The First Christians – Servants of God and Christ

John the servant

A stroll through the books of the New Testament reveals a common expression for how the earliest Christians viewed themselves: as servants of God and Jesus Christ:

Romans 1:1 – “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus”

Titus 1:1 – “Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ”

James 1:1 – “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ”

2 Peter 1:1 – “Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ”

Jude 1:1 – “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and a brother of James”

Revelation 1:1 – God gave his revelation to “his servant John.”

Five different Christian ministers – Paul, James, Peter, Jude, and John – identify themselves as servants of God and Christ. Two (James and Jude) were likely Jesus’ own brothers! Still, they didn’t play the “brother-of-Jesus card” but represented themselves as his servants. Peter, the apostle to the Jews, Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, and John, the last surviving apostle, each adopted the title “servant.” All five disciples placed this label front and center – at the beginning of their letters or writings.

The title “servant” captured the early Christians’ complete, undivided loyalty to Christ. The term comes from the Greek word doulos and typically referred to an actual slave in the Roman era. The Holman Christian Standard Bible actually insists on translating the term as “slave” in the verses mentioned above.

Christians serve the Lord exclusively. They buy into his lordship and kingdom, and they respond to his call. They make it their goal to know how to serve him through prayer and a careful study of Scriptures. They recognize the privilege of serving him, and they love to bring glory to his name. In the end, they long to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

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Education and the Pursuit of Wisdom

Taylor University Prayer Chapel

Taylor University Prayer Chapel

Proverbs 3:13-18 identifies wisdom as the most valuable treasure in this world. Here is the passage in the NIV:

“Blessed are those who find wisdom, 
those who gain understanding,
for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.
She is more precious than rubies;
nothing you desire can compare with her.
Long life is in her right hand;
in her left hand are riches and honor.
Her ways are pleasant ways,
and all her paths are peace.
She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her;
those who hold her fast will be blessed.”

Notice the exhortations to actively pursue wisdom: “find wisdom . . . gain understanding . . . take hold of her . . . hold her fast.” With these words the father is appealing to his son, “make this your life quest!” And why? The passage makes it clear: an investment in wisdom pays great dividends, contributing to a life of shalom (peace) as well as fruitfulness in work and health.

What a great word for college students. The goal of a college education is not simply to become employable, to make lifelong friends, or to enjoy four years of enriching experiences. Those goals become meaningful only when aligned under a greater goal: growing in wisdom and understanding about God and the world he created.

How does one proceed on this journey towards wisdom and understanding? Proverbs 9:10 gives the starting point: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” And in the wake of the new covenant, Christ is the one “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3).

A truly wise life emerges only from a right relationship with God, in Christ, by the Spirit. I’m so glad that learning at Taylor is experienced within a context of faith and discipleship, so that growth in wisdom can take place!

 

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Ancient Sermon for Easter

Chinese believers refer to Easter as “Resurrection Day” (fuhuojie in Mandarin pinyin). On Resurrection Day we celebrate the world-changing event of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. His victory over death secures victory over death for all who believe in him.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher - likely site of Jesus' death and resurrection.

Church of the Holy Sepulcher – likely site of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

An ancient Greek sermon, often attributed to John Chrysostom, captures much of the beauty and power of Resurrection Day. It invites “successful” and struggling believers alike to celebrate glorious life in Christ and revel in the victory Christ accomplished over the grave. Note especially the allusions to the parable of the vineyard workers (Matthew 20:1-16), the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32), and 1 Corinthians 15:20-26,54-55. Here is the sermon:

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour,
let them receive their due reward;
If any have come after the third hour,
let him with gratitude join in the Feast!
And he that arrived after the sixth hour,
let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss.
And if any delayed until the ninth hour,
let him not hesitate; but let him come too.
And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour,
let him not be afraid by reason of his delay.
For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first.
He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour,
as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows.
He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor.
The deed He honors and the intention He commends.
Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!
You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.
He destroyed Hell when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said,
“You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.”
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

This English translation of this sermon is found at anglicansonline.org, and the original Greek sermon is included in the Patrologia Graeca Series by Jacques-Paul Migne. For a brief discussion about the association of the sermon with John Chrysostom, see Roger Pearse’s post and links.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!flowers in waterA

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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).

IMG_1199

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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