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Spiritual Warfare XVIII: Concluding Thoughts

Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. (Revelation 12:7–13; all Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated)

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Demonic threats forced Joseph and Mary to flee into Egypt early in Jesus’ childhood. Spiritual warfare is very much a part of the life of Christ, including the Christmas narrative. Painting by Gentile da Fabriano, ca. 1423, from Uffizi Gallery [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

When we began this series on spiritual warfare in September, I had no idea that we would reach the end just before Christmas. Yet, here we are: Today is the fourth Sunday in Advent. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Tuesday, we celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior. I have a few friends who may refer to Santa Claus as “Satan Claus.” Other than that, most Christians do not want to talk about demons and spiritual warfare. The feel-good “holiday movies” on Hallmark Channel and UP TV are more pleasant.

However, Satan does not care about our calendar. He will attack whenever it is convenient for him. Life and hardship continue in spite of Christmas.

In fact, we cannot remove Satan or the demonic from the Christmas story. The passage above appears right after a vision that looks back on the birth of Jesus (Revelation 12:5). The passage focuses on Satan’s attempts to keep Him from coming into the world and fulfilling His mission of redemption. Whether the “woman” is Mary (as many Catholic commentators say) or the entire nation of Israel, the main point is that this is part of the war between the dragon (Satan) and the male child (Jesus). The “woman” is involved in the battle because of her relationship with Jesus, and so is anybody else who has a connection to Him.

In Matthew 2, we read how Jesus was threatened with death even as an infant or toddler. When the magi came seeking the newborn “king of the Jews,” Herod wanted to kill him. He viewed Jesus as a threat to his throne. When the magi did not cooperate with him by telling him exactly where Jesus was, Herod sought drastic measures. Joseph, as Jesus’ guardian, had to take drastic measures as well:

Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. (Matthew 2:13–16)

Satan, working through the paranoid heart and mind of Herod, would kill all of the babies in Bethlehem if that was what it took to kill Jesus. Revelation 12 may speak in very symbolic language, but Matthew 2 reminds us that spiritual warfare manifests in raw, real-world, life-and-death situations. People suffer; some die; families’ lives are uprooted and thrown into chaos.

So, with that in mind, I offer a few final thoughts about spiritual warfare:

First, to win the battle, we must be ready to believe God’s truth and not the lies of the world and the enemy. The entire account of Jesus’ birth, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, is about people who were willing to take unprecedented leaps of faith and trust God, believe His Word, and accept the call to be part of His plan to redeem mankind. Mary had to believe that God could bring forth life in her womb without the intervention of a human father; she also had to trust that He would take care of her so that all would succeed. Who would really believe her story that she was still a virgin, even though obviously pregnant? The sentence for adultery (including sex before marriage by a betrothed person) in the Old Testament was death by stoning; people might show even less compassion for a pregnant unmarried woman telling unbelievable stories accusing God of having sex with her (as her story would sound). Joseph had to believe the angel’s message, which came to him in a dream, was really the word of God and not his own made-up wishful thinking. Why should he risk his reputation and life for a baby that he knew was not his? Since he married Mary in spite of her pregnancy, people might have suspected that he was really the father, and was sexually immoral himself, thereby risking his own reputation. Was it worth it?

They could only accomplish their calling by believing God, even when the message defied all logic and the mission came with great risks and sacrifices. Make no mistake: Joseph and Mary were drafted into spiritual warfare from the moment of Christ’s conception. They had to do battle against their own doubts, their egos, the suspicions and accusations of their neighbors (and perhaps even families), and Satan himself.

Second, to believe God, we have to accept some uncomfortable inconvenient truths. The Bible says that there is a literal hell and people will suffer there for eternity. It speaks of a literal, real being named Satan. If you call yourself a Christian, you have to believe in hell and Satan. Not only are they taught in the Bible, but also most of what we know about them comes from the New Testament. Most of it comes from the lips of Jesus Himself! To not believe in a literal hell, real eternal damnation, or a personal entity named Satan is to accuse Jesus of being a liar.

This is a major reason why many Christians are living defeated lives, Christianity’s influence on American culture is in decline, and many young people are flocking to false religions like paganism and the occult. Many Christians and churches are spiritually impotent because they do not believe the truth about their enemy. They think spiritual warfare is about fighting their own personal apathy or fear. They think the devil is just a symbol representing evil. Before long, people mistake “evil” as a synonym for “discomfort or displeasure.” They think something is evil because it hurts their feelings, not because it is contrary to the will and nature of God. For them, spiritual warfare is a form of emotional shadow-boxing against an imaginary opponent.

In his classic The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis makes the following observation about demons:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

As we celebrate the birth and life of Jesus, and as we prepare for the New Year that awaits us, let us renew our resolve to keep our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1–2) and, like Him, resolve ourselves to destroy the works of the enemy. The battle is real, but we are more than conquerors (Romans 8:37) as we remain faithful to Him.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

 

Categories: Christian Life, Church Calendar: Holy Days and Seasons, Holidays, Spiritual Warfare, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment
 
 

Spiritual Warfare XVII: The Necessity of Faith

And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:14–20).

