Posts Tagged With: Christian unity

 
 

Spiritual Warfare III: Standing Firm

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:10–13).

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An actor dressed like a Roman soldier in full armor. Photo by Luc Viatour (https://Lucnix.be) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

No study about spiritual warfare would be complete without an examination of Ephesians 6:10–20. This passage includes the “whole armor of God,” a set of virtues which Christians wear (in a spiritual sense) to battle Satan. The armor includes the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. Each of these will be discussed in a forthcoming article. I will also include a discussion about intercessory prayer as a spiritual weapon: Paul mentions this immediately after the whole armor of God (as if it is part thereof), yet most pastors and writers overlook this connection.

It is worthwhile to note, not only what follows the discussion about the armor of God, but what precedes it. Paul is in the “application” part of Ephesians (most of his letters begin with an abstract or theological discussion before he proceeds into a series of practical instructions for living out the Christian life). He was urging his readers to “walk in love” (Ephesians 5:1) and in the Holy Spirit, “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). This led to an extensive discussion of personal relationships: marriage (Ephesians 5:22–33), parent/child relationships (6:1–4), and master/slave relationships (6:5–9).

It is within this context, of how to apply Jesus’ teaching to interpersonal relationships, that Paul introduces the whole armor of God. Many Christians seek to engage in spiritual warfare by ourselves. We might think that we can resist Satan’s attacks and temptation on our own. We might assume that “I have a personal relationship with Christ so I can go solo.” That is probably one of Satan’s favorite lying strongholds. If he can keep us fighting as Lone Rangers, he can isolate us. If he can isolate us, he can keep us from living a victorious Christian life.

Greek_Phalanx

Illustration of an ancient (Greek) army marching in formation. From Wikimedia Commons (public domain).

Most of the verbs in Ephesians 6 are plural: All Christians are supposed to do them, and we are supposed to do them together. Every Christian is individually responsible to stand firm, but he or she must do so with other believers. The imagery of war calls us into a spiritual army. Our success requires us to engage in battle alongside our fellow spiritual soldiers. Ancient armies usually marched in formation, side by side. They would at times join their shields together so they could protect each other as they advanced.

How do we stand with other believers in spiritual warfare? We must be honest, transparent, trusting, and trustworthy in our fellowship with other Christians. We must share our burdens with each other. If you do not have a few prayer and accountability partners, find them. Find a few mature Christians, whom you can trust. Share your battles with one another. Be honest about your victories, failures, and temptations. Encourage them when they fail; do not gossip nor condemn. When you are able to unite as a spiritual phalanx, you will be able to walk side-by-side to victory over the forces of darkness.

Our first response when Satan attacks is to stand. We must resist him. To do so, we must follow our Commander’s orders:

“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).

If we are standing firm, there are some things we cannot do: We cannot surrender to our enemy. We cannot give in. We cannot quit. We cannot flee like defeated cowards. We cannot yield to temptation. Soldiers win by fighting, not by quitting. Among other things, spiritual warfare demands perseverance.

The battle may be spiritual, but it is real. Our victory is assured as we remain in the Lord’s army, but we must remain strong and resilient if we hope to reap the benefits of that victory:

“Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen” (I Peter 5:8–11).

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

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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.

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Reflection on Mark 9:38-41 (Revisited)

This post was originally published on August 16, 2013. It remains one of the most-frequently read articles on this blog.

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward. (Mark 9:38-41, ESV)

Mark 9, along with its parallels in the other Gospels, has popped up often for me: In my personal devotions, sermons I’ve heard, and books and articles I have read. Maybe God is trying to tell me something. God wants His children—myself included—to confront the conflict between pride and prayer, self-seeking and selfless service, and the other spiritual battles common to growing Christians.

To see the irony of this discussion, one should consider all that had occurred earlier. John had just been one of three disciples to witness the Transfiguration, when Jesus radiated His divine glory while visited by Moses and Elijah on a mountain (Mark 9:2-8). John, more than almost any of the disciples, should have been humbled in Jesus’ presence, having seen first-hand that He was more than a great teacher!

