What would the Apostle Paul say to us?

I gave my Pauline Epistles class this exercise on the final day of class: in 20 minutes write a brief letter in which you imagine what Paul would say to the community of believers at Taylor University. Here were the instructions:

  • Write a theologically rich greeting/intro.
  • Give thanks for something good Paul sees at Taylor.
  • Address a problem Paul observes at Taylor.
  • Conclude with a brief benediction.

After each group read its letter to the class, we voted for our favorites (the ones that reflected both Paul’s heart and the needs at Taylor the best). The following two letters tied for the most votes. Students in these two groups gave me their permission to post the letters, along with their first names.

Apostle Paul

First group: Katie, Jessica, Vivi

This letter is from Paul, an apostle appointed by God and Jesus Christ. To the saints of Taylor University. Grace and peace to you! I long to see you soon, but these chains hold me back.

We thank God whenever we remember your unity in Christ and community with one another. We know you Gentiles have come from diverse backgrounds with various traditions and yet you remain faithful to Christ and one another. When I heard that you had established a communal time three times a week to worship God and spend time as the body of Christ I was greatly pleased. I pray that you will remain faithful to God and each other during those times.

I want you to know that I have agonized deeply concerning your commitment to academics and activities. I do not mean to say these things are bad – on the contrary! You have come to this institution to study and make friendships. What concerns me is the devotion you have for these things. When given a choice to pray or spend a whole day studying, why do many of you choose the latter? It is to your advantage to place God at the forefront of your life to ensure the salvation of your souls. You must not forget, brothers and sisters, that these four years are still a part of the race for the prize, so stay strong!

Greet our fellow brothers and sisters, including Dr. Habecker and Dr. MaGee, for me. Grace and peace to you all. Amen.

(Editorial notes: the letter refers to Taylor’s chapel services, which are held three times a week, and Taylor’s president, Dr. Habecker).

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Second group: TJ, Ryan, Erin, Andrea, Kamra

Paul, an apostle of our Lord Jesus Christ; grace and peace to all the brothers and sisters at Taylor University. I am able to write to you because of the mercy of Christ Jesus, who was resurrected by the Father and also brings us eternal life.

I have not stopped giving thanks for your continual fellowship. The household of MaGee has reported to me your intentional community as well as your integration of faith and learning. Others use knowledge to build themselves up, but you, my brothers, show genuine concern for using your knowledge for the edification of the ekklesia.

However, it is said among you, “ring by Spring,” but do you not realize that some of you pursue this desire at the expense of practicing full devotion to God? I tell you it is better for you to be single when you graduate than to wed before you attain a maturity that comes from knowing Christ only.

Give my greetings to Randy, Eugene, and Bill, who are the very reason I was able to preach among you. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you forever.

(Editorial notes: “ring by Spring” describes the urgency some Taylor students feel about getting engaged while they are at Taylor. Randy, Eugene, and Bill are beloved leaders at Taylor University. Ekklesia is the Greek term used to describe the church or gathering of believers in the New Testament).

It seemed like everyone enjoyed this assignment, and all groups did a great job with the 20 minutes they were given for the exercise.

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Moral clarity and mission in Ephesians

Blending inOne of the most difficult issues for Christians to navigate in our generation (and in any generation) is how to engage faithfully and constructively with people who don’t share our Christian beliefs. If our approach is too strident, we make enemies unnecessarily, but if we lose our sense of identity and mission while we are immersed in the surrounding culture, the distinctive beauty of our Christian witness is diminished.

Three passages in Ephesians offer help in clarifying how a Christian living in the light can shine within a dark world.

Ephesians 4:17-19 foreshadows teaching on putting off the “old self” and putting on the “new self” by exhorting believers to leave behind the non-Christian attitudes and practices that characterized their former lives. Their old selves were permeated by “the futility of their thinking,” and being “darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God.” They were marked by “ignorance” (of God’s good will), hardened hearts, a loss of “all sensitivity” (to God and his work), and various moral vices.

Ephesians 5:8-14 uses the imagery of light and darkness to highlight the drastic change of the believer’s spiritual situation. “Light” is grouped with belonging to God, living a morally fruitful life, and pleasing the Lord. “Darkness” is associated with fruitless deeds, shame, and hiding. Christians are called to separate themselves from participation in darkness while shining brightly in the dark environment around them.