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Image from pxhere.com. Published under a Creative Commons 1.0 Public Domain license.

Spiritual warfare cannot be merely a pastime or activity. It must be a lifestyle. However, it is not a lifestyle of looking for demons lurking around every corner or hiding beneath every rock. It is about walking by faith moment by moment, ready to stand with Jesus against the wiles of Satan whenever necessary. The key lesson of Matthew 17:14–20 is our need to walk in faith and saturate our lives in prayer.

The whole armor of God is not a costume we put on for special occasions. One of the ministries I serve on at my church is the prayer team at a special monthly service. We can expect to rebuke demons who are afflicting some of the people who come up for prayer. However, I cannot just strap on the armor of God when I arrive at church at 7:30 and take it off at the end of the service. Spiritual warfare demands that I wear the whole armor of God 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 52 weeks per year.

How do we keep the armor of God on? The same way we receive it: by walking in faith in Jesus.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, wearing the whole armor of God is synonymous with clothing ourselves in Christ. “So, as we seek to put on the whole armor of God, we are clothing ourselves in the very life of Christ.” Every piece of the whole armor of God is a facet of Jesus’ nature. We have the belt of truth; Jesus is the Truth. We have the breastplate of righteousness; Jesus is our righteousness. We have the shoes of peace. Jesus is our peace. We have the shield of faith; Christians walk by faith in Jesus. We wear the helmet of salvation; Jesus’ name is the only name under heaven by which men must be saved. We carry the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God; Jesus is the incarnate Word of God. As we walk with Jesus, every element of the spiritual armor protects us, because Jesus is with us.

During His earthly ministry, Jesus performed numerous miracles: healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead, etc. It can seem as though nothing would stop Him from performing miracles. However, the Bible mentions one obstacle which could reduce the number of miracles Jesus could perform:

And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them (Mark 6:5).

When Jesus visited Nazareth, people would not believe that Joseph and Mary’s son was now a great man of God. Their doubt limited Jesus’ power. Faith is essential for those who wish to see a move of God. Sometimes, lack of faith will prohibit you from receiving the blessing God is offering. At other times, it will keep you from being effective in spiritual warfare. When the people of Nazareth would not believe, they could not receive the blessings of Jesus’ miraculous power. When the disciples could not believe, they could not perform the miracles Jesus had empowered and authorized them to perform (Matthew 10:1).

People may blame the disciples’ failure on several things. Some say that the disciples failed because they were not yet baptized in the Holy Spirit. This would not occur until Pentecost, 10 days after the resurrected Jesus had ascended into heaven. During Jesus’ earthly ministry, the disciples could perform some miracles, but they did not have the full blessing of the Holy Spirit’s lasting presence and power within them. This is at least part of the problem. The baptism in the Holy Spirit will help increase our faith.

Another factor many may mention is a lack of prayer and fasting. A few preachers will point to Matthew 17:21, which does not appear in the earliest Greek manuscripts of the Gospel: “But this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting.” Many English Bible translations leave this verse out or place it in a footnote since it seems possible that it was added by a later scribe and not written by Matthew himself. Whether Jesus actually said this or not, it is secondary to the main point of this passage: The disciples’ lack of faith prohibited the child’s deliverance. Prayer and fasting are important: They are valuable tools to help a believer’s faith to grow. Christians are commanded elsewhere in the New Testament to pray, and we are urged strongly to fast. But, the key is to grow in faith.

Faith empowers us to walk in the miraculous power of God. Earlier, when Jesus walked on water, Peter asked for permission to join Him:

And Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, “Lord, save me.” Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased (Matthew 14:28–32).

Have you ever noticed that, for a while, Peter actually walked on water, just like Jesus? In fact, it was not only a few steps: Jesus was far enough from the boat that the disciples were not sure it was really Him. Yet, Peter walked all the way from the boat and came to Jesus. While walking to Jesus, Peter was probably thinking, “I’m walking to Jesus. If He can walk on water, He can help me walk on water.” While returning to the boat, he changed his perspective and thought, “Wait a minute. What am I doing out here? Look at the size of those waves! That wind is insane! How did I get so far from the boat? This is impossi…glub…glub…glub.” While he kept his eyes on Jesus, Peter could walk in the miraculous power of our Lord. When he looked at the circumstances and took his eyes off of Jesus—even though He was right next to him—he fell out of supernatural power and back into the normalcy of the natural life, as if God was not present.

The point of this is that we must walk by faith. Spiritual warfare is a battle of faith. Faith is not just intellectual knowledge (in fact, head knowledge can be an obstacle to true faith). We keep our eyes on Jesus, marching with Him into battle to reveal His life-giving power to a world in bondage to darkness and death.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Spiritual Warfare VII: The Shield of Faith

“In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one…” (Ephesians 6:16).

