Friday, November 28, 2014

1 Corinthians 5-8

The Ruins of Ancient Corinth

One category of pastoral problem Paul had to deal with in Corinth was sexual in nature. Corinth was known throughout the ancient world for various sexual vices. Here is what William Stacy Johnson had to say about 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 in a paper presented to the Presbyterian Church entitled Same Gender Relationships in the Church: Seven Theological Viewpoints,

Certain same-gender sex acts are also mentioned in two New Testament vice lists. The apostle Paul states the following in 1 Cor. 6:9-10:

Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites [italics added for emphasis], thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.

The term translated by the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) as “sodomites” is more literally, “males who go to bed with males.” The word in Greek, arsenokoitai, appears to have been coined directly from the Greek translation of the original Hebrew of Lev. 20:13. The word combines the Greek words arsenos, meaning “male,” and koiten, meaning “bed,” both of which appear side-by-side in the Greek version of Lev. 20:13.33 The word translated by the NRSV as “male prostitutes” is malakoi, which literally means “soft ones.” Many believe it refers to the receptive, penetrated partner in male-on-male sexual intercourse, probably in the context of male prostitution.

The word arsenokoitai appears again in 1 Tim.1:9-10. Many consider this to be a so-called deutero-Pauline, that is, one written not by Paul himself, but in his name. The text reads:

This means understanding that the law is laid down not for the innocent but for the lawless and disobedient, for the godless and sinful, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their father or mother, for murderers, fornicators, sodomites (arsenokoitai), slave traders [emphasis added], liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to the sound teaching….

The entire New Testament is an interpretation of Hebrew Scripture viewed in the light of God’s work in Jesus Christ. Paul’s statements about homoeroticism are no exception; they presuppose the prohibitions in Leviticus. Yet, we have already seen that Leviticus, according to its own plain meaning, does not speak explicitly about all forms of same-gender love, but merely refers to one type of sex act. Nor is there any exegetical reason to believe that these two New Testament texts (or the verses below from Romans) speak more broadly….

The NRSV takes these texts as most likely targeted at a widespread practice in the Roman Empire, namely, male prostitution. This sort of exploitative activity is not in keeping with the Christian faith. But to equate such promiscuous behavior with the conduct of gays and lesbians who are committing themselves in exclusive, covenantal unions is not only inaccurate; it is morally offensive.

In addition to male prostitution, one especially pernicious feature of Roman life was the lively trade of boys who were sold into sexual slavery. Slave boys of this sort often had been captured by the military as prisoners of war and soon found themselves in the hands of a slave trader. The boys were castrated by the slave trader and then quickly sold as sex slaves. This is almost certainly what stands behind the denunciation in 1 Tim. 1:10 of “fornicators, men who have sex with men, and slave traders.” The Romans themselves became so repulsed by this practice that on three different occasions they passed laws aimed at banning slave-boy castration. This fact alone testifies to its frequency, its lucrativeness, and thus the difficulty in stamping it out. It is no wonder that Paul and other Jews had such a strongly negative opinion of homoeroticism in the days of the Roman Empire. It also may cause us to understand the various New Testament treatments of eunuchs in a new light.

For more on this subject I highly recommend reading Matthew Vine’s book, God and the Gay Christian.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

1 Corinthians 1-4

Today, we begin our study of 1 Corinthians, a letter of Paul that is really more a letter than Romans, which was a theological treatise, a statement of faith, of sorts. Often, Paul opens his letters with a word of thanksgiving for his particular readers, and 1 Corinthians is no exception. Here are the words of Paul, from 1 Corinthians 1:4-9, according to N. T. Wright’s translation in the Kingdom New Testament,

I always thank my God for you, for the grace of God that was given to you in King Jesus. You were enriched in him in everything, in every kind of speech and knowledge, just as the messianic message was established among you, so that you aren’t missing out on any spiritual gift as you wait eagerly for our Lord, King Jesus, to be revealed. He will establish you right through to the end, so that you are blameless on the day of our Lord, King Jesus. God is faithful! And it is through God that you have been called into the fellowship of his son, King Jesus, our Lord.

Did you get the idea from that reading that Jesus is King? That is something to be thankful for, when you compare Jesus to the rulers of this world. Jesus is the real king, though often he operates “behind the scenes” at present.

