Archive for November, 2009
He was known as the Roseland Killer. In the summer of 2000, Chicago’s south side was terrorized by a series of seven murders, all of women, most of whom were indigent. After striking, the killer would leave his victims’ bodies in abandoned buildings around town to be found later by law enforcement officials.
Eventually, the long arm of the law caught up Geoffrey Griffin. In his 2005 trial, Griffin was sentenced to 100 years in prison for his deranged acts, although he was acquitted of one woman’s murder, Beverly Burns, even though forensics reports showed Burns’ blood splattered on one of Griffin’s shirts. Burns’ daughter, Jeanna, reacted angrily to Griffin’s acquittal: “I hate you,” she said to him. “I hope you burn in hell.”
“I hope you burn in hell.” Those words have been said at more than one murder trial. For when someone commits a crime so grizzly and heinous that no temporal punishment can serve as appropriate recompense, those effected by the crime have no other recourse than to hope in divinely wrought wrath. And so they say, “I hope you burn in hell.”
Of course hell isn’t a real place. At least, that’s the majority consensus on the smoldering sewer of sulfur. After all, thorny philosophical foxholes concerning a loving God and his ability, or lack thereof, to consign people to a place of eternal damnation have long since dispensed with such silly notions as hell. And yet, fascinatingly, people seem to be perfectly willing to resurrect the prospect of an eternal inferno for the worst among us – serial killers, rapists, terrorists, genocidal maniacs, and the like. For there seems to be something inside of us which cries out for justice – a justice that will right the wrongs of rabid wickedness. And, in some instances, the only appropriate form of justice seems to be hell. And so we say, in the face of grave evil, “I hope you burn in hell.”
No matter which way the philosophical winds might blow, theologically and biblically, hell is indeed a real place. It is a place, in fact, that is addressed quite colorfully by Paul in our reading for today from 2 Thessalonians 1:
God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power. (verses 6-9)
Paul is painstakingly clear: In the face of grave human injustice, God will bring his divine justice. And his divine justice will be rendered through the fires of hell.
So what are we to do? How are we to respond? Are we to, like one who has just had his life shattered by a criminal mastermind, anxiously anticipate our enemies’ interminable anguish in God’s pool of pyre? Are we to announce to our enemies, “I hope you burn in hell”? Hardly. For Paul continues, “With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling” (verse 11). Paul does not want anyone, whether friend or enemy, to burn in hell. Instead, he prays earnestly that more and more people may be found worthy of their calling from God through Christ. Paul’s prayer is for salvation, not damnation.
Hell is the place of God’s justice. But so is heaven. The difference is, heaven is God’s justice in light of Christ’s righteousness while hell is God’s justice in light of our own righteousness, or, more accurately, our own lack of righteousness. Which course of God’s justice would you care to receive? You will receive one or the other.
I would challenge you to pray constantly, like Paul, for those not guarded by Christ’s righteousness unto salvation. Pray that they would receive God’s righteousness through Christ. For it is this righteousness that infinitely exceeds any justice wrought by hell. For it is this righteousness that can turn sinners into saints and despots into devouts. And that’s a kind of justice that we can all hope in. And so, “I hope you beam in heaven.” I really do.
There’s nothing that a copy of an ancient Mayan calendar can’t help you with if you’re trying to figure out the exact date and nature of the end of the world. At least, that’s what the producers of the apocalyptic blockbuster 2012 want you to believe. Yes, the plot line is thin. Yes, the lines are cheesy. Yes, what is stretched into a three-hour taedium vitae could have been compacted into forty minutes. But on the upside, who doesn’t want to see Los Angeles fall into the ocean? Or Las Vegas sink into the earth? Who doesn’t want to watch every beloved national landmark get blown to smithereens? Besides, it’s not like everything gets destroyed. The G8 has an escape plan for a fortunate few: Arks have been hidden in the Himalayas, complete with animals, for the reseeding and replenishing of our fair planet.
Although I, from the standpoint of sheer mathematical probability, would venture a guess that the world won’t end in 2012, I’m guessing that more than one moviegoer, while sitting through this unpropitious hodgepodge, wished that, at the very least, this movie would end. For, in the final analysis, it all seems to be just a little too much doom and too much gloom. Although disaster might light up the silver screen well, no one would want to live through such terrors in real life.