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A replica of a Roman shield. Photo by Dorieo [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

When we engage in spiritual warfare, we will usually either be responding to an attack or we will face a counter-attack by our enemy. We must be prepared to fight, but we must also be prepared to defend ourselves.

The enemy’s counter-attack may be subtle, but sometimes it will be an all-out barrage. Satan may blast us from multiple directions. In Ephesians 6:16, Paul compares the Christian to a Roman soldier who is facing a barrage of flaming arrows. A direct hit can be deadly. You need full-body protection.

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Depiction of a 3rd-century BC Macedonian soldier holding a thyreos shield. From Istanbul Archaeology Museums [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0) or public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

For a Roman soldier, that protection would include a shield. The Roman shield was similar to one developed centuries earlier by the Greeks, called a thyreos, whose name was derived from the word for “door.” It was large, shaped like a door, and provided ample coverage when an enemy would launch a barrage of arrows or javelins towards them.

The Christian may not face literal arrows. The “flaming darts of the evil one” (some translations say “arrows” instead of “darts”) are not physical flying sticks with sharp pointy ends to puncture the skin. Satan’s arrows take other forms. Instead of darts and arrows, Satan and his demons may fire temptations at us. They may entice others to discourage us or drag us into depression. They may find our greatest weakness and turn it against us. Sometimes, his attacks may be constant, steady, but moderate. At other times, a period of relative peace may be interrupted by a sudden barrage of multiple attacks from diverse directions (imagine a person whose marriage breaks up within weeks of a job loss and a house fire, while struggling to overcome a drug addiction).

Spiritual warfare is ugly. Do not assume that you are too unimportant to be a target in the battle. Even the newest believer is involved in spiritual warfare. Whether Satan can rob you of your salvation or not, he will do whatever he can to keep you from bearing fruit for the kingdom. Some of his tactics, according to Matthew 13:19–22, are the following:

  • To steal the word of God from our hearts. If he can convince us to doubt God’s Word or His promises to us through Jesus Christ, Satan can keep us from following the Lord, experiencing the full blessings of the Christian life, and advancing the kingdom of God.
  • To bring persecution into our lives. If we have not produced deep roots in our faith, trials and temptations will convince us to give up. The antidote to this is to know, believe, and obey the Word of God (Matthew 7:24–27). Hearing the Word of the Lord and living by it produces the firm foundation and deep roots we need when the winds of trial and temptation blow.
  • To distract us with the cares of this world. “The cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches” can choke the Word of God. If we are too busy trying to make money, to attain prestige and popularity in this world, or have fun and comfort, we may not find time to do God’s will. If we put the cares of this world first, we will not take a stand for God’s kingdom.

Faith is the shield that protects us. It is more than the gateway to salvation. It is also much more than knowledge about the Bible or correct beliefs [even the demons believe, but they tremble in fear (James 2:19)]. Faith is the spiritual power within us that continually brings us under God’s covering protection. Faith draws us to God’s Word and then nourishes itself and our souls with greater faith: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Faith equips our hearts and minds to trust God and lean on Him when life becomes difficult.

Faith looks beyond our current circumstances to see the reward of our spiritual battles. After the beloved “Hall of Faith” chapter in Hebrews 11, the biblical author writes how Jesus triumphed on the cross by looking beyond His present circumstances:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:1–2).

As we walk by faith, we emulate Jesus. The heroes of the Old Testament looked forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, which Christ accomplished. Jesus looked beyond the agony and shame of the cross to “the joy that was set before Him” (which included our eternal fellowship with Him) to triumph over sin, hell, and death. We emulate Jesus as we run with endurance, looking beyond our present battle to the ultimate victory we will enjoy forever.

When Satan attacks, we can wield a shield that protects us under the assurance that we are already fighting from a position of victory. As we remain faithful to Him even in hard times, we gain a victory in spiritual warfare. It is not even a close battle. Scripture tells us that we are more than conquerors through Christ (Romans 8:37). Faith does not give us a tiny victory; it empowers us to kick the devil’s butt!

For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (I John 5:4–5).

Through faith, we are triumphant. When Satan attacks, we do not run away in fear. We raise our shield of faith and continue advancing. Jesus told Peter that the gates of hell will not prevail against His body. Think about that for a second: Do you think demons are throwing gates at us? No, gates (like shields) are for hiding and protection. God’s children are called to advance His kingdom. We do not do so cowardly. We raise our shields and continue to advance. As we continue the battle, the demons flee behind their gates! However, those gates will not stand against us. We will overwhelmingly triumph over them as we march by faith and raise the sword of the Spirit in victory.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Spiritual Warfare | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment
 
 

Putting on the Armor of God: St. Patrick’s Breastplate

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Stained glass image of St. Patrick. By Nheyob [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after posting the recent article about the breastplate of righteousness, I began thinking about one of my favorite prayers: St. Patrick’s Breastplate.