Ephesians 6:10-12 depicts the Christian struggle to live for God in the world as warfare. Paul is careful to specify that our enemy is not “flesh and blood” though. The devil and all other spiritual rulers, authorities, powers, and forces of evil in “this dark world” are the ones who oppose God’s people. Christians must stand strong in their identity in Christ and all of the divine resources God has made available to us in this supernatural struggle.

Two key truths emerge from these three passages:

1. The light/dark contrast and stark difference between believers and unbelievers alerts us to the need for moral clarity and discernment in our lives. It is a false dichotomy to say that Christians in their relationships and behavior can be either loving or holy. A sloppy line of reasoning among some Christians goes like this: A) it is wrong to be moralistic and legalistic – concerned with only outward behavior and being pure; B) therefore, just love other people and don’t be concerned about moral excellence. Our engagement with the world is characterized by both love and light. It is interesting to note that in 1 John, two things are said about God: “God is love” (4:8,16) and “God is light” (1:5).

2. Spiritual battle is a reality in our lives, but we must be sure to identify the correct enemy: Satan and the forces under him, not the unbelievers we encounter. We need to be spiritually and morally vigilant in our resistance to Satan’s agenda and values. But we should be careful about adopting a cultural warrior attitude against people who don’t believe in Christ. Our posture towards others should be that of an “ambassador” (Eph 6:20), looking for opportunities to represent God well as we share the light of Christ  with those who don’t know him.

Unlike the lizard (at least I think that’s what it is!) in the opening picture, Christians are called to stand out within our environment. We are not driven by hostility towards those around us but motivated with a desire to shine the light of the gospel in dark places.

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Renewal in Christ, part 2 – New Creation, New Community

Waterfall in the Rockies

Christians enjoy a transformation in their lives that changes them from the inside out and touches every part of their existence. From last time, we saw that Paul unfolds the foundation for and process of renewal in Christ, in Colossians 3:1-10. For this post, we will observe the outcome and community of renewal in Colossians 3:10-14.

How does the daily process of living out our union with Christ through leaving behind the old self and growing into the new fit into God’s eternal plans for our lives and our world?

The outcome of renewal in Christ is that believers are “renewed in knowledge after the image of our creator” (Col 3:10).

The very word renewal in English and Greek (ανακαινοω) implies a return to an initial, ideal status. Along these lines, the pairing of “image” and “creator” takes us back to Genesis 1:26-28, where humans made in the image of God are commissioned as creators and rulers under God. Against this Scriptural background, Paul pictures Christ-formed believers creating and ruling under God in the new creation, in parallel with the original creation ideal. This should engender a sense of wonder, creativity, and responsibility among those who are being renewed in Christ.

Ultimately, our renewed lives will be lived out in a renewed creation of the new heavens and new earth (see Revelation 21-22). But in our current lives renewal towards that goal can still be experienced in all areas of life. The depth of renewal is as limitless as the depths of the riches of Christ (see Col 2:3), and the scope of renewal is as wide as all of creation, particularly in the vocations to which we are called. The process of Christ-centered formation is not somehow cordoned off from “real life” and limited to private spirituality but is at the core of an integrated renewal that touches all areas of creation and new creation.

One other implication of the outcome of renewal in Christ is that through the process of putting off the old self and putting on the new self we are being restored to our authentic selves. We can deceive ourselves into thinking that God somehow wants us to abandon and be untrue to our authentic selves when we grow as disciples. But the new self we embrace through renewal in Christ is a return to the original, authentic vision God has for humanity. It is the distorted and temporary false self that is being cast aside when we put off the old self and are made new in Christ.

Finally, the community of renewal is the body of Christ in all of its diversity (Col 3:11).

Believers all share a common union with Christ. We partake in a common renewal, from old to new, as we are being restored to the image of God. Rigid categories that separate us are eliminated – “there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free.” Christ’s work of renewal does not eliminate diversity but secures equality in Christ among those diverse believers, so that  “Christ is all, and in all.”

The “new-self” practices Paul identifies in Col 3:12-14 are community/corporate practices, encompassing relational virtues such as compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, along with habits of forgiving and loving one another. We see some of these in action in Paul’s letter to Philemon, where Paul challenges Philemon to live out the implications of this equal status in Christ with his slave Onesimus. It is in the closeness and messiness of real relationships that renewal into the image of God is experienced.