Having come down from the mountain, they found that the other nine disciples had failed to cast a demon out of a boy. The disciples were experienced exorcists, having been sent on a ministry trip for which Jesus empowered them to cast demons out of people (Mark 6:7). Yet, they had failed because, Jesus said, this kind of demon “cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29).

This incident was followed by other discussions, intended to change the worldly perspective of the disciples: Jesus’ prophecy of His impending arrest, death, and resurrection (Mark 9:30-32); and instruction about the disciples’ need to be humble and childlike, instead of arrogantly seeking status (Mark 9:33-37).

Like many of us, the disciples were slow learners. Despite these instructions and their previous failures, John essentially boasts that some of the disciples had tried to stop someone from casting out demons in Jesus’ name, simply because he was not part of their travelling party. I can almost imagine the rebuke sounding something like, “Hey! Stop doing that! You don’t have ministry credentials for that. We have certificates, signed by Jesus Himself, saying that WE should do that when He’s not around. Why don’t you just go feed the poor and leave the REAL ministry to us?”

(I am sure that in the back of John’s mind, he was really thinking, “STOP THAT! You’re making us look bad? How dare you cast out a demon after my friends just had trouble with one last week? You’re ruining our credibility!”)

Jesus response calls us to the charity and unity that should draw His followers together. The disciples’ status did not matter. Yes, they enjoyed a unique relationship with Him, gaining in-depth teaching and training that others did not enjoy. Many people admired Jesus and rushed to hear His teaching. I am sure many sought to live by His doctrine, even if they did not have the privilege of travelling with Him. Yet, only 12 spent all their time with the Lord, having many hours to pick His brain.

The disciples had a special privilege and a deeper call to serve the Lord. Yet, they were not expected to claim it as a reason to exclude others. Jesus called them to serve, not to claim offices and titles. Later, Paul would write that their role was to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). John’s response to a common man’s success in casting out demons should have been, “Congratulations! Great job, brother! We need more guys like you in this ministry.”

Modern Christians should focus on service instead of status, on the task instead of the title. We need to recognize the gifts God has given us, and the mission He has called us to, and put that first. We must resist the temptation to let titles, recognition, and prestige distract us from the needs around us and our ability to serve.

We need to recognize, respect, and encourage the gifts God has given to others. The pastor’s job is not to do all the ministry, but to equip the saints for work of service. When somebody shows an aptitude and eagerness for a ministry, that person should be encouraged and trained, not “put in their place.”

Yes, there are times some people will try to exercise spiritual gifts they do not really have. Some churches over-emphasize certain gifts, like prophecy and healing, to a point where people feel like second-rate believers if they do not have those gifts. When a person does not have a particular gift, or is not fully equipped in a particular ministry, he or she should be trained or re-directed.

Finally, the unity of believers is precious to our Lord. Christians have a terrible history of dividing ourselves. We divide over doctrine, denominations, worship styles, etc. We divide ourselves into churches that serve a specific racial or ethnic group. We refuse to fellowship with those who practice certain sacraments or ordinances differently. We even divide within our own congregations, into cliques of clergy vs. laity, of the “in” crowd vs. the outer circles.

Jesus said, “For the one who is not against us is for us.” Let us remember that it is not our denomination or dogma that matters. It is the Lord whom we claim to love and serve. He comes first, and He calls us to serve, even as He came to seek, save, and serve.

This post copyright © 2017 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.

