Bulletin Articles

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The God of Peace

Sunday, July 17, 2022

After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.” At the same time he hoped that money would be given him by Paul. So he sent for him often and conversed with him. When two years had elapsed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. And desiring to do the Jews a favor, Felix left Paul in prison. (Acts 24.4-7)

There were some surprisingly gracious accommodations provided to Paul in prison.  He was “often” afforded the opportunity to speak to the governor, and that alone seems a nice gesture, considering his circumstances.  Note also that Paul took advantage of the chance to work on Felix, telling him from the beginning “about faith in Christ Jesus,” and some of the details—“righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment.”  While Felix remained unwilling to surrender to Christ and repent of his sin, at least Paul had a project to keep him occupied during his imprisonment.  In fact, it gets better.  Felix

gave orders to the centurion that he should be kept in custody but have some liberty, and that none of his friends should be prevented from attending to his needs. (Acts 24.23)

As political imprisonment goes, this is a pretty good deal!  And yet, although tantalized and tempted with the prospect of freedom in exchange for a bribe, Paul also knew that, even if he’d been freed, a group of “more than forty” people, in league with “the chief priests and elders” at Jerusalem, had made a poorly-hidden “conspiracy” to kill Paul, going so far as to swear “neither to eat nor drink till” their evil task was done (Ac 23.12-13).  We may pause to wonder for a moment how those forty conspirators fared over the next two years while Paul was safe from them in a guarded cell at Caesarea, but the point remains, freedom was not the same as security, and Paul was stuck between remaining in prison forever despite being innocent, or else being hunted down and murdered by his own countrymen.

Paul found a way to improve on this no-win situation, telling Felix’s replacement, Festus,

“To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. If then I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death. But if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can give me up to them. I appeal to Caesar.” Then Festus, when he had conferred with his council, answered, “To Caesar you have appealed; to Caesar you shall go.” (Acts 25.10b-12)

After a harrowing journey to Rome involving a raging storm, lack of food, a shipwreck, and an encounter with superstitious but kind natives, Paul made it to Rome, which was where he had wanted to go in the first place, even before his fateful journey to Jerusalem (Ro 15.25-28).  What awaited him at Rome?  “Paul was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier who guarded him” (Ac 28.16b).  Much like his stint of imprisonment at Caesarea, he was allowed some relative luxuries—this time, house arrest rather than being chained up in a cell.  Also like the previous arrangements, he was allowed to take all the visitors he could handle, and to continue preaching the gospel.  Even the period of his imprisonment was the same:

He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance. (Acts 28.30-31)

Yet, for all the surprising good points, he was still, for these four years, a prisoner.  He’d spent ten years or so occupied with traveling all over the northeast quadrant of the Mediterranean, establishing too many churches to name, and returning to each either in body or spirit through various letters, which, in turn, have taught Christ to millions all over the world for two thousand years since.  He went from that work, to suddenly being confined in a cell, and later a house that probably wasn’t much bigger—for which privilege he had to pay out of his own pocket.  What miserable circumstances!

Paul wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon during this imprisonment, and we might have expected him to display a woe-is-me attitude about his suffering.  But no.  He makes only a handful of references to his imprisonment, mostly highlighting good points and opportunities!  Here he was, suffering for his faith, yet he genuinely rejoiced in his trials.  This is certainly a good example for us to follow, as Paul himself points out (Php 3.17).  But how did he do it? How did Paul maintain a positive attitude in the midst of persecution?  How did he remain at peace?  As he begins to wrap up his letter to the church at Philippi, he tells us exactly how he did it, and how we can face our troubles with the same calm and assurance:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. (Philippians 4.4-9)

Jeremy Nettles

A Circumcision Made Without Hands

Sunday, July 10, 2022

For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness… (Romans 4.3-5)

With these words, Paul begins his discussion of justification by faith, centered around Abraham.  Since he’s writing to a church dealing with friction between Jewish and Gentile members, he’s been focused since chapter 2 of this letter on lumping these two groups together—in guilt, as well as in salvation.  Accordingly, he points out that Abraham was labelled righteous in Genesis 17.5, on account of his belief—and it wasn’t until verse 10 that God instructed him to be circumcised.  He obeyed the command “that very day, as God had said to him” (v23), but nevertheless, even if we disregard the 24 years that Abraham had been following God’s instructions, going where he was told, and demonstrating trust in God, the text of Genesis 17 tells us Abraham was righteous in God’s eyes “before he was circumcised” (Ro 4.10).  The point Paul is really driving here is that righteousness—also called justification throughout this section of the book—was not, even from the beginning, the exclusive domain of the Jews.  It was easy for God’s chosen people to think there was no way for a gentile to attain salvation from sin and enter a covenant with God without converting to Judaism, because they knew the Law and the Prophets, and in them God said that the Gentiles were unclean; but there was a mechanism available for even the heathen to become clean and thus enabled to enter God’s Presence, entailing adherence to the Law of Moses, including circumcision.  However, God had already shown that an individual Gentile could, in fact, enter into a covenant relationship with him and be counted righteous, because Abraham was just such an individual, before God gave him circumcision, the first hallmark of Judaism.

