Monthly Archives: July 2015

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Friday, July 31, 2015 – Deadlines and Lifelines in Prophetic Standard Time

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; – Romans 13:11

“You know what time it is,” Paul writes.  In our post-industrialized culture, we are well aware of precisely what time it is.  That is, we are surrounded with calendars and clocks and and other time-telling mechanisms, which help keep us on schedule or remind us that we are running behind.  However, when Paul writes about time, he is not writing about the exact day or hour but about  an awareness of the ripeness of time, the fullness of time.  He is writing about what I like to call Prophetic Standard Time.  In fact, had someone responded to Paul by saying, “Yes, I know what time it is, it is 9:00 in the morning,” she would have missed Paul’s point entirely.

Paul’s understanding of time is less exact and more profound.  It is more like the farmer who knows, not from the calendar but from the angle of the sun, when it is time to plant.  It is like lovers who know that their relationship has matured to the point that it is time to talk about marriage.  It is like parents who know from the emotional and spiritual development of their child when it is time to back off and give a bit more freedom.

“You know what time it is….it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep,” Paul writes.  In addition to the prophetic sense of time, Paul is also using time to speak of urgency and importance.  One of the problems we often face in our over-scheduled lives is that not all of the important things in life are urgent, and not all of the urgent things in life are important.  Most time planning systems work by helping us distinguish between the things which are merely urgent and the things which are truly important.  I like to call this, distinguishing between deadlines and lifelines.  It is this wisdom which Paul offers – an awareness that eternal matters may not seem urgent, but they are of greatest importance.  In fact, they are only things that really matter.  They are lifelines in a deadline world.

“Salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers.”  Though it often goes unseen and unappreciated, God’s work is unfolding within and about us, bringing healing and wholeness, ushering in a kingdom of justice and peace, creating relationships of grace and mercy, and heralding truth which sheds light and offers life.  Paul’s message to you and me is the same one he wrote to the Christians in Rome, “Wake up, be alert, join in.  You don’t want to miss this!”

Lord, forgive me for rushing through life chasing deadlines which are urgent while neglecting the lifelines which are truly important.  Speak to my heart that I may not merely know  the day and the hour but perceive that this is the time for me to live fully and faithfully in your grace and truth.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Thursday, July 30, 2015 – Love, the Foundation and Fulfillment of the Law

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.  The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. – Romans 13:8-10

Paul writes that those in Christ are not to be debtors, that is, they are to “owe no one anything, except to love one another.”  When we are indebted to someone, that person has a claim on us, and we have an obligation to that person.  When we are indebted to someone, that person, at least in some measure, has control over us.  Our decisions, allegiances, and motives are affected by being in the position of debtor.  When we are indebted to someone, our relationship with that person is redefined by that obligation.  Paul warns the people of God not to allow debt to rule our lives, “Owe no one anything.”

“Except to love one another,” Paul interjects. Paul speaks of our only rightful obligation to anyone (and indeed to everyone) as being love.  Love makes a claim on us just as forcefully as debt does; love shapes our decisions, allegiances, and motives just as forcefully as debt does.  Love redefines our relationships with others just as forcefully as debt does.  Those who are in Christ recognize that love does not free us so much as it binds us.

Paul then brackets a listing of several of the Ten Commandments by saying that love is the fulfillment of the law.  By stating this teaching about love both before and after the commandments, Paul is affirming a timeless truth.  Love is both the foundation of the law and the fulfillment of it.

There are two primary loves – love of God and love of neighbor.  Love of God is referred to in scripture as righteousness, a right relationship with God.  We find this teaching to love God with all that we are and all that we have both in the Law of Moses (Deuteronomy 6:5) and in the Gospel record of Jesus’ teaching (Mark 12:29-30).  The law is built on this precept, as we can see in the first four commandments (Exodus 20:2-11).  In many ways, these commandments offer insight into our obligation to God.

  • Have no other gods before me.
  • Make no idols.
  • Offer no wrongful use of the Lord’s name.
  • Keep the Sabbath Day holy.