With Christ at the center of our identity and renewal, we grow together towards the original vision of humanity God gave to us, and toward what we will enjoy together with him, eternally, in the new creation.

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Renewal in Christ, part 1

Wilderness of JudeaIt is always fun to wake up just a bit more refreshed the first day or two after gaining an hour through daylight savings time. It is sad though how quickly that extra hour seems to get spent! The demands of life catch up again, and that fleeting time of renewal is quickly gone, like a morning mist.

What does true renewal look like for a Christian? It moves beyond simple refreshment to the experience of Christ’s life within us. How then does Christ bring about this renewal, and what is our responsibility as believers for our own renewal?

In Colossians 3:1-14 Paul presents a lasting renewal in Christ. In the passage, Paul describes:

1) The foundation for renewal.

2) The process of renewal.

3) The outcome of renewal.

4) The community of renewal.

First, the foundation of renewal is Christ and our union with him. In Colossians 3:1-4, Paul further develops the logic of being united with Christ. Paul has already established the reality of a believer’s union with Christ in Colossians 2:10-13, where he proclaims that we have been made complete in Christ (2:10), we have been buried and raised with Christ (2:12), and we are now “alive together with him” (2:13). Christ’s death and resurrection is something believers share in, through faith, so that we are now dead to sin and alive to God. In chapter 3, Paul continues to press the full implications of our union with Christ. Believers are even “raised with Christ” and “hidden with Christ in God” (3:1-3). Paul sums up union with Christ by saying that Christ “is our life,” and that we will one day live together with him in his glorious existence (3:4). In other words, a believer’s identity and destiny are now shaped fully by Christ.

Second, the process of renewal consists of putting off the old, putting on the new. But for Paul, growth in Christ is not simply about behavior modification or sin management. Maturity and renewal in Christ is the outworking of being united with Christ.

What does this process look like? This putting off the old and putting on the new is developed against the backdrop of a series of contrasts: the contrast between earthly things and heavenly things (3:2), between the old self and the new self (3:9-10), and between a current world marked for judgment (3:6) and a glorious destiny for believers (3:4). Given these contrasts, Paul calls for a clean break in which the believer abandons the old life of corruption and embraces the new life of renewal and holiness. Putting off “earthly things” and the old self means leaving behind things that belong to a world that recklessly resists God. Putting on the new self and heavenly things means embracing things that are a preview of the glorious new creation yet to come. But this process flows from union with Christ. The resulting script for a believer’s obedience follows along the lines of “because I am united with Christ, I will put off X and put on Y.”

Pond in China

The beauty of this teaching is that the obedient process of renewal always stands on Christ’s foundation of renewal. When I lived in China, a five or six year-old boy was playing with his friends beside a murky pond near our apartment complex (see picture). All of a sudden he lost his balance and fell backwards into the pond. He began flailing his arms, with a look of fear on his face. As several bystanders prepared to jump in and rescue him, the look on his face abruptly changed. He calmly planted his feet on the bed of the pond, stood up, and walked to dry ground. The pond had turned out to be shallow, with solid ground underneath. In the process of being renewed in Christ believers can remember that Christ is our solid ground beneath us. Instead of flailing about on our own to grow in Christ, we can plant our feet on the firm foundation that Christ provides for us.

The theological principle for this is known as “the indicative and the imperative.” In grammar, the indicative mood presents fact and reality, while the imperative is the mood of command. In Paul’s letters, he first establishes the indicative (what Christ has done to bring us salvation and life) before he delivers the imperative (commands to live consistently with what Christ has done for us). The pattern of indicative first and imperative second means that Christians are growing into the renewed life that Christ has already secured for them. We are being renewed into the person God designed us to be, in Christ.

More to come next time: the outcome of renewal and the community of renewal.

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Portrait of an Apostle – my first book

A long-term project recently came to fruition when my book on the apostle Paul was published two weeks ago. The title of the book is Portrait of an Apostle: A Case for Paul’s Authorship of Colossians and Ephesians.

