Unity of the Differents

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”

Ephesians 4:3 NIV

DEVOTIONAL

While writing to a church divided along racial lines (Jew & Gentile), Paul could have easily counseled the Christians to get along on a surface level, but worship separately since their customs and world views were just too different.

But Paul didn’t do that.

Instead, he reminds them of where their source of unity comes from instead. Their unity isn’t found in their ethnicity, or identical worship styles, or political views, or socioeconomic status. Their unity comes through their shared faith. Paul goes on to remind us that even though we are very different in some ways, we are ultimately the same in what God has done for us.

“There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Ephesians 4:4-6 NIV

Just because we may be from different places doesn’t mean our baptism was different. Just because we may not look the same doesn’t mean we serve a different Lord. Just because we vote differently doesn’t mean we have a different hope.

Because we place God first and above all, we share all of this in common. And it is here in our undivided commonality of faith that we find our unity.

PRAYER

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Help us remember that our baptism was an act of surrender, and allegiance to you alone. Help us listen to the unifying voice and guidance of the Spirit every day, for when we all listen to you, we will be one. Help us love one another, and truly be your children by showing the world your peace. Through the name and power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Amen.

Identity Crisis

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.”

Galatians 3:26-29 NIV

DEVOTIONAL

“I’m a mechanic.”

“I’m a Texan.”

“I’m a parent.”

When we meet someone new, we tend to introduce ourselves this way. We identify ourselves through the labels our society gives us.

Right now there are many in our world going through identity crises.

“I’m trans-sexual.”

“I’m trans-gender.”

“I don’t choose those pronouns.”

And while I can understand the desire not to be labeled by other people, I can’t in good conscience choose labels for myself either.

That’s the problem in Galatia. For Paul, we don’t derive our identity through the labels of others, and we are not free to supply our own labels. Rather, Paul wants followers of Christ to view themselves and others through the identity that Christ has given them.

Someone had convinced the Galatians to go back to old ways, and divide over their old worldly identities.

“Jew.”

“Gentile.”

“Circumcised.”

“Uncircumcised.”

Paul wants them to understand that in Christ we are not divided, rather we are one. Paul even had to call Peter and Barnabas out on this because they were once again refusing table fellowship based on old labels. Dividing this way is “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.” (Gal. 2:14 NIV)

Instead Paul writes:

“Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”

Galatians 3:7-9 NIV

We don’t find our identity in the world’s labels, nor within ourselves. Our identity is firmly rooted in our faith. We have placed our faith in Christ, so we are children of Abraham, which means we are God’s children.Christ died for all of us who have placed our faith in him.

That is where we find our identity, and find our unity with our brothers and sisters.

PRAYER

Lord, help us to remove the barriers and labels the world uses to divide us. Help us rise above the categories of his world, and simply find our identity and our unity in the fact that we are your children through our faith in Christ Jesus. Help us to see that even though the world wants us to divide us through giving us other labels, help us see ourselves, as well as our brothers and sisters as joint heirs of your promise, and dearly loved by you. Through the name and power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Amen.

Blessed are the Peacemakers


“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”

Matthew 5:9 NET

DEVOTIONAL

This past week has shown clearly that many who claim allegiance to Christ have forgotten the way our King taught us, and instead have become like the power hungry, godless masses.

Matthew’s Gospel is clear on this. The way to true “power” is not through violence, or authoritarian means, but through service to others.

“But Jesus called them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Matthew 20:25-28 NET

Christ offers a better way. Not an easier way, but a better way.

Followers of Christ don’t seek to grow in earthly power through earthly means. Rather, we become the peacemakers in our nation, and use our means to humbly serve others.

Nowhere does Jesus teach his disciples to grasp power at all costs. Rather, we crucify the wants of our lives for the sake of Christ in order to reach our neighbors through humble service.

The Kingdom of Heaven is not about earthly power. It is about fulfilling the commission Christ has given his Church.

Preach the Gospel. Make disciples. Serve humbly. Be a peacemaker.

PRAYER 

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Help us remember that our baptism was an act of surrender, and allegiance to you alone. Help us remember that we were not purchased by the power of the donkey or the elephant, but by the blood of the Lamb. Help us love one another, and be one as you are One. Help us to truly be your children by showing the world your peace. Through the name and power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Amen.

New Video Channel!

I can’t tell you how many Bible questions I receive each week. Some of these come from my sermons, or Bible classes. Most of them come from folks who have had questions about faith, life, or the Scriptures for years, and have just never asked.

