first things always first

Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:34-40

There is much in Scripture to help us with our own personal problems. For example it’s said that the command most often repeated is to not be afraid. And there’s passages to help us with our anxiety, burdens, and a multitude of other things. But when we’re focused on ourselves and our own problems, then our focus is not set according to God’s will for us in Jesus. Problems and trials in this life are inevitable, and can’t be avoided. Not to mention the spiritual warfare we’re up against.

But what should be central and foremost on our minds always is love to God and love to neighbor. God helps us so that we might respond in love. It’s not about us and our own well being. The universe doesn’t revolve around us. Yet we’re included in this love, received and returned, reciprocated from God and shared with others. We’re all in this together. And we all need grace not only along the way, but every moment of the way.

So often it seems to me that Christian teaching is aimed at helping us individually get through and perhaps enjoy another day. And framed right, that teaching has its place. But again, life is not about that. God wants us to more and more take on the likeness of Jesus, together and individually in our lives by the Spirit. Yes, we need to take care of ourselves so we can be a blessing to others, even to God. But we do so as those whose priority is set on loving God with all our being and doing, and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. In and through Jesus.

to be like Jesus

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.

Romans 8:28-29

I’m not sure that aspiring to be like Jesus does much good, though it’s a natural thought for Jesus followers, for those in God’s family. After all, Jesus makes his presence known to us not only through Scripture, but even primarily through each other. His image and likeness in each of us rubs off on each other in needed ways.

I think it’s primarily through God’s working through people that other people are impacted and want to be like Jesus. Paul told his readers/listeners to follow him as he followed Christ, and to imitate him and his way of life. It is said that truth is more caught than taught. Surely there’s plenty of wisdom in that axiom.

So we need to find those who are well grounded in the Lord in their lives, not putting on a show, a front at all, being honest, not perfect people, but people whose lives are being shaped by God into Christ-likeness. Steeped in humility and grace, trusting God and God’s work in them and in others. And pressing toward the goal of God’s upward call in Jesus.

Something present with us and at work in our lives. In and through Jesus.

descending into the abyss

You were all called to travel on the same road and in the same direction, so stay together, both outwardly and inwardly. You have one Master, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who rules over all, works through all, and is present in all. Everything you are and think and do is permeated with Oneness.

But that doesn’t mean you should all look and speak and act the same. Out of the generosity of Christ, each of us is given his own gift. The text for this is,

He climbed the high mountain,
He captured the enemy and seized the plunder,
He handed it all out in gifts to the people.

Is it not true that the One who climbed up also climbed down, down to the valley of earth? And the One who climbed down is the One who climbed back up, up to highest heaven. He handed out gifts above and below, filled heaven with his gifts, filled earth with his gifts. He handed out gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher to train Christ’s followers in skilled servant work, working within Christ’s body, the church, until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.

Ephesians 4:4-13; MSG

Abyss carries with it the idea of bottomless, like there’s no end to the evil and danger present. Christ is said to have descended to the lowest depths, afterwards ascending to the highest heights, this especially clear in Philippians 2:1-11, And so Christ lived and lives by the Spirit where we live, and gives us the gift and gifts to enable us to live in the same depths in which he lived. Though of course never to the same extent, since Jesus took upon himself the full brunt of evil in order to release the full flow of God’s goodness, someday to be experienced completely in the new heaven and new earth when God makes all things new.

This is an encouragement to me, because sometimes I feel overwhelmed with all the trouble, and all that can go wrong and sometimes does. But God is present with us in Jesus, and gives us all we need to not only weather the storm, but glorify God in it. And that together, not just the gift he gives each one of us, though that indeed is important. But the gifts given to all for the benefit of all.

God will help us weary worn ones through this weary, worn world, as we are intent in following Christ come what may. God will see each and everyone of us through, together. In and through Jesus.

not outcomes, but becoming

These court cases are an ugly blot on your community. Wouldn’t it be far better to just take it, to let yourselves be wronged and forget it? All you’re doing is providing fuel for more wrong, more injustice, bringing more hurt to the people of your own spiritual family.

1 Corinthians 6:7-8; MSG

We as people are big into outcomes. Winning can be everything, and cheating is okay to do so, as long as you get away with it. This is an endemic problem. We want to look good, or we think that if we look good, or come across right, then mission accomplished.

Not so on God’s agenda. What we are inside and out is what matters to God. How that’s understood, or sometimes misunderstood is secondary. It’s not whether everything turns out alright, just so, the way we want it to, but how we act in the process, what characterizes us, indeed our character.

It’s not the outcome that we should be focused on, but on what we’re becoming. To begin to see that difference within ourselves. With others in Jesus, becoming more like him.

avoid angry people, or becoming an angry person

Don’t hang out with angry people;
don’t keep company with hotheads.
Bad temper is contagious—
don’t get infected.