Is it not amazing that Paul would give thanks for this congregation of Christians in Corinth when they were such a troubled lot? Even in the first four chapters of this letter we get a sense of their divisions. This letter reminds us that there has never been a time when the Church of Jesus Christ has not been divided. As we read on through this letter, we will see a number of ways that the Church at Corinth got off track, and Paul tried to steer them back on to the right course. But despite all the problems in Corinth, Paul gave thanks for his beloved brothers and sisters in Christ there. 

The reason why, I think, Paul was able to give thanks, in spite of the difficulties in Corinth, was because he recognized that Jesus is sovereign. Jesus is in charge of all things, despite what outward circumstances may suggest to the contrary. Yes, sometimes the world is in a horrible mess, not only in Ferguson, Missouri, but everywhere. And we must do what we can to make things right in our world by the power of God working through us. As Christians we are called to be peacemakers. But the ultimate peace will not reign, until Jesus' kingdom comes in completeness to this world just as it is now complete in heaven. That is what we pray for in the Lord's Prayer. And that is what we must work toward. 

Sometimes it seems like Jesus' Kingdom is never going to be fully realized on this earth. That is when we most need to remember the truths Paul reminds us of here. Jesus is in charge. God is faithful. And our Triune God will establish us right through to the end, so that we will be blameless on the day of our Lord, King Jesus. There is coming a day when God is going to set everything right. That is great reason to give thanks on this Thanksgiving Day, 2014, and every day, on through to eternity.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Romans 13-16

Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith—to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.
In this last chapter of this great letter, Paul mentions some friends to greet (in verses 1 through 16), some foes to avoid (in verses 17 through 20) and some faithful servants to honor (in verses 21-24). Then, he ends with a glorious word of praise to the only wise God who can transform us through his Son Jesus Christ.

            What stands out to me about the Apostle Paul is that he must have been the kind of guy, who, if he had his way early on in life, would have spent all his time in his study, writing great thoughts for people to some day read. However, one day he encountered something he thought was a Jewish heresy–the teaching that Jesus was God in the flesh. That drove him out of the study and made him a persecutor of Christians. Then, having become a persecutor of Christians, he eventually came face to face with the person of the risen Lord Jesus, who turned his life completely upside-down. Saul became Paul. He left the study to take the message of Jesus’ transforming love to people all over the Roman Empire. The introvert became an extrovert for the sake of the Gospel.

            I have often heard pastors jokingly say, “The Church would be great if it wasn’t for people.” Many people leave the Church forever because of run-ins they have with people. The bottom line is: we are all sinners and we hurt each other a lot. The good news is that Jesus’ hand is bigger than ours, and if we let him, he will pour so much love from his hands into our lives that it will overflow our hearts and spill into the lives of others. That is what Jesus did for Paul.  That is what Jesus can do for us.

If you would like to listen to more of my messages on Paul's Letter to the Church at Rome, click here: Romans.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Romans 9-12

Romans 9-11 contains some difficult teaching. Here is what I shared on this subject in a recent sermon on Romans 9….

Why has Israel not believed in Jesus as their Messiah? The first part of Paul’s answer is that: It is not because God is unfaithful. Paul says it is not as though God’s word has failed.  Yes, God promised to save a particular people called Israel. However, Paul says, not all physical Israel is the true spiritual Israel. God chose Isaac and not Ishmael. Not only that, Paul says, after God chose Isaac, he did not choose all of Isaac’s children. Isaac and Rebekah had twin boys, Esau and Jacob. However, before the twins were born, God chose Jacob.  Paul says God did it this way so that his own purpose in election might stand, so that God’s choice was not based on Jacob or Esau’s works.
Then Paul quotes Malachi 1:2-3, some verses that most people have a violent reaction against: “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” What does this mean?  The love/hate language here is a Hebrew idiom for preference. Jesus used this idiom when he said in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes,  even his own life—he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus did not mean that we should literally hate our family members. What he meant was that we should prefer him so highly above our family members that our love for them should seem like hate compared to our love for him.

C. S. Lewis makes a very important point about this passage. He writes:

How is the thing called God’s “hatred” of Esau displayed in the actual story? Not at all as we might expect. There is of course no ground for assuming that Esau made a bad end and was a lost soul; the Old Testament, here as elsewhere, has nothing to say about such matters. And, from all we are told, Esau’s earthly life was, in every ordinary sense, a good deal more blessed than Jacob’s. It is Jacob who has all the disappointments, humiliations, terrors, and bereavements. But he has something which Esau has not. He is a patriarch. He hands on the Hebraic tradition, transmits the vocation and the blessing, becomes an ancestor of Our Lord. The “loving” of Jacob seems to mean the acceptance of Jacob for a high (and painful) vocation.[1]

I know this is not the only problematic bit in Romans 9-11. If you want to listen to the rest of what I had to share about these chapters of this letter, click here:

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, Harcourt: New York, 1960, p. 172.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Romans 5-8

Romans 8 is justifiably a favorite Bible chapter among many Christians. Here is another excerpt from a sermon I gave recently on this chapter….