This is an ancient prayer for divine protection. Although some scholars think it is more recent, tradition claims that St. Patrick wrote this prayer in the fourth or fifth century. As he was preaching the Gospel throughout Ireland, he knew he needed God’s protection. According to one legend, the soldiers of a hostile king sought to ambush St. Patrick and his companions while they traveled through a forest. The men of God were transformed in deer while they prayed the Breastplate, thereby passing the soldiers unnoticed. Yes, it is a far-fetched tale, and St. Patrick himself never mentions this event in his writings. Still, it is a great story.

Some people pray this prayer in the morning to claim Christ’s presence and God’s protection for the coming day. I know other people who may have no rote traditional prayer, but while they pray in the morning, they claim each part of the whole armor of God onto themselves during the day. However you go about it, do not start a day without seeking God’s presence and protection to follow you.

Here is a brief excerpt from St. Patrick’s Breastplate. You can read it in its entirety at https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/st-patricks-breastplate-poem:

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.St. Patrick’s Breastplate,” traditionally attributed to St. Patrick, is in the public domain.

 

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Your Best Life, NOT Now—Second Corinthians 4:16–18

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (Second Corinthians 4:16–18).

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The first time the Bible mentions St. Paul, he is participating in the execution of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, who was not experiencing his “best life now.” Painting by Rembrandt (public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

The Christian satire website The Babylon Bee recently commemorated the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Harvey by posting an article claiming that Joel Osteen sailed his luxury yacht through the flooded streets of Houston after that storm, distributing free copies of his bestselling book, Your Best Life Now. Another recent gem from that site imagined a Christian humanitarian relief organization responding to famine in East Africa by dropping crates of prosperity-gospel books into Ethiopia. Both articles highlighted an unfortunate irony of a popular brand of Christian thinking, that believes that faith in Jesus Christ guarantees health, wealth, and comfort in this world.

Let me begin by stating that my purpose in this article is not merely to attack Osteen’s book. To be honest, I have not read any of his books. My grievance is against the school of thought that believes Christians can experience “your best life now.” This is an unbiblical worldview that would sound absurd to the writers of both the Old and New Testaments and their initial readership. Ancient Israel was a small nation with a troubled history, frequently under foreign oppression. The early church was viewed as a radical fringe sect within Judaism, during a particularly repressive period of Israel’s history. Early Christians would not believe they were experiencing their best life now.

American Christianity has bought into many of the ideals of modern commercialism. We buy cars that we think will make us look prosperous. We buy cologne, perfume, clothing, and alcoholic beverages because commercials promise that this particular brand will make us popular with the opposite sex. Then, we baptize this mentality into a watered-down gospel, believing that the promises of Jesus include not only forgiveness of sins and everlasting life, but also financial wealth, perfect health, whiter teeth, fresh breath, and sex appeal. Since we want the best things in life, we demand that God offer us His best blessings in this world.

Early in my Christian walk, I learned a method of evangelism that involved sharing “The Four Spiritual Laws” with people. This was a tract, providing a brief summary of the gospel and inviting the reader to accept Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. It was a great little booklet, written by Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright. According to Bright, the first law was “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” To support this claim, he quoted John 3:16 and John 10:10—

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10b).

Fortunately, Bright kept a proper biblical balance here, emphasizing spiritual blessings and everlasting life. However, many modern people read our own hopes and desires into that first law. We are thrilled to hear that God has a wonderful plan for our life, but that does not mean that His plan is our plan! God’s wonderful plan for your life recognizes that we are eternal beings. After our earthly bodies die, our spirits will live on. It is in that life next phase of life—heaven or hell—where God will bring His wonderful plan for our lives to fruition.

My self-made plan for my life includes health, happiness, comfort, and wealth. Instead, like most people, I experience hard times. There are days when I am not healthy. Sometimes, the universe does not submit to my personal agenda. There are times when unexpected expenses arise and I wonder how I can pay those bills. Clearly, if God has a wonderful plan for my life, it is not “Sit around all day, taking it easy, while millions of dollars just roll in from nowhere.” Today, I know deeply-committed Christians, men and women with deep faith in Christ, who are struggling with illness, affliction, and suffering, and some who are facing imminent death. I would hope that today’s circumstances are not their best life.

When St. Paul listed his accomplishments and proof of his genuine anointing as an apostle, it read like this:

“Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” (II Corinthians 11:23–29).

Many Bible scholars believe Paul also endured problems with his eyesight and would be considered legally blind today. Several Bible verses hint at this possibility, including the fact that the Galatians would have gouged out their own eyes to give them to him (Galatians 4:15): judging from what he says elsewhere in his letter to that church, one cannot imagine him commending such self-mutilation unless it would have served a meaningful purpose.

Thus, one can safely say that St. Paul did not expect his best life in this world. God loved Paul and had a wonderful plan for his life—but His plan was not one of ease and comfort. Likewise, God loves each of us and has a wonderful plan for our lives, but it does not match the plans we devise when we put ourselves first.