Portrait of an Apostle

Over the course of my research I had a great time navigating my way through large sections of Colossians and Ephesians containing Paul’s direct description of his ministry (such as his calling to reach the Gentiles) and his personal circumstances (such as suffering and being imprisoned). My aim for the project was to respond to arguments that a later imitator of Paul wrote Colossians and Ephesians. 

Most people are not even aware that many scholars dispute that Paul wrote these two letters. What I found is that while a number of scholars reject Paul’s authorship of the letters, their reasons for doing so are not convincing when subjected to careful analysis.

I decided that the easiest way to detect or rule out forgery (or pseudepigraphy, the more technical term) was to examine how Paul is actually portrayed in the letters. Someone who wanted to imitate Paul would need to describe his personal experiences and sense of calling in ways that are consistent with Paul’s depiction of himself in other letters. But if the imitator sounded too much like Paul, without any freedom or variety in expression, our suspicions would be raised that we were dealing with forgery.

There actually are two letters, from the 2nd or 3rd centuries, that are written under Paul’s name. The letters known as 3rd Corinthians and the Epistle to the Laodiceans are widely acknowledged as forgeries, and they give telltale signs that the author is someone other than Paul himself.

But with Colossians and Ephesians, we see fresh and unstudied articulations of Paul’s ministry and calling that nonetheless align comfortably with Paul’s description of himself in his earlier letters. Through a verse-by-verse investigation of relevant passages, I demonstrated that it makes much better sense to credit Paul himself with the authorship of Colossians and Ephesians.

Colossians and Ephesians are beautiful New Testament letters that point to the sacrificial love of Christ, his reign over all things, and God’s plan to bring reconciled people together as part of Christ’s body, the church. I hope that this study encourages Christians to be confident that God spoke powerfully to us through the apostle Paul in these letters, so that we can read the letters with attitudes of complete trust, worship, and obedience.

More information about the book can be found by following this link: Publishing info for Portrait of an Apostle.

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The Beatitudes – blessings for broken people

Possible site of the Sermon on the Mount

Possible site of the Sermon on the Mount

The Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-12 are beautiful and challenging at the same time. They are a pronouncement of the good news (gospel) that Jesus brings to the world – assurances of blessings and comfort for the needy, in a world that is broken and resistant to God and his people. Against all cultural norms, God blesses not the rich, powerful, and self-righteous but the lowly and spiritually desperate.

One tricky question that arises with the Beatitudes is whether they promote a “works” mindset: doing the “right things” in order to receive eternal rewards. Instead of requiring good works, the Beatitudes announce unexpected blessings to surprising people. These people are marked by a spiritual posture, towards God and towards others.

The verses describe hearts that are humble and hungry towards God. The “poor in spirit” recognize their brokenness and look to a solution beyond themselves. Those who mourn see a broken world and their own broken lives clearly and soberly. The meek humbly wait on God’s intervention instead of trying to force their own self-made solutions. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness and are pure in heart know that God and God alone can bring renewal and salvation to our lives and world.

The verses also envision hearts that are soft towards others. This characteristic naturally flows from people who rightly evaluate God and themselves. Recognizing our own frailties and dependence upon God creates softer hearts for those around us. Soft hearts show mercy to others in need. Soft hearts desire to bring peace and reconciliation to situations marked by strife and hostility. Soft hearts refuse to lash out against enemies in the midst of persecution.

Humble, sincere, and merciful people don’t often come out ahead in a world that can be ruthless and resistant to God. But Jesus promises God’s presence and power to endure, along with the eternal blessings of being with Him in the new creation.

The opening Beatitudes set much of the tone for the remainder of the Sermon on the Mount. Humble, faith-filled dependence manifests itself in hungry hearts towards God and soft hearts towards others, according to the Beatitudes. Jesus then unfolds the full extent of loving God (valuing his kingdom and reward above all things), and loving others (merciful and counter-intuitive love, even for enemies) throughout the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.

Jesus also models humble dependence on the Father and a hunger for righteousness. He mourns over sin and the rejection of God’s abundant kingdom. He demonstrates compassion and love to those who don’t hold onto illusions that they can rescue themselves. And he rejects self protection or even retaliation when he goes to the cross and pours out his life sacrificially, to bless broken people.

