Archive for October, 2009
In his book A Concise New Testament Theology, I. Howard Marshall writes, “The focus of the New Testament writings is to be found in their presentation of Jesus as the Savior and Lord send by God, through whom he is acting to bring salvation to the world. More specifically, they are the documents of a mission. The New Testament,” Marshall continues, “is primarily about God’s mission and the message associated with it.”
This evaluation of the Bible helps us interpret the Bible in light of its intention. Jesus is portrayed as the rescuer sent by the Father to inaugurate his kingdom. The missional church is subsequently sent to continue the kingdom mission as they proclaim him as such and call people to faith. Those who respond to the message of the Kingdom continue the mission through declaration and demonstration. The church, therefore, is a missional agent of the Kingdom which seeks to glorify God.
These words are encouraging to those who embrace the missional church movement. They provide a solid theological testimony regarding the purpose of Scripture and its relationship to the church. If Marshall is correct, and I think he is, we must consider how we treat the Bible. People who are serious about living missionally understand the Bible to be more than merely a book for academic consumption. Its words instruct all things missional, and when properly approached, give guidance for living life in the Kingdom of God to the fullest limit.
For those who are interested in New Testament theology, Marshall’s book is a worthwhile investment. Marshall has written a chapter on each of the New Testament books and has highlighted the important theological contributions each book has made to the Bible. The book was recommended to me by my friend Dr. Bruce Corley (President, BH Carroll Theological Institute) and have I enjoyed its pages. In turn I commend it to both pastors and Christians who are serious students of Scripture.
The theme of Peter’s letter is suffering and hope and throughout its verses he informs his audience how to hold those two in tension. His opening paragraph has reminded readers that whatever we face in life begins with Christ, specifically the salvation that he has provided. Whatever we face must be viewed through the lens of the cross, not vice versa.
In verses 6 and 7, Peter gets into the subject of trials. A textbook definition of the word trial would be “subjection to suffering or grievous experiences, a distressed or painful state; an affliction or trouble.” We don’t really need a better definition of the word trial. We already know the word quite well from life experience. The Christian distinctive, however, helps us to see the purposes that trials serve in our lives. This is where Peter invests his energy. Here are some purposes that I see that trials serve in the life of a Christian:
1. Trials reveal authenticity
Last week when I was preparing my sermon on Paul’s thorn in the flesh, I came across a line I had written in the margin of my Bible. I have to confess that I don’t recall if it came from a sermon I heard or from a book that I read. But I thought it was powerful. It said, “Vision makes leaders passionate, and thorn keep leaders authentic.”
There is something about suffering that helps peel away the thin veneer of life that we like to hide behind. Trials do produce some positive outcomes in our lives. But as a point of departure, trials reveal what’s already there.
2. Trials reveal the existence of faith
Peter’s readers were suffering because they were Christians. They endured many things simply because of their faith. There is a sense in which all of us suffer because we live in a fallen world. But there are also elements of suffering that are particular and unique to those who are Christians. Persecution is a clear example of that. God’s loving discipline is another. Everyone suffers at some point in time. Christians are called to suffer in unique ways above and beyond that.
3. Trials Develop Humility
Suffering works to produce and develop humility in our lives. They cause us to realize that we are not in control and us that we can’t fix every challenge of life. We are God dependent. We learn to rely on God’s help through others. We are not “large and in charge.” We are reliant and desperate at best. Humility teaches us that we don’t have it all figured out and that our true significance comes from God alone.
4. Trials Produce Holiness
Whenever we suffer we are invited to take inventory of our lives. We pray the words of Psalm 139:23-24, and invite God to search our hearts to “point out anything that offends (Him).” Suffering will naturally incline our hearts to walk with God. He is holy, and those who walk with him will be holy. One of the biggest battles that rage in our lives is the battle of duplicity. Those trials we experience remind us that we cannot live with one foot in each world. We must be firmly planted in God’s kingdom with both feet.
5. Trials Increase our Faith
In verse 8, Peter continues,
Trials invite us to higher levels of faith. God allows us to undergo those painful experiences to prove that he is trustworthy. If we address our trials properly, God becomes larger in our lives, not smaller.
Paul deliberately requested that his thorn in the flesh be removed. With each request, Christ’s response was “no.” But with the denial came an explanation. The explanation was that his weakness magnified the power of Christ in his life. The NLT misses an important turn of a phrase in verse 9. For example, the NIV renders, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” The word rest literally means “made its home” or “tabernacled,” which helps us to understand the lasting nature of Christ’s power upon Paul’s life. Paul was given a thorn, but with the thorn came the grace of God which filled every broken part of his life.
