The Firsts: Philippians 1 – Practice

[NLT] Philippians 1:27 Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. Then, whether I come and see you again or only hear about you, I will know that you are standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News. 28 Don’t be intimidated in any way by your enemies. This will be a sign to them that they are going to be destroyed, but that you are going to be saved, even by God himself. 29 For you have been given not only the privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him. 30 We are in this struggle together. You have seen my struggle in the past, and you know that I am still in the midst of it.

Scripture is particularly surprising when ancient words create a bridge to everyday life.  I came across one particular old Greek word in reading what John Piper had to say about Philippians 1: politeuomai.  It’s an action word.
1. to be a citizen
2. to administer civil affairs, manage the state
3. to make or create a citizen
It wasn’t much of a stretch to see in “politeuomai” another more modern-day word…”polit-ics” and that became the bridge of thought for me.  God does have a purpose for our daily life in this world.  He’s created a place for us to practice living as “citizens of heaven, conducting [ourselves] in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ.”  Paul reminds us that’s the very reason we have to stand “together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News…We are in this struggle together…” 

Practice can be fumbling, imperfect and often unpleasant BUT remember these two things: 1. everything depends on what we’re practicing AND 2. practice makes perfect.  God has given us this world to practice being citizens.  We have the “privilege of trusting in Christ but also the privilege of suffering for him” as we struggle with one another to perfect our desire to “live as citizens of heaven” in the midst of an imperfect reality.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man of faith who lived and died for these words he wrote: ”I discovered later, and I’m still discovering right up to this moment, that is it only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith.”

The Firsts: Ephesians 1 – Destiny

“Predestined” is an attention getting word. The dictionary definition of predestined is “an outcome or course of events determined in advance by divine will or fate.”  I’ve heard the “elevator” explanation of predestination: when you step into an elevator you trust it’s going to take you where you want to go.  The “airplane” explanation is similar; you get on the plane trusting the pilot will get you safely to the planned destination. Those explanations make some sense to me. They’re based on faith not fate. Nobody gets on an elevator or in a plane saying “whatever will be, will be.” 

What doesn’t make sense to me is that the God who sacrificed his own Son to remove sin’s power to destroy us would then turn around and pick and choose those who would be saved.  The phrase “turn around” became my catalyst to turn these eight verses around and read them in reverse changing only the punctuation at the end of verse 14 because that’s a question I could answer.

V14 who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory[?]
V13 And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 
V12 in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 
V11 In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 
V10 to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. 
V9 he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 
V8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding,  
V7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace,

I turned around those verses and as I read I found myself caring less about my understanding of how “predestined” relates to personal choice and more about the question I could answer.  “Who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory[?]  Predestination is still an elusive concept but I do know the answer to V14 is where destiny begins.  The big turn around ends at the right destination too; “in him [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.  

The Firsts: Galatians 1 – The In-Between Years

Galatians 1: 15 But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being…21 Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. 22 I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they praised God because of me. [NIV]

My first thought was the wisdom of Paul essentially tying his relationship to God way back to the womb, the safe place where growth first begins.  We know a lot about Paul’s gift of evangelism.  We know Paul by his fruit that expanded God’s church enough to include the likes of us.  We also know Paul’s history of his dark in-between years and that’s what caught my attention.  Paul’s story is really a story of God’s provision to redeem the flaws of “in-between” years.

The church is our second womb. It’s a God created place full of flawed people with their own in-between years. People that need a safe place to grow. I’ve begun to understand why God would choose to fill his house with those flawed people and still give them Spiritual gifts.  We admire those gifts when we see them work. They’re not just gifts given because they build his church. They’re the same gifts God uses to rebuild the flawed people who find a home there.  

There’s a blessing in knowing I’m a part of the place of rebuilding where what I lack is not the downfall of the church I love.  God has made the church his provision for each of us where your Spiritual gift can become part of my growth as we learn how to expand his Kingdom together.  

Paul writes of that marvelous work of God and his own in-between years that were designed to destroy.  His words are reminders that God uses gifted, flawed people to reveal himself in each of us, in his church and the world. It wasn’t boasting that gave the Apostle Paul the courage to say “…they praised God because of me.”  It was knowing God had taken the dark flaws of his in-between years and made them the reality of his redemption when “preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”  

The Firsts: 2 Corinthians 1 – Comfort

2 Corinthians 1:3 All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. 4 He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. 5 For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ.  6 Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer.  7 We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us. [NLT]

This passage is remarkable for the number of times some form of the word “comfort” is used in just five verses.  Certainly that’s repeated for emphasis.   The need for comfort is more frequent that we realize and that need doesn’t always look the same.  Sometimes what comfort looks like turns out to be a surprise too.  We know “God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort” but when faced with a heart in need it “takes one to know one.” 