The second love which defines a Christian’s life is love of neighbor.  Love of neighbor as self is also found both in the Law of Moses (Leviticus 19:18) and in the Gospel record of Jesus’ teaching (Mark 12:31).  This love is expressed in two ways throughout scripture –  justice and mercy.  On a governmental level, love of neighbor is embodied through justice.  On a personal level, love of neighbor expresses itself in mercy.  The law is built to establish and preserve justice and to encourage mercy, as seen in the final six commandments, which focus on our relationships with others.  These commands begin with the most primary relationship of child to parent, of one generation to another, and extend outward.  These laws define our basic obligation to others.

  • Honor parents.
  • Do not murder.
  • Do not commit adultery.
  • Do not steal.
  • Do not bear false witness.
  • Do not covet.

There is a danger in seeking to codify love, for the law can be carried out apart from love.  It is possible to obey the law without fulfilling it, such as following the law not with love but with spite and resentment, even hatred.  It is also possible to break the law and still fulfill it, as Jesus did when he responded to the needs of people and healed them on the Sabbath Day.  His love for others overpowered the restrictions of the law.

The teaching is helpful – love creates an obligation to God and to others.  We are not free to do as we please when we love.  We are bound by our love to live in righteousness, justice, and mercy; and when we do that in love, we fulfill our obligation – we fulfill the law.

Lord, we love not because we must but because we may.  We love because you first loved us.  Perfect my love that my life may be defined by righteousness, justice, and mercy.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Wednesday, July 29, 2015 – Taxes, Revenue, Respect, Honor

For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing.  Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. – Romans 13:6-7

Paul continues his instruction to the fledgling church about relations with the state, and he turns his attention to an issue of contention both then and now – taxes.  Paul’s instruction in short, pay your taxes.

Of course not paying taxes was not a viable, sustainable option in Paul’s day, just as it is not in our day.  So Paul brings up this issue to offer a greater teaching, “Pay to all what is due them.” This teaching sounds reminiscent of Jesus’ instruction to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which is God’s” (Mark 12:17).  Paul lists several ways those in Christ are to “pay to all what is due them.”

“Taxes to whom taxes are due,” Paul begins, referring most likely to the direct property taxes and poll taxes which the inhabitants of conquered nations were required to pay to Rome.  As a Roman citizen, Paul would have been exempted from these direct taxes.  Many Jews resisted these taxes because they also had to pay the Temple tax; however, Paul recognized that submission to the governing authorities required paying “taxes to whom taxes are due.”

“Revenue to whom revenue is due,” Paul continues.  In the context of his argument, revenue most likely refers to the indirect taxes which Rome collected, such as sales taxes, tolls, and customs.  The resistance to the indirect taxes imposed by Rome grew so intense in Palestine that in 58 AD (roughly the time Paul wrote this letter) there was an organized tax revolt.  Paul would have none of it.  He recognized that the state had the right to impose such taxes on its inhabitants, and his instruction is clear for those in Christ to pay “revenue to whom revenue is due.”

“Respect to whom respect is due,” Paul continues, making a subtle shift. The call here is for followers of Christ Jesus to respect those in authority – respect their position, respect their customs, respect their claims.  Note that following Christ Jesus is not a call to disrespect anyone. How important it is for us to know that we can show respect to those with whom we disagree without compromising our own beliefs or diminishing our own witness.  Paul is clear that Christians do not need to fight every battle or settle the score of every disagreement. We can respect the authority, respect the laws, respect the leaders, respect the viewpoint, respect the opinion – even when we disagree. The call of Paul is for us to show “respect to whom respect is due.”

“Honor to whom honor is due,” Paul concludes.  While the first two items refer to the specific taxes which were imposed on the inhabitants of Palestine and the third instruction relates to the laws and customs of the political regime, the final instruction is more general, not limited it seems to the state or governing officials.  Though Peter writes, “Fear God; honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17), Paul seems to be using the final instruction as the climax, the break-away teaching which puts the other teachings in proper perspective and makes them palatable. Looking at the teaching from the perspective of this climax, we can understand that Paul is telling believers to pay the direct taxes and the indirect taxes to the state.  After all, it’s only money. Furthermore, show respect for the laws and customs of the land.  After all, we are only sojourners here.  But when it comes to honor, give honor only to those who are worthy of it.   Whom does Paul have in mind?  We don’t know for sure, but his writings include, “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17).  Certainly Paul would affirm that such worship would be giving “honor to whom honor is due.”

