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"Therefore God Gave Them Up"

Sunday, May 26, 2024

Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

(Romans 1.22-23)

The first chapter of Romans lays out the bad news that precedes the good news of the gospel—that those who practice unrighteousness face God’s righteous wrath.  Paul first observes that even the creation itself silently testifies to the power and divinity of its creator, and that humanity, consequently, is obligated to order itself after God’s instructions in keeping with the pattern of obedience.  However, this is not what mankind has done.  Rather than honoring God, he has lifted up imposters and imitations.  He has worshipped idols.  That was bad enough—but did it stop there?

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

(Romans 1.24-25)

Their sin was not confined to the apparently external failure to worship God properly.  It swiftly grew to personal degradation and enslavement to various fleshly passions.  That’s not good for anyone!  But did it stop there?

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.

(Romans 1.26-27)

They continued down the path of debasement, going even beyond the sinful desires that are common to all, and venturing into behaviors that were even more disordered than before—especially self-defeating and purposeless sexual perversion.  But did it stop there?

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

(Romans 1.28-31)

This is now the third time Paul has said that “God gave them up” to the next degree of depravity.  It’s important to temper this with the understanding that God “is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2Pe 3.9).  It’s not that God has signed the death warrants, so to speak, of those who sink this far from moral purity.  As long as life continues, he’s ready to accept them back whenever they choose, as the good father in Jesus’ parable of the lost son.

“I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.’” And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.”

(Luke 15.18-22)

Not only was he willing to take his son back into his house, but he had been anxiously waiting and watching for him to return, so that he could celebrate his salvation!  But you’ll notice that the father sent no delegation to find and implore his son to return—let alone compel him to do so!

Returning to the depraved and rejected souls, immersed in all kinds of sin, we see, at last, the endpoint approached by those who travel down this road, which began when they replaced God with an idol.  Paul listed so many categories of sin that they blend together and it’s unclear where one ends and the next begins!  For example, what distinguishes “evil” (Ro 1.29) from “inventors of evil” (v30)?  How is “malice” (v29) different from “maliciousness” (v30)?  In part, we could dissect the language and attempt to carve out territory for each word in this tapestry of sin; but in fact the wording in Greek makes use of so many literary devices (rhyme, alliteration, consonance, and asyndeton) that it’s clear the jumbled nature of the list is part of the point!  Once a person reaches this stage, it’s incredibly difficult to tackle the now multi-faceted problem!  We know this intuitively.  We don’t expect the murderer to draw the line at lying, we don’t expect the sexual predator to be a peacemaker, and we don’t expect the despairing heroin addict to show proper respect to his parents.  One type of sin tends toward more types of sin. 

Where did this all start?  The sin that set them on this path was idolatry.  This seems odd to us, because we rarely see people bowing before images of fake gods.  But Paul elsewhere tells us that “covetousness…is idolatry” (Co 3.5)!  And it’s certainly not the only narrowly defined sin that is simply a form of idolatry.  Anything that replaces God in your heart is an idol!  Do not think that this progression of depravity is beyond your capacity for sin.  Do not gloat over the fate of the wicked who have made it farther down the path of depravity than you yourself have gone, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Ro 3.23).  Instead, soften your heart, and thank God for his mercy.

Jeremy Nettles

"He That Committeth Sin"

Sunday, May 19, 2024

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.

(1 John 3.4-10)

This passage is characteristic of John’s writing.  He often makes an assertion, and then repeats it several times, with slight tweaks or additions, and especially shifts of perspective.  It’s as if he’s trying to make sure this point won't be misinterpreted, by covering it from every angle.  In this case, he’s even covered the upshot—sin is bad and you shouldn’t do it—several times earlier in this same letter.  This time, his particular focus is on equipping his audience to see through the lies of those who claim to be their brothers, but are really “of the devil.”  Yet there’s sometimes controversy over what John says here, for a different reason.

Occasionally someone misconstrues this passage to say that God’s children never, ever sin.  This is, of course, rather silly—we see examples in the New Testament of even apostles sinning and repenting (e.g. Ga 2.11ff), and no one with any sense would say that they therefore were not “children of God.”  Rather, as the ESV rendered it, “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning” (v9).  So, the next step is attack that whole translation.

The faultfinder usually then upholds another translation, often the King James Version, as containing the true meaning of John’s words.

He that committeth sin is of the devil; for the devil sinneth from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that he might destroy the works of the devil. Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin; for his seed remaineth in him: and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.

(1 John 3.8-9, KJV)

It’s not that one of these got it wrong and the other got it right.  Both got it right!  The problem is that most modern English speakers don’t really understand 400-year-old English as well as they think they do, and mentally translate phrases like “Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin” into something like “whoever is a child of God never sins.”  But that’s not what it said!