The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Romans 4.11b-12)

Today, most of this is completely ignored in the typical discussion about justification by faith.  Perhaps this is simply because the proportion of practicing Jews who also profess Christ is now vanishingly small, and so we face different struggles today; but there also appears to be a shakier motive, tied up in the refusal to obey certain of God’s commands.  Inasmuch as circumcision is a relatively simple, outward act that carries with it an enormous weight of spiritual  symbolism, it’s easy to put baptism in its place and say that the two are equivalent in being unnecessary.  But if that’s the case, why didn’t Paul mention that anywhere in all of his writings, and why did he uphold baptism at every turn?  It requires us to deliberately ignore an enormous amount of what Paul (to say nothing of the other apostles and Jesus himself) said, and focus instead on a carefully selected few portions of Galatians, Romans and Ephesians, to build the case that baptism is unnecessary.

Even without that comparison, we may wonder: if Abraham was counted righteous, on the basis of his faith, before he was circumcised, then what was the point in telling him to be circumcised at all?

First of all, God can do what he wants, and doesn’t owe us an explanation.  This is an adequate answer to most of our questions; but in this case we can find a more satisfying reason.  Paul calls Abraham’s circumcision “a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised” (Ro 4.11a).  God himself told Abraham, “it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you” (Ge 17.11).  Why did God choose circumcision, instead of perhaps a funny hat?  We can only speculate, but removing a sensitive and precious piece, however minor, of one’s own body, and undergoing the substantial pain and bloody mess involved in the procedure, gave a stark demonstration of what God expected the Israelites to do, spiritually, out of devotion to him.  We don’t have the requirement of fleshly circumcision, but God does command the removal and casting away of intimate, integral aspects of ourselves that God has deemed unfit for his Presence.  It will be just as painful, just as messy, and just as permanent.  In fact, Paul points out that circumcision was a shadow of this Christian covenant:

In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. (Colossians 2.11-14)

Just as circumcision never made anyone righteous, neither does baptism today.  At the same time, refusing circumcision made God’s chosen people unrighteous, and so it is with baptism today.  Circumcision carried a deep symbolism, reminding the Jews of pain and blood; baptism reminds us of death and burial.  The key difference is that the Law of Moses built up a record of sins; but in Christ, they are nailed to the cross and forgiven.

Jeremy Nettles

Right Hand, Left Hand

Sunday, July 03, 2022

In the traditions and histories, James is considered to have been the driving force in the church at Jerusalem for the first couple decades, before he was martyred sometime in the 60s.  That’s an overstatement, but his opinion certainly carried a lot of weight.  For example let’s look at Acts 15, where the disagreement about which rules Jesus wants imposed on Gentile converts has escalated to a confrontation at Jerusalem between Paul and Barnabas on one side, and the legalist Jewish Christians on the other.  This group has the majority, and holds that Gentiles essentially must convert to Judaism first, in order to reap any benefit from Christ, saying, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Ac 15.1).  Paul and Barnabas know better.

So does Peter, although he didn’t always find it easy to stand up for this principle.  During an extended visit to Antioch, he chickened out of maintaining his fellowship with Gentile Christians when “certain men came from James” (Ga 2.12).  Knowing their opinion and not wanting a fracas, “he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.”  But that was then, and this is now.  Peter does stand up and, far from pinning salvation to circumcision in accordance with the Law of Moses, he reminds his Jewish brothers, “we believe that we will be saved though the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (Ac 15.11).  This point was rather important, but easy to forget for these Jews, who knew nothing for 1400 years other than an entirely works-based righteousness that had always failed to produce the kind of people God wanted.  Finally James—the author of that extremely practical book on how to live as Christians—weighs in:

“my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.” (Acts 15.19-20)

So weighty is his opinion that the rest of the apostles and elders agree to do exactly that.  Notably, in the letter, they write

“we have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds although we gave them no instructions…” (Acts 15.24)

Some of these legalistic, Law-of-Moses-loving Jewish Christians had been going around to predominately Gentile churches and telling them they needed to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses in order to be saved.  No doubt, among them were the “certain men” who “came from James” in that earlier incident to which Paul referred in Galatians.  They got along great with James, who stressed the importance of doing, not just hearing or saying (Ja 1.22-25, 2.14-26).  But even though they were labeled his followers, he hadn’t actually sent them to do this!  He knew better, and spoke up on behalf of Paul and Barnabas when it counted, helping to sway the church toward the truth and away from the lie his own friends were promoting.