God’s plan for us does include this world, but it is not what we can take out of it. Instead, it is the legacy we can leave behind. God’s plan for our lives includes our faith in Him. It includes the people to whom we witness, who will join us when we see Him face to face in heaven. It includes the people we disciple, minister to, encourage, and exhort. It includes all of the lives that are changed for the better when we live in obedience to Him.

We will experience hardship in this world. But, that hardship is creating for us an “eternal weight of glory.” Let us lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles (Hebrews 12:1) so that we can take on the eternal weight of glory that God is preparing for us. God has a wonderful plan for our lives. We do not see it now, but we will see it when we behold Jesus face to face. We do not live our best lives now, but we can behold our best life by faith as we look to those things that are unseen.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Merely Human?—1 Corinthians 3:1–4

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human? (1 Corinthians 3:1–4).

In my last two posts (here and here), I discussed the need for Christians to grow up and become mature in our thinking and living. When we are born again, we become “babes in Christ,” but we should eventually grow up. Unfortunately, many Christians remain in a “condition of protracted infancy” (to use the words of nineteenth century pastor Andrew Murray).

The divisiveness we see in the body of Christ is a dangerous symptom of this rampant spiritual immaturity. According to St. Paul, it shows that we are not aware of our identity as children of God and co-heirs with Christ. We act like ordinary people. We forget that we are children of God. Instead, we act like we are “merely human.”

What is your spiritual identity? Are you a child of God, made in His image and filled with the Holy Spirit? Or, are you merely human, trying to follow a set of religious teachings in your own strength?

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Andrew Murray

Too often, we justify our sins and shortcomings by saying, “Well, nobody’s perfect. I’m only human.” God calls His children to something greater. We are called to be partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). God’s seed abides in us (1 John 3:9); in other words, we should look like our heavenly Father, especially in our actions. We are filled with the Holy Spirit and therefore can (and should) bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). We have been adopted as fellow heirs with Jesus (Romans 8:17; see here for more on this subject). Despite the clear teaching of the New Testament, many Christians think of ourselves as “only human” and do not experience the full power of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives. As Andrew Murray says in “Spiritual or Carnal”:

There are thus three states in which a man may be found. The unregenerate is still the natural man, not having the Spirit of God. The regenerate, who is still a babe in Christ, whether because he is only lately converted, or because he has stood still and not advanced, is the carnal man, giving way to the power of the flesh. The believer in whom the Spirit has obtained full supremacy, is the spiritual man.…

All that is carnal and sinful, all the works of the flesh, must be given up and cast out. But no less must all that is carnal, however religious it appears, all confidence in the flesh, all self-effort and self-struggling be rooted out. The soul, with its power, must be brought into the captivity and subjection of Jesus Christ. In deep and daily dependence on God must the Holy Spirit be accepted, waited for, and followed.

This is not a call to perfectionism. We all have our good and bad days. These three groups are a helpful guide, but many of us waver between being carnal and spiritual. We also may be stronger in some areas of our lives than others. I have been commended by some for showing a lot of patience in some circumstances and with some people, only to show that I really lack that fruit when dealing with other circumstances and people.

However, we should stop accepting a lower standard for ourselves than God offers. Are we merely human, or are we filled with the Holy Spirit? If we are filled with the Holy Spirit, are we willing to allow Him to work in our lives, or will we continue to use our humanity as an excuse to live in defeat or worldliness.

We often think a carnal or worldly Christian is one who fails to follow a few rules. We may think carnal or weak Christians are the ones who drink alcohol, smoke, have sex outside of marriage, and listen to rock music. However, Scripture points out some other marks of a carnal Christian.

What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. 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. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? (James 4:1–5)

According to James, the brother of Jesus, the marks of a worldly carnal Christian are quarrels, fighting, covetousness, selfishness, etc. Other sins grow out of those. In 1 Corinthians 3:1–4, Paul lists jealousy, strife, and divisions as a few marks of spiritual immaturity. We often overlook those. Many Christians seem to think these sins are moral or spiritual virtues (“he has strong convictions and he’s passionate about the truth!”).

Throughout First Corinthians, Paul addresses a lot of problems that grew out of this carnal state. A major one was arguing over favorite preachers. The church was being divided by people who bragged that they followed Paul, Apollos (a particularly eloquent teacher), Cephas (Simon Peter), or some other leader. There was even a faction that said, “I follow Christ.” While that sounds most noble, they do not seem to get Paul’s seal of approval. It is possible that they merely boasted, “I do not need to listen to any of the apostles or teachers. I will just follow the spirit of Christ within me. You can’t tell me what to do or think!”