Here’s the takeaway:“When I am weak, then I am strong.”
Weakness is like an Interstate superhighway that ushers the grace of God and the power of God into our lives. One of my favorite C.S. Lewis quotes is, “Our problem is not that we are too weak. Our problem is that we are too strong.” God uses our weakness so that he receives the glory for our lives. He makes us a sort of living paradox so that his power is magnified over our talents and abilities. Think about the paradox of Paul’s life. He is a sick miracle worker that cannot heal himself. He’s a visionary with bad eyes. He’s the spokesperson for the gospel in Asia with a speech impediment. God receives glory when he’s able to accomplish through us what no one else expects, even ourselves.
One of the important lessons of this wonderful text is that it reminds us to be open to the fact that the worst thing that happens to us produces the best things that happen in us and through us. That may mean that we have to quit looking at ourselves as victims, and instead anticipate the victories that God brings to us and through us that he could accomplish no other way.
When suffering strikes our lives our first response is usually to try to eliminate it. It’s quite natural. After all, who among us hasn’t dropped everything when we have obtained a splinter to find the tweezers and pull it out? Paul’s thorn in the flesh was certainly more substantial than a splinter in the finger. His response, though, was the same. He asked the Lord to remove it, not once, but three times.
Reading this verse reminds me of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. On the night before his crucifixion, Jesus asked the Father to remove the imminent suffering of the cross. He passionately asked the Father for the “cup to pass.”
Sometimes a person will ask me how they should pray when suffering invades their lives. I think it’s ok to ask God to remove it. Paul and Jesus certainly weren’t afraid to pray that direction. At the same time, we need to remember that ultimately it’s about God’s will, not ours. Nevertheless, it’s ok to ask.
“This boasting will do no good, but I must go on. I will reluctantly tell about visions and revelations from the Lord. I was caught up to the third heaven fourteen years ago. Whether I was in my body or out of my body, I don’t know—only God knows. Yes, only God knows whether I was in my body or outside my body. But I do know that I was caught up to paradise and heard things so astounding that they cannot be expressed in words, things no human is allowed to tell.” (NLT)
No one can say with confidence what experience Paul is referencing. The dating would have put it in the vicinity of 43 A.D. It seems that one logical possibility would have been his stoning in Lystra (cf. Acts 14:19-20). His testimony attested to being caught up into the third heaven. In Jewish cosmology, the first heaven was the abode of the birds; the second heaven was the abode of the stars; and the third heaven was the abode of God and his angels. His point is that he had greater reason to be prideful than his arrogant readers in Corinth. His visions and revelations were superior to theirs. Yet he was not going to boast in these things. He gave preference to boasting in his weakness instead (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:30). Why? In 12:6, he shares “I won’t do it, because I don’t want anyone to give me credit beyond what they can see in my life and hear in my message.”
So, to reduce or even eliminate pride in his life he received a thorn in the flesh. The word thorn is literally “stake,” similar to a stake that would be used to impale someone. This thorn (or stake) was described as a messenger from Satan that served two purposes. The first purpose was “to torment him.” The word torment means to “harass;” “fisticuff;” or “strike blows.” Every day the presence of the thorn created discomfort, as though someone repeatedly struck him in the face with their fist. The second purpose was to develop humility in his life.
So what was the thorn? Several suggestions have been offered by biblical writers. Among those suggestions are:
1. Paul had a physical ailment such as epilepsy.
2. Paul was physically short, or perhaps suffered from a speech impediment (1 Corinthians 2:1-5; 2 Corinthians 10:10).
3. Paul was prone to a particular temptation to sin.
4. Paul struggled under the heavy load of his work and the difficulty of the ministry (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
5. Paul had poor eyesight stemming from his experience in Acts 9 on the road to Damascus (Galatians 4:13-15; 6:11).
6. Paul’s thorn was not a physical challenge at all but rather an enemy that purposed to create pain in his life (2 Timothy 4:14-15).
The bottom line is that we don’t know what the thorn was. It’s a fun conversation. But it brings an important question: What is your nagging reminder to renounce pride and depend upon God? Could it be that the clearest indicator that something is wrong is that everything is right?
First, focus on what you affirm to be true about God. Those who know me are aware that I have a deep distaste for cliché Christianity and “pat answers.” I think those things should be categorically rejected. Neither can we praise mystery without restraint. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, Job struggled deeply, but his struggle was the struggle of a believer who clung tightly to his convictions about what he knew to be true of God.