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

Reflection on Mark 9:38-41

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward. (Mark 9:38-41, ESV)

Mark 9, along with its parallels in the other Gospels, has popped up often for me: In my personal devotions, sermons I’ve heard, and books and articles I have read. Maybe God is trying to tell me something. God wants His children—myself included—to confront the conflict between pride and prayer, self-seeking and selfless service, and the other spiritual battles common to growing Christians.
To see the irony of this discussion, one should consider all that had occurred earlier. John had just been one of three disciples to witness the Transfiguration, when Jesus radiated His divine glory while visited by Moses and Elijah on a mountain (Mark 9:2-8). John, more than almost any of the disciples, should have been humbled in Jesus’ presence, having seen first-hand that He was more than a great teacher!
Having come down from the mountain, they found that the other nine disciples had failed to cast a demon out of a boy. The disciples were experienced exorcists, having been sent on a ministry trip for which Jesus empowered them to cast demons out of people (Mark 6:7). Yet, they had failed because, Jesus said, this kind of demon “cannot be driven out by anything but prayer” (Mark 9:29).
This incident was followed by other discussions, intended to change the worldly perspective of the disciples: Jesus’ prophecy of His impending arrest, death, and resurrection (Mark 9:30-32); and instruction about the disciples’ need to be humble and childlike, instead of arrogantly seeking status (Mark 9:33-37).
Like many of us, the disciples were slow learners. Despite these instructions and their previous failures, John essentially boasts that some of the disciples had tried to stop someone from casting out demons in Jesus’ name, simply because he was not part of their travelling party. I can almost imagine the rebuke sounding something like, “Hey! Stop doing that! You don’t have ministry credentials for that. We have certificates, signed by Jesus Himself, saying that WE should do that when He’s not around. Why don’t you just go feed the poor and leave the REAL ministry to us?”
(I am sure that in the back of John’s mind, he was really thinking, “STOP THAT! You’re making us look bad? How dare you cast out a demon after my friends just had trouble with one last week? You’re ruining our credibility!”)
Jesus response calls us to the charity and unity that should draw His followers together. The disciples’ status did not matter. Yes, they enjoyed a unique relationship with Him, gaining in-depth teaching and training that others did not enjoy. Many people admired Jesus and rushed to hear His teaching. I am sure many sought to live by His doctrine, even if they did not have the privilege of travelling with Him. Yet, only 12 spent all their time with the Lord, having many hours to pick His brain.
The disciples had a special privilege and a deeper call to serve the Lord. Yet, they were not expected to claim it as a reason to exclude others. Jesus called them to serve, not to claim offices and titles. Later, Paul would write that their role was to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” (Ephesians 4:12). John’s response to a common man’s success in casting out demons should have been, “Congratulations! Great job, brother! We need more guys like you in this ministry.”
Modern Christians should focus on service instead of status, on the task instead of the title. We need to recognize the gifts God has given us, and the mission He has called us to, and put that first. We must resist the temptation to let titles, recognition, and prestige distract us from the needs around us and our ability to serve.
We need to recognize, respect, and encourage the gifts God has given to others. The pastor’s job is not to do all the ministry, but to equip the saints for work of service. When somebody shows an aptitude and eagerness for a ministry, that person should be encouraged and trained, not “put in their place.”
Yes, there are times some people will try to exercise spiritual gifts they do not really have. Some churches over-emphasize certain gifts, like prophecy and healing, to a point where people feel like second-rate believers if they do not have those gifts. When a person does not have a particular gift, or is not fully equipped in a particular ministry, he or she should be trained or re-directed.
Finally, the unity of believers is precious to our Lord. Christians have a terrible history of dividing ourselves. We divide over doctrine, denominations, worship styles, etc. We divide ourselves into churches that serve a specific racial or ethnic group. We refuse to fellowship with those who practice certain sacraments or ordinances differently. We even divide within our own congregations, into cliques of clergy vs. laity, of the “in” crowd vs. the outer circles.
Jesus said, “For the one who is not against us is for us.” Let us remember that it is not our denomination or dogma that matters. It is the Lord whom we claim to love and serve. He comes first, and He calls us to serve, even as He came to seek, save, and serve.
Categories: Bible meditations, Christian Life | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments

Unity of the Spirit

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism,  one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:1-6, ESV).

While meditating on Ephesians 4:1-16 recently, I realized that the entire passage focuses on Christian unity, which St. Paul here refers to as “unity of the Spirit.” Paul often addressed threats to Christian unity. To this day, the unity is threatened.

