Bulletin Articles

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Making Others Be Righteous

Monday, November 23, 2020

The betrayal of Jesus into the hands of His enemies is the beginning of the darkest sequence in human history.  However, according to John 18:10-11, this grim scene contains a tragicomic episode.  Peter, in apparent fulfillment of his promise in John 13:37, reveals his willingness to die for Jesus by his willingness to kill for Jesus. 

The untrained fisherman produces a sword and takes a wild swipe at a slave of the high priest named Malchus.  He’s likely aiming for Malchus’s skull, but instead he connects with Malchus’s ear.  At this, Jesus intervenes, telling his would-be bodyguard to put away his weapon.  He surrenders Himself into custody, and His disciples flee instead of fighting.

Though it might seem that the situation is unique, in reality, Peter has faced a temptation that many of us experience regularly.  It is the temptation to make others be righteous. 

Last week, a brother posted a picture on Facebook of a T-shirt he had received as a gift.  It read, “Other People’s Free Will Stinks.”  To that, many disciples would give hearty amens, myself included.  Other people’s free will does stink!  They use it to make all kind of horrible, evil decisions, from cheating on their wives to becoming atheists to having abortions to helping arrest the sinless Son of God.

(We, of course, would never, ever use our free will to sin.  Oh, no!  Not that!)

When faced with stinky free will, many of us want to respond in a way that is positively Petrine.  If they’re not going to choose to be righteous, we’re going to make them be righteous!  If they want to arrest Jesus, we’re going to use force to make them back off.  If they want to have an abortion, we’re going to stop them by passing laws to make abortions illegal.  If they want to leave the Lord, we’re going to browbeat them and make their lives pure misery until they come back.

On one level, these strategies appear to offer success.  Jesus remains unarrested.  Babies don’t get aborted.  The straying Christian is filling a pew once more.

The problem is, though, that coercing someone into changing their behavior never results in a changed heart.  Even if the high priests’ posse is defeated, the high priests won’t hate and envy Jesus any less.  Preventing a woman from having an abortion does not lessen her fear or increase her natural affection.  Forcing a Christian to assemble does not inspire them to worship.

Indeed, attempts at coercion often fail to produce outwardly good results too.  If Jesus’ disciples defeat a posse, the chief priests will show up with a Roman cohort next.  The fearful woman is likely to seek an illegal abortion.  The browbeaten Christian often will persist in falling away, bearing a new cargo of bitterness over their bad treatment.

If we truly want godliness in others, then, we must look not to change behavior, but to change hearts.  We must rely not on coercion, but on persuasion.  God isn’t looking for sullen compliance.  He wants devotion instead.

This is hard to do.  The more we care, the more we want to fix others’ ungodly decisions by hammering them flat.  We want quick results rather than engaging in the slow, patient work of winning a heart.  However, only the latter can produce the fruit of genuine righteousness.

Jesus' Unity Prayer and COVID-19

Monday, November 16, 2020

There are few more magnificent scenes in Scripture than John 17.  In context, Jesus, on the night of His betrayal, while en route to the garden of Gethsemane, pauses to offer a prayer.  Even though He knows that in less than 24 hours, He will die a degrading, shameful death, His concern is not for Himself.  It is for His disciples.

As He prays for His ragtag band of followers, knowing full well that all of them will abandon Him before sunrise, He is most concerned that they remain united.  Indeed, He asks the Father to make all of His followers in all time one, as He and the Father are one.

Tragically, Jesus wasn’t the only one who knew how important unity among His people would be.  The devil knew too, and since the establishment of the church, he has worked tirelessly to divide it.  Throughout the record of the first-century church, we see strife over caring for Hellenistic widows, the necessity of circumcision, and plain old personal friction.

Today, the fragmentation of those who claim to be Christians underscores the success of the devil’s work.  Every denomination represents a victory for him.  Even among those who have remained faithful to the ancient order, conflict and division within and between congregations continues to be a serious problem.

These challenges have only intensified during the pandemic year of 2020.  All of us have found ourselves on unfamiliar ground amid a shifting landscape of government regulation, scientific confusion, and political passion.  Even though most of us will candidly admit that we have no idea what we’re doing, we still must make decisions:  church leaders for churches, and individual Christians for themselves and their families.