It is this kind of apocalyptic horror that leads us to our reading from 1 Thessalonians 4. For Paul speaks of the end of the world:
Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. (verses 13-18)
For those who harbor horrendous notions concerning the world’s end, these verses from Paul have been regularly marshaled to teach the doctrine of a secret rapture. That is, before the world’s final demise, believers in Christ will be secretly “caught up” to God to dwell with him in safety while the rest of unbelieving humanity gets microwaved in a 2012-styled apocalypse. This, however, is far from what Paul actually teaches.
To begin with, the rapture of Christians will be anything but secret. Verse 16 dispenses with any such notion when it speaks of “a loud command…and the trumpet call of God.” When believers are “raptured,” everyone will know it. Second, this so-called “rapture” will not happen before the end of time. Again, verse 16: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven.” This rapture happens at Christ’s second coming and not before. Third, what Paul describes in these verses is not a rescue from a crumbling planet, but a joyful welcome of our coming King: “We who are still alive and are left will be caught up together…in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” The “rapture,” then, is not some divinely ordained escape hatch from this world, but a “meet and greet” of our Lord Jesus. Indeed, it was common in this day for people to leave their city and travel down the road to meet and greet a visiting dignitary to warmly usher him in to their town. Josephus records one such instance when the high priest of Israel, Jaddua, does just this for Alexander the Great: “And when Jaddua understood that Alexander was not far from the city, he went out in procession, with the priests and the multitude of the citizens” (Antiquities 11.329). Josephus goes on to recount that Alexander was so impressed by Jaddua’s welcome that he salutes the high priest. This is the picture which Paul paints of the coming of Christ. We, as Christ’s subjects, will go forth to meet him and welcome him to this earth, at which time he will judge the nations and usher in his new creation.
What is the upshot of all this, then? Paul answers, “Encourage each other with these words” (verse 14). That is, rather than trembling at hoary visions of apocalyptic doom, we ought to be anxiously anticipating Christ’s final advent. The end of the world is meant to be encouraging, not scary. This is why the earliest Christians faithfully prayed, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20)! The end of the world will not be riddled with complete carnage; rather, it will be marked by a King named Christ. What a marvelous day it will be.
To my “Word for Today” friends: On this special day, I thought it would be appropriate to post an article I wrote for the November edition of Concordia’s Vineyard newsletter. As we celebrate around food and with family, I hope this article gladdens your heart as you ponder all of God’s good gifts for which you can be thankful. I will post a very important blog concerning the rapture and 1 Thessalonians 4 tomorrow. Stay tuned…
It was truly a mountaintop moment. I’ll never forget seeing her rush down Concordia’s breezeway in her pristine white dress, bursting through the back doors of the worship center, and coming toward me. The day I married Melody was a day I will always cherish. But, as seems to be the way of life, you must eventually leave the mountaintop moments of life and tread into the valley of reality.
The valley of reality struck less than a week after our wedding. By then, the ceremony was ancient history, the reception was long passed, and we had returned from our brief honeymoon to our apartment, littered with wedding gifts – lots of wedding gifts. Mixers, crock pots, flatware, bed linens, personal effects, and hundreds of dollars of gift cards to Target. “Okay,” Melody announced, a towering stack of cards in her hand, “It’s time to put this stuff away, but as we do, we need to write a thank you card for each and every one of these gifts!” Each and every one of these gifts? But there were hundreds of them! Nevertheless, gift after gift, I wrote these thank you notes, even though my hand got cramped and my tongue got dry from licking all those envelopes. I must confess that that more notes I wrote, the briefer my expressions of gratitude became. I appreciated the gifts, but the overwhelming task of writing hundreds of cards led to the underwhelming nature of my notes of thankfulness.
Unfortunately, like my thank you cards, many modern day expressions of gratitude are sadly underwhelming. We do not respond adequately to, or even bother to notice, the many things for which we have to be thankful. That is what made some words from the famed poet Ralph Waldo Emerson in a sermon he delivered on Thanksgiving Day of 1830 so striking to me: “At first, brethren, consider whether each of us has not had some reason to acknowledge the special favor of God himself.” Emerson is calling us to reflect on our lives and find some gift from God for which we might be thankful. This kind of a call from a pastor to his people at Thanksgiving is anything but striking, though. Indeed, it is a common call. No, what really struck me about Emerson’s sermon was not his call to thankfulness, but the first reason he offered as to why we should give thanks: “Twelve months are past.”
