Monthly Archives: October 2013

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013 – Church in the Round

Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus,To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. - Philippians 1:1-2

Paul begins his letter to the Philippians by first identifying the sender and then the recipient in the customary letter-writing fashion of his day.  Strikingly unusual is the way Paul introduces himself and Timothy.  In other letters, such as Colossians, Paul introduces himself as “an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,” and then adds, “And Timothy our brother.” But to the Philippians, Paul simply claims that he and Timothy are together “servants of Christ Jesus,” or, as in some translations, “slaves of Christ Jesus.”

Throughout this letter, Paul makes no deference to positions of status or privilege among the People of God.  Instead he uses terms such as “slaves of Christ Jesus” and a “partnership in the Gospel.”  Such is the case not only in the way Paul identifies the sender of the letter but also in the way he identifies its recipient. 

Paul writes to “all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.”  At first glance Paul’s mention of two of the offices in the church appears to offer an exception to his view of a church of equals.  However, a closer look reveals that Paul mentions the leaders for the very purpose of discounting the distinctions.  Notice that both offices – bishops and deacons – are plural, not singular, which indicates that Paul is not referencing a specific individual or office.  In addition, the term bishop is better translated as in the NIV and New American Standard as “overseers,” and deacon means “one who serves.”  When all of this is put together, we find that Paul’s words may be recast, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus, who are in Philippi, including those who oversee and those who serve.” Paul envisions a church in which all persons who are in Christ are simply saints – holy people – including those who differentiate themselves as being over or below the others.

In her book Church in the RoundDr. Letty Russell, a professor at Yale Divinity School when I was there, challenges the institutional church to replace the status-ridden hierarchical structures, which she calls “Jacob’s Ladder,” with a church of equals, more in the image of “Sarah’s circle.”  As Paul addresses the saints in Philippi, with the authority of a slave of Christ, in the context of partners in the Gospel, he envisions a church of equals – a “church in the round.”

Lord Jesus, as your slaves, bought at a great price, may we advance the Gospel simply by expanding the circles of your grace and love.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Monday, October 28, 2013 – Partnership in the Gospel

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, thankful for your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. – Philippians 1:3-5

There is no book of the Bible which teems with expressions of praise, thanksgiving, and encouragement to the extent that we find in Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  “Whereas we meet an erudite Paul in Romans, a bombastic Paul in Galatians, a sometimes caustic Paul in 2 Corinthians and a sometimes baffling Paul in 1 Corinthians,” Dr. Gordon Fee writes in his commentary on Philippians, “Here we find a very personal and warm human being who pours out a heart of affection for his friends in Philippi.  In short,” Dr. Fee writes, “Many of us like Philippians because we like the Paul we meet here.”

In the four short chapters that make up this book, we find many Pauline treasures, such as

  • For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain – Philippians 1:21
  • Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ – Philippians 1:27
  • Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus… – Philippians 2:5
  • I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord – Philippians 3:8
  • I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus – Philippians 3:14
  • Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice – Philippians 4:4
  • I can do all things in him who strengthens me – Philippians 4:13

As we begin our study of Philippians, I invite you to come to know this remarkable letter, to allow Paul’s joy to infect your faith, and to join Paul in a “partnership in the gospel.”

I look forward to seeing you in Philippi!

Eternal Father, we thank you for the “partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now,” which serves as a powerful witness and encourages our faith.  Through your grace, may we too be counted in this grand partnership.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013 – Remember My Fetters; Grace Be with You

I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. Remember my fetters. Grace be with you. – Colossians 4:18

Paul concludes his letter to the Colossians in a fashion customary to the time by making personal greetings.  While the significance of many of the names which Paul lists are obscure, there are several points of great interest in this conclusion, including several instructions to pray for each other and for Paul’s work, to be wise in relating to those outside the congregation, to speak with grace and truth in all dealings, and to welcome Tychicus and Onesimus, who bring news and instruction from Paul.   It may have been they who brought Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

Tychicus was a frequent messenger of Paul.  We read of him representing Paul and perhaps delivering Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.  Onesimus was from Colossae.  We know him from the short Pauline letter Philemon, in which Paul appeals to Philemon to forgive his slave Onesimus for running away and to free Onesimus that he may be useful in spreading the Gospel.

Paul then lists several Jewish co-workers.  Paul says that they are “the only men of the circumcision among my fellow workers for the kingdom of God, and they have been a comfort to me” (v. 11).

Paul closes by mentioning a few others, presumably Gentile coworkers, including Epaphras, the person most believe established the church in Colossae, and Luke the beloved physician. In the little letter Philemon, which Paul also sent to Colossae, Paul calls Epaphras, “my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus.”  Luke appears in Acts as a fellow traveler with Paul, and he is identified as the author of both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.