To answer all of these, and to keep a video catalogue that answers these questions, I’ve started a YouTube channel to provide short video answers to your Bible questions. Drop a comment on one of the videos, send me an email, or comment on this post. I’d love to discuss your questions!

Join us on YouTube!
https://youtu.be/6aaVasQ302s

The Purpose of Spiritual Gifts

Spiritual Gifts are some of the greatest tools Christ has given his followers, and sadly one of the most misunderstood topics in the Church today.

The Debate

Of all the discussions, sermons, and Bible classes I’ve encountered, there seems to be one main focus: the ability of the gifted. These “studies” often devolve into the mechanics/prohibitions of Gifts, or cessation/continuation discussions. “Is it possible for someone to have the gift of _____ today? If not, which gifts do we have today?” This always seems to be the driving force behind these discussions, with great argument given as to why they have or have not ceased to exist in the church.

The Purpose

This completely misses the Biblical point of Spiritual Gifts. Spiritual Gifts are never about the person with the Gift, but always about how that Gift can bless the Body of Christ. This is the discussion we need to be having.

Let’s consider two different passages by Paul to two different churches related to this topic.

I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith.

Romas 1:11-12 NIV

Notice that in verse 12, the purpose of Gifts are clearly defined by Paul. It doesn’t matter what specific Gift Paul wants to impart, the purpose is mutual encouragement by faith.

In another passage, Paul discusses the gifts that Christ has given to the Church, his Body.

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…

Ephesians 4:11-12 NIV

Notice again that the purpose of these “gifts” are the building up of the Church.

Gifts in community

Gathering with a Body of believers is incredibly important. Spiritual Gifts aren’t for isolated personal use, but serve the purpose of building up others. To put it another way, Spiritual Gifts require interdependence among believers. There may be instances where a Spiritual Gift could be exercised in private and bring blessing to that individual, but this is like receiving a beautiful Ferrari only to keep it a garage. The purpose of the car is not to be admired in private, but rather driven in order to enjoy the journey, and get you to your intended destination.

To illustrate the need Paul places on interdependence when it comes to Spiritual Gifts, I want to look at the first two Gifts mentioned by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit,

1 Corinthians 12:7-8 NIV

Notice again that the point is not to bless an individual, but “the common good.” This is to bless the community.

Notice also that the gifts mentioned have to be shared. The Corinthians highly valued wisdom and knowledge. These qualities, so it was believed, were only held by the elite. The pursuit of wisdom and knowledge, therefore, was one of the noblest endeavors. Paul knows they value the Corinthians place here, and reminds them that this only puffs up (1 Cor. 8:1).

Instead, the Gifts Paul mentions here are not wisdom and knowledge themselves, rather it’s the sharing of this wisdom and knowledge that make the Spiritual Gift. That is to say, the gift is not wisdom, but rather the “utterance” (ESV) of wisdom. The gift is not knowledge, but rather the “utterance” of knowledge. Wisdom and knowledge kept within ourselves is not beneficial. Applying and sharing these, however, is a Spiritual Gift in the mind of Paul.

This is why it is so crucial for believers to gather together. In the age of COVID this “gathering” may look significantly different from in ages past, but we must gather nonetheless. The communal benefit/blessing of Spiritual Gifts is negated when we attempt to pursue a relationship with Christ in isolation.

Members of the Body

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.

1 Corinthians 12:12 NIV

Together we make up the Body of Christ. If we are no longer connected to the other members, how can we be part of the Body? If my finger is detached from my body, it no longer serves my body. It is no longer part of my body. Yet many Christians feel that this is completely appropriate when it comes to their relationship with other Christians. I have met many who profess belief in Christ, but have not gathered to worship with other believers in years, even decades.

I really have to ask, is this really how Christ intended his Body to work? Is this really how Paul envisioned many parts being formed together into one body?

Lots of reasons, legitimate and not, can be given for not gathering together. But even from my couch in quarantine this week I was able to “gather” with saints at my own congregation, one in a different time zone, and one on the other side of the planet. Is this ideal? No. But it keeps me plugged into the Body until I can be there in person.

The purpose of Spiritual Gifts are to build up the Body. And even though it doesn’t feel the same coming through a computer screen, it doesn’t cannot happen at all if I separate myself from the rest of the Body.

Final Thoughts

To those in quarantine (like me), stay connected. To those who are part of the Body, search for those who have fallen away. And if you’re reading this thinking you can pursue your faith alone, in isolation, you’ve just proved my point by reading this article. It took someone else (me in this particular case) to write what you just read. For you, that required another part of the Body. For me, I receive a blessing when you read this.