We may not drive around with bumper stickers that say, “I follow Paul”; or wear tee shirts reading, “I follow Apollos” or “Cephas.” But, the church remains divided. We argue over denominations. Some refuse to fellowship with people who say they believe in Jesus, but do not share their views about end-time prophecy, sacraments, or eternal security. We no longer about Paul, Apollos, or Peter (I know some who cling to “my-idea-of-Jesus-and-I-will-listen-to-nobody-else”). Instead, we follow John Calvin, Martin Luther, John Wesley, Joel Osteen, John MacArthur, or some other prominent preacher. Whenever we place a human teacher over God’s word, and create division in that person’s name, we have accepted carnal worldly Christianity. We have chosen to be merely human. It is time to grow up.

Growing in Christ is a lifetime commitment. However, God has given us His Holy Spirit. We do not have to accept “merely human” as our standard. We do not have to live the Christian life in our own strength. Let us move beyond being merely human to live as children of God.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Growing Up in Christ. II: Maturity in Christ—1 Corinthians 14:20

Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature (I Corinthians 14:20).

jesus_blessing_the_children1In the preceding post, we introduced the subject of carnal Christianity and saw that Jesus calls us to grow into spiritual maturity. This is a life-long journey for us. We begin as babes in Christ; we grow up to become mature men and women of God. The previous article showed that many Christians remain mired in a state of prolonged spiritual infancy, seeking self-gratification instead of thinking and living like mature believers.

To truly achieve spiritual maturity, we must avoid the temptation to stay focused on ourselves and our desires. Many Christians fail to grow up because they bounce from church to church. When asked why they are leaving Church A to find a new congregation, they often complain that “I’m not being fed there.” This is usually a shallow attempt to sound spiritual, when you really mean, “I do not like what the pastor is saying or how the worship band plays. The church is not entertaining me.” (Remember in the preceding article, how infants need to be fed, but adults learn to feed others.)

There is a simple message for those who approach the Christian life like this: It’s time to grow up. For those who think the gifts and manifestations of the Holy Spirit are for personal amusement or to show off how spiritual and holy you are: It’s time to grow up. For those who approach their Christian walk as a way to build up your own ego, and not as an opportunity to advance the kingdom of God for Jesus’ glory: It’s time to grow up.

What are some of the marks of spiritual maturity? How do we know we have moved beyond spiritual infancy to maturity in Christ? A few questions will help us answer that question for ourselves:

  • Am I guided by Godly wisdom or the wisdom of the world? (See James 3:13–18.)
  • Am I motivated by the love of God or a desire to put myself first? (See 1 Corinthians 13.)
  • Am I guided by the Word of God or my own opinions? As I wrote several weeks ago, “One of the great marks of Christian spiritual maturity is this: Are we willing to accept biblical truth even if it goes against our personal preferences or biases?” When confronted by one of the “hard teachings” of the Bible, is the Word of God true, or do I know better than He does?
  • Are my values centered around Christ, or are they driven by the culture around me or my own desires?
  • Most importantly, do I make decisions seeking to build others up and draw them closer to Jesus, or am I driven by desires for self-gratification or self-glorification? Do I get excited when I see other people come to know Jesus or grow in their walk with Him? Or, do I try to do things that merely make me feel good? Am I most concerned that I look good to others? Who am I most trying to impress? Myself? God? The people in my church? Or, the unsaved people around me?

Spiritual growth and renewal of the mind is a process. It takes years for a human baby to mature from birth until he or she can effectively nurture his or her own children. Likewise, it may take years from the time you surrender your life to Christ until you achieve spiritual maturity. Indeed, full spiritual maturity—perfection—is a feature of the next life, not this world.

In Ephesians 4, St. Paul describes the purpose of the ministry. It is a good summary of any church’s ministry goals and a guide for measuring our own spiritual growth:

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:11–16).

God is calling us to think like adults and live like mature men and women of God. What steps can you take to move closer to that goal today?

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Growing Up in Christ. I: Beyond Carnality—1 Corinthians 14:20

Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature (I Corinthians 14:20).

jesus_blessing_the_children

Jesus invites us to come to Him like small children, but He calls us to become mature in Him. Picture by Bernhard Plockhorst [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Renewal of the Christian’s mind, by the leading of the Holy Spirit, has a goal. God is seeking to raise us from spiritual immaturity to maturity. The Word of God calls us to mature thinking and living, not immaturity. While Jesus calls us to childlike faith (Mark 10:15; Matthew 18:3; Luke 18:17), He calls us away from childish behavior.

The circumstances that led St. Paul to write 1 Corinthians 14:20 seem to continue to this day. The Corinthian church was driven by an over-emphasis—perhaps it is more accurate to say a misguided emphasis—on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, especially the more dramatic manifestations. They were eager to speak in tongues and prophesy, but failed to show the love of God. Gifts of the Holy Spirit became excuses to show off or claim some kind of spiritual superiority over one another when God intends them to be an opportunity to serve others and build up the church. Egos replaced evangelism and edification. This discussion essentially begins in 1 Corinthians 11:17 (where he discusses abuse of the Lord’s Supper) and continues to the end of chapter 14. On a few occasions, he contrasts spiritual maturity with spiritual childishness. His great discourse on love in 1 Corinthians 13 culminates as follows:

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways (I Corinthians 13:11).

