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Iron sharpens iron

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The Spirit of God

Sunday, November 26, 2023

For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.

(1 Corinthians 2.11)

In our present age of “spiritual but not religious” people, full of weird ideas and New Age-y drivel that hijacks the vocabulary of Jesus and his Apostles, and uses it in an ill-advised attempt to justify debased behavior that in reality appeals only to the flesh and not the spirit, it is understandable that grounded Christians are often uncomfortable with passages like this one.  In fact, even when Paul wrote this, the word, spirit, was doing a lot of heavy lifting, used in a wide variety of distinct ways.  The Greek word behind our English spirit is πνεῦμα-pneuma, and you can easily see that it serves as the core of many other words, like pneumatic, and pneumonia.  This is because it refers, most literally, to wind.  From there you can see the small jump to signify the breath of a living creature, and in turn the jump to mean what we might call the animating life-force of that creature.  In fact, the equivalent word in Latin is anima, which you can see is the basis of animate, as used in the previous sentence, and also of animal—the idea being that an animal is something that breathes. 

But we’re not done; from there, another small leap brings us to a higher level  of abstraction, in which the spirit is more than the nexus of life and breath, but instead refers to the immaterial aspects of a human being.  We know that there is more to a person than a amorphous blob of chemicals shifting around according to random chance and by pure coincidence interfering, at times, with other such blobs of chemicals.  Yet whatever this distinction is, it ends with death.  When the spirit goes out of a body, it does, in fact, become a meaningless blob of chemicals.  Thus, we think of the spirit—and more importantly, God’s word speaks of it—as the seat of our inner life and will, as well as emotion.  Modern science would generally associate these things with the brain, not the breath.  In fact, many of the ancients had a clearer understanding of the brain’s purpose than is usually accredited to them; but more importantly, modern neuroscience still has no idea what to do with the amazing phenomenon we sometimes call consciousness—in other words, the spirit, or at least part of it.

But as Paul wrote, no other human being knows your thoughts, like you know your thoughts.  Your spirit holds them securely, even when your intellect struggles to articulate them sufficiently well for another person to understand the same thoughts.  And what is Paul’s point in bringing this up?  That God is the same.  His Spirit knows his innermost self intimately.  Why does this matter?

Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

(1 Corinthians 2.12-13)

God has given us his Spirit!  Many people throughout the ages have professed to understand God, and Paul’s point is that any meaningful understanding of the depths of God is impossible, if it is pursued according to human wisdom.  From where, then, does it come?  From his Spirit, who alone truly knows God.  How are we supposed to get this Spirit?

“And it shall come to pass afterward,

        that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;

your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

        your old men shall dream dreams,

        and your young men shall see visions.

Even on the male and female servants

        in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”

(Joel 2.28-29)

This was, of course, fulfilled on the day of Pentecost that followed Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection, as the Apostle Peter pointed out to his audience that day (Ac 2.16ff).  Paul received the Spirit later, and passed on this gift to the new Christians in Corinth.  This is his point in the letter we’ve been examining: his audience has access to the Spirit of God, and yet they have been foolishly pursuing the obviously defective human wisdom that never yielded any substantial spiritual benefit before!

Surely we would never do such a thing today, right?  How is it any different, when a professed Christian explains away disfavored portions of God’s word?  Who knows God better—his own Spirit, or today’s supposedly enlightened western mind?  Why is it that most of the prominent, public voices presuming to speak for God, are content to reject what God’s own book says about topics like sexual mores, marriage, racial grievance, basic justice in society and in war, and a host of other topics?  Why is it that they so often agree instead with the avowed atheists?  Have they received “the Spirit who is from God,” or “the spirit of the world?”