It may seem like a tiny difference, but it’s certainly one that matters!  The details in Greek have to do with definite articles, participles, and verb tense vs. verb aspect, but most people aren’t going to get much out of that discussion.  In the English translations, the KJV’s rendering of these phrases means precisely the same thing as the ESV’s—that “No one born of God makes a practice of sinning” (v9), and so on.  John’s point is obviously not that it’s good for a Christian to sin once in a while—he wrote, earlier in the same letter, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (1Jn 2.1a).  But it’s also important to recognize that he’s not saying a Christian who commits a single transgression is actually a child of the devil, and you can justly condemn him to hell for eternity.  Instead he writes, “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (v1b).

We’re not the judges, anyway!  But, as in all things, we must exercise limited judgment, which just means recognizing the judgments God has already issued.  The point here is that, if someone claims to be a child of God, and yet unrepentantly engages in behavior God has prohibited, then you don’t need to treat that person as a brother.  Instead, you should be wary of him and any teaching he promotes.

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

(1 John 4.1)

The “quarrel about words,” as Paul wrote, “does no good, but only ruins the hearers” (2Ti 2.14).  It’s always a mistake to make snap judgments about what God’s word must mean, then treat one’s own interpretation as infallible (cf. 2Pe 1.20-21).  In the first place, it’s the equivalent of attacking windmills like the insane novel character Don Quixote, since the animating concern is that modern translators are trying to go soft on sin, even though the translation of the rest of the letter makes it clear this is not the case.  In the second place, this silly dispute serves mostly to distract from the point John was making—that we must be on guard against wolves in sheep’s clothing (Mt 7.15), and you can be sure that someone who professes to be a Christian, yet continually refuses to obey God’s plain instructions, is actually a child of the devil.  Stay away from him!

“You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.”

(Matthew 7.16-17)

If we cut down, dissected, and examined each tree meticulously and with the proper knowledge, we’d be able to tell definitively whether or not it was diseased.  But then we’d have destroyed all the trees, and what good would that be?  Instead, look at the fruit—and start with yourself.  What sort of fruit do you bear?

Jeremy Nettles

Examine Yourselves

Sunday, May 12, 2024

For even if I made you grieve with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting. For you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us.

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, but also what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves innocent in the matter.

(2 Corinthians 7.8-11)

Paul wrote these words to a church carrying lots of baggage.  The letter to which he refers is, of course, 1 Corinthians, and a quick skim shows why it “grieved” the Christians there.  Paul tore into them for creating divisions, behaving as fleshly people, having a bad attitude toward Paul himself, tolerating a grotesque form of sexual immorality, taking each other to court over petty grievances, creating sexual confusion, offending each other’s consciences through their interactions with idol-worshippers, twisting the Lord’s Supper and their use of spiritual gifts in the assembly into opportunities for climbing up the social ladder, and even denying the resurrection of Jesus.  Paul had worried how it would go over, and wasn’t entirely sure they would respond well.

Amazingly, they accepted his rebuke and attacked the problems with zeal!  As Paul noted in the passage above, they had been  “grieved into repenting,” and worked hard to remove these many black marks on their record!  Now, it’s worth mentioning that this second letter isn’t just a long list of praises for the Corinthian church—they still needed to make improvements, particularly in their general attitude toward Paul.  But even he was quite impressed with their turnaround!

Corinth was not the only place where something like this happened in the early church.  The earliest of Paul’s letters, Galatians, addresses Christians who had, for all intents and purposes, fully abandoned Christ, in favor of a Jewish conception of justification through adherence to the Law of Moses.  We don’t have a follow-up letter in this case, but we do see Paul continuing to visit these churches on subsequent journeys (Ac 16.6, 18.23), and referring to them in passing in subsequent letters, in favorable terms (1Co 16.1, 2Ti 4.10).  This makes it clear that they, too, repented of their sin and pressed forward in fellowship with Christ.  For that matter, we could include the church at Jerusalem, where the leadership was on the wrong side of the same issue and took several flareups to learn the lesson (e.g. Ac 10-11, 15); and the church at Thessalonica, where a contingent were “walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that [they] received from” Paul and his helpers (2Th 3.6), and required two letters addressing this problem before they sorted it out.

What’s notable about these instances is not that these churches had problems.  Every church has problems, because all Christians are human beings, and we have a strong tendency to mess things up, even while we strive to follow Jesus.  No, what is notable is that, in the cases were we have a good deal of information to tell us their stories, we see these churches accepting the rebuke and, in short order, joining together in repentance.