There is a time for childishness, but as we grow in our faith we should achieve spiritual maturity. Certain shortcomings are acceptable when you are young; as you mature, they should become a thing of the past. When my son was a baby, his mother and I had to feed him: He could not eat unless somebody placed a bottle or food into his mouth. After a few months, we could place food in front of him and he could put it in his own mouth. After a few years, he could go into the kitchen and get his own food. Eventually, he could go to the store and buy his own food. Now, he works for a living and provides food for three children of his own.

It was completely normal for us to spoon-feed him when he was about four months old. Now, he is able to feed himself, and he is able to feed others.

This is not just a physical pattern for maturity, but also a spiritual pattern. As new Christians, we need to be “fed” spiritually. Eventually, we should reach a point where we accept responsibility for our own walk with God. A final stage of spiritual maturity is when we no longer worry about whether the church is “feeding” us and look for ways that we can nurture others in the body of Christ. Andrew Murray refers to this early stage of Christian growth as “carnal Christianity.” In chapter 1 of The Master’s Indwelling, he describes the “carnal state” as follows:

It is simply a condition of protracted infancy. You know what that means. Suppose a beautiful babe, six months old. It cannot speak, it cannot walk, but we do not trouble ourselves about that; it is natural, and ought to be so. But suppose a year later we find the child not grown at all, and three years later still no growth; we would at once say: “There must be some terrible disease;” and the baby that at six months old was the cause of joy to every one who saw him, has become to the mother and to all a source of anxiety and sorrow. There is something wrong; the child can not grow. It was quite right at six months old that it should eat nothing but milk; but years have passed by, and it remains in the same weakly state. Now this is just the condition of many believers. They are converted; they know what it is to have assurance and faith; they believe in pardon for sin; they begin to work for God; and yet, somehow, there is very little growth in spirituality, in the real heavenly life. We come into contact with them, and we feel at once there is something wanting; there is none of the beauty of holiness or of the power of God’s Spirit in them. This is the condition of the carnal Corinthians, expressed in what was said to the Hebrews: “You have had the Gospel so long that by this time you ought to be teachers, and yet you need that men should teach you the very rudiments of the oracles of God.” Is it not a sad thing to see a believer who has been converted five, ten, twenty years, and yet no growth, and no strength, and no joy of holiness?

There is a time for immaturity, but eventually, a Christian should grow beyond that. In the following post, we will look at what spiritual maturity should look like.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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Setting Your Mind Where It Belongs—Romans 8:5–6

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (Romans 8:5–6).

The Holy Bible

What do you think about, when your mind has room to wander? What do you talk about, when you get the opportunity to speak your mind? Jesus said that “Out of the abundance of the heart {the} mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Your words reveal who you really are. Your thoughts guide your words, your decisions, your actions, and ultimately your destiny.

In the modern world of social media, many of us have a platform to publicize our thoughts constantly. Go to your friend’s Facebook page, and you know what matters to him or her. Does your friend post Bible verses? Devotional readings? Sports news? Music videos? Dirty jokes? Photos of family and friends? If you have a social media account, take a look at the things you post. What does it say about you?

When discussing Romans 12:2, the verse that introduces the concept of “renewal of the mind” that this blog frequently addresses, we saw that this renewal is the work of the Holy Spirit. As we come to Christ and His Spirit dwells in us, He transforms us by renewing our thinking.

Romans 8 contrasts two lives: The life “according to the Spirit” (the life of a true follower of Jesus) and the life “according to the flesh” (the life of one who does not have a real relationship with Him). It is interesting to place these two lives side-by-side (items in italics on the right side of this chart are implied by the context; God has more to say to His children than He does about the rest of the world here):

Christian Life

Non-Christian Life

No condemnation (sin is condemned in the flesh of Christ) Condemnation
Law of the spirit of life Law of sin and death
Walk/live according to the Spirit Walk/live according to the flesh
Set their minds of the things of the Spirit

—Life and peace

Set their minds on the things of the flesh

—Death

—Hostile to God

—Cannot submit to God’s law

—Cannot please God

In the Spirit; Spirit of Christ dwells within Does not have the Spirit; does not belong to Him
Body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit will give life to our mortal bodies The Spirit will not give eternal life to our mortal bodies. When they die due to sin, that’s it
Spirit is life because of righteousness Death because of unrighteousness

Notice a few key words that characterize the Christian life: Spirit; life; peace; righteousness. Now, notice some that characterize the non-Christian life: condemnation; sin; death; flesh; hostility. Which do you prefer? Now, ask yourself: Which list characterizes your thought life?