Did I hear that right? We ought to be thankful to God simply because a year has passed from one Thanksgiving to the next? Sure enough, Emerson’s first reason for thankfulness is the simple gift of time. Perhaps the simple gift of time was especially poignant to Emerson because his beloved wife Ellen lie sick in bed during this period with tuberculosis. She would die from the disease the following February. God’s gift of time with his wife, then, became suddenly precious to Emerson.
The text on which Emerson based his sermon for that Thanksgiving Day was Psalm 107: “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever” (verse 1). The Psalmist, like Emerson, references time. Except the Psalmist does not call us to give thanks for twelve months; rather, the Psalmist calls us to give thanks for “forever.” For long after our lives have passed from this earth, we will have an eternity with a God who loves us. And that should be enough to move any heart to thankfulness.
As we celebrate another Thanksgiving this day, do not let your expressions of gratitude wallow in mediocrity. Instead, make them hearty and overwhelming. For God’s gifts are hearty and overwhelming. And if you need something for which to be thankful, consider this: Twelve months have passed. Not only that: Eternity awaits. Give thanks to the LORD for this!
My wife Melody loves receiving presents. Actually, that’s a bit of an understatement. It’s more like she adores receiving presents. Christmas, her birthday, Valentine’s Day, our anniversary – any time that a present looms on the horizon, her curious spirit begins to get the best of her and, several days before the presumed present arrives, she begins to prod me with questions concerning what her gift might be. “Where did you buy it?” she’ll ask. “How much did it cost? Is it something I asked for? What can I use it for?” “I’m not giving you any hints,” I’ll usually respond coyly. “We’re not playing twenty questions with your present.”
When the day for her present finally arrives, we never make it past breakfast before Melody is asking for her gift. “I want to open my present now!” she’ll exclaim with an irresistible grin. I can’t help it. With a smile like hers, I melt and give her the gift. Besides, by this point, her suspense has been building for weeks. And now, Melody can stand it no longer. Her curiosity is intense. The time has come for her to open her present. And when she does, she is always delighted.
In our reading for today from 1 Thessalonians 3, Paul expresses the same kind of suspense over the wellbeing of the Thessalonians that my wife expresses over the content of her presents. Paul opens this chapter:
So when we could stand it no longer, we thought it best to be left by ourselves in Athens. We sent Timothy, who is our brother and God’s fellow worker in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith, so that no one would be unsettled by these trials. You know quite well that we were destined for them. In fact, when we were with you, we kept telling you that we would be persecuted. And it turned out that way, as you well know. (verses 1-4)
“When we could stand it no longer,” Paul says in verse 1. Paul and his companions are too worried about the Thessalonians’ faith, being tested by persecution at this time, not to check up on them. And so they send Timothy to strengthen the Thessalonians in their faith and subsequently report back to Paul and his friends.
Interestingly, Paul is so concerned about the Thessalonians wellbeing, that he repeats his statement of suspense in verse 5:
For this reason, when I could stand it no longer, I sent Timothy to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless. (verses 1-5)
Notice the shift in the pronoun. In verse 1, Paul says, “When we could stand it no longer.” But now in verse 5, the concern is especially personal: “When I could stand it no longer.” Paul’s concern for the Thessalonians and their faith in and faithfulness to Christ is intense.
Blessedly, Paul receives a good report: “But Timothy has just now come to us from you and has brought good news about your faith and love” (verse 6). You can almost hear Paul breathe a sigh of relief in this verse. The Thessalonians’ faith is no longer a mystery to Paul. Their faith has been “unwrapped,” so to speak, by Timothy and has been shown to be beautiful and strong. And Paul is delighted.
Do you have the same concern for others’ spiritual wellbeing as Paul? Does there ever come a time when “you can stand it no longer” and so you pick up the phone just to check on someone, or drop someone a note just to let them know that you’re praying for them, or plan a lunch with someone just to reflect with them on their walk with Christ? Like Paul, I hope you have moments where someone else’s wellbeing keeps you so in suspense that “you can stand it no longer.” For this is a suspense fueled by love. In fact, why don’t you contact that person today? After all, you may just be the person that God uses to strengthen someone’s faith, grow someone’s heart, or pilot someone through a time of trouble. And who wouldn’t want to be used by God for a purpose transcendent as that?