The Christian must not conform to the world, but rather to Christ.  This does not include making dubious assertions about what Jesus would have said, were he alive today.  The chief reason for this, is that Jesus is alive today!  And he does speak today!  His message is no different from what he said nearly two thousand years ago, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (He 13.8).  Much of what animates today’s supposedly Christian discourse in the public sphere is a desire to be accepted by the world.  We all share this desire; but it stands in conflict with the cross.  Jesus told his disciples, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (Jn 15.20).  Which is better: fellowship with a dying world, or fellowship with the eternal Spirit of God?


What Does It Mean, to Obey the Gospel?

Sunday, November 19, 2023

We’re several installments into a series examining the oft-used but seldom-defined word, gospel.  We’ve dispensed with the notion that it’s some kind of magic ritual or talisman, and instead focused on the recurring pattern of descent into darkness and death, followed by ascent into light and life.  God has used this pattern over and over, and he demonstrated it most clearly in his Son, both in his sojourn on this earth before returning to his rightful home in heaven, and in his death, burial, and resurrection, which was the culmination of his earthly ministry.  We considered in a past installment one passage in which the Apostle Paul discusses this same point, recalling how Jesus “was in the form of God,” and yet

did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(Philippians 2.6-11)

The fact of Jesus’ earthly descent and ascent fulfills and validates his heavenly descent and ascent.  As Paul makes very clear, the ascent was in neither case merely a return to the prior circumstance—otherwise, what would be the point, if no lasting benefit resulted from the process?  When Jesus ascended, he was granted a new and glorious name.  Whereas his identity, and in some measure his very existence, has been deliberately hidden from the foundation of the world until his advent on this earth, now he is proclaimed across the whole world as King of Kings and Lord of Lords (cf. Re 19.16).  In short, the benefit far outweighed the cost.

But what does any of that matter to us?  Well, what did Paul say, just before that theologically dense and intricate statement about Jesus’ descent and ascent?

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,

(Philippians 2.5)

nevertheless plunged into this fallen world, in pursuit of the worthiest of all goals.  While the passage provides ample fodder for minor doctrinal points, it would be a disastrous—and all too common—mistake to neglect the commandment Paul constructed it to serve!  We are to imitate Christ, in emptying ourselves of the things we think we deserve, and in some cases really do deserve.  We are to consciously go to our own deaths.  But why?  For a reason comparable to Jesus’: having humbled ourselves completely before God, we stand to receive a reward that mimics the one he gave to his Son.

But as we’ve noted in previous installments, this death, burial, and resurrection, in imitation of Jesus, takes place, of course, at a believer’s baptism!

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

        For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

(Romans 6.3-5)

It’s right there, in black and white!  When we act out Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, in the symbolic act of burial in water—a method by which God repeatedly demonstrated this same pattern in the Old Testament, let’s remember—we are spiritually joining Christ in death, and therefore can reasonably look forward to joining him in an eternal resurrection, too!

But is that all it means?  Of course not!  As in the Philippians passage, Paul here uses a beautifully clear articulation of something already commonly understood, to explain a commandment:

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

        Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.

(Romans 6.11-12)

That singular occasion of death, burial, and resurrection in baptism must resonate and be acted out daily!  Despite being transferred into the kingdom of heaven, the newly-baptized believer still has to live, for now, in the world, in a body of flesh susceptible to all manner of temptation.  This is why Paul brought up the Christian’s prior death to sin. 

For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

        Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.

(Colossians 3.3-6)

Paul’s not talking to unbelievers, encouraging them to put earthly things to death by being baptized—he’s telling Christians to keep killing these earthly inclinations, because our journey toward God is ongoing!  He says the same in Ephesians 4.22, 2 Corinthians 4.11, Galatians 5.24, Romans 8.13, and other passages far too numerous to list here.  So what does it mean, to obey the gospel?  As we discussed in a recent article, baptism is a major act of obedience to the gospel; but it must not stop there!  Obeying the gospel is a continual, daily endeavor.

