Tag Archives: Christ

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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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 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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Results of Christian Unity

The pursuit of Christian unity (ecumenism) is a noble quest, but it doesn’t end with a unified church alone. The unity of Ephesians 4:1-6 leads to the maturity of Ephesians 4:7-16. The result of Christian unity ought to lead to authentic discipleship and conformity to the image of Christ for all involved. If not, then the unity we are pursuing might have lost its moorings.

The unity we embrace has substance – it is a unity of “faith” and “knowledge of God’s Son” (Eph 4:13). As a unified church we fix our gaze on our God and Savior, delighting in him as we grow to know and love him more and more.

Ours is a unity focused on the truth of Christ, with false portrayals of him being rejected (Eph 4:14). Our unity and growth brings theological maturity in the form of discernment and love for God’s truth.

The maturity we grow into is the maturity of Christ – “let us grow in every way into Him who is the head – Christ” (Eph 4:15 – HCSB). As a unified church, our experience begins to reflect more and more the divine character and fullness of Christ, in whom all the fullness of God dwells (Colossians 2:9).

God has designed us to grow into maturity as a body, with each member contributing to growth – “From Him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part” (Eph 4:16).

Christian unity centered in Christ needs to be a top priority for the church. Without it, we can’t become who we were called to be.

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The Virtues of Christian Unity

Christians are brothers and sisters with other believers across time and space. We are joined together by the Holy Spirit into one Body (1 Corinthians 12:13). “Ecumenism” comes from the Greek word οἰκουμένη (meaning the entire inhabited world). Those who are involved in the ecumenical movement desire to see Christians around the entire world living together in unity. Healthy ecumenism aims for a Christian unity that is still distinctively Christian. In other words, it recognizes the threats of both divisiveness (disregarding unity) and false teaching (disregarding truth) to Christian community and ministry. Ephesians 4:1-16 is a great passage that describes our oneness as Christians.

Ephesians 4:1-16 emphasizes the virtues and beliefs that make Christian unity possible, along with the results of that unity. Today we will look at the virtues presented in the passage.

We don’t start from scratch with our growth towards unity. Paul introduces the whole passage by referring  back to the great blessings of Christianity that are described in chapters 1-3, saying “walk worthily of the calling that you have received” (Eph 4:1). The virtues we need for unity are an overflow of the work that God has done for us in Christ. In fact, ecumenism is about “keeping” (Eph 4:3) the unity that Christ has already forged, rather than creating that unity on our own. It is God who in Christ has created us as “one new man” (Eph 2:15). We simply attempt to maintain and reflect the oneness that is ours in Christ.

Unity is experienced through relationships among believers. The unity we cultivate is not meant to remain an abstract concept. It is meant to be lived out in real relationships. The postures of humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance need to characterize these relationships (Eph 4:2). In this combination, the virtues describe people who recognize their own limitations and accept the limitations of others. The road to Christian maturity is a process. We need to present ourselves authentically to others and be ready to engage with others in their frailties and imperfections. Christ’s forgiveness covers us all.

Finally, Paul tells his readers that they must “make every effort” to keep unity (4:3). The pursuit of Christian unity ought to be a priority for believers. This reflects the heart of Jesus, who prayed for unity among believers (John 17), and made that unity possible through his sacrificial death. Just a chapter earlier in Ephesians, Paul notes that God intends to display his great wisdom to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms (Eph 3:10). How would God do this? Through his magnificent creation? Through mighty miracles? Through his awe-inspiring presence? Paul says that God has chosen to reveal his great wisdom through the church (Eph 3:10), a people God has made alive in Christ and has brought together as one. Our oneness as Christians helps testify to God’s great wisdom and power, even to heavenly beings.

Evangelical Christians often place such a high value on truth that we overlook the urgent call to preserve unity in Christ. This can create devastating consequences for our churches (church splits) and our mission as believers (blemished testimonies).

Equally devastating is to dilute Christianity through misguided attempts at unity. The beliefs upon which Christian unity is founded will be our next stop with this topic, in the coming days.


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Misplaced Zeal

06.14 Go in Peace

“Be contentious and zealous, brothers, but about the things that relate to salvation.” So says the ancient Christian letter known as 1 Clement (I read this earlier today as part of day three in a “read through the church fathers in 7 years” program at this site).