To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Saturday, July 25, 2015 – Governing Authorities

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.  Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.  For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. – Romans 13:1-4

Much of the initial excitement surrounding Jesus was from those persons who hoped that his movement might finally expel Rome from Palestine.  In other words, they saw Rome as the enemy and understood Jesus to be offering a new political reality, free from oppression.  But when Jesus spoke of ushering in a kingdom, his focus was not on politics at all.  Paul makes this point clear, as he not only refuses to denounce the Roman occupation of Palestine, but in fact calls for those in Christ to “be subject to the governing authorities.”

In his writing, Paul assures the Roman government that there is no reason to be suspect of the new faith movement, and he clarifies that those who are in Christ do not have a political agenda.   Moreover, Paul commends the order established and maintained by the governing authorities as being divinely guided.  In several of his letters Paul refers to a divine order, such as in 1 Corinthians, where Paul writes, “Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:3), and in Colossians, where Paul writes of Christ Jesus, “He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything” (Colossians 1:18).  The idea of a right ordering of things was an important concept to Paul, who affirmed, “God is a God not of disorder” (1 Corinthians 14:40).  From this perspective Paul writes that as governments establish order, they work in concert with God’s desire for order in his creation.  Paul then calls for the Christian community to view the secular government from that perspective, and he warns, “those who resist will incur judgment.”

Paul envisioned that the law would be nearly irrelevant to the people of God.  Most law, after all, whether it is political or ecclesiastical, is designed to control sin.  Those who are in Christ are being sanctified and are seeking to live above the minimal morality required by law.  For instance, not only do those in Christ not commit murder, as the law demands, they don’t even hate.  The law, therefore, and those who enforce it are not a threat to those in Christ.  Paul instructs the church, “rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.”

Paul does not differentiate between good and corrupt regimes or good and corrupt rulers.  Church tradition holds that Paul, himself, was martyred in Rome by the same governing authorities he commended as being “God’s servant for good.”  While the law offered Paul certain protections as a Roman citizen, it did not protect him or Christ Jesus from being savagely put to death in the name of maintaining order.

Good Father, the world often seems out of order, allowing evil persons to prosper while good people are harmed.  Bring a right ordering to my life, and empower me to join in your on-going work to create a good, just, and orderly world.  Amen.

Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Wednesday, July 22, 2015 – “Overcome Evil with Good”

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12: 19-21

Paul’s final word on dealing with adversaries is perhaps his most profound, “Overcome evil with good.”  In many ways this simple imperative expresses the purpose of God’s mighty work of redemption.  Paul instructs those who are in Christ to join God in this peace-making work and calls for them first to claim and then to embody the belief that good can overcome evil.  Such confidence is key to living out this command, for it requires both a long-view of things and a willingness to engage in counter-intuitive actions.

Paul places the teaching in the context of faith, as he announces that it is not up to us to avenge those who have wronged us or done evil.  Our knowledge is incomplete and our wisdom is incomplete, so we leave judgment to the one who is able to see the heart and judge with equity and truth.  As people who are in Christ, we can entrust to God the work of judging the righteous and the unrighteous.

Freed from those concerns, the community of faith can now respond to wrong-doers the way God has responded to us – with grace, compassion, and generosity.   By offering relief to our hungry or thirsty adversaries, we not only meet their basic needs, but also empower them to judge their own actions.  There is nothing more humbling than being the recipient of grace.  It has the impact of convicting the evildoer and opening wide the door for repentance and reconciliation.  In simple acts of grace, by giving people what they do not deserve, we join God’s great movement to “overcome evil with good.”