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

(Luke 9.23)

Jeremy Nettles

The Essence of the Gospel

Sunday, November 12, 2023

The past four weeks’ articles have been something of a deep dive into defining and better understanding the gospel that the Bible always talks about.  It’s not a magical ritual that puts hidden powers at the command of men; it’s not a mystical experience that functions as a get-out-of-hell-free card in the eternal Game of Life.  It’s something deeper and richer, a pattern reflected repeatedly through many ages, of descent into darkness, followed by victorious ascent into marvelous light. 

That’s the pattern Jesus established when he left his heavenly home to dwell in this dark world, and then returned to his Father’s side, to receive his well-deserved throne.  That is, as we described it last week, “the essence of the gospel.”  We see the same essence in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection.  And he acted out the same pattern, when he weakened himself and faced temptation, then defiantly commanded, “Be gone, Satan!” 

For that matter, it’s the same pattern Jonah predicted, when he was thrown into the dark, stormy sea, preserved by God’s grace, and then brought back to the land of the living and told to start over; the same pattern David predicted when he faced a mortal threat from his own rebellious son, and put his trust in the Lord, saying,

I lay down and slept;

        I woke again, for the Lord sustained me.

I will not be afraid of many thousands of people

        who have set themselves against me all around.

(Psalm 3.5-6)

And it’s the same pattern the nation of Israel followed, when they were despairing at the reappearance of their enslaver and his army, grasping for hope of escape.  They took a nearly suicidal leap of faith into the midst of the Red Sea, down the unnatural path that appeared before them in the night.  They could observe, as easily as we, that the collected waters, which formed “a wall to them on their right hand and on their left” (Ex 14.22), would not stay held back like this forever; but they were afraid enough of Pharaoh, to throw themselves into that deep, dark chasm; and God rewarded their trust by conducting them safely through the Sea, and then used the same means to kill their pursuers and destroy their hold over Israel.

And it’s the same pattern Daniel followed, when he heard Darius’ foolish and irreverent decree, a thirty-day ban on any prayer not directed at the king himself.  Darius was Daniel’s friend, but allowed his sycophantic underlings to puff him up and make him out to be divine.  Daniel knew disobeying would lead him into a dark pit full of hungry lions; yet he deliberately refused to go along with with the sacrilege, and was preserved by God and brought safely back to the light, while the mortal threat he’d successfully evaded was turned instead on his accusers (Da 6.24).

And it’s the same pattern Gideon followed, when he received the call in the night to destroy his town’s idolatrous shrine and his own father’s valuable livestock, to make an appropriate sacrifice to God.  He knew full well that the townspeople would seek to kill him in response, and he was “afraid of his family and the men of the town” (Jdg 6.27); but he did it anyway, and in the morning light was defended and protected from reprisal.

And it’s the same pattern Peter acted out, when he attempted to make good on his vow to Jesus, “Even though they all fall away, I will not” (Mk 14.29).  He failed miserably.  He’d followed Jesus and his captors down from the mountain in the darkness, trying to stay close as his Lord was brought before representatives of Satan dressed as holy servants of God;  but in the darkness and cold, he’d stumbled, repeatedly denying that he even knew Jesus.  He could have, like Judas, chosen to stay in the darkness and make it his home forever, alone with his misery and guilt; but instead he confronted his failure, mourning his sin and returning to serve Jesus despite his lapse.  He followed his order, “when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22.32). 

And it’s the pattern the Apostle Paul followed, when he was confronted with the alarming news that he’d been fighting on the wrong side of God’s war with Satan. 

Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

(Acts 9.8-9)

In that abiding darkness and misery, he surrendered his heart to Christ, and was rewarded when God took hold of him and brought him back to the light—symbolized when “something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight” (Ac 9.18). 

We could go on, and on, and on, with more of these; but this is as good a time as any to bring into focus what Jesus said: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Re 2.10).  Similarly,

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

(Luke 9.23-24)

This is what it’s all about: a death, burial, and resurrection, following the pattern established by Jesus and demonstrated by God’s people across the ages.  But is this death, burial, and resurrection literal?  Or is it figurative?  Bodily?  Spiritual?  Singular?  Repeated?  Constant?  No; it’s all of the above!  It is the very essence of the Gospel, through which Christ redeems and saves.

