September 9, 2018
When it was time to anoint a new king over Israel, even Samuel—God’s own spokesperson and prophet—was quick to jump to conclusions. In passing over the prime son of Jesse, God reminded Samuel, “The Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). Most of us know that verse well enough to quote it…but applying it is another matter! If we were honest, we would have to admit that we make some sort of snap-decision about people the instant we lay eyes on them. While this is a selfish and arrogant attitude anywhere, it is particularly disturbing when evident in the church. In this text, James gives three reasons why playing favorites hurts our churches.
Playing favorites divides the congregation (vv. 1-4). We often say, “the ground is level at the foot of the cross.” The Lord Jesus exemplified His equal treatment of all people throughout His life and ministry. Yet a half-dozen times in the gospel of Luke alone, we read of the religious leaders ridiculing Jesus for socializing with the “wrong crowd,” specifically tax collectors and other “sinners;” ironically those whom Jesus specifically came to save! (see Luke 19:10; 1 Tim. 1:15). James’ example is also about judging people based on social status. In this case, it’s not their sinful condition, but rather their financial condition that becomes the litmus test of acceptability. Simply put, James condemns the practice of giving special treatment to the wealthy and especially inconsiderate treatment to the poor. Verse 4 explains the danger to the church: first, discriminating among yourselves means “distinguishing” (or “making divisions”) within your own body. And that means someone is making those judgements, and what’s worse, doing so based only on outward appearance. When all is said and done, such judgments demonstrate the selfish, manipulative thoughts within us.
Playing favorites demonstrates hypocrisy (vv. 5-7). James next reasons with those who are quick to embrace the rich while rejecting the poor. His reasoning is simple: generally speaking, God is on the side of the poor man, not because he is poor, but because of the humble dependence on God the poor must maintain. The Bible is full of examples of the poor honoring God and God in turn upholding the poor for their faith (for example, see the letter to the church at Smyrna in Rev. 2:8ff). In addition, there is an underlying insinuation that the believers James addresses are of humble means (see 1:9-11). So he confronts them sharply: why in the world do you cater to the rich? Aren’t they the ones who oppress you and drag you into court? Aren’t the rich the ones who curse the name of Jesus—that precious name under which you were baptized? Such hypocrisy!
Playing favorites disregards God’s law (vv. 8- 10). When Jesus was asked which law was most important, He replied, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command.” Then Jesus added, “The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” Then He summed it up this way, “All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands” (Matt. 22:37-40). In this response, Jesus linked the relationship we have with others as directly impacting the relationship we have with God. We must love God supremely, then love others as we love ourselves. Obviously, the only way to avoid favoritism is to treat all people equally, loving them as we love ourselves. Failure to do so, then, is a violation of the commandment Jesus gave. How does that affect our relationship to God? James is clear: “For whoever keeps the entire law, yet fails in one point, is guilty of breaking it all” (v. 10). To do something even as mundane as favoring some people over others shows our disregard for God’s law.
September 16, 2018
1 Peter 4:7-11
One of the most important goals of the Christian life is consistency; that ability to live life calmly and confidently as it comes, regardless of the circumstances. First Peter was written to encourage Christ-followers who were suffering persecution to live exemplary Christian lives regardless of the difficulties. As he begins to end his letter, Peter emphasizes several characteristics of the Christian life that, when intentionally put into place, bring consistency to the believer’s life and glory to his God.
Prayer (v. 7). The Lord Jesus spoke of persistent praying (Luke 11:5ff). James, the brother of our Lord spoke of intentional praying (James 4:2-3). The apostle Paul summed up the priority of praying (1 Thess. 5:17). Here, Peter encourages intensity in praying. The “end of all things is near” has several possible applications. In the context of suffering, the temporary nature of human life is one possibility, as is the soon-to-be-felt siege of Jerusalem that would end that chapter of the Jewish experience. In any case, change was in the air; time was running out and Peter urged the believers to be serious (the old English translations say “sober” or “temperate”) and disciplined (or “watchful”). The key idea is that the serious times require a seriousness to prayer.