The Church (which in Greek simply means “gathering/assembly”) isn’t possible in isolation. And it may just be the case that you are missing a Spiritual Gift you deeply need, and may or may not realize it.

Online or in person, it’s time to gather. It’s also time to share what God has given you with others. Satan loves to tell us we aren’t good enough to use our Gifts to bless others. Again, Spiritual Gifts are never about the person with the Gift, but always about how that Gift can bless the Body of Christ. Your song (no matter how out of tune) can cheer another. Your offering (no matter how small) can bless another. Your words (no matter how few) can encourage another.

Spiritual Gifts are never about the person with the Gift, but always about how that Gift can bless the Body of Christ. So go and bless the Body.

Warmth and Light

As I observe human nature, it’s noticeable how the cold and the dark propel us to the warmth and the light. It’s like an involuntary obedience to an ancient command found in our DNA. The pain of being cold and the fear of being in the dark send us searching for even the smallest portion of warmth and light.

On a cold winter’s night, we do what we can to survive until morning breaks and the glorious sun appears to fill the world with warmth and light.

“In the beginning, … the Spirit of the Lord hovered over the waters. The Earth was dark and empty.”

(My adaptation of the opening lines of Genesis.)

How dark a place it must have been. How empty and cold…until the warmth of His breath brought forth light.

He spoke the words, “Appear, Light!” And light appeared, just as it was commanded.

Centuries later, after generations of cyclical battles between light and dark, the warmth of His breath brought forth The One True Light to this dark, cold world.

He spoke these words to an unwed Jewish teenager, “Light will appear unto you.” After further confirmation, Mary spoke the echo which must have resounded through the atmosphere all those centuries ago, “Let it be as You have said!” And The Light of the world appeared, just as He had been commanded.

How dark the night but how bright the Star!

How cold the stable but how warm was His glorious presence!

The star. The stable. The Savior!

Even now, all things are held together by the power of His mighty command (Hebrews 1:3). Gravity. Phases of the moon. Seasons changing. Seeds growing. Sunrise over a dark horizon. Babies being born. A beating heart. The breath of life. It’s all under Jesus’ command.

Centuries ago, creation obeyed His command and brought forth light. 2000 years ago, an unwed Jewish girl obeyed His command and brought forth The Light of the world.

What about you? Have you obeyed His command? Have you been out in the cold, dark world, hovering with no sense of purpose or direction – formless and empty just as the Earth was before our Creator spoke to it? Have you been doing whatever it takes to survive out there on your own, in the darkness?

Let the pain of being cold and the fear of being in darkness propel you to the warmth of the One True Light.

Obey the command resounding through the atmosphere and even in your DNA right now – “Let it be as You have said. Jesus, I come to You. Jesus, I bow down to You. Jesus, I give up all my pretensions of making myself warm or creating my own light. I can’t do that anymore. It’s not enough to sustain me. It doesn’t last. I end up right back where I started, cold and dark. Jesus, fill me with Your light! Fill me with Your warmth! You are the everlasting, the never ending, the eternal One. You never slumber or sleep. YOUR LIGHT NEVER GOES OUT. Fill me with THAT light, dear God, and I will never be dark or cold again. By the mighty command of Jesus’ power, let it be.”

Today’s article is written by my wonderful wife, Jennifer Stidham. Jennifer is a graduate student at Hardin-Simmons University in the Clinical Counseling and Marriage and Family Therapy program, pursuing her LPC and LMFT certifications. Jennifer is the mother to three beautiful children, and caretaker to a host of cantankerous pets. She is a homeschool teacher, and ministers to our church and our community in many ways.

The Worst and Most Successful Prophet Ever

But the Lord said, “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?”

Jonah 4:10-11 NIV

DEVOTIONAL

The short little book of Jonah is one of the most skillful literary masterpieces of the entire Bible. Every word it seems is a glowing hyperlink to another Biblical text. The more you explore, the more funny and pointed the story of Jonah becomes.

Jonah refuses to go to Nineveh because he doesn’t think they deserve being saved. The funny thing is that God has already given undeserved grace to Israel under the reign of Jeroboam by extending Israel’s borders to the largest they ever were. And he sent that message through none other than Jonah son of Amittai! (2 Kings 14:23-25).