Lord, forgive me for spending my resources seeking to avenge those who have wronged me.  Fill me with your grace that I may join you in your world-changing work of overcoming evil with good.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015 – On Being High Minded

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. – Romans 12:17-18

Choose the high road, Paul instructs the church.  Don’t get down and dirty with those who do you wrong.  Paul’s teaching is simple and straight-forward.  We should not return evil for evil.  Notice that Paul offers no measure, so if someone has harmed us out of spite, we should not inflict harm in return; we should not speak evil words in return; we should not even think evil thoughts in return.  For us even to think evil of someone who harms us is to return evil for evil, and doing so opens the door to welcome anger and hatred into our lives.

Instead of following our natural instincts to respond in like manner when someone harms us; Paul encourages us to follow a supernatural inclination to “take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”  That is, we are instructed to be high-minded, to exemplify excellence, to do the surprisingly principled thing.

Paul knows that people may still mistreat and mistrust us even if we follow lofty principles and embody the highest ideals.  His instruction is that we should not give such people control over us; we should not abandon our high ideals and mirror their base actions.  Surely we know that we cannot control what others do, but we can control ourselves.  ”So far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

I am reminded in all of this of “The Paradoxical Commandments” by Kent M. Keith.  This simple writing has had a profound impact on the lives of many people, including Mother Teresa, according to sources who were close to her.  In many ways Dr. Keith advances Paul’s instruction to take the high road, to embody lofty standards, and to live peaceably with all.

The Paradoxical Commandments
by Dr. Kent M. Keith
  1. People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centered.
    Love them anyway.
  2. If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
    Do good anyway.
  3. If you are successful, you win false friends and true enemies.
    Succeed anyway.
  4. The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow.
    Do good anyway.
  5. Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
    Be honest and frank anyway.
  6. The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds.
    Think big anyway.
  7. People favor underdogs but follow only top dogs.
    Fight for a few underdogs anyway.
  8. What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight.
    Build anyway.
  9. People really need help but may attack you if you do help them.
    Help people anyway.
  10. Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
    Give the world the best you have anyway.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Monday, July 20, 2015 – Do This, Not That

Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. – Romans 12:16

Paul continues his instructions to the fledgling church with insights which are relevant in what is often called the “post-church world” today. In these final verses of chapter 12, Paul writes about Christlike ways to respond to adversaries.  His focus in this verse reveals the very best way to deal with adversaries – don’t make them.  Instead, “live in harmony with one another.”

Paul puts his finger on three causes of disharmony – haughtiness, feelings of superiority, and an unteachable spirit.  Paul warns those in Christ to weed their garden of such life-sapping vines, which produce the poison fruits of jealousy, envy, boastfulness, and self-satisfaction.  Paul offers both negative and positive instruction.  In this teaching, it’s a “do this, not that” type of correction.  He begins with a negative.

“Do not be haughty,” Paul writes.  There is no place in God’s kingdom for arrogance or self-aggrandizement.  Seeking to set yourself apart by claiming superiority to others or engaging in supercilious acts will only create destructive divisions.  When it comes to being haughty, Paul’s instruction: don’t do that.

Paul counters his negative instruction with a positive one.    Instead of being haughty, “associate with the lowly.”  Even if you could claim superiority to others in terms of intellect, ability, status, wealth, understanding, fame, or anything else, don’t allow your elevated status to be divisive, to narrow your circle of associates to include only those who are share your elite status.  Instead, use your elevated position to reach across divisions and to promote peace.   The lowly are not in a position to reach those of elevated status, but the elevated can reach lowly.  When it comes to associating with the lowly, Paul’s teaching: do this.

Finally, Paul warns, “Do not claim to be wiser than you are.”  What a powerful instruction this is!  Paul knows from personal experience that it is easy for people of faith to develop an unteachable spirit.  Biblical wisdom refers to a right ordering of things – an appreciation of the true value of things.  When we claim to be wiser than we are, we become a fool – our life is not rightly ordered; we are over-valuing ourselves.  This rigid spirit dishonors God, creates division, and fosters false feelings of self-satisfaction.  Those who are in Christ are being transformed into the very image of Christ.  A foolish, unteachable spirit makes that transformation impossible.  When it comes to claiming to be wiser than we are, Paul’s instruction: don’t do that.