Love (v. 8). It’s not that love is more important than prayer per se, but rather love is more of an overarching attribute. Love is not only the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:36ff), but it is the distinguishing mark of the believer (John 13:35), and the church’s bond of unity (Col. 3:14). The believers Peter addresses already have it. The encouragement here is to maintain it in even more fervency. The reason? Love enables us to overlook a multitude of offenses against us (see Prov. 10:12).
Hospitality (v. 9). “Being hospitable” is the better translation. Hospitality is more than hosting in this case. It is “taking one another in,” or providing for one another in the broadest sense. The context here links it to love; hence, the first indication of fervent love for one another is taking care of one another. Like every other Christian activity, attitude counts! (see Col. 3:12ff) So Peter reminds them that showing hospitality is an act of love and should be done without any grumbling.
Stewardship (v. 10). With the context being the church, the giftedness Peter speaks of is likely the spiritual gifts bestowed by the Holy Spirit for the edification of the body (see 1 Cor. 12:4-11). But the meaning may well be broader. On this verse, John Wesley’s contemporary Joseph Benson said it well: whether “spiritual or temporal, ordinary or extraordinary,” believers are to “employ that gift for the common good.” Consistent believers are constant and careful stewards of all that God has passed to them.
Godly speech (v. 11a). The speaking here is proclamation of God’s word. The emphasis, however, is on the source of that word; hence, those who preach must proclaim the “oracles of God;” His utterances, His teachings. Preaching is not the time for personal opinion or self-promotion. Like John the Baptist, the mature and consistent believer is careful to decrease, so that Christ might increase (John 3:30).
Service (v. 11b.) The early commentators treated this “service” specifically as giving to the poor, but there is no reason to limit it as such. Service to others is ministry in its simplest form. Again, the context indicates that this ministry is a demonstration of the love mentioned in verse 8. Moreover, the Bible teaches that when any service is performed, it should be in Christ’s name, with thanksgiving (Col. 3:17), by His strength, and for His glory.
September 23, 2018
It’s easy to love those who are loveable. It’s easy to love those who love us back. That’s the kind of love that just happens; our response to someone’s affections toward us. But if loving others is easy, then why does the Bible spend so many verses commanding that we do it?
Our lesson this week deals with the idea of “intentional love,” something I equate with compassion, that heart-felt care and genuine concern for the wellbeing of others, especially those who are hurting. The popular Hillsong chorus Mighty to Save begins with the words, “Everyone needs compassion…a love that’s never failing…” How true! Such love does not come naturally, but supernaturally. It’s not love as a reaction, but love put into action. It’s not accidental or incidental, but intentional.
Compassion explained (vv. 25-28). In this introduction to the story of The Good Samaritan, Jesus is confronted by an expert in the law who stood to “test” him. That he is a lawyer indicates that he knew the “official” answer to the question already but had something to prove by squaring off against Jesus. The exact nature of the “test” in this case is not stated. Some suggest the lawyer (a more specific title than the generic “scribe”) simply wanted to know how orthodox Jesus was in His teaching. But there is an underlying arrogance on display. His standing up to address his question to Jesus, his adequate rendering of the Great Commandment (see Matt. 22:34ff), and his follow-up question in verse 29 all indicate that this lawyer was attempting to boost his own status. Nevertheless, Jesus had the lawyer answer the question for himself, and he got it right. The command to love God supremely and your neighbor selflessly does not save; but only a saved man can do it! Love is always God-centered. God is love (1 John 4:8). We love Him because He first loved us. But 1 John 4:19-21 goes on to say that if we fail to love others, we really don’t love Him after all! Intentional love, then, begins with loving God supremely. Only then, can that love be turned toward others.
Compassion illustrated (vv. 29-37). The arrogance of the lawyer is further displayed in verse 29. To “justify himself,” in this case, means to vindicate himself. Not wanting to leave everyone with the impression that he was somehow guilty and deserving of the Lord’s rebuke, the lawyer quickly asked for a definition of “neighbor,” which in the Jewish mindset excluded gentiles generally and Samaritans specifically. This prompted the story of The Good Samaritan. The story is familiar and bristling with jabs at the hypocrisy of the Jewish religious establishment. But for our purposes, the story illustrates true compassion: the unconditional and intentional love that transcends ethnic bias and personal prejudice…and costs us something along the way.
