beautiful it is nearly too brilliant to gaze upon. In my meditating on it, I saw the roles of wife and husband in a new light, and have sought to depict them in the ideal spirituality of God’s design.

In so doing, I am keenly aware and sorry that such a depiction causes some pain in all of us, for whether by divorce, unchosen singleness, estrangement, sin, or death, none of us can fully live out marriage as God intended it. Let us receive it wholly in the grace of our God.

Admiration of the husband – the wife’s joy

“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (Eph.5:22-24).

Look at my husband, how handsome, how honorable.
How he is seen by the community. How he manages his affairs. How he provides for his household.
His reputation is one of dignity, industry, fairness, generosity, mercy.

Do you know why? Because he has me as his wife.
The ways I have loved him have made him aspire to greater things.
I have been his encourager, his cheerleader, his confidant.
He has never had to worry about my support, or question my loyalty.
I have not belittled him, or teased him. I have been honest with him; told him the truth, in love.
By God’s grace, my husband gladly says that I have helped him be more like Christ.
My support and respect for him has changed him. He wants to be more like Jesus because he wants to be worthy of such love. This is my life’s work, my greatest calling.

Adornment of the wife – the husband’s joy

“Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her; that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25-27).

Do you see my wife? Look at her. She stands out from all others, so shockingly beautiful to me.
Others come to her for prayer and counsel. They need her perspective, her words of assurance.
She takes care of our home, and brings her creative touch.
Her heart longs for more of God; she clings to what is good, to joy. She tends to the hurting, and watches for those in need.

Do you know why? Because she has me as her husband.

The way I have loved her makes her want to be this way.
I have led her, have sacrificed for her, have encouraged her. I have bragged about her, and accentuated her strengths.
I treat her with dignity and respect, and overlook her faults.
I build her up, and honor her opinions. By God’s grace, my love for her has increased her love for Jesus.
In her devotion, I picture the surrender of the bride of Christ to her Husband.
And when she one day stands before Jesus, glorious and pure, she will say her husband was the main reason she is so.

Intimacy in marriage – physical pleasure and spiritual mystery

So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let each one of you in particular so love his own wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband” (Eph. 5:28-33).

Our bodies are not perfect, my wife and I, but I love the shape of her, and she loves me to come close. It seems our bodies were made to wrap together in pleasure.

And do you know why? Because we married each other; we committed to oneness, and we became one.
We put our original families in second place, and joined in covenant with God.
Our bed is honorable and pure, exciting and free.
Possibly, someone will see Jesus in the way we love. They may long for closeness to Christ when they sense our intimacy.
For this is what is happening with us. The closer we grow, and the more pleasure we explore, the greater we realize there are untapped depths of intimacy with Christ. The people of God, members of His beautiful body, can be one with Him, bonded together in eternal covenant.

So, brothers and sisters, let this be our ideal.

Where we have failed, let us weep on the altar of His mercy and receive grace. Let His tears of forgiveness stream down and blend with our tears of sorrow.

Where we are struggling now, let us take up arms and enter the fight to keep this sacred call.

Where we have slumbered, let us wake up and rise to fulfill this dream.

Where we now live this wonder, let us be glad. And vigilant.

For it may turn out that there are no more important people in time and eternity than a husband and wife, together in intimate love.