What about today?  There are probably more churches in existence today than there were individual Christians at any point in the first century AD, and every one of them still has problems.  Some—most—of them are as bad as, or even worse than the Corinthian or Galatian churches, and it’s easy for anyone with eyes and a New Testament to diagnose areas where the whole church needs to repent.  Does it happen?  Yes, occasionally it does; but as a rule these churches get worse and worse, falling farther and farther short of the ideal Jesus established, and becoming more and more a reflection of the spirit of the age, rather than the Spirit of God.  It’s disheartening to watch.  Yet it shouldn’t be surprising.  Paul told the elders of the church in Ephesus,

I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.

(Acts 20.29-30)

He told Timothy,

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth.

(1 Timothy 4.1-3)

Peter also predicted, “there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies” (2Pe 2.1), and the letters of Jude and John indicate that these predictions were already coming true.  The church enjoyed a brief period in which it was led by Apostles, and there hadn’t been much opportunity yet for heresies to breed.  Two thousand years later, the situation should not surprise us.  It’s exactly what God said was coming, and while we rarely see entire congregations changing for the better, we regularly see them letting in all kinds of sin, which “leavens the whole lump” (Ga 5.9).  This is discouraging, but there is hope.  We don’t have the authority or power of Paul or Peter; but we can have an impact, by starting at home.  “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2Co 13.5).

Jeremy Nettles

Soon Forgotten

Sunday, May 05, 2024

In last week’s article, we briefly looked at each of Christ’s Apostles.  The Scriptures don’t directly tell us much about most of them, so traditions arose.  Some of these are grounded in what the Bible spells out for us; most are untrustworthy, and contradicted by other reports.  Nevertheless, a quick look at some of these can be worthwhile.

John

When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!”

(John 21.21-22)

The speculation about what eventually happened to each Apostle began, in a sense, before Jesus had even ascended to his Father’s right hand. John, the topic of this first speculation, was probably the last living Apostle, in exile on Patmos.  Tradition says that he took up residence with the church in Ephesus for a time leading up to his exile and death around AD 100. 

Andrew

While he is barely mentioned in Acts, legends involving Andrew hold that he made his way north to the area between the Black and Caspian Seas, preaching to exceptionally barbaric Gentiles, who eventually killed him.

Philip

Philip dropped off the map in Acts.  Tradition says he ended up in the region called Phrygia, part of Paul’s early field in Asia Minor.  Philip is supposed to have been crucified there.

Bartholomew

Bartholomew is considered either to have gone with Andrew to the north, or else to have gone to India.  A legend concerning his death is that he was tied up in a large sack, and tossed into the sea to drown.

Thomas

Traditions have Thomas going to the same region as Andrew and possibly Bartholomew; or else to India.  Legends differ as to how he died, but several put his martyrdom in India.

Matthew

Matthew is tied by tradition to several regions—but this time, every point on the compass is covered!  That leaves us with no reason to assign greater probability to any one legend, but it is worth noting that he is the first to be associated with Africa.

Matthias

The report about Matthew applies equally to Matthias.  It appears that having basically the same name caused these two to be mistaken for each other, even in ancient times.

James (the son of Alphaeus)

There is a surprising lack of tradition about James’ work; but one apocryphal book from antiquity says he remained in Jerusalem until the rulers there had him stoned to death.

Thaddaeus

The surviving sources are full of nonsense and contradict each other, but the one point on which they agree is that Thaddaeus went to Syria and preached Christ until his death.

Simon

The early Christian writers don’t even agree on who exactly Simon was, let alone his field of work after Jesus’ ascension.  Eusebius suggests that he stayed in Jerusalem for life.

Peter

Peter is one of the few whose deaths are mentioned in the New Testament, but the details are obscure.  Just before the passage quoted above, Jesus had told Peter,

“when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.”

(John 21.18)

Peter himself wrote, “the putting off of my body will be soon, as our Lord Jesus Christ made clear to me” (2Pe 1.14).  Tradition says that this took place around AD 67 at Rome, and that he was crucified upside down, because he requested that his death not be made to so closely resemble that of his Lord.

Paul

Paul, likewise, wrote, “the time of my departure has come” (2Ti 4.6).  As a Roman citizen, he would be spared crucifixion, and instead beheaded.

James (the son of Zebedee)

Since we began with the latest, let’s end with the earliest of the Apostles to die a martyr. Herod Agrippa I, not long before he himself was struck down by God, “killed James the brother of John with the sword” (Ac 12.2).  He’d apparently never even left Jerusalem, but he, like the others, finished strong.

As often happens, the Bible’s silence creates a veritable Rorschach inkblot test, in which people fill in the gaps with whatever they want to see.  The point isn’t to determine whether Thomas died in Syria or India—God only knows!  The point is that these witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection did spend the rest of their lives preaching his gospel, even if their stories were not preserved.  We don’t know exactly what happened to most of them, but it doesn’t really matter.  Thinking through the list of names reminds us that behind each name stood a person who dedicated his life to serving the Lord—and that most of their work was soon forgotten by men.