Not surprisingly, this confused process has yielded different perspectives and decisions.  Some are haunted by the specter of disease stalking through an unwary congregation.  They urge great care in assembling and sometimes even the suspension of the assembly altogether.  Others fear that the coronavirus has led us to forget our duty to the Lord, and they are suspicious of any deviation from last year’s normal.

When we are afraid, it becomes easy for us to condemn others, and this too has happened.  Christians who refuse to wear masks are foolish and unloving.  Brethren who choose to worship from home lack faith and maybe were looking for an excuse anyway.  Church leaders who curtail or suspend services have fallen for left-wing propaganda.  And so on.

In the year 2020, this is not who the Lord’s church needs to be.  We need to be the church of John 17:23 instead, the church that is so completely one that in a time as troubled as ours, others can look to us and see in our unity the evidence of Jesus’ divine origin and God’s continuing love.  Our judgments may feel so right and true to us, but creating discord in the church over human reasoning can never be anything but sin. 

Let us instead heed our Lord’s call to unity, not only in 2020, but in 2021, 2022, and all the years succeeding.  He shed His blood to make us one.  May we always take care with our actions, our words, and even our thoughts, so that we give full honor both to His prayer and to His sacrifice!

Comforter or Counselor?

Monday, November 09, 2020

Translation is an art, not a science, and this is true even of translating the Bible.  We cannot hope to establish a one-to-one correspondence between words in Koiné Greek and English, so that one is an apt translation for the other every time.  Instead, translators commonly are presented with several different possible translations, and they must choose the one that makes the most contextual sense.

As a result, different translations often say things differently, and in our search to discover God’s intent in His word, it can be quite useful to consider those different renderings.  This is true even of familiar passages.

For instance, most Christians are familiar with the description of the Holy Spirit as “the Comforter” in Jesus’ farewell discourse in John 14-16.  “Comforter” certainly is a permissible translation of the Koiné word paraclētos, but it is not the only possible one.  Indeed, it reflects an extension of the meaning of paraclētos rather than its core meaning.  Most technically, a paraclētos was something like a legal advocate or an assistant defense attorney. 

The Christian Standard Bible, then, renders paraclētos as “Counselor” (as in the way a judge will address a lawyer) rather than “Comforter”.  This sheds a great deal of new light on what Jesus is saying about the work of the Holy Spirit in the context.

For instance, in John 14:15-17, Jesus depicts Himself as One who gives commandments to be obeyed.  He promises, though, that after His departure, God will provide another paraclētos, the Spirit of truth.  “Comforter” doesn’t seem to make sense in a context that isn’t about comfort, but “Counselor”, as in “provider of legal counsel”, makes perfect sense.

The same is true in John 14:25-26.  There, Jesus presents Himself as One who has taught the word of the Father.  Later, though, the paraclētos, the Holy Spirit, will both teach them all things and remind them of the teaching of Jesus.  The work of a Comforter?  Not really.  The work of a Counselor?  Very much so.

Substituting “Counselor” for “Comforter” also enhances the meaning of John 15:26.  There, Jesus says that the paraclētos, the Spirit of truth, will proceed from the Father to testify about Him.  The appearance of the legal concept of testimony should lead us to view the role of the Spirit here in a legal sense too.

Finally, in John 16:7-8, Jesus says that the work of the paraclētos will be to convict the world about sin, righteousness, and judgment.  Comforters don’t convict, but a counselor might! 

All this is important for us to understand because it tells us what we should expect from the work of the Spirit in our lives today.  Many people, perhaps because of the use of “Comforter” in most translations, have a very emotional view of that work.  The Spirit makes them feel certain ways.

However, that’s not the point of John 14-16 at all.  Instead, we should expect the Counselor who indwells us to teach us, to remind us, to testify about our Lord, and even to convict us if necessary.  The Spirit of truth speaks in our lives with the voice of truth, and we must listen!


Monday, November 02, 2020

Interestingly, the most famous Bible passage about overconfidence is also among the most misquoted.  No matter what translation you’re using, Proverbs 16:18 does not say, “Pride goes before a fall.”  Go ahead; look it up! 

Whether the wording is exactly correct, though, the point is accurate, and there are few better demonstrations in Scripture than the apostle Peter on the night of Jesus’ betrayal.  In Mark 14:27-31, Jesus warns him that he is going to fall away, and it’s going to happen before the next dawn.  Peter dismisses this dire prediction, insisting instead that he will die before denying his Lord.