The least godly person in the entire story is the prophet of God: he sleeps when he should be praying, the offers thanksgiving for his “death” inside the great fish, he preaches the shortest and most pitiful sermon in all of history (only 5 words in Hebrew), has the greatest repentance of any missionary ever, and then is angered by the fact that the people are doing exactly what God hoped they would do!

He’s the most upside down prophet that ever lived, and the sad thing is I can see a lot of myself in Jonah. If we’re honest, those of us who claim to follow Christ often wind up being the least Christ-like person in the room because we start acting like Jonah. This short little story deserves much reflection by all who claim to represent Christ in this world.

Prayer

Father, forgive us when we value stuff more than human life. Especially in this heated political climate we tend to value our stuff, our comfort, our ideas, our way more than other humans made in your image. Please forgive us of this sin.

Help us remember that you care for all people, regardless of what they think of you. Lord forgive us for having the spirit of Jonah, where we think of ourselves as better and more deserving of your mercy that those we meet.

Help us see this world as you see it. Help us love our neighbors as ourselves, and please remove the hatred, bigotry, racism, and sectarianism from our hearts.

Lord, have mercy on us for we are sinners.

Through the name and power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Amen.

My Father’s House?

Luke is a master when it comes to dropping subtle clues in his writings. From the beginning of his Gospel, Luke wants you to know that Jesus isn’t just an ordinary man. He is human, yes, but he is also God in human form. And Luke shares this with us in many ways throughout the early chapters of his Gospel.

In Chapter 2 we get a story that no other Gospel writer tells. I believe Luke must have gotten this from Mary herself, especially since he relays Mary’s inner thoughts (see 1:3, 2:51). Jesus disappears from the family caravan at Passover. Mary and Joseph cannot find him anywhere, so they return to the city of Jerusalem and find Jesus in the temple courts discussing Scripture with the teachers.

What really stands out to me is the way Jesus responds to the question from his mother.

When his parents saw him, they were overwhelmed. His mother said to him, “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously.” But he replied, “Why were you looking for me? Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition; Bible. English. NET Bible.; The NET Bible (Biblical Studies Press, 2005), Lk 2:48–49.

Did you notice Jesus’ words here? Compare the words of Mary to those of Jesus. Who is the “father” of Jesus? According to Jesus, he was exactly where he was supposed to be…in his Father’s house.

The word play here isn’t accidental. This is just one small example of how Luke fills his Gospel with subtle (and some not so subtle) ways of reminding us of the true identity of Jesus. Next time we’ll look at the words of Elizabeth and what they tell us about Jesus.

(I’ll be dropping some of these every week since I will be reading this Gospel a lot between now and the time I start preaching through it in December. If you’re looking for a reading plan that will drill down on Luke’s Gospel before the end of the year, you can join me. Here’s a reading plan for Luke that my Small Group is going through, and here’s what I’m reading in addition to that.)

Unity in a Divided World

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”

Ephesians 4:2-6 NIV

Devotional

Paul writes Ephesians to a church that seems to be divided around ethnic and cultural lines. Gentiles coming into the faith along with Jews makes for difficult church potlucks. Paul reminds us that no matter our background, ethnicity, social status, etc., we are all saved in the same way by the same Savior sent by the same God.

For three chapters Paul reminds his readers that all the barriers that once divided these two diverse groups have been destroyed through Jesus. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility…” (2:14) Paul was adamant about this diverse group of believers being unified in Christ.

Today Christ’s church finds itself divided by politics, polity, worship practice, ethnicity, and a multitude of other issues. If Paul were writing to the church in the U.S. today (or any other nation for that matter), what would he say about our unity? I believe it would sound very much like Ephesians. May we seek a unity within the body of Christ that amazes the world around us and glorifies our Father in heaven.

Prayer

Father, our world is full of proud and boastful people. Our national leaders seem to do nothing but provoke division and slander one another. Lord, help us to remember that you have called us to be different. Your Spirit inside of us should unite us above and beyond whatever could divide us. I pray that your Church will truly be one body, divided only by physical location, but never divided in purpose, mission, and fellowship. May we base our unity as one body in the common Spirit, Lord, Faith, and Baptism we share. And may our unity be a witness of your salvation to the world around us. Through the name and power of our Lord and Savior, Jesus. Amen.

Idolatry and the Church

Late Saturday afternoon I was paralyzed with a thought…a realization…an all consuming alarm going off in my head, and a knot in the pit of my stomach that just wouldn’t let go. This same thought had floated through my mind on and off over the course of the last 6 months, but today it hit me like a ton of bricks. And I can’t ignore it any more.