Jeremy Nettles

Reflections of the Gospel

Sunday, November 05, 2023

In the past three weeks’ articles, we have built a better understanding, little by little, of the gospel.  We started by considering the false teaching popularly known as, “once saved, always saved,” and examined both the kernel of truth behind the idea of eternal security, and also a handful of the multitude of examples in the Bible that make it clear that God leaves it within each individual’s power to reject his grace.  Next, we acknowledge the usefulness of describing a person’s conversion with the phrase, “obeyed the gospel;” but did away with the notion that the moment of belief and baptism is the whole story.  That left us asking, what is involved in the ongoing nature of obedience to the gospel?  But before we could answer that adequately, we had to consider, what exactly is the gospel, in the first place?  When we searched the books in our bibles called—by no coincidence—the Gospels, we found Jesus and those whom he appointed to share this good news, tying it to the kingdom of God, which through Jesus is established on earth, for the rest of the present age, until he returns.  What will he do, then?  He will transfer the kingdom, which currently exists, in part, in this world, even though it is not of the world, entirely to the heavenly realm.  So, the essence of the gospel is that heaven came down to earth, in order to bring the world up to heaven.

In fact, Jesus used this imagery long before the details were manifested and acted out!  “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man” (Jn 3.13).  He illustrated the same pattern to Nicodemus, pointing out that he’s been to heaven, and descended from there to earth.  But since heaven was his origin, and not merely a stop along his journey, his use of the word, “ascended” is puzzling, until you factor in his plan to ascend back to his Father, after his work on earth was done.  In part, he’s referring to his future plan; and in part, he’s speaking figuratively, reflecting the fact that any ordinary man would have to ascend, in order to reach God’s presence.

But there’s more.  Asked for a sign, Jesus said the only sign given to those who refused to believe in him would be the

“sign of the prophet Jonah.  For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

(Matthew 12.39-40)

That’s another form of descent, isn’t it?  And yet the finite duration of the time he predicted he would spend in the earth is an indication that, when it came to an end, he would no longer remain there—that he would ascend to the realm of the living again!  This is far from Jesus’ only prediction of his death, burial, and resurrection.  Just before he spoke to Nicodemus, he told some early detractors, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2.19).  He later told a diverse crowd in Jerusalem, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again” (Jn 10.17).  Then, as the time drew near, he repeatedly told his closest disciples,

“The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.”

(Mark 9.31)

The Scriptures had foretold the same thing! 

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,

        or let your holy one see corruption.

You make known to me the path of life…

(Psalm 16.10-11)

You who have made me see many troubles and calamities

        will revive me again;

from the depths of the earth

        you will bring me up again.

(Psalm 71.20)

We could throw in several other Psalms, the aforementioned story of Jonah, the sacrifice of Isaac, the recurring pattern of experiences by Joseph and then all Israel in Egypt, and many other indications in the Scriptures God had already given to the Jews, that the Messiah would suffer, die, be buried, and then rise again.  These are fairly obscure shadows rather than outright statements of fact; but that’s how God chose to reveal his plan, and the hints are obvious, in retrospect.

Paul makes the same case, writing,

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…

(1 Corinthians 15.3-4)

Not only did the Scripture testify to this, but they were matters “of first importance.”  It’s just Paul’s updated rendition of the message Jesus had preached: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1.15).  What was the essence of that gospel, again?  Heaven came down to earth, in order to bring the world up to heaven.  Jesus acted that out, in his flesh—first, by descending from heaven, to suffer the effects of sin, without incurring any guilt of his own; and then, by descending even farther—into the belly of the earth, in faith that his Father would raise him up again, and the reward would be worth it.  Jesus

did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

(Philippians 2.6-11)

What is our appropriate response to this, but to join the numberless multitude in bowing before him and confessing that he is Lord?