Compassion commanded (v. 37). Jesus—the master teacher—presented such a compelling lesson that the lawyer asking the questions ended up answering them both himself. In certain resignation, even the arrogant lawyer had to admit the obvious. Though he would not mention him by name, the despised yet benevolent Samaritan was the hero of the story. Yet as always, the Lord forces him to apply the lesson learned. It’s not enough to know the right thing to do; it must now be put into action.
The lessons for the church are many. First, our love for others is predicated on a genuine love for God. Second, godly love expresses itself in acts of compassion. Third, those acts of compassion can never be limited by ethnic bias or personal prejudice. Finally, intentional love must be active love. Romans 5:8 reminds us that, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
September 30, 2018
1 Thessalonians 1:1-10
What do people look for in a church? The answers vary widely. Some look for good preaching; others, for good programming, especially for children and youth. Others are interested in certain styles of praise and worship. But nearly everyone admits that the “church atmosphere” is an important factor in deciding what church to attend, and whether to stay there. By and large, everybody is looking for a community of believers who worship God and care for one another—and do so joyfully. Genuine joy in the Lord is impossible to miss when it’s present, and impossible to fake when it’s not. In 1 Thessalonians 1, the apostle Paul commends a hurting church for the joy for which they are known, even as they face ongoing persecution.
According to Acts 17, Paul, together with Silas and Timothy, started the church in Thessalonica while on their second missionary journey. A short time later, Paul sent Timothy back to the city to check on the new congregation. Timothy’s report was filled with good news. First Thessalonians was written as a response to that good news.
Joyous memories (vv. 1-4). Not all prayer should be prompted by dire need. Paul’s suggestion to “pray without ceasing” (coming up in chapter 5), leaves plenty of room for praying in celebration. The apostle mentions three specific memories that were cause for celebration. It’s not surprising that these three—faith, hope, love—are prominently featured in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the city from which he pens this letter of 1 Thessalonians. Your work of faith does not refer to working for faith, but rather the works produced because of their faith (see James 2:14ff). Such good works were evidence of their salvation. Their labor of love indicates that the works they were doing were expressions of genuine love. The endurance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ meant that the church was well grounded, and patient in their sufferings, knowing that Christ would indeed deliver them at His glorious appearance (v. 10). That Paul’s efforts in Thessalonica had been so rewarded was a source of great joy for the apostle and the church.
Joyous message (vv. 5-6). Good news is always welcome, but it is especially good when all the news lately has been bad! So it was for this congregation. As the people embraced Christ, the Jews attacked them, ultimately forcing Paul and Silas to flee the city (see Acts 17). Yet while the attacks against them increased, the church flourished. How could that be? Because the message of Christ came to them in such a powerful way. Not in word only, indicates that Paul and Silas demonstrated the truth of the gospel in their behavior. The messengers lived out the message! In power means that the effects were dramatic. After all, the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation” (Rom. 1:16). In the Holy Spirit reminds us that when the gospel is proclaimed, it’s the Holy Spirit who imparts truth and transforms lives. With much assurance means the gospel was presented—and accepted—boldly and confidently. This grasping of the gospel was done in such joy that Paul couldn’t help but marvel about it.
Joyous ministry (vv.7-10). Last evening, as I recounted the story of The Woman at the Well (John 4) to one of our youth, I was reminded that once she met Jesus, the Samaritan woman left her waterpot and ran back to the city to tell others she had met the Messiah. There is no greater proof that someone met Jesus than their desire to tell others. The joyous enthusiasm of the Thessalonian believers is captured in verse 8: “For the Lord’s message rang out from you.” The wording is only used here—applied to these believers—and refers to a trumpet blast. Not only was the gospel trumpeted loudly, but it was spread broadly, within their region and beyond. So genuine and so enthusiastic was their joy, that Paul could add nothing to it! Thus, this congregation—though suffering—was a model of Christian joy.