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The “Sheep and Goats” Passage of Matthew 25

One of Jesus’ more rhetorically powerful teachings is found in Matthew 25:31-46. Jesus describes the final judgment of the world (25:31, 46) using the vivid imagery of sheep and goats being marked for either reward (the sheep) or punishment (the goats). The final verdict is based on how “the nations” have responded to the needy person identified as “one of the least of these brothers of mine” (25:40) or simply “one of the least of these” (25:45).

This passage presents a challenging interpretative choice: who exactly are the “least of these” that Jesus describes? The three most likely options are: 1) they are any and all needy people in this world (supported by commentators Davies and Allison, and Bruner); (2) they are needy followers of Jesus (Turner, Wilkins, France), 3) they are persecuted messengers for Jesus (Keener, Blomberg, Osborne). In addition, some commentators make the point that all disciples are expected to be messengers of Jesus, so there is little need to distinguish between needy Christians and persecuted messengers of the gospel (Carson, Hagner).

Let’s narrow the discussion to an examination of views #1 and #3 from above, with the understanding that view #2 could be included in view #3 after making minor modifications.

View #1: The sheep and goats (self-identified followers of Jesus) are people being judged based upon how actively they helped the poor and needy. Here are some arguments that support this view:

A. The sheep and goats express surprise in the passage. This is best understood as the surprise of those who thought they had been following Christ but discover that they are tragically mistaken.

B. Along these lines, the sheep and goat story reflects the teaching that a tree is known by its fruit. Matthew 7:15-23 (speaking of false prophets) says, “Every tree that doesn’t produce good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. . . .  Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord!’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name? And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me.’”

C. Elsewhere in Matthew Jesus stresses the importance of showing mercy to those in need (Matt 6:2-3; Matt 23:23). Additionally, Jesus’ own life displays a concern for the overlooked and disregarded people of the world.

D. The preceding passages are addressed to Christ’s followers and emphasize the theme of being prepared for Christ’s return and judgment (Matt 24 and 25, with stories such as the parable of the 10 virgins and the parable of the talents).

E. Understanding this passage as a call to show mercy to anyone in need makes the teaching more directly applicable in any society and any time period.

View #3 (including view #2, for simplicity): The sheep and goats are people from the nations being judged based upon how they respond to the lowly believers who proclaim and demonstrate the good news of the kingdom of God in Christ. Here are some of the best arguments for this position:

A. Jesus’ disciples are called his “brothers” and “little ones” in Matthew (12:46-50; 28:10; see also 10:40-42), and these terms are very similar to “the least of these brothers of mine,” and “the least of these”  from Matthew 25.

B.  Matthew 25 :31-46 shows a strong parallel to the language of Matt 10:40-42: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes someone known to be a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes someone known to be righteous will receive a righteous person’s reward. And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is known to be my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly be rewarded.”  The close association between Jesus and the little ones is the same in both passages, and the wording of Matthew 10:40-42 unambiguously refers to Jesus’ disciples in that instance.

C.  In Matthew, suffering and persecution is promised to disciples who are sent out on mission for Jesus (10:1-23; 24:9-14; 28:16-20). This also recalls the final Beatitude from Matt 5:10-13: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” Jesus always give assurances to his persecuted followers that he is standing with them and strengthening them. The ultimate vindication of persecuted believers is envisioned in Matt 25:31-46, according to view #3.

D. The “nations” in Matthew are consistently identified as the recipients of the disciples’ gospel outreach (12:18-21; 20:19; 24:9; 24:14; 28:19), which suggests that the “nations” (Matt 25:32) being judged in this teaching are similarly the people of the broader world into which Jesus’ disciples are being sent.

E. A passage that reveals Jesus’ similar perspective on his disciples and their treatment by the nations is Matthew 24:9-14: “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. . . . And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”

F. The sacrificial death of Christ (which is introduced immediately after this passage – see Matt 26:1-2)  is more centrally featured with this view.

As you can see, both of these positions have compelling evidence in their favor. That is why so many people disagree about which view is more likely. What is the resulting difference of interpretation? View #1 challenges people to help the poor and needy, while view #3 encourages believers to become poor and needy for the sake of the gospel (with the assurance that Jesus is standing with them and identifying himself with them).  Either way, this is a convicting passage that helps Christians evaluate their priorities in the light of eternity.

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