One person’s trash may be another person’s treasure. Then again, one person’s trash may simply be trash. The other morning, I heard a news report on WOAI chronicling those who suffer with compulsive hoarding disorder. People with this disorder will regularly hoard things of limited to no value – things such as empty milk cartons and tin cans and old newspapers – because of deep, and usually complex, psychological disturbances. The report went on to explain that even after a person’s house is cleared and cleaned by a professional housekeeping service, things will immediately begin to pile up again because the psychological addiction to hoarding cannot be addressed by simple aesthetic changes in a person’s living environment.
One person’s trash may be another person’s treasure. This cliché, slightly modified, can help us understand Paul’s condemnation of an unrepentant group of Jews in today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians 2. Paul begins this chapter by recounting his own sufferings (cf. verse 2) and then moves on to address the sufferings of the Christians at Thessalonica:
For you, brothers, became imitators of the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea. For you suffered the same things from your own countrymen as they did from the Jews, who killed both the Lord Jesus and the prophets, and drove us out, and displease God and oppose all mankind by hindering us from speaking to the Gentiles that they might be saved – so as always to fill up the measure of their sins. (verses 14-16, ESV)
There is group of Jews, it seems, which is stridently bent on preventing the gospel’s spread and will even resort to persecuting the church to thwart its march forward. Paul says that such persecutors “fill up the measure of their sins.” That is, they pile sin upon sin until God’s patience is exhausted and his wrath is revealed.
But at the same time that these recalcitrant unbelievers are filling up the measure of their sins, those who suffer under them are doing some filling of their own. As Paul writes elsewhere in Colossians 1:24: “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” Paul is not here teaching that Christ’s suffering on the cross is somehow incomplete or inadequate for salvation. Rather, he is saying that we, as those who follow Christ, get to share in Christ’s sufferings. And the promise is that the same persecutions which fill up the sins of the persecutors also serve also to fill us in Christ the persecuted. In other words, persecution, depending on whether you are unjustly leveling it against another or unjustly receiving it from another, can serve either to fill you up in sin or fill you up in Christ. One person’s trash of sin may be another person’s treasure in Christ.
In the world’s eyes, persecution seems to have limited to no value. But not in God’s eyes. As the Psalmist says, “Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints” (Psalm 116:15). Every affliction that a Christian endures, every unjust accusation under which he stands up, even a death that he dies for the sake of God’s name is precious in God’s sight. The trash of worldly persecution is reformed and remade into treasure by Christ.
So if you are suffering today, take heart! For the trash of this world’s suffering can be a treasure in God’s sight. Ask God what he is seeking to teach you through such hardship and rejoice that you are counted worthy to receive God’s treasure – even when his treasure is suffering.
I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” This proverb was first penned by Gershom Buckley, a minister at a congregation in Wethersfield, Connecticut. In his pamphlet “Will and Doom,” Buckley wrote, “Actions are more significant than words.” Since then, this phrase, slightly modified, has become axiomatic, used to express the primacy of acting over speaking.
In our reading for today from 1 Thessalonians 1, Paul opens his letter to this Christian congregation with a commendation: “You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord” (verse 5-6, ESV). Paul here seems to be commending the Thessalonians’ actions in imitating him and, by extension, Christ. “You’ve done what Jesus has done!” Paul seems to be saying. “You’ve acted like Jesus acted! And actions speak louder than words!”
But Paul’s commendation of the Thessalonians is not a matter of their actions only. For Paul continues in verse 6: “And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” The Thessalonians imitated Paul not just in his actions, but by receiving the Word. That is, they did not imitate Paul through pious works, charitable acts, or spiritual feats, though all of those things are certainly vital to and a noble part of the Christian life. When it came to the Thessalonians’ imitation of Paul, however, and finally of Christ, it was to be found in their simple, faith-filled reception of the Word of God.