I’ll be preaching from Exodus Sunday morning from a text most people think they are familiar with. After God performs many signs and wonders against Egypt, after Israel crosses through the sea, and after God provides for them in the wilderness, the people arrive at Mount Sinai. A beautiful and powerful covenant ceremony takes place…a wedding if you will between God and the people of Israel. This is where we receive the 10 Commandments in the Exodus narrative. They begin like this:

20:1  God spoke all these words: 

20:2 “I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you from the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery. 

20:3 “You shall have no other gods before me. 

20:4 “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath or that is in the water below.20:5 You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, responding to the transgression of fathers by dealing with children to the third and fourth generations of those who reject me,20:6 and showing covenant faithfulness to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. 

Ex 20:1–6 NET

After we read the 10 Commandments, we hear the voice of the nation of Israel speaking to Moses:

“You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.”

Ex 20:19 NET

Did you follow that? The first thing God wants them to do is recognize that He is the one who brought them out of Egypt. They should not worship any other deity, nor try to capture or constrain Him to some sort of created image. That’s what everyone else in their part of the world would do, but this is not what they are called to do. And their response is that they don’t want to hear directly from their Savior. The Creator of heaven and earth is willing to speak directly to them, and they don’t want to hear it.

After God finishes talking to Moses, the very next thing to happen after this wedding scene is sin. Aaron (co-leader of Israel along with Moses and Miriam, the priest who just finished dining in the very presence of God) makes a golden calf idol for the people to worship. But notice what the text tells us:

Then they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” 

32:5 When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it, and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow will be a feast to the LORD.” 32:6 So they got up early on the next day and offered up burnt offerings and brought peace offerings, and the people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play. 

Ex 32:4–6 NET

Do you hear the Garden of Eden narrative ringing in your ears within this story? The very first directive God gives Adam and Eve is to not eat this fruit. What’s the first thing they do? They eat the fruit.

The first directive God gives Israel is that He is the one who brought them out of Egypt, so don’t worship any other gods or make an image of him. What’s the first thing they do? In their own context, they eat the fruit. God wants his people to be a “kingdom of priests” who are different from the world around them in order to lead the world to God. But Israel chose to be just like the world.

Now fast forward to today. COVID plagued election season in America.

God has called his church to be a “priesthood” so that we might “proclaim the virtues” of Christ and lead the world to him. But just like Israel, the church has chosen to be just like the world. “Christians” are routinely bowing their knees to a golden donkey or elephant while proclaiming that this is the only hope our world has.

The church has bowed to a golden calf instead of humbly leading the world in worship of our Savior, Jesus the Messiah. Instead of pointing to the cross and the empty tomb, we’ve been pointing to our chosen candidate as if they were gods.

We are also good about pointing to ourselves saying “look what we have made!” When it comes to reaching the lost we focus on programs, and music, and skilled speaking, and comfortable buildings, and coffee bars, and awesome children’s wings, and flashy websites, and social media…the list goes on and on and on. And don’t hear me saying that those things are inherently bad. They are not! Very good things can come from all of them. But when we start thinking that the power to reach the lost comes from that list of things instead of the Holy Spirit’s work on the hearts of the lost bathed in the prayers of the saints, we have bowed our knee to the golden calf.

When did we stop trusting God? When did we stop believing in God’s active role in our world? When did we trade our mission of being the hands and feet of Christ for the cheap substitute of producing an entertaining show?

The last word that Jesus has for the disciples in Matthew’s Gospel is to “Go and make disciples.” And we are all too often comfortable with sitting inside of a nice church building and politely whispering “Ya’ll come!” And now that God has allowed our world to be upended, and our worship routines to be disrupted, our instinct has been to immediately return to the “Ya’ll come” comfort we had in February.

But instead of focusing on how we can get people back at the church building post-COVID, maybe we should focus on how we can get out membership out of our buildings and reach the lost in our communities. Perhaps one of the byproducts of us all dealing with this routine altering plague is that God is sick and tired of our routine!

Sisters and Brothers, it’s time that we stop being just like the world around us. Trusting in the trappings of this world in order to save the lost is worshiping the golden calf. We must be the people of God who get outside of the building and shine His light in the darkness of the world that surrounds us. It’s time that we obey our Savior’s voice and “Go and make disciples,” not stay and wait for the lost to show up. It’s time to stop putting our hope in routines and resources of our own making, and begin prayerfully pleading for the courage and wisdom to fulfill our mission to the lost.

Long story short: Stop bowing to the golden calf.