Lord Jesus, help me always to be open to your wisdom, that I may not be a fool.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Wednesday, July 15, 2015 – Rejoicing and Weeping with Empathy

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. – Romans 12:15

If hospitality ranks as the single most-important aspect of Christian community, then empathy comes in a close second.  Empathy is not simply being concerned about another person or wishing the best for others.  Empathy runs far deeper.  The dictionary offers a technical definition: “The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another” (Dictionary.com).  Paul offers a less clinical and far more personal definition in his one-verse instruction, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

Perhaps we know empathy best from our experiences with  those we love deeply.  When our child is hurt, we feel every bit of the pain as parents.  When our dear friend receives good news, our joy matches theirs.  We can see from these common examples that empathy in itself is not necessarily a mark of faith.  However, what makes this teaching descriptive of those who are in Christ is its context.  Paul writes these words in the midst of his instructions on responding to adversaries.  It is a natural thing for us to empathize with our loved ones, but it is a distinctively supernatural thing for us to have such strong feelings of compassion for our adversaries.

Paul tells us that such empathy is not only possible, it is the standard for the Christian community.  It is a specific and personal way the people of God can change the world by breaking the adversarial cycle and offering peace.  It is not by getting even that peace breaks forth.  Nor is it by gloating or taking delight in the demise of another that goodwill emerges.  We invest in peace when extend the compassion of Christ to those who oppose us.

Jesus told a story about a person who happened upon an adversary who had been victimized by crime.  The man responded to the other’s needs in a variety of ways and cared for him until he was healthy again.  We know this man and this story as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).  The Samaritan is called good because he lived out not only the dictionary’s definition of empathy but also Paul’s instruction for the church.   The compassion he showed to the adversary was not forced out of duty, but motivated by love.  He simply followed his natural inclinations once he saw the victim not as a foe but as a friend.  Loving our neighbors as ourselves is often made manifest in our sense of fairness and our expressions of justice.  It is also powerfully expressed in the empathy we show to persons well beyond our circle of family and friends, as we “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.”

Lord, forgive me for the times I have compounded the problems of the world by harboring resentment toward adversaries.  Fill my heart with love, so that I am able to look upon even those who have harmed me with loving eyes and to respond to them with genuine empathy.  Amen.

A  Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston

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Tuesday, July 14, 2015 – Responding to Persecution with Blessings

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. – Romans 12:14

Paul shifts his focus from how Christians relate to those within the community of faith to the way those in Christ respond to their adversaries.  His teaching on this subject extends to the end of the chapter, but it is summed up in this one verse:  ”Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.”  Paul knows that the natural response is to act in like manner to anyone who hurts us.  Often we feel fully justified in discrediting our adversary by telling others about hurtful actions.  Paul’s instruction calls not for a natural response but for a supernatural one.  His teaching is for us to respond to hurtful actions not in like manner but in a Christlike manner instead.

This teaching would seem impossible were it coming from anyone other than Paul.  Paul had more than his share of adversaries.  It seems that everywhere Paul went he made enemies – Jew and Gentile alike.  Paul was public enemy number one to followers of Jesus Christ prior to joining their ranks.  After he began following Christ, the leaders of institutional Judaism sought to discredit and destroy him.  Even within the church, Paul faced adversaries on theological, ecclesiological, and personal levels.

In 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, Paul writes of the work of his adversaries, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”  Paul knew about adversaries; and while he occasionally defended himself in his letters against their attacks, he sought not to defeat them so much as to persuade them.  While he would debate with them from time to time, he ultimately knew that coming to faith in Christ was not a matter of debate.  Genuine, life-changing faith spreads more like a virus through personal contact and interaction.  And no strain of the virus is more contagious than when someone responds to adversaries with blessings.  After all, what better way is there to respond to an adversary than to make him a brother or to make her a sister?  The way to do that is to “bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them.”

Lord Jesus, I love to be loved, and I hate to be hated.  Deepen my faith, that I may seek to bless anyone who is my adversary, such that our animosity may subside and we may both become recipients of your grace and fellow heirs of your kingdom.  Amen.

A Bible study devotional by Gorman Houston