Proverbs 22:24-25; MSG

We live in an angry time. Actually it has been building up for years, and now is in danger of even violent release in too many places, some of that violence seeping out already. And it’s not like there’s nothing to be angry about. If we’re not angry about some things, then we need to get a checkup to see whether or not we’re human, and I mean human in a good way, in the way God intended us to be. But at the same time, since we still do struggle with sin, having not arrived yet into full likeness to Christ, we need to keep a strict check on our anger. We’re to be slow to become angry remembering as James tells us, that our anger does not bring about the righteousness God desires.

We do well to avoid angry people, not hanging around them. We also need to stop being angry people ourselves, or becoming that way. There are outlets in our culture in which people are basically angry, strident in their anger. It’s what seems to characterize them. It’s an anger couched in arrogance. When we humans do this, we’re moving well beyond what we can actually do well and legitimately as humans. We better leave what only the God who is love can do well, and humbly let our anger move us in profitable directions such as lament and good works of love, as well as prayer.

I can get angry easily over some things, like one particular machine at work. I need to turn that anger into an attitude of seeking the good that can come from the problem, particularly in my own formation as a Jesus follower in becoming like him. The last thing we need to do is become known for our anger. If we don’t want to hang out with angry people, but hopefully influence them in love, then we don’t want people to want to avoid us for the same reason.

Anger puts us in dangerous territory. We’re not to let the day end remaining angry because we give the devil a foothold in our lives. No, anger is too hot for us to handle. We need to grasp it, and let it go. Finding what God would have us do instead. Together with others likeminded in and through Jesus.

are we being changed into people through whom God might change others?

My son, give me your heart
and let your eyes delight in my ways

Proverbs 23:26

It’s amazing, the challenge of Scripture, and how that can hit you in new unexpected ways. Through my current trek in the Proverbs this hit me, and I stood in wonder. I can see God, the Lord telling us this. But us saying this to someone else? Of course we know full well that Paul tells us to follow him as he follows Christ. We’re to find those kind of people whose lives show the difference Christ makes, and learn to think, act and live as they do.

Maturity in Christ involves becoming people who others can see not as a pain, but something wondrous, beautiful, true, a person that at least they can truthfully say is worthy of respect, and someone that in some way they can look up to. That should never be our goal, to have others admire us, never. But if we can reflect something of the beauty of Christ in our lives more and more, than that could be a way of others finding their way to that same beauty.

We struggle ourselves to find our way in Jesus. But he is there for us. And especially through those who are much further along in that way than ourselves. So that hopefully in turn by and by others through our own struggle and the ongoing help God gives might find their way to this as well. In and through Jesus.

before pressing on

Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he emptied himself
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:1-11

I am one of those people who likes Paul’s word in Philippians 3 in our Bibles, to press on. If there’s something that might characterize me, it’s that, at least to a significant extent. That’s alright, but before we can do that in the manner in which Paul is speaking, we have to have the same mindset, indeed the very humble servant attitude of Christ. We need to ask ourselves if this more and more is the case in our lives.

Are we willing to step aside and let others shine, valuing their contributions above our own? Are we willing to do whatever it takes to make others succeed in God’s eyes? And are we willing to receive the help we need to do the same?

Jesus is our example of what it means to be Christian. We seek to follow him both individually and together as his people. Only then are we ready to press on, as we seek to be nothing less than like Jesus in his death.

receiving eternal life is not merely signing on the dotted line

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually advanced the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard, and to everyone else, that my imprisonment is because I am in Christ. Most of the brothers have gained confidence in the Lord from my imprisonment and dare even more to speak the word fearlessly. To be sure, some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of good will. These preach out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, thinking that they will cause me trouble in my imprisonment. What does it matter? Only that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is proclaimed, and in this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice because I know this will lead to my salvation through your prayers and help from the Spirit of Jesus Christ. My eager expectation and hope is that I will not be ashamed about anything, but that now as always, with all courage, Christ will be highly honored in my body, whether by life or by death.

Philippians 1:12-20; CSB

I have been away from churches like this for decades, but there at least used to be the strong teaching, and I think it still holds sway in the minds of many evangelicals, to some extent it has in my own thinking, that once you’re saved through faith in Christ, you’re always saved. There’s no need to get into the weeds over that teaching here. What I want to highlight is what the King James Version, and here, the Christian Standard Bible translate more literally:

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice because I know this will lead to my salvation through your prayers and help from the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Philippians 1:18b-19; CSB

The Greek word, σωτηρία is more literally translated “salvation”, though in some contexts it might mean physical deliverance. Most translations do translate it “deliverance” or the like. But from what I’ve heard, Paul could well have had something else in mind here. Namely the salvation he wanted to receive from God when he would stand before God after this life in the great Day.

There is past, present and future salvation in Scripture. Like Karl Barth answered when someone asked him when he was saved, he pointed back to the time of the cross, Jesus’s death, whatever year that was (33 AD), or many of us would point to the time when we committed our lives to Christ, or for some, they don’t know when their faith began, but they know they have it now. God’s salvation is accomplished in the past act of Christ in Christ’s death and resurrection, and by faith we receive and enter into that salvation.

When salvation is spoken of, it is mostly, as I remember, present. God is at work in our lives to change us, indeed save from the present evil age. To save us not only from the penalty, but also the power of sin. To indeed save us from ourselves in our fallenness and brokenness. More and more into who we were created to be through the new creation in Jesus.

And salvation is future. Someday, in the great Day, we’ll be transformed into full conformity to Jesus, something which indeed begins in this life, but will be completed then. And that will be a vindication of what we were in this life. Not just what we had received as a gift, but how we lived as a result of that gift. Something we see expressed in Ephesians 2:8-10:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Ephesians 2:8-10

Eternal life is not just about signing on the dotted line, and thinking we’re secure. That can end up being what Dallas Willard called “bar code Christianity,” thinking one is in no matter what, just because they once “asked Jesus into their heart,” or however they might describe their salvation experience.

Eternal life involves no less than following Jesus all the way. No turning back, and doing so together with others, through our love, help, and prayers, just what Paul was alluding to here. In and through Jesus.

accepting each other despite our differences

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written:

“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles;
    I will sing the praises of your name.”

Again, it says,

“Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.”

And again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles;
    let all the peoples extol him.”

And again, Isaiah says,

“The Root of Jesse will spring up,
    one who will arise to rule over the nations;
    in him the Gentiles will hope.”

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:1-13

The problem was a Jewish-Gentile one, and specifically over the major change that had come, namely that one did not become a part of God’s people through conversion in becoming a “righteous proselyte.” Circumcision for males required for that. Now all were members of God’s people through faith in Christ, baptism being the circumcision for all as one in Christ.

Fast forward to today and you no longer find as much of this problem, but you still find all kinds of issues which threaten to undermine and displace our oneness in Christ. One huge example is political differences. Here in the United States one’s partisan loyalty has become like the major marker in evaluating and feeling at home with someone. The problem probably isn’t so much the differences in opinion, but the way such differences are held. And it may be true that this is more so on one side than another, especially if that side is the majority, or in the place of influence and power. But the attitude usually cuts across both ways, so that it’s no easier for one side than the other.

Back to the time this was written: Paul at length here (click above link) tells both Gentile along with what we might call enlightened believers, and Jewish believers not to look down on each other. Those “strong” in their faith could break the old kosher rules. But those “weak” in their faith could not. Paul warned those who were strong neither to look down on their brothers and sisters who wouldn’t join them, nor to cause them to stumble by boldly doing what they themselves in good conscience could not do. At the same time Paul was working on helping those “weak” in their faith to accept the strong. Perhaps their weakness of faith was not so much if at all in their own practice of circumcision and abiding by the food laws, etc. But actually in not accepting those who had faith in Christ, but didn’t join them in their practice. They may have had good reason to continue in their Jewishness, as long as they didn’t consider that necessary for others. Some certainly could not do what they themselves with their weak conscience would not permit themselves to do.

Back to today, I believe we have to be careful not to look down on each other, even to the point sadly sometimes of actually despising each other. Instead we’re to accept each other, just as Christ accepted us in order to bring glory and praise to God. That means we accept our differences. We don’t try to change the other to our “enlightened” point of view. We make necessary distinctions between what is absolutely essential and the many things which are not. And we try to understand the differences, something we won’t arrive at overnight, and in some ways in this life, never. But we seek to be open to better understanding not only of our differences, but also to help us see better ourselves to a necessary Christ-like change. In and through Jesus.

to be poor in spirit

[Jesus] said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:2b-3

To be poor in spirit in some respects is to be like Jesus. Jesus was poor in the world’s eyes, not a boaster, not self-willed, not posing as someone great. Utter humility in becoming one of us, but that’s who he was before. But this became evident when the Creator became a creature. And gentle and humble in heart. Not forcing his will on others, but giving space to them, even to the point of suffering at people’s hands, to the point of death.

When we look at poor in spirit, we think of the fact that we’re poor and needy sinners in need of forgiveness. Yes, that surely has application here. And it could mean something like living simply and being generous with what one has to help others in need.

At any rate, we in Jesus as his followers are among the blessed when we’re poor in spirit. In and through Jesus.