An Ethic That Prioritizes the Gospel

The gospel is more than just the good news that Jesus took the punishment for our sin, dying for sinners like us so that we may be saved.  The gospel is also the good news of what the punishment has been replaced with – the kingdom of heaven.  If the gospel is about a kingdom, our lives should reflect the values of our King and we should seek for others what our King would offer.

This post, another in the series on James 1:27 (“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world,”) is about that verse as an ethic that prioritizes the gospel over all other issues by looking briefly at the issue of slavery.

The period of the American Civil War was similar to modern times in its obsession over issues.  While its naïve and vastly simplified to say the North was anti-slavery and the South was pro-slavery, it is not entirely false either.  Those views were typical of many in each area.  Both sides had a high conviction in their cause, using the Bible to justify why their side needed to win, and at what costs.

Paul’s Concern Was for Individuals
Part of the reason for this confusion comes from the apostle Paul’s comments on slavery, which seem ambivalent to many on the actual issue of slavery.  One relevant passage is Ephesians 6:5-9, in which Paul writes:

Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free.  Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him.”

Verses like these were used to justify slavery during the American Civil War and at other times, by people claiming that Paul did not condemn it.  Since the War, others have said that Paul was cruel not to condemn slavery and a few even refuse to read Paul’s words in the Bible, claiming they have no authority because of this cruelty.  This topic goes way beyond what can be covered here, but the reason for Paul’s seeming ambivalence on the issue is that his focus was somewhere else: on the specific individuals involved in all aspects of slavery, including both masters and slaves.  He even addresses them directly and separately: “Bondservants” and “Masters.”  One group was to follow what was addressed to them, and the other group was to follow what was addressed to them.  Why did he take this approach?  Because people matter more than issues.

Having no power to end slavery, which still exists today, Paul did have influence and authority as an apostle to improve the lives of specific masters (who would have to justify their actions to God), and of specific slaves (who would have to do the same).  Paul knew the real question before him was: If slavery currently exists and I have no power to end it, should I do nothing to improve the condition of slaves until slavery is 100% abolished?  Should Paul have focused on ending slavery, or on improving the lives of people affected by it, and offering them a way to eternal life without slavery?  Paul knew God’s heart goes out to individual souls, and the issue of slavery would be eliminated in eternity.  However, many would condemn Paul for not going straight to an all-or-nothing, hyperbolic position we expect when talking about issues.  Also, it’s not necessarily an either/or, but a matter of priority and emphasis.

Some approach contentious issues like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger.[1]  These burdens take the form of ostracism, public humiliation, insistence on use of #hashtags and slogans, rude comments, and other means of hating others simply because those others don’t think the weight of all the issues in the entire world need to be on everyone’s shoulders.  But Paul presents a contrast to this.  He knew God called him to proclaim grace and peace to all people, in Jesus’ name.  Paul’s ministry saved many souls for an eternity where slavery is no longer an issue, and in the meantime, slavery still exists as an issue people mistreat each other over.  Yes, we should fight for peace and justice, but not at the expense of individuals, on either side.

D. A. Carson, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, said, “The overthrowing of slavery, then, is through the transformation of men and women by the gospel rather than through merely changing an economic system…In the final analysis, if you want lasting change, you’ve got to transform the hearts of human beings. And that was Jesus’ mission.”[2]

During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln said “My concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”  This should be our main concern as well.

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

To start the series on James 1:27 from the beginning, the first post is at this link.

[1] Matthew 23:4
[2] Strobel, Lee.  The Case for Christ (1998).  P. 168

Forgetting What Lies Behind

Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians from a Roman jail, to encourage them to continue forward in the faith.  In it, he wrote: “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made [Christs righteousness] my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”[1]

In Paul’s life, “what lies behind” includes overseeing the stoning of Stephen recorded in Acts 7:57-58, and “ravaging the church, and entering house after house, [dragging] off men and women and committ[ing] them to prison.”[2]  We all have different shameful things in our past, but God forgets them.  His purpose is to always make us more like Christ, even when we struggle to move forward.  The prize is worth it, therefore we “press on toward the goal,” even if our current situation is discouraging and seems hopeless. After all, Paul knew that even prison was temporary and God could wash away all the sins of his past, present, and future to make him righteous like Christ.

[This Rewind Wednesday post is revised from Dec 2021]

[1] Philippians 3:13-14
[2] Acts 8:3

Don’t Fear Jezebel’s Algorithm

Yesterday I re-posted a story of King Jehoiakim’s attempts to destroy the prophet Jeremiah’s words with fire, as recorded in Jeremiah 36:20-25 (which survived).  I decided to share it again based on two events: 1) a comment I saw on Facebook yesterday lamenting that owning a Bible could be made illegal, and 2) Facebook’s reminder to me in “Memories” that two years ago to the day I had posted this:

“To any religious person who is dismayed at “their side” being shut down by social media: Name one of Gods accomplishments that required Twitter or Facebook.  The Holy Spirit is the original (and best) social network. Listen to Him. Post to Him. Wait for Him. The Answer lies there. He remains online for eternity and He has a plan.”