Are you better than the Apostles?  Your name and your achievements will also be forgotten by men.  You just don’t matter enough to be worth remembering for the next thousand years.  When you die, your story will quickly fade from living memory.  But God does not forget!  As he watched over the Apostles, he now watches over you, and knows your story inside and out.  Will you make him proud to be your Father?

Jeremy Nettles

Ambassadors for Christ

Sunday, April 28, 2024

…in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

(2 Corinthians 5.19-21)

Jesus chose Apostles to be his ambassadors, carrying on his work of spreading the gospel of redemption and salvation, after he ascended to his Father’s right hand.  They deserve respect and admiration.  God visually depicted his kingdom, surrounded by a wall, which “had twelve foundations, and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb” (Re 21.14).  But who were they, and what did they do?

Andrew

The first named disciple (Jn 1.40), Andrew had been a follower of John the Baptist, but when John pointed out the Messiah, he immediately began to follow him, instead.  His first act as a disciple was to share the good news with his brother, Peter.  He is mentioned a few more times in the Gospels and once in Acts, remaining steadfast and outgoing, even bringing Gentiles to Jesus before the Apostles generally understood that was Jesus’ plan all along (Jn 12.20-22).

John

In the Gospel that bears his name, it’s a reasonable assumption that Andrew’s unnamed fellow disciple of John the Baptist (Jn 1.35, 40) was John the Apostle.  Paul described him as a “pillar” in the early church at Jerusalem (Ga 2.9), and he later was exiled to the island of Patmos for his preaching (Re 1.9).  He wrote the aforementioned Gospel, as well as three Epistles and Revelation.

Peter

Peter was the most brash and outspoken of the twelve.  Always willing to speak up—sometimes without thinking (Mk 9.6)—Peter naturally became a spokesman for the Apostles in the early church, and frequently got into trouble with the authorities.  He left Jerusalem for Rome (symbolically called “Babylon” in 1Pe 5.13), where he was likely Mark’s main source in writing his Gospel account.  He wrote two Epistles of his own, before being killed as a martyr, in accordance with Jesus’ prediction (Jn 21.18-19).

Philip

Another of Jesus’ earliest followers, Philip gets very little attention.  Only in John’s Gospel do we see his contributions to the story, and he drops off the radar in Acts, where another Philip, “Philip the Evangelist” (Ac 21.8) is featured in three episodes.

Bartholomew

Little is known about Bartholomew.  He was apparently also called Nathanael (Jn 1.45), and was brought to Jesus by Philip.

James

The brother of John, James was regularly included in Jesus’ inner circle in the Gospels (e.g. Mk 5.37, 9.2, 13.3, 14.33).  He was the first Apostle to die as a martyr (Ac 12.2).

Thomas

Thomas features most prominently in an episode in which he refused to believe the report that Jesus had risen, until he saw it for himself.  Of course, the rest of the Apostles had already seen the resurrected Christ, so the “doubting Thomas” trope is rather unfair.

Matthew

Also called Levi (Mk 2.14, Lk 5.29), he was a well-to-do tax collector, and a meticulous writer.  He is responsible for the Gospel that bears his name, which is one of the greatest gifts the world has ever received.

James (the son of Alphaeus)

James was one of several extremely popular names in 1st-century Jewish society, and arguments continue to this day over identifying details of this James.  All we know for sure is that he was one of the Apostles. 

Thaddaeus

Also called “Judas the son of James” (Lk 6.16, Ac 1.13), he is only mentioned in lists of the Apostles, and at the Last Supper, at which he was the last of three to ask Jesus a clarifying question (Jn 14.22).

Simon

Almost nothing is known of Simon, except that he “was called the Zealot” (Lk 6.15).  Since the Zealots were the sort of people we today would call terrorists, this label gives a striking sense of how broad a net Jesus casts!

Judas

Judas was the treasurer, and regularly used the trust placed in him to steal for his own personal gain (Jn 12.6).  He also betrayed Jesus to murderers for money, and then killed himself rather than face his guilt.

Matthias

Matthias followed Jesus throughout his ministry, but did not bear mentioning, until a replacement was needed.  Since he’d seen the risen Lord and the lot fell to him, he took Judas’ recently vacated “office” (Ac 1.20).

Paul

Finally, Paul began as a persecutor of the church, believing Jesus to be a false prophet, justly killed.  When Jesus confronted him on one of his missions to purge Israel of this new heresy, he reexamined his conclusions in the light of this resurrection, and turned around completely.  Thus began three decades of the most impressive and important work ever accomplished by mortal man, in service of the same Jesus whom he’d formerly persecuted.

These were only men, and yet—with the exception of Judas—they achieved amazing things by the power of God.  Honor and appreciate them.  Trust their teachings.  Imitate their selfless service.

Jeremy Nettles

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