Second, it is possible to serve God with a pure heart in the midst of suffering. It’s important to remember that suffering does not give you a hall pass on faith and the practice(s) of faith. You can and should live your faith to the best of your ability in spite of your circumstances.
Third, be aware that there are always bigger purposes at work in your life, whether you know it or not. Job endured his entire battery of suffering not knowing about God’s conversation with the accuser at the throne. We must realize that when suffering strikes home God is not being capricious or arbitrary. He’s not playing cosmic games with his creatures to alleviate his own boredom. At the same time, what you experience is not always about you. There are larger forces and purposes at work even though we may not see them as such.
Finally, any suffering helps us to identify more closely with Christ. If you lay the life of Job atop the life of Jesus you’ll quickly identify several interesting parallels. Both suffered greatly, both suffered innocently, and both understood the fickle nature of friends and followers. Ultimately, both Job and Jesus found help on this earth in the end. For Job, it was restoration, and for Jesus, it was resurrection. Never forget that suffering is the primary tool that God invests in your life to make you more like Jesus. In Paul’s quest for knowledge of Christ, he wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing his sufferings” (Philippians 3:10, NIV). The former does not come without the latter. That was true of Paul, and its true of us as well.
Observation One: Job insisted that his suffering was within the framework of the sovereignty of God. In chapter 2:10 he asks, “Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” Job is not certain as to what was happening to him, and even less certain as to why those things were happening. But he realized just the same that nothing could touch his life without God’s sanction. Behind the suffering stood Satan, and behind Satan stood God.
Observation Two: Job highlights the fact that there is such a thing as innocent suffering. Sometimes our suffering is the direct result of a particular sin or sins. But some suffering occurs that is not directly related to any sin. Suffering can be the result of human malice, negligent behavior, irresponsible governing, human selfishness, or natural disaster. All suffering is a consequence of the fall. But not all suffering is the direct retribution of particular sin. The whole point of the story is that Job was innocent. We insist on an economy where good people have good things happen to them and bad people have bad things happen to them. If bad things happen to you, you have done something wrong. Job is a blanket protest against this analysis of how things are in the world.
Observation Three: No matter how we prepare ourselves for the possibility of suffering, nothing can adequately prepare us for the actual shock of reality. It’s not unlike diving into an ice cold pool or stepping into a cold shower. In Job 3:25 Job said, “What I always feared has happened to me. What I dreaded has come true.” Job had already thought about these things. He knew it was not beyond possibility, and to that extent he was prepared. But awareness of the possibility or even the probability doesn’t decrease the pain.
Observation Four: Job doesn’t know at the beginning or the end the root of it all…God’s conversation with Satan. God’s intent was to prove that humans can love him, fear him, and pursue righteousness without any prompt material reward. Satan’s contention was that human’s pursuit of God was grounded in self interest, that humans are merely mercenaries, offering their devotion to the highest bidder.
Observation Five: Though his lament was loud and strong, at no point did Job abandon his faith. Why? He knew God was there and he believed God to be loving and just. Job struggled deeply, but his struggles were the struggles of a believer. God does not blame us if in our suffering we honestly vent our despair and confess our loss of hope, our sense of futility and our lamentations about life itself. But in the midst of his complaint lie deep confession. Job affirmed the right things about God’s character and nature.
Any time we discuss the problem of evil and suffering, we are going to face challenges. Those challenges are never more poignant than those times in which the particular suffering strikes us as irrational and unfair. How do we reconcile the lack of proportion between the depth of the suffering and the seeming innocence of those who are afflicted?
One of the benefits of studying the book of Job is that it affirms the innocence of Job. Please notice I didn’t say he was perfect. But on three occasions in the first 25 verses he is called “blameless and upright.” And that was God’s evaluation of his life! Whatever he endured in his suffering was not divine retribution.
Assuming you’re familiar with the story, I’ll skip re-telling the detail of the plot. Suffice it to say, Job had ten children and massive wealth. He was pious and devout to God. It was not pretense. He had his act together in every area that counts: his family, his finances, and his faith.
Unbeknownst to Job, there is a conversation at the throne of God. Satan’s accusation was that God’s followers follow him merely motivated by God’s blessings and protection. He argued that if the blessings and protection of God were removed, the followers would no longer follow.
Which leads to a strong question: Why do you follow God? Is it for the blessings and benefits? Or do you follow God because he is God?
“All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is by his great mercy that we have been born again, because God raised Jesus Christ from the dead. Now we live with great expectation, and we have a priceless inheritance—an inheritance that is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change or decay. And through your faith, God is protecting you by his power until you receive this salvation, which is ready to be revealed on the last day for all to see.” (1 Peter 1:3-5, NLT)
One of the rich doctrines of my Baptist tradition is the doctrine of eternal security. Or, as our folks like to call it “once saved, always saved.” This selection from 1 Peter is one of the great passages on eternal security. Peter uses wonderful imagery to describe the permanence of our salvation in Christ.