Jeremy Nettles

What Is the Gospel?

Sunday, October 29, 2023

In last week’s article, we examined the Scriptures that tell us to obey the gospel, and arrived at the realization that, while it’s fair to pin that obedience to a particular moment in time—one’s baptism—we should also acknowledge that obedience to the gospel is meant to be an ongoing process!  But how can that be?  Well, what exactly is the gospel?

Try as we might, we will never find in any passage of Scripture a clearly-marked, concise definition of the gospel.  Therefore, our own efforts to define it will involve searching, pondering, and hand-waving.  We should start with the caveat that the Spirit of God is bigger than our own minds; but at the same time, God has told us everything we truly need to know.  “Gospel” means good news.  It’s not just any good news, though; it’s the good news about Jesus Christ.  Thus, four books of the Bible are named, “The Gospel According to” one of the Apostles or their associates.  Each of these books tells a narrative of Jesus’ life on earth, with a particular focus and goal in mind.  John’s Gospel tells us why he wrote:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

(John 20.30-31)

It was never about teaching us history or science.  Rather, John selected particular episodes in Jesus’ earthly life, with a view toward fostering belief.  What does John want us to believe?  That Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.  Why is belief in that proposition a goal worth pursuing?  Because it leads to eternal life, in Jesus’ name!

Is that the same as believing in the gospel?  After all, the message Jesus himself preached on earth was, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1.15).  In fact, Mark the evangelist—the bearer of good news—introduced his book just a few verses earlier by labeling it, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (v1).  But then he prefaced Jesus’ preaching by calling his message “the gospel of God” (v14)!  So, Jesus preached the gospel, which amounted to,“Believe in the gospel.”  Do you get the feeling we’re chasing our own proverbial tail?

But we’re skipping the rest of what Jesus said.  One important detail is that “the kingdom of God is at hand.”  Now we’re getting somewhere!  The kingdom of God—alternately called the kingdom of heaven in Matthew’s Gospel—has its roots in the Old Testament, especially in the book of Daniel. 

And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed…

(Daniel 2.44)

“Those kings” are the Roman emperors, and when Jesus began to herald the coming of the kingdom of heaven, Tiberius Caesar, the second Roman emperor, reigned.  The good news was that the God of heaven would come down to earth and establish his eternal kingdom, which would be far better, in every way, than the tumultuous kingdoms of earth.  Much of Jesus’ preaching dealt with the question of entry into the kingdom.

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

(Matthew 5.20)

“Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

(Mark 10.14-15)

“The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

(Luke 17.20-21)

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”

(John 3.5)

But this leaves open the question, how are we supposed to obey the good news of God’s kingdom come down to earth?  Jesus already told us to “repent,” among other things; but there’s still more!  Is this eternal kingdom, which Jesus said “is not of this world” (Jn 18.36), supposed to remain on earth, in our midst, forever?  Paul tells us that, at the time of Jesus’ return, after he raises the dead,

Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.

(1 Corinthians 15.24)

This is about more than an improved earthly life, under the dominion of the only righteous and merciful king, whose reign will never come to an end due to his death or defeat.   God’s kingdom—as John told us in his Gospel’s purpose statement—comes with eternal promises.  The good news is that the kingdom of heaven has come to earth, and will return to heaven again, someday soon.

But God’s kingdom is bordered by “a great high wall” (Re 21.12), and no one gets in, except as the King allows.  Furthermore, in the present age, while the kingdom of heaven pervades the earth, but Satan’s kingdom still holds sway here, there is a real danger of those who have once entered the kingdom, being cast out.

“The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.”

(Matthew 13.41-43)

Obeying the gospel isn’t just about getting in the door of the kingdom of heaven.  It’s about staying there, now and forever.

Jeremy Nettles

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