Paul ends with an instruction to Archippus – and perhaps an instruction to the entire congregation, “See that you fulfill the ministry which you have received in the Lord” (v.17). This instruction continues to inform and inspire both individual Christians and congregations to this day.

Finally, Paul ends this epistle in an incredibly personal and profound way.  ”I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand.”  Such a statement is remarkable since it seems that Paul was hindered by poor vision and often used a scribe.  It may have been that only the final greeting was written by Paul himself.  We see the same words in 1 Corinthians 16:21, Galatians 6:11, 2 Thessalonians 3:17, and Philemon 1:19.  Then Paul asks one request and offers a final blessing. The two work together in contrasting and complementary ways to add power to everything Paul has written.

“Remember my fetters.”
“Grace be with you.”

Good Father, thank you for Paul and Tychicus and Onesimus and Epaphras and Luke and all the generations who lived and died in faith and courage and through whose witness I have come to know your message of grace and truth.  Count me, I pray, among the faithful that I too may advance the Gospel to your greater glory.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

 

 

 

 

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Tuesday, October 22, 2013 – Honoring God, Controlling Self

Wives, be subject to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and never treat them harshly. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is your acceptable duty in the Lord.  Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart. Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, not only while being watched and in order to please them, but wholeheartedly, fearing the Lord. Whatever your task, put yourselves into it, as done for the Lord and not for your masters, since you know that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward; you serve the Lord Christ. – Colossians 3:18-24

Paul has received a good bit of bad press for his household codes, and much of it is well deserved.  While Paul was aware of the revolutionary impact of the Gospel in the lives of believers, he did not extend his insights into how such a movement might transform traditional social and economic realities.

On the other hand, it has to be noted that Paul’s household instructions called for the highest level of honor and decency within the existing social structures of the time. There were many marriages which were not filled with submission and love, many families with strained relationships between parents and children, many unequal economic and social relationships which did not honor God.  Paul was encouraging the very highest expression of honor, duty, reverence, respect, and love in all relationships, and he recognized that the earthly distinctions of gender, social class, and status had no eternal significance, no value in God’s kingdom.

Paul’s codes, though somewhat offensive to our modern sensibilities offer a tremendously helpful insight.  One person has the power to change the household, to change the social structure, even to change the world simply by infusing actions with love.  Paul did not say, “Wives, when you are converted and your husband is not, nag the fire out of him until he comes to Jesus.”  Instead he said, “When you are converted and your husband is not, be subject to your husband, do not fight against him.”  He also told the husbands, “When you are converted, show your wife love and honor and respect, whether she is converted or not.”  And on it goes.  No words are so powerful as freely-given Christ-like love.

Paul’s instruction is that our transformed lives can transform relationships whether we are in positions of dominance or subservience simply by the authenticity of our compassion, the quality of our care, the depth of our love, the diligence of our work, the extent of our patience – all off it centered in and emerging from our relationship with Christ.  In other words, relate in love to your hard-nosed, bitter, over-bearing master (or boss) not because he or she deserves honor and love but because Christ does.  We do not have to wait until those about us deserve our love and honor, Christ deserves it, gives it, and empowers us to share it freely – even with those who are undeserving.

So, while Paul’s language sounds far from revolutionary when it comes to the household codes, responding with love and grace and honor in every relationship – even when it is unmerited – can change everything.

Lord Jesus, help me seek not so much to control others as simply to control myself.  Be glorified as I seek to live in and live out your love and grace, in such an authentic way that you are honored in every relationship in my life. Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Monday, October 21, 2013 – Do Everything in the Name of the Lord Jesus

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. – Colossians 3:16-17

Paul sums up his moral teaching to those in Christ with a series of simple admonitions.

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly.”  Paul is using the term “word of Christ” not to mean the Gospel or any particular scripture.  The New Testament would not have existed when this letter was written.  Paul here is speaking of the truth and spirit of Christ.  Notice that Paul is not prescribing a minimum requirement, the way a holiness code might. Instead, Paul’s simple invitation is for us to open our hearts to receive all that Christ affords.  This introductory word offers a strong reminder that all morality begins in our relationship with Christ Jesus.

“Teach and admonish one another in all wisdom.”  Paul envisions a Christian community in which each member encourages, builds up, and holds expectations of every other member of the community, that all may live in wisdom and true godliness.

“Sing songs and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”  Paul encourages the people of God to worship from the heart by offering praise and thanksgiving to God.  Such worship puts us in right relationship with God, and on-going personal and corporate worship nurtures that relationship.

“Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.”  The final teaching in morality which Paul offers is that  those in Christ are to honor and represent Jesus Christ in everything they say and everything they do.  Paul is encouraging us to recognize that in every relationship, in every transaction, in every conversation with every person, we represent the one we worship.  Instead of seeking to follow complicated rules and oppressive regulations, Paul simply admonishes us to honor Christ in all we do.  This is Paul’s final word on the subject, because nothing else ultimately matters.

Lord Jesus, thank you for claiming me as your own, for placing your word and wisdom within me.  Help me honor you both in my worship and in my daily walk.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Friday, October 18, 2013 – Casting Off and Putting On

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience, forbearing one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.    – Colossians 3:12-14

Having enumerated various vices which would have been common both to and among the Colossians, Paul reminds those in Christ that salvation is a casting off of the filthy rags of sinful nature and a putting on of robes of righteousness, reflective of a new nature in Christ. It is this casting off and putting on which transforms believers from their natural, divisive states – “Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian (the most savage and remote non-Greek), slave, (and) free” (Colossians 3:11) to being “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved.”

In these words, Paul casts a vision of community life from vice and division to virtue and love and peace.  No longer are the natural effects of sinful nature ruling those who are in Christ. Now instead of “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness” (Colossians 3:5) or “anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk,” (Colossians 3:8), there is “compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, and patience,” and “above all these… love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”

Paul is affirming that God’s mighty work of salvation is not simply saving souls from certain torment in a particularly personal way, but is rather transforming individual lives and entire communities from self-destruction and division to a new creation – the beloved community. Paul is laying bare God’s plan for world peace – not through political maneuverings with brute force and armaments, but through a mighty movement of compassion, kindness, lowliness, meekness, patience, and love,  in which “the peace of Christ” rules.  This kind of movement – this kind of peace – cannot be legislated.  It requires nothing short of a new creation, a casting off of our sinful, self-serving nature and a putting on of godly garments of goodness.

My Lord, let it be so with me!  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Thursday, October 17, 2013 – Things Above

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.  For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.  When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. – Colossians 3:2-4

Paul turns in his letter to the moral implications of salvation, and he begins by reaffirming that to be “in Christ,” is to crucify sinful human nature and to receive new life in the Spirit. This spiritual transaction brings a complete transformation in the believer – both inward and outward.  Those in Christ have a non-anxious confidence in God’s grace, a divinely enlightened world view, and a lifestyle shaped and molded by faith, hope, and love.

Christ-transformed lives exude a happy, elevated morality, as they are lived to the higher purposes of God, rather than to satisfy the base desires of human nature.  As Paul speaks of moral virtues later in this chapter, we may notice that there is nothing distinctively Christian about his list.  The same virtues are embraced by Judaism, by most other world religions, and by moral secularists.  What makes these virtues distinctive for the Christian is that they are not duty driven.  Whereas in other religions and philosophies, morality is codified and enforced, those in Christ find moral living to be a natural expression of a supernatural transformation.

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth,” Paul writes.  It is not merely behavior which is transformed for those in Christ, true change begins in the Christian’s thoughts, purposes, and passions.  While such a transformation is progressive rather than instantaneous, Paul instructs believers to focus on heavenly rather than earthly things, to live with elevated purpose and motive, and to allow God’s grace to continue its transforming work until God is fully glorified in his new creation.

God be in my head, and in my understanding;
God be in mine eyes, and in my looking;
God be in my mouth, and in my speaking;
God be in my heart, and in my thinking;
God be at mine end, and at my departing.
The Sarum Primer

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013 – Relationships not Rules

Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.  These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.  Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. – Colossians 2:16-19

It may surprise some readers to find that Paul cares little for religious rules.  In our passage today, he expresses no interest in “a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.”  Though Paul’s faith heritage strictly kept a religious calendar, which included weekly Sabbath worship, monthly new-moon celebrations, and annual festivals such as Passover and Yom Kippur, Paul does not place much value in these outward expressions of faith.  Nor does he care about the dietary regulations which accompany these and other religious observances.

It is not that Paul denounces these activities, but rather that he denounces the idea that attendance and participation in worship or ritual activity make someone righteous.  Paul, likewise, denounces those who seek to enforce such attendance requirements; those who require strict adherence to legalistic measures, such as those of drink and food and clothing; and those who either argue senseless points of doctrine or who insist on particular ecstatic worship experiences.  About it all, Paul writes, “Let no one pass judgment on you” and “let no one disqualify you,” which is to say, “let no one condemn you.”

Paul’s point is that the bean-counters who “pass judgment” act as though the only outward sign of faith is attendance in worship or somber and sober attitudes or plain attire or esoteric, irrelevant belief structures.  Paul is clear that righteousness does not come from any of these rules but rather from a relationship with Christ Jesus.  And the outward sign of a life in Christ is a truly transformed life, not mere adherence to ridiculous rules.