Of course, that’s not how things go.  Peter found it easy to affirm his love for Jesus when he was surrounded by disciples of Jesus.  However, when he is surrounded by enemies of Jesus, he sings a different tune.  He denies Jesus three times as Jesus said he would, and he punctuates his denials with oaths and curses.  In the abstract, he thought he could handle the temptation.  When temptation became real, though, he proved unequal to the spiritual challenge.

The devil loves to deceive us, and overconfidence is nothing more than self-deception about our spiritual strength.  He uses our inflated self-estimation to maneuver us into a situation that will reveal our weakness instead.  Countless thousands of Christians have walked this same sad road since Peter’s day, and it probably is true that many who read this article also will succumb.  For instance:

  • You know that we are told to assemble together, but there is something in your life (a job, a family situation, etc.) that makes consistent assembly difficult.  You think you can skip church on the regular and not suffer spiritually.  Truth, or overconfidence?
  • You know that bad company corrupts good morals, but you’ve got an ungodly friend who is So Much Fun to be around.  You think you can enjoy the good and not be led into sin by the bad.  Truth, or overconfidence?
  • You know that you struggle with porn, but you think it’ll be fine for you to be home alone for several hours with a live Internet connection.  Truth, or overconfidence?
  • You know that the Bible tells older Christians to teach younger ones, but you react angrily when some of the older folks at church warn you about your clothing, your parenting style, your choice to drink alcohol (“The Bible doesn’t say it’s a sin!”), or the spiritual voices you’re listening to.  They’re just a bunch of busybodies who don’t understand things as well as you do!  Truth, or overconfidence?

Tragically, the devil often understands our weaknesses better than we do ourselves, and he gladly will use our pride to lead us around by the nose.  Peter came to his senses when the rooster crowed, but all too many Christians never do.  Instead, they are destroyed by their arrogance.  This could be us; indeed, unless we clothe ourselves in humility, it will be us. 

Daily, then, let us remember Paul’s wise words in Romans 12:3.  Let none of us think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think, but rather have sound judgment!

Why Jesus Washed Feet

Monday, October 26, 2020

The more I study the Bible, the more I am amazed at its ability to capture profound truths about human nature in a few words.  One such amazing text appears in John 13:3-5.  To worldly eyes, there seems to be an immense disconnect between Jesus’ self-perception and His actions.  He thought to Himself that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was returning to God.  In other words, Jesus was a being of incredible, astounding position and worth. 

And yet, what does this being of incredible, astounding position and worth do?  He takes a towel, girds Himself, and begins to wash the feet of His disciples.  The One who ruled the universe took upon Himself the duties of the lowliest slave. 

Human wisdom might conclude that Jesus washed feet despite His awareness of His lofty position.  However, it is more accurate to say that Jesus washed feet because of His awareness of His lofty position.  Because God had given Him everything, He had nothing left to prove about His status.  His absolute security in God freed Him to perform a humble act of service and love.  Foot-washing didn’t diminish Jesus.  Jesus ennobled foot-washing.

In John 13:15, Jesus tells us that He did this as an example for us, and we ought to pay attention.  However, that example does not lie in the expression of His humility and love.  It lies in the basis of His humility and love.

The world is full of people who are constantly grasping and clawing for respect and status.  This behavior, though, does not reveal true security and self-confidence.  Instead, it bespeaks insecurity and lack of self-confidence.  Those who insist that they are important and worthy of respect do not believe it themselves, and no amount of honor ever will assuage their self-doubt.

As Jesus frees us from so many things, He frees us from that.  He knew that the Father had given all things into His hands, and from 1 Corinthians 3:22, we know that all things belong to us.  We know that we are the adopted sons and daughters of the King of heaven, and shortly we will inherit everlasting glory with Him.  No force in heaven or on earth can diminish our position or our value.

Consequently, we can smile serenely at threats to our self-worth that would devastate the worldly.  Somebody insults us?  We know better.  Somebody steals from or defrauds us?  We’ve still got treasure in heaven that they can’t touch.  Somebody calls on us to do some demeaning thing?  Big deal.  If Jesus washed feet, we can scrub toilets.

No matter what happens to us, no matter what we must do, we still will emerge from it as sons and daughters of the King, destined to inherit everlasting glory.  Like Jesus, then, we can live fearless lives of humility, compassion, forgiveness, and service.  Let others fret over threats to their ego!  We’ve got work to do.

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