1 Clement may be the earliest non-canonical Christian work that is not found in the New Testament (the Didache is another possibility). A likely date for 1 Clement is right at the end of the first century, A.D. In the letter the church at Rome encourages the Corinthian church to support its church leaders rather than resist those leaders, who had not gone astray in any doctrinal or moral area. The problem was that a handful of influential younger people in the church wanted to push aside the older leaders and do things their own way.

It is in this context that 1 Clement challenges the Corinthians to avoid misplaced zeal. In other words, the Corinthian church members shouldn’t stir up disunity and rebellion based on relatively minor issues of theology or practice. They should be passionate and unyielding only about things “that relate to salvation” (1 Clement 45:1).

The New Testament supports the similar perspective of fighting for the essentials of the Christian faith but showing humility in the non-essentials. Jesus and the writers of the New Testament are never shy about condemning false teaching in central areas (Jesus denounces the teaching of the Pharisees as well as those who denied that he was sent from the Father; Paul confronts false teaching in Galatians, 2 Corinthians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus; 2 Peter and Jude speak strongly against false teaching; and 1, 2, 3 John and Revelation use sharp language against promoters of false doctrine). At the same time, Jesus prays for the peace and unity of believers in John 17, and Paul shows that unity is a high priority in places such as Romans 15:5-6; all throughout 1 Corinthians; Ephesians 4:3-6; Philippians 1:27-2:4, and Colossians 3:15.

The real question is, “How do you determine what are the essentials, and what is secondary?” 1 Clement says that things connected to salvation are the things worth defending. The New Testament connects salvation (and true doctrine) to the person and work of Jesus (his identity as Son of God and Messiah, and his ministry culminating in his death, resurrection, and return). Other thinkers in early Christianity identified a biblically-rooted “rule of faith” (regula fide) that ought to guide all Christians. This “rule” was not a fixed formula (like the later creeds), but was a series of judgments about God the Father, Son, and Spirit, along with an understanding about how God has intervened in this world to carry out his saving purposes. For early Christians, these were the defining elements of Christianity (along with a common Christian ethic of love, holiness, and service).

It is good to be zealous about the right things. But we should guard against the temptation to divide over smaller matters. 1 Clement offers words of wisdom for our churches today. Along with the central truths of our faith, unity and peace are worth fighting for as well.

For a related post, see “Lessons learned from Church History.”

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My Favorite New Testament Book

At a wedding recently someone asked me what my favorite New Testament book was.

That question always stumps me.

The great thing about teaching the whole NT several times every semester is that I get exposed to every book on a regular basis. I learn to appreciate the contribution each book makes to the whole. Teaching the whole NT also keeps me accountable to the whole NT. I can’t ignore parts of the NT that don’t conveniently fit into a simplistic paradigm of God and his work.

The Gospel narratives remind me that Christianity is more than a philosophy or a set of abstract principles. It is based on historical events in which the Son of God was born among us, ministered in our midst, was rejected, was crucified, was buried, and rose again. The comforting, unsettling, inspiring acts and teachings of Jesus lead me to both deeper worship of the Lord and greater eagerness to read about and understand him more.

Acts tells the exciting history of how the church blossomed by the power of the Spirit and under the leadership, ministry, and teaching of the apostles. There were significant bumps along the way though – pretenders struck down for lying to God, accusations of insensitivity to the needs of some members of the church, sharp theological disputes that required the convening of a church council, and the breaking apart of a ministry team because of a disagreement over personnel. But God’s word and his church still advance.

Paul’s letters are a diverse bunch themselves. Paul unpacks the implications of Jesus’ work – for the present life, for the life to come, for Jewish believers, for Gentile believers. He presents the ideal of unified churches guided and empowered by the Spirit and yet churches that need leadership and organization too.

The general epistles include uncompromising stands against false teaching (Jude), descriptions of worldwide judgment on the unbelieving world (2 Peter), and the challenge of living counter-culturally and not just inwardly spiritually (James).

And then there is Revelation, where the vivid portrayals of God’s vindication of his people, triumph over evil, and creation of the new heavens and new earth remind us not to reduce God to a tame, grandfatherly figure.

The NT books are all part of our heritage as Christians. They all contribute to a complete Christian world view, and God uses them all to speak to us and shape us into worshipful disciples. Treasures await in each book for those who are diligent seekers.

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