Resistance to spreading God’s word is as old as time.  Consider the Old Testament story of Elijah, who prophesied during the reign of Israel’s evil king Ahab and his wife Jezebel.  According to Who’s Who in the Bible, “Jezebel devoted herself to bringing the worship of Baal and his consort Asherah to Israel. She employed 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophetesses of Asherah (1 Kings 18:19), and persecuted the prophets of the Lord, including Elijah (1 Kings 19:1-9).”[1]  Many prophets were killed.

Elijah despaired, as written in 1 Kings 19:10 – “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.

Apostles also struggled to stay strong, including Paul.  When he was frustrated at resistance and lack of progress in Corinth, “the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.”[2]

When Paul needed an example to encourage others to persist, he used Elijah’s story in Romans 11:2 – “God has not rejected his people whom he foreknew. Do you not know what the Scripture says of Elijah, how he appeals to God against Israel?  ‘Lord, they have killed your prophets, they have demolished your altars, and I alone am left, and they seek my life.’  But what is God’s reply to him? ‘I have kept for myself seven thousand men who have not bowed the knee to Baal.’”

Therefore, our hope is not in social networks where we can share God’s message, or in the benevolence of the programmers of algorithms that choose who sees what we post, or in the regulators and legislators who monitor the public square, or in the founding political documents that give us rights.  But:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
            and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
            giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
            it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
            and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” – Isaiah 55:10-11

Social networks, algorithms, regulators and government are not our enemy, but our enemy is the one who tries to convince us we need these things more than we need the God who made them and who made us all.  His word will accomplish its purpose, and we have Elijah’s and Paul’s words and actions as evidence.

God’s word withstands the fire.  Always.

[1] Gardner, Paul D., editor.  The Complete Who’s Who in the Bible.  (1995)
[2] Acts 18:9-10

We Will Not Live in Tents Forever

The apostle Paul was likely one of the finest Old Testament scholars of his day, and sometimes draws on existing imagery to make a point.  One example might be Proverbs 14:11-12, where the second verse is more widely known than the first, but not unrelated:

The house of the wicked will be destroyed,
            but the tent of the upright will flourish.
There is a way that seems right to a man,
            but its end is the way to death.

Physically, it seems obvious that a house is far more durable than a tent, but these Proverbs tell us not to judge by appearances.  Looks and reputation may suggest otherwise, but it is righteousness that determines eternal destiny, specifically acceptance of Jesus’ righteousness.

In 2 Corinthians 5:1-3, Paul gives an example of why we should focus not on what “seems right”, but instead focus on the unseen things that matter for eternity, drawing on the tent image:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.  For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked.”

Photo by Hendrik Morkel on Unsplash

Paul, defending his apostleship to the Corinthians amidst his suffering while other false apostles lived in ease, knew that an upright tent was better than a wicked house in God’s eyes, and therefore being less comfortable was entirely worth it, since there was an eternal reward waiting in heaven.

Commenting on 2 Corinthians 5, Warren Wiersbe notes that “Heaven was not simply a destination for Paul: it was a motivation.  Like the heroes of faith in Hebrews 11, he looked for the heavenly city and governed his life by eternal values.”[1]

When frustrated by your earthly limitations, or frustrated by discomfort in this world, know that we will not live in these tents forever.  For His faithful, God is preparing an eternal dwelling for us.  While it “seems right to a man” to think a house is better than a tent, every tent and house in this world is temporary.  Hebrews 1:12 says of all creation, the earth and all the heavens, that:

like a robe you will roll them up,
            like a garment they will be changed.
But you are the same,
            and your years will have no end.

Do we long for our new, eternal heavenly dwelling?  Does this longing motivate us to live for God?  Let us keep Driving Toward Morning today!

[1] Wiersbe, Warren.  Be Encouraged (2 Corinthians) (1994).  P. 69.

The Part of Us That Matters

The Apostle Paul wrote an amazing contrast in 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, which says:

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

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

On the one hand, there are things that are transient, described as: outer, wasting away, light, momentary, affliction, and seen.

On the other hand, what is eternal is: inner, being renewed, weighty, glorious, beyond all comparison, and unseen.

These things are part of each of us, but what is eternal matters infinitely more than the other. Don’t confuse the two, or you may lose heart because Paul earlier assured us in verse 14 that “he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence.”  At that time, only what is eternal will remain.


[Revised from a December 2021 post]