As we are reminded by Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, any and every action of a Christian is to be rooted in the Word of God. This is why the Lutheran confessors upheld the primacy of God’s Word to guide all Christian action: “In order that people do not resolve to perform service to God on the basis of their own pious imagination in an arbitrary way of their own choosing, it is necessary for the law of God constantly to light their way” (FC Ep VI:4). The Lutheran confessors maintained that without the Word of God guiding his way, a Christian would have no idea what good works to do or what charitable acts to perform. Indeed, without the Word of God guiding his way, a Christian would simply have to “make up,” as it were, what constitutes a good work. That is why Martin Luther wrote that the Ten Commandments, as contained in God’s Word, “are to be exalted and extolled above all orders, commands, and works that are taught and practiced apart from them” (LC I:333). God’s Word and commandments are to undergird every work that a Christian does.
“Actions are more significant than words.” Perhaps Gershom Buckley was wrong, or at least incomplete. Not because actions are insignificant, but because if it wasn’t for words – or, more specifically, the Word – there would be no actions for a Christian to perform. So today, I would simply offer you this little exercise: Read then Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17. Ponder each commandment and ask yourself three questions. First, ask, “Like the Thessalonians, do I receive these words from God with the joy of the Holy Spirit, or do I reject them in stubborn disbelief?” Second, ask yourself, “How have I broken these words by my sinfulness and do I trust in the sure and certain word of God’s forgiveness in Christ?” For this word of grace is God’s most beautiful word. Finally, after basking in God’s forgiveness, ask, “How can I better imitate in my actions the word that I have received in faith?” Remember, without God’s Word, there would be no actions for you to perform. So praise God for his Word today. For long after our actions fade and falter, God’s Word remains.
Last weekend, my wife Melody ran in the Rock ‘n Roll Marathon. She ran the half-marathon. It was 13 miles of pounding the pavement. Actually, as she has reminded me several times, it was 13.1 miles of pounding the pavement. Considering that the longest race I have ever run is a 5k, I am unspeakably proud of her. And she, rightfully so, is proud of herself. For she had to train for months in preparation for this race. My wife has run many a 5k and has even participated in a triathlon. But, from an athletic standpoint at least, this race was her crowing achievement.
Many people have accomplishments in their lives which they would consider “crowning achievements.” Sometimes these crowning achievements are academic in nature, such as the garnering of a degree. Other times they are personal in nature – a marriage or the birth of a child. Whatever particular form these crowing achievements may take, they all share a common denominator: They are all things of which we are proud.
In our reading for today from Philippians 4, Paul proudly speaks of a crowning achievement: “Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends” (verse 1)! Paul speaks of a crown which he proudly wears. But this crown is not a list of his finest accomplishments; rather, it is a group of redeemed people. Paul’s crown is his brothers and sisters in Christ – those whom he loves, longs for, and prays that they would stand firm in their faith. Paul’s crown is full of people!
If anyone could have had a “crown of achievements,” it would have been Paul. As we saw in yesterday’s reading, Paul was known the religious world over for his monumental spiritual achievements. Indeed, Paul had so many spiritual achievements to his name, that he not only could have filled a crown with them, he would have had to shoehorn some of his achievements in just to get all of them to fit! As Paul himself writes:
If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. (Philippians 3:4-6)
As impressive as all these accomplishments might be, Paul does not place a single one of them in his crown. For Paul’s concern is not for his own stature, status, or stateliness. No, Paul’s concern is that more and more people trust in the gospel of Jesus Christ. People redeemed by the gospel, not his own accomplishments, incrust Paul’s crown.
This is why Paul concludes his letter to the Philippians with these tender words: “Greet all the saints in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me send greetings. All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household” (verses 21-22). More than likely, Paul wrote Philippians while in Rome, under arrest and waiting to be tried before the Caesar of the time, who happened to be Nero. Thus, in his closing greetings, Paul mentions “those who belong to Caesar’s household” as saints who send greetings to the saints in Philippi. Apparently, while under arrest, Paul had shared the gospel with Caesar’s guards and attendants, and some of them had believed. And more people were added to Paul’s crown.
In a world which so often hails those who have great accomplishments to their names, our goal should be to see more and more people bend their knees to the name of Jesus Christ. This goal may not win the accolades of the world, but it will bring a smile to our Heavenly Father’s face. For the crowns of achievements for which men so earnestly strive will one day all be lost. The crowns of people, redeemed by God, however, will last into eternity. So put people in your crown.