Comfort is the presence of one needy heart’s response in humility to the need of another.  It may take the more familiar form of shared scars of experience, love, grace, compassion, Scripture and prayer…OR sometimes it may just take a plate of cookies

Let your heart respond…”when they are troubled…give them the same comfort God has given us.”   Comfort is not meant to be the solution.  Comfort is the revelation of Jesus from one heart to another and He’s the solution.

Jesus was a revolutionary, who did not become an extremist, since he did not offer an ideology, but Himself.” Henri Nouwen from The Wounded Healer

The Firsts: I Corinthians 1 – Polar Opposites

I Corinthians 1:18 I know very well how foolish it sounds to those who are lost, when they hear that Jesus died to save them. But we who are saved recognize this message as the very power of God.  19 For God says, “I will destroy all human plans of salvation no matter how wise they seem to be, and ignore the best ideas of men, even the most brilliant of them.”  20 So what about these wise men, these scholars, these brilliant debaters of this world’s great affairs? God has made them all look foolish and shown their wisdom to be useless nonsense. 21 For God in his wisdom saw to it that the world would never find God through human brilliance, and then he stepped in and saved* all those who believed his message, which the world calls foolish and silly. [TLB]

The Jewish mindset was confidence in the law.  Jesus couldn’t be the Messiah because his death on a cross marked him as a law-breaker cursed by God [see Deuteronomy 21:23].  The cross was “useless nonsense” to them.

The Greek’s idea of God was a just and impartial ruler that remained detached from the emotions and influence of his creation.  Therefore the idea that “God the Son” would suffer on a cross to save so many seemed “foolish and silly” to them.  

Isn’t it interesting that the cross was the stumbling block to salvation for each of those polar opposite ideas?  “God in his wisdom saw to it that” the cross could become a bridge. “When they hear that Jesus died to save them” they each have the same opportunity to “recognize this message as the very power of God.”  Even polar opposites can be united through the power of the resurrection of Jesus Christ because God *loves them all enough to save them.

The Firsts – Romans 1 and Contrast

There’s a thread of thought that ties together the different parts of God’s Word written by different authors.   It’s a thread that always emphasizes the contrast between what God is willing to offer and what man in his own spirit is willing to ignore. 

Here’s what God is willing to offer: Romans 1:16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile. 17 For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”  [NIV]

Here’s what man is often willing to ignore: “Romans 1:21 Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. 22 Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools.” [NLT]

Not taking notice of God is not a neutral position at all.   The Bible brings that contrast into clear focus with the daunting list of consequences of not accepting God’s offer and the outcome of choosing what man in his own spirit is willing to ignore “Romans 1:26…Worse followed. Refusing to know God, they soon didn’t know how to be human either.” [MSG]

The Firsts – Acts 1 and Betrayal

The disciple Peter speaks in Acts 1:17 Judas was one of us and shared in the ministry with us…21 “So now we must choose a replacement for Judas from among the men who were with us the entire time we were traveling with the Lord Jesus— 22 from the time he was baptized by John until the day he was taken from us. Whoever is chosen will join us as a witness of Jesus’ resurrection.”

I’m continuing my look at the first chapter of each Bible book from the perspective of my three New Years’s questions.  In some respects Acts 1 is easy: Judas made the one of the most heart wrenching bad choices on record.  Look at the credentials we can assume he had because he was a chosen disciple: he was one of the “men who were with us the entire time we were traveling with the Lord Jesus—from the time he was baptized by John until the day he was taken from us.”  Whatever Judas was committed to in those years required real sacrifice and hardship and then everything was not only wasted but destroyed.  How could that possibly be? 

These men were face to face with God “in the flesh” and even that wasn’t enough to protect Judas from himself.  Judas was a victim of his own spirit, his own mind and his own answers on the night he betrayed Jesus.  Those are the most important facts of this pitiful story that remind us to be thankful.  God has chosen to promise us protection and assurance of grace and forgiveness through the indwelling Spirit of his Son.

Judas’s story is ugly but there is beauty in this same scripture that changes the story.  It’s the backstory of the “other” betrayer, Peter.  Peter is the disciple who surrendered his own denials made that same night to the reality of Jesus and God’s promise of grace and forgiveness to become  “a witness of Jesus’ resurrection” and it’s promise  for us today.