The bottom line is that when a life is emptied of self-serving motives and filled with God-glorifying desires through the grace of Jesus Christ, then that life reflects the glory of God. Such a transformed life claims a joyful faith, the outward signs of which are good, generous, loving expressions of kindness and care to others and of thanksgiving to God.  Those who are in Christ perform such acts not because they must but simply because they may.  Paul proclaims life in Christ is not about following rules but about nurturing relationships.

Lord Jesus, help me cast aside the meaningless trinkets of faith which I substitute for a life-transforming relationship with you.  Complete your work in me that I may live in you and reflect your glory and grace.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Tuesday, October 15, 2013 – Coming to Fullness of Life

For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority.  – Colossians 2:9-10

Paul responds to Christ-less philosophy by asserting that everyone and everything finds meaning in Christ.  How can that be?  Well, first, God is personally and fully revealed in and engaged in human history through Jesus Christ.  And, second, every rule and order is subject to the authority of Christ.  By staking these two claims, Paul seeks to show the folly of looking anywhere but in Christ for truth.

Paul asserts that it is not that Jesus Christ is simply godly or divine in some general sense, but rather that Jesus Christ is God in human, bodily form.  Such a claim explodes in our minds.  How can the eternal God, bound neither by time nor space, become a human participant in world history?  How can we make sense of the idea that the God of all creation could possible dwell among us in a single person?

Such is the mystery of the incarnation, and this mystery lies at the heart of the Christian faith.  The concept of Messiah to Paul is not merely a theological idea but rather an historical event, a real person.  In Jesus of Nazareth, God has fully revealed his truth and glory.  In this profound God-sized mystery humanity finds two powerful revelations:

  1. In Jesus Christ we find God’s perfect intention for every human being ever born.  Jesus Christ is the cornerstone and capstone of life, the perfect expression and ultimate destiny of God’s human creation – abundant, life-giving, gracious, and in complete harmonious union with the heavenly father.
  2. In Jesus Christ, we find God’s perfect offer of new life for all who surrender to his authority.  Paul is saying that in Christ Jesus, God’s grace is poured out on all who die to self and put their trust in him.  It is God’s grace which alone has the power to transform the believer, not just to be good and dutiful, but to become Christ-like.  Martin Luther wrote that God’s grace makes “little Christs” out of ordinary folks like you and me.  C. S. Lewis said, “Every Christian is to become a little Christ.  The whole purpose of becoming a Christian is simply nothing else” (Mere Christianity).

Paul’s assurance is that the Christian faith is no mere philosophy.  It is a violent spiritual revolution, founded, fueled, and finalized by Christ Jesus, through which we come to fullness of life.

Good Father, why do we seek the deep answers of life apart from Christ Jesus?  Give me faith to believe so fully that I may surrender all I am to become all you desire.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

Monday, October 14, 2013 – Christ Alone

See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ. – Colossians 2:8

Now that Paul has firmly established that Jesus Christ is the bedrock of faith, he warns the Colossians to hold fast to their faith and not to be led astray by fast-talking know-it-alls.  It seems in those days (and perhaps in our day too) that believers in Christ Jesus faced opposition on two sides.  On the one hand there were legalists, those who insisted that adherence to the law was essential to being in a relationship with God. On the other hand there were libertines, those who insisted that if Christ had indeed set us free from the effects of sin, then believers were free as well from any moral restraint.

Paul faced these same issues in the churches he planted, and he is writing to the church in Colossae to support Ephaphras, the presumed missionary to the Colossians and planter of the church, as he battled these doctrinal detractors.

The problem with both of these belief structures is they deny the power of Christ to transform.  Human nature remains unchecked in the view of the legalist and the libertine. The legalist offers a series of laws to restrain human nature, while the libertine simply invites followers to indulge in self-serving and hedonistic behavior.

Neither philosophy is acceptable to Paul, who writes in another letter, “ if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)  When it comes to legalism, Paul does not think that the law is evil, it is just insufficient.  It is designed to control sin, not defeat it.  When it comes to libertines, Paul acknowledges that true faith is not simply an elaborate morality code; however, he asserts that a new relationship with God through Christ Jesus, transforms desires from hedonistic pleasure to transcendent wonder.

The real problem with the legalist and libertine philosophies is that they offer cheap substitutes for new life in Christ.  In many ways they show the absolute need for Christ by all persons.  Seeking to control human nature through the law or to set it free through lawlessness will not lead to freedom, peace, joy, or fulfillment.  Fullness of life comes as we crucify our human nature and receive a new nature by putting trust in Christ alone.

Lord Jesus, there are many substitutes and imitations for faith, many of which sound tempting, and all of which offer nothing more than false promises.  Grant me wisdom that I may discern the truth and trust in you and you alone.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston