encouraging one another in our faith

But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

Hebrews 3:13

The word translated “encourage” in the NIV might better be translated “exhort” (as in the NRSV) except for the fact that we don’t use that word today. “Warn” (NLT) fits the context, yet might be too strong. And there’s another Greek word which means to warn or instruct. Perhaps a good rendering might be to “strongly encourage.” (See Bill Mounce to consider that word in the New Testament transliterated parakaleo.)

The book of Hebrews was not written to us, but is definitely for us. It was for a group of either Jewish believers, or believers who as Gentiles had previously been God-fearers in Judaism, now under pressure, being persecuted for their faith (at least the beginnings of it), and tempted to go back to Judaism. But no one should think they are signed, sealed and delivered, as to their faith. We need according to the text, daily encouragement, mutual encouragement in our faith (Romans), but also some pointed loving words, to help us stay on track. When we see faith in others which encourages us, we should let them know, so that they might be encouraged by what we see.

The nature of scripture is– what had application for others, now has application for us. We have to consider the writings in their original context, but we must look at it in our setting, circumstances, and situation of life, as well. There has to be a measure of contextualization. But in that process, we have to be careful not to think that their needs were different than ours. At the heart of it, the need is the same. Wherever we find ourselves, or more precisely in this context, others, we need to take this seriously, and apply it to our lives. We need each other in Jesus to help us along, especially through the most difficult and potentially dangerous times. To not turn back, or drift away, but go on in Jesus toward full maturity in him. To the very end.

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the value of difficulty

Many men owe the grandeur of their lives to tremendous difficulties.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon

It is interesting how often some do well in life in spite of difficulties which could have easily put them on a different course. Probably with most of us it’s a mixture of the two. Because of stresses or problems we have faced, perhaps we have not done as well as we could have. But along with that, have found something we can excel in.

I think of community, and specifically the church. In China the church continues to grow by leaps and bounds, still under persecution. And the church in the southern hemisphere both in Africa and again in the east seems to be growing exponentially in number day after day. There’s something to be said for that as we see in the book of Acts. Of course we don’t just want growth in numbers, but in spiritual depth as well.

Meanwhile the church in the west is either dying, or just holding its own with some exceptions to the rule, but even those exceptions at the current time seeing declining growth. Could it be that like arguably Europe in the past, this is becoming a Laodicean age for the church in the northern hemisphere, rich and increased with goods and in need of nothing (Revelation 3)?

For faith to be real faith, one’s life must be on the line. Of course when people first come to faith in Christ, they are not necessarily going to see that implication that is present. But they will learn to see it over time. God by the Spirit will not let us off the hook. Of course one’s eternal life is taken care of. But all of life is to be included in our utter dependence on God. So that when we’re up against it through whatever difficulties we face we must learn to commit it all to God and press on ahead, regardless. Following Christ means doing so no matter what.

So today that is my stand. To push ahead in faith, and do the best I can regardless of what I face. And to do so, thanking God for his promises and provision for us along the way in everything in and through Jesus.

love is not piecemeal

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.

Romans 12:9-15

Genuine love does not pick winners and losers. We in Jesus love all, period. That is part of who we are in Jesus. But it doesn’t mean it’s always easy. Sometimes people can say or do things we find quite offensive, maybe even on a personal level, so that they might, so to speak “get under our skin” a little. And then there’s the case of simple blatant out and out hatred toward Christians, which while rare where we live, does happen, and certainly is known all too well in certain parts of the world.

Our mindset, the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2) involves aligning ourselves with the new heart and spirit God gives us in the new covenant in and through Jesus. Put more simply, we need to put into practice who we are in Jesus, and leave the old person we used to be behind. Which means we’ll have to go against the grain of what we’re used to at times. We may be new in Jesus, but we have to act on that, which involves getting rid of old habits and ways of thinking, and putting on the new ways in Jesus. Ephesians and Colossians both have some important things to say about that.

And so our professed love of the Lord is real insofar as we love others with that same love. We may say we love the Lord, and think we do, but if we withhold love from others, that puts our love for God in doubt, and certainly contradicts that, as we’re reminded in 1 John 5.

And so we want to love, period. A love which isn’t mushy, and may challenge others along the way, but which is genuine and true, marked by gentleness along with the rest of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5). In and through Jesus.

a thought on Revelation

I just finished going slowly through the book of Revelation. It is quite heavy, but appropriate, when we consider just how heavy the world is, if we pay any attention to the news at all. It is not exactly nice, as appropriate for a bedtime story for children. Yet it addresses real evil, and brings in the true and final salvation for the healing and flourishing of all.

When reading through this book, it’s not like we should just see it as metaphorical, and not really happening. I don’t believe world events will happen precisely as given in the book, because the book is chalk full of symbols, and symbolic imagery. Awesome, world-changing and shaping events will take place, and evil will at a point be purged, but we need to avoid what is surely the crass literalism of the “left behind” approach.

One is struck with just how strongly the Revelation shakes out to be a fulfillment in the sense of ending of the entire Bible, of the First (“Old”) Testament, as well as the Final (“New”) Testament. No one should think they are a faithful Bible reader and student if they don’t take the entire Bible seriously from Genesis through Revelation, of course including everything in between. Some things might not appeal to us, we might not get it, but we need to hang in there, and try to understand, and keep working at it over the long haul, little by little.

Revelation reminds us of many biblical themes, like salvation in the final sense, the kingdom of the world as in the world system, persecution of those who hold to the word of God and the testimony of Jesus, the kingdom of God in King Jesus, the goal of all creation with strong parallels to Genesis, etc.

It is a hard book to read, probably for me  because it hits up against my Modernist Enlightenment influenced sensibilities, and one might even say, Anabaptist tendencies rooted in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The latter takes evil seriously, and simply takes the way of the Lamb in opposing it. The former cringes at the thought of actual evil (“we can educate it away”), and even more against the notion of judgment. And there’s the broken down systems of justice in our world today, perhaps adding to a cynical view of traditional approaches. Therefore, though a heavy read, Revelation is surely a much needed read for us today.

So if there’s a next time for me to go over Revelation, I hope by God’s grace to be more ready, and hopefully will be able to take more in, so that along with others, we can in faith faithfully endure through Jesus to the very end.

avoiding hate (and hurt)- politics

Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show itby their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambitionin your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.

But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.

James 3

There are few things more troubling than Facebook posts (and probably Twitter is just as bad). A majority of them are about US politics, and specifically about the President and his policies. With some blows against the last President (along with a few praises). If anyone thinks this is better and easier in real life, face to face, they sadly should think again. It seems like the politics of this world is inhabited by a spirit which is malevolent and dark indeed. And certainly not by the Spirit of Christ.

Of course there may be elected officials who keep a steady course which is honoring to God, but it seems to me that they would be an exception to the rule. There seems to be a pull that at least evokes heat rather than light. People most definitely take their politics personally. There is certainly good reason to take it seriously. There is surely evil to be found on every side. Even if we might see most of the evil on the other sides, and we do, we do well to step back and ask ourselves if engaging in such talk is either profitable to ourselves or others. One side hardly ever changes the other. And actually the best polemic questions both sides in the name of the one Lord of lords, and King of kings, and kingdom present in him.

There surely are times to speak out, but we want to make our appeal in a way which is helpful to all, a tall order, indeed. We more or less think there are issues now that we need to be aware of, and then tell others. Living in a democracy certainly lends itself to that kind of thinking. Apart from threatening others, we’re allowed to speak our minds here, with no lawful basis for retaliation.

The hard part is that there is a time to speak, and to do so will result in persecution, usually in being disliked. Hopefully a persecution for righteousness, as Jesus said. Although what I’m referring to here is not persecution at all, compared with what others have to go through, in other place. And Christians need to look beyond such differences by grace, embracing each other in spite of our disagreements.

We need to consider the entire chapter of James 3 on the tongue, just as I’ve posted before (click the link below and above). And I can’t do better than once again quote the above passage, this time in a different version:

Who in your community is understanding and wise? Let his example, which is marked by wisdom and gentleness, blaze a trail for others. If your heart is one that bleeds dark streams of jealousy and selfishness, do not be so proud that you ignore your depraved state. The wisdom of this world should never be mistaken for heavenly wisdom; it originates below in the earthly realms, with the demons. Any place where you find jealousy and selfish ambition, you will discover chaos and evil thriving under its rule. Heavenly wisdom centers on purity, peace, gentleness, deference, mercy, and other good fruits untainted by hypocrisy. The seed that flowers into righteousness will always be planted in peace by those who embrace peace.

James 3 (VOICE)

our one safety: in God

God is our refuge and strength,
    an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
    and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam
    and the mountains quake with their surging.

Psalm 46

One of the most basic fears of humankind is the fear of death. In fact in Eastern Orthodox Christian teaching and liturgy, that fear is at the heart of our sin, the gospel in Christ’s death and resurrection having destroyed death, and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel (2 Timothy 1:10).

I think most all of my lifetime I’ve struggled with the fear of death, and have not always made good decisions in the process. It’s not like we’re to be foolhardy, and careless, so that we live recklessly, thinking God has our backs (and fronts, and every side) not matter what we do. We want to act wisely and prudently, and make the best decisions we can. But in the end our confidence can’t lie in ourselves, or in anyone else, but in God alone.

This presidential election season in the United States has exposed, I think, what could possibly be, though I don’t believe in every case is, an idolatry at play on both sides, exposed well in this article.

Over and over again in my life, I find that the one refuge to whom we should turn is God himself. We turn to God through the gospel, through the word and the sacraments, through the church, through prayer, and through a basic commitment of faith and ongoing repentance. We are not assured in this life that bad things won’t happen, in fact we can be certain that difficulties, including persecutions from living for Christ, troubles from simply living in this world, and at last death, barring our Lord’s return before that, await us in this life. Of course God has not promised to remove us from the trials, but to be with us through them.

It’s not like we will no longer be subject to possible fear in this life, but that through faith in the gospel, worked out through daily being in the word, God will help us to find our one refuge in him. A large part of our life and witness in this life, as we look forward to the life to come when in God through Christ by the Spirit, we will live in an existence in which no fear is possible. A taste of which we receive in this life, brought to perfection and completeness in the life to come, in and through Jesus.

the outcome of going through suffering

And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Peter 5:10-11

It’s pointed out in this passage, that the suffering referred to is the kind many of us in the west, and perhaps particularly in America know little or more likely nothing at all about. Unless one is caught up in the culture wars, which in my way of thinking has little or nothing to do with true Christianity and the faith, perhaps with some exceptions here and there. But every believer, regardless of where they live, is subject to harrassment from the spiritual enemy which often works through other humans; in fact we can all end up on the playing field for good or for ill in that way. If this passage applied only to believers who are threatened and to some extent experience physical persecution, then it would have no application to many of us today. But it does have direct application today to many sisters and brothers throughout the world who are suffering persecution just because they are Christians, including martyrdom.

As followers of Christ and one body in him as the church, we need to arm ourselves with the attitude that we are going to suffer, so that we might as well accept that. In fact this attitude needs to become a part of our psyche in our spiritual development and pilgrimage in this world in Christ. This same letter from Peter tells us that.

Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God. For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.

1 Peter 4:1-5

It is good to read what follows this (see link). In fact, better yet to read the entire letter, which actually isn’t long. Reading through it will bring up questions, but read it in mind with the teaching on suffering. We have to remember the context into which the Bible was written. There is inevitably an accomodation which occurred then, and continues to occur now, as we apply the gospel to our culture and world, and see the changes that gospel will inevitably bring over time.

But back to the first reading above. We need to accept and even learn to embrace by faith the hardest of times which we’re going through, refusing to flinch from such, since we know the outcome. Of course doing so with the “means of grace” God provides through scripture and the church, the word and the sacraments. God’s will give us a peace which is not merely some escape from the storm, but an ability to live well through the storm, both in terms of its aftermath, as well as the inevitablity of more such in this life. There does seem to be a closure here. But that closure is not so much in terms of relief from sufferings in this life, in fact arguably not so at all. But more in terms of God’s working in our lives in and through Christ to help us not only survive through them, but actually flourish.

Words can be cheap (and too often  are), and there’s no doubt that this is not anything we would wish for on our own. But it’s reality, and if we’re going to live in the reality in Christ, then we have to accept both that reality, and God’s provision for us through it in Christ. And when we do so, we have God’s promise. A promise which can help us stand firm in the midst of the experience of such sufferings, as we carry on in the existence of the world, the flesh and the devil, with the help that comes from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That God might always and forever be exalted and glorified, even in this life, in and through Christ Jesus our Lord.