Over the centuries, Catholicism came closer and closer to mirroring the failed standard of righteousness under the Law of Moses, as if  salvation were a prize to be purchased through the sacraments of the church, and maintained by keeping in balance one’s sins and good works, including penance.  Then came Martin Luther, relentlessly harping on Paul’s writings about salvation by faith in Christ.  He so hated the book of James that he suggested it was inauthentic, not even written by a Christian, let alone inspired by God.  He, and many others as time went on, swung the pendulum from the nonsense of one extreme—salvation earned by works—to the nonsense of the other extreme—salvation completely independent of what we choose to do.  In reality, the truth is in the middle, as James himself says: “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (Ja 2.17).  Is this different from what Paul says?  No, not really. 

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.  You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?”  (Galatians 5.6-7)

James is emphasizing good works to people who need to be reminded those are not optional.  Paul is emphasizing faith to those who need to be reminded, you can’t earn your salvation.  But James doesn’t say faith is unnecessary; he upholds its importance.  And Paul doesn’t say works are unnecessary, he says that our faith must be working through love, and that we must obey the truth.  They agree completely—they’re just focusing on what different audiences need to hear most. 

The Catholic establishment for centuries ignored much of Paul’s writings at their peril.  Many in the Protestant world have for centuries ignored James at their peril.  But Paul and James never wanted to split the church between them.  Paul calls James an apostle (not one of the twelve Apostles, but nevertheless performing a similar function) in Galatians 1.19, and calls him one of the “pillars” of the church in Jerusalem in the next chapter (2.9).  And when, many years later, Paul was in some trouble with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem again, James took the lead in trying to bail him out (Ac 21.17-26).  Many people have tried awfully hard to make these two into enemies, but it’s just not true!  They have slightly different functions, as the right hand has a slightly different function from the left hand—but they’re part of the same body, obeying the same head, and working for the same goals.  Instead of ignoring one or the other based on our own preferences, we must follow the teaching of both, because it really comes from the head, who is Christ.

Jeremy Nettles

Where Are You?

Sunday, June 26, 2022

And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” (Genesis 3.8-11)

The question God directs at Adam is a familiar one, asked for many different reasons in many different scenarios.  In the case of Adam and Eve, God asked them, not because he didn’t know where they were—nothing is hidden to the omniscient and omnipresent God—but in order to play along, so to speak, with his creations’ silly game, and give them an opportunity to own up to what they had done.

At other times, someone might inquire about your location in order to join you there, or to lay plans contingent upon the expected time of your arrival at another location, or still another reason.  But one reason in particular is not so far removed from the cause of God’s question to Adam: perhaps you are lost, and the answer to the question, “where are you?” is the necessary starting point in the quest to find you, or set you back on the proper way.  This happens all the time in the physical realm—getting lost on your way to a job interview in an unfamiliar town, for example.  It also happens in the spiritual realm, in which countless souls wander around, lost in sin.  If you should discover that you’re lost, it’s important to establish a few more facts before proceeding:

Where do you want to go?

The answer to this question may be anything from the broad, “anyplace I recognize!” to something much more narrow, like “the barbecue restaurant on 3rd Street.”  But if you don’t have a clearly defined goal in mind, you won’t be able to really achieve anything beyond becoming lost in a slightly different locale.  It’s important to determine what criteria would make you no longer lost, and to correctly match those criteria to a location.  If you find yourself lost in sin and destined for destruction, finding the barbecue restaurant isn’t going to help you.  You need to find the sheepfold over which Jesus is “the good shepherd” (Jn 10.11).

Do you have a trustworthy wayfinder?

We’ve all gotten bad directions at one time or another.  A generation ago, a slip of the tongue or the memory could easily send the lost soul down the wrong road, or the right road, but the wrong direction; there were even those who would take pleasure in misleading a wanderer.  Supposed shepherds “have been leading them astray, and those who are guided by them are swallowed up” (Is 9.16).  A little more recently, cars started to include GPS navigation, but if the systems didn’t update as roads changed, you could easily follow their instructions to the wrong location, or worse.  Even today, when everyone has a smartphone in his pocket and easy access to constantly updated maps and customized turn-by-turn instructions to get where you want to go, there are occasional mistakes, glitches, and other shortcomings.  This leads, at worst, to a phenomenon called Death by GPS, when someone trusts the phone’s instructions over his own eyes and, for example, turns the wrong way up a one-way street.  How much riskier, when the stakes aren’t just your physical life, but your eternal soul?  Who, or what do you trust to give you reliable instructions?

How do you reach the goal?