I think the most helpful point Peter makes is his affirmation that our salvation is kept by the power of God. Just as there is nothing one can do to attain salvation, there is nothing one can do to preserve salvation. That which is received by grace cannot be lost by works.
Peter’s statement reminds me of the words of Jesus in John 10:28-29, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me, for my Father has given them to me, and his is more powerful than anyone else. No one can snatch them from the Father’s hand” (NLT).
Good news, right?
This strong statement concerning eternal security is made in the context of suffering and is addressed to an audience that is suffering. So how does salvation and eternal security relate to suffering?
Salvation is my anchor when pain comes into my life. The suffering I experience is, in Paul’s words, “a light and momentary affliction.” Paul isn’t suggesting that what we suffer is easy. What he means is that what I face is not lasting, eternal, or ultimate. Salvation causes me to think about my suffering in an eternal dimension. It helps me to keep things in perspective. By securing salvation I have secured the most important thing of all.. It cannot be lost or taken from me. Peter begins his letter by writing about salvation and security. By doing so, he is encouraging his readers to view their suffering in light of their salvation and not to view their salvation in light of their suffering.
I’ve always enjoyed the book of 1 Peter. I remember preaching verse by verse through the book twenty years ago when I served a congregation in St. Louis. I’m sure I gave it my best effort, but clearly did not have enough miles on my odometer to appreciate the value of what Peter offered to his audience concerning suffering and hope.
I facilitate a men’s Bible study that meets in the early hours of Thursday mornings at a local supermarket restaurant. Over the next several months we’re going to do work on this marvelous New Testament book. It’s my desire to share some of my reflections on our study and conversation over bacon and eggs.
1 Peter begins with his salutation to a general audience that is scattered over (at least) 5 provinces. His intended readers are Jewish Christians that have been scattered across the region due to persecution that arose in Jerusalem (e.g. Acts 8:1-3). One of his purposes is to encourage the readers to faithfully live their lives as Christians even though they are undergoing suffering and persecution at the hands of those who are hostile to Christianity.
The NLT (I’m a fan!) describes these believers as “foreigners,” which they were in more ways than one. Literally, they were not citizens. They were not native or indigenous to the region they were living. Metaphorically, they simply didn’t belong. They didn’t fit in and were clearly out of place because of their faith. I like Joel Green’s thoughts at this point. In his commentary on 1 Peter, Green remarks, “1 Peter is written to folks who do not belong, who eke out their lives on the periphery of acceptable society, whose deepest loyalties and inclinations do not line up very well with what matters most in the world in which they live. This is not the sort of life that most people find attractive.” (Green, p. 18) For Peter’s audience, this exclusion would have extended to a person’s economics, family, religion, social structure and government.
Perhaps there are times when you feel like you don’t fit in because of your faith. While our government guarantees certain freedoms and protects our rights to worship, Christians can still face exclusion, even if only in social circles. If you have never felt out of place, then perhaps something is wrong!
Peter continues his salutation by referencing our great salvation. In our salvation he references the entire work of the Trinity: the Father who chose, the Spirit who makes holy, and the Son who cleanses by his blood. One may doubt whether or not Peter’s readers understood all of the implications of election, sanctification and justification. After all, we’ve been plumbing the depths of these concepts for 2,000 years. Suffice it to say, all of God was involved and is involved in saving all of me! Salvation has provided grace and peace, which frames Peter’s prayer request at the end of the verse.
Unlike Paul, Peter concludes his salutation with a brief prayer. He asks God to provide “more and more grace and peace.” Given the subject matter of the book, suffering, this is a curious request. It would seem natural and logical for his request to be more akin to God delivering these persecuted sufferers from persecution and suffering. He does not.
Grace and peace are at the front end of our Christian experience. But it’s also the stuff that composes our ongoing life with God. So what does this prayer request tell us about salvation and suffering?
First, my suffering may not be removed. Our obvious prayer is to alleviate or remove it altogether. But sometimes God’s sovereign providence allows us to continue in our pain and suffering. Grace and peace become the things that sustain us in the midst of what we are called to endure.
Second, as grace and peace have brought Christ into my life, grace and peace continue to bring Christ into my life in deeper and more meaningful ways. Suffering becomes a pathway which ushers more and more grace and peace into my life. Grace and peace strengthen my character and transform me into the likeness of Christ.