Before I proceed, I would like to clear up a major misunderstanding about Christian unity. The unity of the Spirit is not developed by an absolute adherence to common dogma. Some who profess a personal relationship with Jesus Christ will reject those who disagree with them on secondary (or even less important) doctrines. Whether it be eternal security, methods of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, eschatology, etc., these are not issues that allow one Christian to condemn others to hell. None of us has a right to claim that others are not saved, or are somehow second-rate Christians, if they disagree with us. I am not saying that doctrine is completely unimportant; we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:8), and doctrine is important insofar as it keeps our eyes on the true Jesus of Scripture (as opposed to a “Jesus” that we make up to suit our own needs). However, doctrine is only useful as a means of fostering our relationship with Christ. A personal relationship with Jesus Christ comes first; doctrine and church practices are tools to foster that relationship.

What is truly important in the “unity of the Spirit” is the personal relationship with Christ. Through that relationship, we are bound to other Christians in the church. Scripture often very appropriately uses the language of family to describe the church: God is our Father, and we are brothers and sisters through our relationship with Him.

In Ephesians and elsewhere (First Corinthians 12, for example), St. Paul refers to the church as “the body of Christ,” which is also a fitting image. We are tempted to view some members of the church (including the pastor, worship leaders, Sunday school teachers, or others with visible roles on Sunday morning) as “more important.” Yet, as 1 Corinthians 12:15-26 shows, the less glamorous or visible members of the body are important too. Some organs seem more important than others, but each one fulfills an important role.

Since we are a body, it is not our job to create spiritual unity. Ephesians 4:3 calls us to maintain the unity of the Spirit. It is already there. Just as my right hand has maintained a connection to the rest of my body since before I was born, so every Christian has a vital spiritual link to other believers. I do not have to buy a right hand and glue it on; I just need to preserve it and care for it, so that it can continue to fulfill its role in my body.

This unity of Christians is multi-faceted. It is a unity of existence: There is one body and one Spirit. We share a unity of purpose: One hope that belongs to our call. We share a unity of Lordship and fellowship: One Lord (Jesus), one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.

Unity is preserved through the ministry of the church. God has appointed certain people within the church to a role in the fourfold ministry (some sincere believers think it is “fivefold”; the original Greek implies four ministries, but this is a subject for another study): apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherd/teachers (the Greek suggests these are the same; the same word can be translated either “shepherd” or “pastor”). Though different ministries, they share a common mission:

… 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” (Ephesians 4:12-14).

Unity of the Spirit is something we gain through our spiritual birthright, by being believers in Christ. Unity of the faith and of knowledge is something we grow towards. Perhaps this is something that will not be completed until we get to heaven. As long as we see in a mirror dimly or through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians 13:12), we have room to grow. Nevertheless, those who are called to teach and preach the Word of God to the church are not called to promote division or denominational distinctives, designed to set themselves apart from other Christians. They are called to preach the truth about Jesus Christ: to bring people to knowledge of the Son of God. They are called to bring people to spiritual maturity.

Their mission includes promoting unity through their diversity. Apostles, prophets, evangelists, and shepherd/teachers have different skills, perspectives, and talents. They approach their ministries from different angles. Yet, they work together to carry out a common goal: to bring people to maturity in Christ.

The true measure of success for these ministers is when those within their flock develop their own ministries (Ephesians 4:12). Each of us has a different place of service within the Body of Christ. The church needs those who serve in the fourfold ministry. It also needs the secretary, the prayer warrior, the musician, and the janitor. It needs the person who holds no official title in the church, but is always ready to encourage the downtrodden. The church needs the guy who is willing to drive people to and from church. Whether it is a “spiritual” ministry that demands in-depth Bible training, or serving others with talents one could use in the most secular of businesses, your skills and talents are needed.

Christians are called to work together to glorify Jesus Christ. We are called to grow up into Him: to become more like Christ as we mature. We are called to unity, not uniformity: We build the church and preserve its unity not by forcing everybody into the same mold, but by allowing people to grow in their own gifts, talents, and passions, so that together we can strengthen the church, glorify our Savior, and draw people into relationship with Him.

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