For the past few months, I have been focusing on and studying the epistles (letters) of Paul to the early church. I’ve been reading them in bible order rather than the order in which they were written, but I decided to work my way through them all starting with Romans. So far I’ve read Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, and Philippians.
Reading and studying Paul’s letters in this way has allowed certain recurring themes to jump out at me. It’s no secret that Paul’s instructions to the different churches hit on a lot of common topics and struggles, but I think what stands out to us often has to do with both the state of our world as a whole and what is happening in our lives personally. That’s what is so amazing and refreshing and life giving about the Word of God . . . it is what makes it living and active . . . the fact that we can read the same thing a thousand times, and it’s applicable to our current life situation every single time . . . the fact that we can find it convicting and transforming in a different way each time we read it.
So what keeps hitting me square in the face this time around? What have I found both convicting, transformative, and encouraging as I’ve studied? None of these are unfamiliar passages of scripture or new concepts in my life. Yet, as I read I realized, I have come a long way, but I still have a LONG way to go.
- Love . . . others over self . . . as Christians we are called to love. Specifically, agape, unconditional love. We are not going to bring others to Jesus without love. I have “loved” (pun totally intended) 1 Corinthians 13 since I was a child, but here’s the thing, I cannot honestly say that I’m always great or even good at walking in unconditional love. I could say I’ve done a lot “right” things by the church’s standard, and I was/am a “good” Christian by my outward attitudes and actions, but Paul reminds us over and over again that without love none of our outward actions really matter. As we are told in Romans 3:10, “There is none righteous, no not one . . .”. So all the “right” things and “good” Christianity on the outside aren’t getting me very far. Further, as Christians, we are not called to selfishness . . . we are called to put others ahead of self. And, I’ll be honest, this is so difficult sometimes. Philippians 2:3-4, “Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better himself. Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interest of others.” Long story short, I am my brother’s keeper, and my the attitude of my heart matters far more than the outward performance.
- Paul is neither soft on sin nor light on grace. He calls it like it is and he’s pretty straightforward regarding sin. Throughout his letters you will find Paul calling the church out on sinful behaviors, and he’s not soft on behaviors that sadly are commonplace within the modern church. Galatians 6:19-26, “Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. And those who are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.” There’s a little “ouch” in that passage, if I’m being totally transparent. But here’s the other thing, there is no way I’m capable of walking in the Spirit without the Spirit. There’s no way I can live up to those standards without Christ and His sacrifice and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Our works cannot and will not ever save us. We just can’t be “good” enough, and without God’s amazing, unearned, undeserved grace and mercy we’re completely lost. But it’s that grace and mercy that should convict and compel us to do good. Philippians 1:27, “Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ . . . “. Ephesians 8:8-10, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not yourself; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” We cannot earn God’s grace or our salvation, but we are called to good works, we are called to love, because of that grace.
- Suffering . . . sorry y’all. The church, especially the American church, really doesn’t like this one. But Paul wrote four of these letters (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) from prison. He was imprisoned for spreading the gospel. He did nothing wrong, and he suffered without complaint. I have a long way to go on this one. Philippians 2:14-16, “Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.” That passage is a double “ouch”, and I have never professed it to be my favorite. Just being real. And just a few verses later in Philippians 4:11-13, “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Full stop here. First, look at the context of “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”. Paul is saying I can both suffer and abound because of Christ. Either way I’m good. Period. Paul’s joy and contentment were not based in his outward circumstances. He was cool no matter what. Can I say the same? Full disclosure: No, I cannot, and God is working on this in me.
- Unity vs. Division . . . it was an issue then. It is an issue now. There are so many scriptures on this (all of what I’ve already referenced apply here . . . again, we are called to love and put others ahead of ourselves). As awful as persecution from the outside is to the church, it’s division, contentions, and quarrels from within that are the most destructive. Ephesians 4:1-6, “I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”
These four things are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There is such a wealth of applicable and practical knowledge, wisdom, and instruction in Paul’s letters to the early church. So many of the issues they faced then are the same ones we are facing now, and we have to remember that our enemy is not readily seen. Ultimately, the things we wrestle against here on this earth, in our current culture and society, are being fueled from a much deeper, spiritual place. And the only way to war against it is through the preparation that we find through the grace of Jesus, the word of God, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
“Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth, having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all taking the shield of faith with which you will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.” Ephesians 6:10-18
At the end of the day, our goal is neither self preservation nor is it self promotion . . . it’s not to get our way or prove our point (which I love to do) . . . it’s to minister the gospel of Christ to those around us, not only with our words but also, with our actions. It’s to be a walking, talking, breathing testament of God’s goodness and grace, and it’s only through the power of the Holy Spirit that any of us can do this.
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