With your goal and your wayfinder established, the next thing to define is the pathway.  The exact directions will depend somewhat upon where you are in the first place, which is why it’s so important to assess your current location.  If the goal is Chicago, it matters an awful lot whether you start from 8th St and Broadway, New York City, or 8th St and Broadway, Los Angeles.  But in the spiritual realm, while not everyone lost is lost in exactly the same way, for exactly the same reasons, it’s all due to sin, broadly.  The only destination worth reaching is the kingdom of heaven, and while each person’s journey to find the door will be unique, there’s only the one door!  “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (Lk 13.24).  How do you reach that door?  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1.15).

Are you willing to follow the map?

But this isn’t about a half-hearted, dismissive, verbal assent.  Saying, “sure, whatever,” is no indication at all of a genuine trust in the guide.  As James 2.19 tells us, “Even the demons believe—and shudder!”  But why is this belief not enough, when Jesus says, “Do not fear, only believe” (Mk 5.36), and Paul says, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Ro 10.9)?  For the same reason a person might be lost in a shady part of town, see the signs and maps to guide him back to where the light shines, and choose to stay in the darkness.  Jesus’ and Paul’s statements assume that you want to be found.  But, while this hypothetical person believes he knows the way out of the darkness, he doesn’t believe the light is what’s best for him.  He doesn’t believe the one who tells him there’s a better way.  Like Adam and Eve, he has determined he’d rather remain hidden—lost, in the dark.  What about you?  Are you on the path that leads to life?  Do you really trust your guide?  Are you in the light?  Look around.  Where are you?

Jeremy Nettles

Constant in Prayer

Sunday, June 19, 2022

And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.” (Luke 18.1-8a)

Jesus’ parable and commentary in this passage is comforting and encouraging.  As he taught on many other occasions, the main takeaway is that we’re foolish to spend our time and effort on worrying, when God himself is watching over us, ready to hear our requests.  Yet, despite what Jesus says here, we surely all know from personal experience that we do not always receive the things we ask of God.  Jesus himself prayed, “Remove this cup from me” (Mk 14.36), meaning the burden of death on a cross, bearing the sins of the world on his shoulders.  How did that work out for him?  Or what about the Apostle Paul?  He suffered some bodily affliction he earnestly desired to be rid of, and reports,

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  (2 Corinthians 12.8-9a)

It’s a flowery “No,” but a “No” nonetheless.  So is God on the hook to give us what we ask, or not?

James provides us with two possible explanations for God’s refusal to heed our prayers.  In the first, he tells his audience, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (Ja 3.2b-3).  While upholding the general recommendation that we pray, rather than worrying or becoming bitter over wants, he points out that God is not only interested in in granting our requests, but also assessing our motives.  As any parent knows, there’s a vast difference between a child requesting $20 to give to someone who needs help buying groceries, and one requesting that same $20 to spend on a new toy that will be a brief source of amusement, soon forgotten.

The second possibility appears in another of James’ exhortations to pray:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord… (James 1.5-8a)

The one who doubts—not so much that God will give him what he wants, as that God is listening and able to answer—undermines his own prayer.  Do either of James’ helpful notes explain the rejection of Jesus’ or Paul’s prayer?  Not at all!  While they’re valuable lessons for us to learn, they don’t do much to answer our question!

“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1Jn 5.14).  Here’s our explanation.  It was not God’s will that Jesus be spared the full experience he and his Father had planned since before the foundation of the world; neither was it God’s will that Paul’s body be a perfect specimen of health and strength.  God had more important things in mind: “my power is made perfect in weakness.”  God wanted Paul’s fleshly body to be obviously imperfect, the better to demonstrate that the power and glory were from God, not man.

Understanding that it’s not just about our own gratification will help us immensely in our prayers.  God always answers, but often the answer is “no,” and we may not always know the reason why.  But we should remember that the reasons, whatever they may be, are more important than our imperfect, fleshly vision of the world and our place in it.  In fact, even Jesus’ prayer, our first example of God’s refusal to grant a request, acknowledged this circumstance—immediately after begging, “Remove this cup from me,” Jesus concluded, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mk 14.36).

So, how should we pray?  Despite knowing a great deal from what God reveals to us in his word, we don’t always know his will in every minute detail.  How can we avoid asking “wrongly,” as James says?  First of all, we can follow Jesus’ example of acknowledging in our prayers that we don’t know what’s best and yield to our Father’s unimaginably greater wisdom.  But we shouldn’t let this keep us from making requests, nor should we worry excessively about accidentally asking something against God’s will.  His answer to Paul wasn’t harsh, and Jesus reassures us, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6.8), even if we ourselves don’t know.  In fact,

“the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Romans 8.26)

He doesn’t expect us to have his level of knowledge, understanding, or wisdom.  We should do our best to emulate his good will, and make our prayers accordingly.  We ought always to pray and not lose heart.  Our heavenly Father loves us, and wants what’s best for us.  “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” (Ro 12.12).

Jeremy Nettles

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