“I’ll just wear a hat.” At least that’s what I told myself after my buddy gave me a haircut. I was in seminary at the time and did not have money to see a professional stylist. But that was okay, because my buddy had just bought a pair of clippers with guards of every number. “I want a five on the top and a two on the back and sides,” I told him. And that’s what I got. Except that one side was higher than the other. And my buddy had not learned how blend from a two guard to a five guard. So for the next week, in every class I attended and to every place I went, I wore a hat. And, perhaps illogically, I even went back to my buddy the next time I needed a haircut. Thankfully, he had vastly improved in his craft by my next visit.
Most of us have probably received a bad haircut at least once in our lives. But a bad haircut is not nearly as devastating as what some in our reading for today from Philippians 3 receive. Paul warns the Philippians to stay away from those who “put confidence in the flesh” (verse 4) rather than in Christ. He writes, “Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh” (verse 2). The Greek text of this verse is much more colorful than the NIV here translates it. First, the verb “watch out” is repeated three times in rapid succession in this one verse: “Watch out for those dogs! Watch out for those men who do evil! Watch out for those mutilators of the flesh!” Paul clearly wants the Philippians to be on their guard. Second, the phrase “mutilators of the flesh” refers to those in the early church who insisted on a physical circumcision under the stipulations of the Abrahamic covenant (cf. Genesis 17:10) in order for newly minted Christian converts to be included as part of the church. The common Greek term for “circumcision” is peritome, meaning “to cut around.” But Paul here uses the word katatome. The kata prefix is retained in such English words as “catastrophic.” In other words, these required circumcisions had gone terribly awry.
Why would Paul render such a harsh estimation of those who thought it necessary for formerly pagan Christian converts to be circumcised according to Old Testament law? Because Paul knows that such legalism can lead to a self-righteous and depraved spirit. Indeed, this was precisely Paul’s experience when he was trapped in the strangling strictures of a legalistic theology:
If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. (verses 4-7)
Notably, the Greek word for “loss” is zemia, meaning not only “loss,” but “damage.” That is, Paul’s legalism was actually damaging to his faith. Why? Because it led him to place his hope and trust in something other than Christ. Indeed, it led him to put his hope and trust in himself and his own works. And such hope and trust is sorely, and even damningly, misplaced. This is why Paul so virulently rails against those who insist on circumcision. For such a requirement actually damages faith as it points away from, rather than toward, the all-sufficient work of the Savior.
All of this is not to say that the circumcision of the Abrahamic covenant is unimportant or archaic, mind you. Abrahamic circumcision is still important, but it must be the right Abrhamic circumcision, as Paul explains to his readers: “For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh” (verse 3). The right Abrahamic circumcision is not one of the flesh, but one that instead utterly despairs of the works if the flesh and instead trusts in Christ with the heart. As God himself says about true circumcision: “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer” (Deuteronomy 10:16). The circumcision of the heart is the circumcision of repentance – when a person turns from their sin and toward Christ. Any other kind of circumcision is just a katatome.
Has your heart been circumcised? Martin Luther, in the first of his famous ninety-five theses, wrote: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” In other words, we are to live in our spiritual circumcision every day, repenting of our sins and trusting in Christ with our hearts. This circumcision is to mark everything we do. May it mark you today.
This fall, Concordia once again held its bi-annual STARS retreats. These retreats, which are held separately for men and women, are meant to be intense devotional times, where retreatents can share their struggles, encounter Christ through his Word, and be led by his Spirit in community with others. The goal of these retreats is to energize, refresh, and renew their participants to go back to their families, jobs, and communities and “shine like stars in the universe, as they hold out the word of life.” Indeed, this is Concordia’s mission statement.
Concordia’s mission statement is also our text for today from Philippians 2:
Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life. (verses 14-16)
Interestingly, the English Standard Version of the Bible translates verse 16 not as, “holding out the word of life,” as does the New International Version, quoted above, but as, “holding fast to the word of life.” The NIV, then, translates Paul’s words as an encouragement to share God’s word of life with others. The ESV translates Paul’s words as an admonishment to guard God’s word of life, even in the most trying of times. Which translation is correct?