Finally, the Holy Spirit gives us Freedom from Fear–No Separation. We read about this in verses 31-39.

What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

    “For your sake we face death all day long;
        we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Paul tells us five things in this passage that can free us from fear through the Holy Spirit.  Here are Paul’s five arguments that prove that we, as believers in Jesus, can never be separated from God:

  1. God is for us. (31)
  2. Christ died for us. (32)
  3. God has justified us. (33)
  4. Christ intercedes for us. (34)
  5. Christ loves us. (35-39)

Leslie Bauer tells this story….

A wealthy man and his son loved to collect rare works of art: everything from Picasso to Raphael. When the Vietnam conflict broke out, the son went to war and died in battle while rescuing another soldier. The father grieved deeply for his only son.

About a month later, there was a knock at the door. A young man stood at the door with a large package in his hands. He said, “Sir, you don’t know me, but I am the soldier for whom your son gave his life. He saved many lives that day, and he was carrying me to safety when a bullet struck him in the heart. He died instantly. He often talked about you and your love for art.”

The young man held out the package and said, “I know this isn’t much.  I’m not a great artist, but I think your son would have wanted you to have this.”  The father opened the package and gazed at a portrait of his son. He stared in awe at the way the soldier had captured his son in the painting. The father hung the portrait over his mantle. When visitors came to his home, he always drew attention to the portrait of his son before he showed them any other great works.

When the father died, his paintings were to be auctioned. Many influential people gathered, excited about the opportunity to purchase them. On the platform sat the painting of the son. The auctioneer pounded his gavel and asked for someone to start the bidding. The crowd scoffed and demanded the Van Goghs and the Rembrandts. But the auctioneer persisted. “Who will start the bidding? $200? $100?” The crowd again insisted on seeing the famous paintings. Still the auctioneer solicited, “The son! The son! Who’ll take the son?”

Finally a voice said, “I’ll give $10 for the painting.” The longtime gardener of the father was poor and couldn’t afford anything more. While the auctioneer continued to pursue a higher bid, the crowd became angry. The auctioneer pounded the gavel and sold the painting for $10 to the gardener.

An eager buyer from the second row bellowed, “Finally, on with the auction.” But the auctioneer explained, “I’m sorry, the auction is over. When I was called to conduct this auction, I was told of a secret stipulation in the will. I was not allowed to reveal that stipulation until this time. Only the painting of the son would be auctioned. Whoever bought that painting would inherit the entire estate, including the paintings. The man who took the son gets everything.”[1]

Have you taken God’s Son, Jesus Christ, into your heart? If so, then you have his Holy Spirit living in you. Furthermore, if His Holy Spirit is living in you, then you have all things: freedom from judgment, freedom from defeat, freedom from discouragement, freedom from fear. The one who takes the Son gets everything.

To listen to the entire sermon, of which this is an excerpt, click here: Romans 8:1-39.

[1] Source unknown; submitted by Leslie Bauer, Barrington, Illinois to 

Top Ten Interview

Here's a link to an interview about my newest book: C. S. Lewis' Top Ten Interview

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Writing Skills

I always thought writing skills were important. 
Now there is proof....

Romans 1-4

Paul’s letter to the Church at Rome is one of the most dense, tightly argued, theological statements of all time. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to sum up this epistle in a few brief blog posts. What I propose to do instead is offer a few excerpts from a recent sermon series I gave on this Pauline letter. The first excerpt deals with one of the most misunderstood yet oft-quoted passages in this letter, from Romans 1. If you would like to listen to the whole sermon, click on the link at the end of this post….

How is God’s wrath revealed? God’s wrath is not just something that is going to be revealed in the final judgment. Paul tells us that God’s wrath is being revealed now in God giving people over. God’s wrath is revealed in God letting people run with their sin. God’s wrath is actually revealed in a good thing: free will. God gives us freedom of choice. We can choose to follow God or not. And if we reject God, God is not going to interfere with our freedom.