Many Christians spend too much time refusing the blessings we have available to ourselves. We say our prayers and read our Bibles, but then we may run off and do our own thing the rest of the day. We set our minds on the things of the Spirit for half an hour before work, but then we spend the rest of the day on the things of the flesh.  It is an easy trap to fall into, with all of the messages and images that bombard our brains throughout the day.

Some even try to baptize their fleshly thinking in Christian jargon, but it does not work: Hostility and anger are usually not “righteous indignation”; what some people call “naming and claiming the promises of God” is usually greed, materialism, and consumerism with a blasphemous pseudo-Christian label slapped on it. True life, true joy, and true peace are found when we yield our thoughts to the leading of the Holy Spirit, not when we try to coerce God to surrender to our program.

When you finish reading this blog, take some time to read your Bible and talk to Jesus (especially if you have not done so yet today!). Then, ponder the truths He revealed to you through His Word. God is always speaking to His children, but we need to listen. Think about what God is trying to say to you. Let it guide your thoughts, desires, and plans above all else. The world, flesh, and devil seek to derail you through a flood of voices and visual presentations. God wishes to speak His gentle peace to your heart. It comes quietly and subtly, but it brings great peace, joy, life, and righteousness. Set your mind on the things that bring God’s blessing into your life.

Copyright © 2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life, Renewing the Mind Reflections | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment
 
 

In One Accord—Acts 1:12–14

“Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers” (Acts 1:12–14).

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Jesus’ ascension into heaven preceded a ten-day period of prayer by the disciples, leading to Pentecost. By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.

This account, of the disciples’ time in the upper room, is often overlooked. It appears immediately after Jesus’ ascension into heaven and begins a brief interlude between that event and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Those ten days seem like a chronological “no man’s land.” But, they were significant. After three years of following Jesus, His disciples began to finally understand Him. He gave them instructions, and they obeyed.

They realized that Jesus wanted them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit before beginning the Great Commission. How would they know the Holy Spirit had come, though? Whatever that meant, they knew Jesus was talking about an event they had never seen before, involving a Spirit they would not see. How could they be certain when it happened? I wonder if things happened during those ten days that led one of the disciples to ask, “Was that it? Did the Holy Spirit just arrive?” Even though they were waiting for something they could not explain, they were obedient. They waited. Most importantly, they devoted themselves to prayer.

It is interesting to note who was praying with the disciples. Paul would later mention that Jesus appeared to 500 people at one time after His resurrection (First Corinthians 15:6). One might expect several members of that crowd to join the disciples in the upper room. However, Luke mentions only a few people.

One notable group in that upper room was Jesus’ brothers. During Jesus’ preaching ministry, they thought He had lost His mind (Mark 3:21), and they did not believe in Him (John 7:5). Instead of supporting His ministry or following His teaching, they tried to save Him from Himself. Now, along with their mother Mary (who seems to have also had doubts about her Son’s mental health at that time), they joined the disciples, praying for the coming of the Holy Spirit. The resurrection led them to believe. At least two of them, James and Judas, would become leaders in the early church. James would eventually issue the official decision at the council in Acts 15 and write the New Testament’s letter of James. Judas would write the New Testament’s letter of Jude; according to some ancient authorities, his great-grandson would be the last Jewish bishop of Jerusalem (around 150 AD).

Another notable group was “the women.” Readers of the Gospels are usually not surprised by this; women played a prominent role in Jesus’ ministry. Of course, we think of His mother Mary, who remained with Him to the cross. Mary Magdalene also comes to mind, especially as the first person Jesus spoke to after His resurrection. Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and Mary, played prominent roles in His ministry as well. We can assume that Jesus wanted these ladies to be active in the fledgling church. However, this was not normative in ancient Judaism. Women were second-class citizens in the synagogue. In the upper room, they were a necessary part of the body that prayed in one accord, awaiting the Holy Spirit. On Pentecost, they too would receive the Holy Spirit and glorify God in other tongues (Acts 2:1-4, 17, 18).

Today, many evangelical Christians use the words “Christian” and “conservative” almost interchangeably. Clergy, congregations, and the mass media think they are synonyms. However, this is not always the case. While it is true that the Bible commands certain moral values we would now consider conservative (especially in terms of sexuality), that has not always been the case. The conservative approach would preserve the status quo. It would have been easier for the apostles to tell the women, “Look, ladies, you know women cannot be rabbis or synagogue leaders, so why don’t you just go home? We’ll let you know when the Holy Spirit arrives and then you can just follow us.” That did not happen: The Christian approach was to rise above man-made traditions and cultural expectations, in order to do the clearly revealed will of God. Jesus had spoken; He had commended Lazarus’ sister Mary for choosing to sit at His feet like a disciple (Luke 10:38-42).

Jesus did not call the disciples to rely on their natural abilities or resources. They had already failed many times when they tried to serve Him that way. Pentecost would bring a new beginning. Old expectations were set aside. A renewed people, united in faith and prayer, would proclaim the resurrection of Jesus and kingdom of God to a dying world.

Copyright ©  2018 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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