Actually, both translations are correct. The Greek word for “hold out,” or “hold fast” as the case may be, is epecho. This is a compound word, made up of the verb echo, meaning, “to hold” and the word epi, a notoriously ambiguous preposition which can mean either “out” or “on to.” Thus, this verb can be taken to denote either that Paul’s readers should “hold out” the word of life in evangelism or “hold on to” the word of life in faithfulness.
Many people who have attended a Concordia’s STARS retreat relay stories of how, before the retreat, they were “barely hanging on.” A marriage was on the rocks. An addiction had taken over. A sense of guilt was strangling a soul. But then these retreatents worship and fellowship with other brothers and sisters in Christ and re-learn, or, in some cases, learn for the first time, how to hold on to God’s word of life for every trial, every need, and every promise of salvation. Then, when they return, firmly holding on to God’s word of life, they are ready and reinvigorated to hold out that word of life to others. And indeed they do. They more freely share their faith and offer spiritual counsel to others. They worship joyfully and pray earnestly. An experience holding on to the word of life at the retreat leads to a desire to hold out the word of life every day.
Both translations of Paul’s epecho in Philippians 2:16 are vital to the Christian life. For in a world that regularly scoffs at the gospel, and in times where comfort, strength, and hope are sorely needed, a Christian must hold on to God’s Word. But they must also not merely keep it to themselves. For they are also to hold it out to others. They are to share it with others so that more sainted stars can be added to God’s universe. It is my prayer that, in faith, you will both hold on to and hold out God’s word of life today.
“All You Need Is Love.” Such was the popular sentiment when the Beatles released a single by this name in 1967. This sentiment was so popular, in fact, that their song shot instantaneously to number one in both the US and in the UK. And in a time riddled by bloodshed in Vietnam and frantically shifting cultural tectonic plates, leading to devastating social upheaval, it was not a surprise that love alone might be touted as the answer to the word’s ills, especially since the world’s ills were all too often bulleted by hatred.
“All You Need Is Love.” It made for a number one song, but is it true? In our reading for today from Philippians 1, Paul is trapped in a society similar to that of 1967’s America. The wicked emperor Nero, known for his insanity and disdain toward Christians, is on the throne in Rome and Paul is imprisoned there, waiting to appear before Nero on charges of heresy and insurrection (cf. Acts 28:17-31). The air of society is thick and ominous. How will Paul respond to such a cultural morass? Will he say with the Beatles, “All You Need Is Love?”
Not exactly. Paul does indeed extol the value of love in a society in which hatred and contempt seem to reign supreme as he writes, “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more” (verse 9). But Paul then continues to explain how this love should not operate in a vacuum, but “in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God” (verses 9-11). According to Paul, love is indeed needed, but it is not wholly sufficient. For, according to Paul, the term “love” must not just be thrown around as a squishy non-descript emotion which can mystically salve the world’s ills. Instead, love must be defined. How is it defined? It is defined by knowing the righteousness given by Jesus Christ and by discerning how to apply that righteousness to everyday situations. That is, a person must allow their love for others to be structured by Christ’s righteousness and not by their own flights of emotional fancy and then they must allow the application of that righteousness to be guided not by timidity, anger, or any other human emotion, but by the discernment that comes only through God’s Spirit. In brief, love and its application to a hate-filled world is to be defined by Jesus and not by any human being.
Sadly, love is often not so well defined as it is in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The term “love” is left to stand alone, as in the Beatles’ song, and many people of many different philosophical, ideological, theological, and ethical stripes are allowed to come along and dump whatever content they might deem appropriate into this term “love.” The irony of this, of course, is that when different people dump different content into this word “love,” suspicion, antipathy, and even scorn regularly ensues toward others who fill this word “love” with content different from theirs. That is, people hate each other over love.
As Christians, we can gladly and unapologetically define “love” by Christ’s righteousness. For in order for Christ to share with us his righteousness, he engaged in a decisive act of love – he died on a cross. No more perfect love ever has been, or ever can be, shared. Christ’s love is the perfect and ultimate love and is therefore to define every Christian’s love.
“All You Need Is Love.” No, not really. You need more than that. You need the love of Christ. For apart from Christ, we cannot know true love. With Christ, however, love can offer comfort, render righteousness, grant hope, and pave the way to salvation. And this is love that the whole world really does need. I pray that you share this love today.