God’s wrath is revealed in the downward spiral of the human crisis. People start out knowing God and God’s truth, but then they reject that truth and try to replace God with idols. Having rejected the truth about God, God gives humanity over to the things that humanity chooses: sexual impurity, shameful lusts, a depraved mind, and all sorts of antisocial behavior.

The downward spiral into ever-increasing sin that Paul saw happening in his day is not much different today, is it? Human beings, having given up worship of God, end up worshipping creation instead. This downward spiral ends up with human beings turning completely inward and worshipping themselves.

However, at this point I must state one caveat. I believe that the type of homosexual behavior that Paul was seeing in his day, and which he condemns, is not, in many cases, precisely what we are seeing in our own day.

The question is: what would Paul have known of same-sex relations in his day? He seems to be talking here about people who were naturally heterosexual going after homosexual relationships just for the heck of it. Paul would have known about older men having same-sex relationships with teenage boys. It is doubtful that Paul would have known much of anything about same-sex relationships between women, and it seems unlikely Paul knew anything about a same-sex relationship between two consenting adults committed to loving each other for life.

Arland Hultgren concludes, “…when Paul speaks of same-gender sexual activity, he is speaking of prominent, common, and visible behaviors in the Greco-Roman world that were practiced by Gentiles of pagan background…and that were exploitive.”[1]

One of the most helpful things I have heard on this topic comes from Dr. Lewis Smedes who, for many years, taught psychology at the conservative, evangelical, Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Smedes once said,

The people Paul had in mind refused to acknowledge and worship God, and for this reason were abandoned by God. And being abandoned by God, they sank into sexual depravity.

The homosexuals I know have not rejected God at all; they love God and they thank God for his grace and his gifts. How, then, could they have been abandoned to homosexuality as a punishment for refusing to acknowledge God?

Nor have the homosexuals that I know given up heterosexual passions for homosexual lusts. They have been homosexual from the moment of their earliest sexual stirrings. They did not change from one orientation to another; they just discovered that they were homosexual. It would be unnatural for most homosexuals to have heterosexual sex.

And the homosexual people I know do not lust after each other any more than heterosexual people do… their love for one another is likely to be just as spiritual and personal as any heterosexual love can be.

It is also important to remember what Paul says at the beginning of Romans 2:

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.

Even after describing what were, to most Jews, the disturbing sexual practices of the ancient Greek world, Paul warns us that judging others is God’s business not ours.

To listen to the rest of this sermon, click here: Romans 1:18-32.

[1] Arland Hultgren, Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Commentary, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 101.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Acts 25-28

Paul Preaching in Athens, by Raphael

If you were to choose the words to be written on your tombstone, what would they be? Perhaps you have heard of the hypochondriac who had the following epitaph on his tombstone: “I told you I was sick!” My mother has told me what she wants on her tombstone: “Alive and well!”

Acts 28:31 would have been a fitting epitaph for the Apostle Paul’s tombstone if he had one. “Boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ.” Those few words serve as the ending to the book of Acts. Many have wondered why the book ends so abruptly. The answers are varied. However, this much we can say, Luke set out to write about the Gospel being taken to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). Having set forth the fact that Paul preached the gospel in Rome, the center of the empire, Luke achieved his purpose. It is significant that Luke ends his second volume on the note of preaching. The preaching of the word has been the dominant subject of his history and is thus presented as one of the primary keys to the growth of the Church. The abrupt ending to the book of Acts also suggests that we are to continue living out the Acts of the Holy Spirit in our day as well.

So what application does this last verse of this ancient history book have for us today, we who live in an apathetic, anti-authority, anti-preaching age? Is preaching still relevant after all these years, or are we free to discard it and adopt wholly new methods for communicating the good news about Jesus Christ? Furthermore, what is your role in preaching, those of you who sit in the pews Sunday after Sunday?

Let me offer at least one application of this Scripture to your life today, and that is that the Lord wants you to pray for the preaching of the word. Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus:

Pray also for me, that whenever I open my mouth, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should. (Ephesians 6:19-20) 

Paul may have written these words while he was in prison at Rome. And so we may presume that it was the prayers of God’s people in Ephesus that made the effective preaching in Rome possible by God’s grace.

What should you pray for when you pray for the preaching of God’s word? Let me suggest you follow Acts 28:31 as an outline for what to pray. We need to pray for bold, unhindered, educational preaching that is focused on the Kingdom and the King, our Lord Jesus Christ.