Labour of love

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1 Thessalonians 1:1-9

The Christian life is one of waiting and of working.

Advent puts us in mind of the waiting.  We look not only to Christ’s first coming, but ahead to His second coming, to judge the living and the dead.

Here is how Old Testament saints waited for that first coming:

“I wait for the LORD, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.  My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning:  I say, more than they that watch for the morning.  Let Israel hope in the LORD:  for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. 8 And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.”  (Psalm 130:5-8)

The long-awaited Lord did indeed come to redeem Israel from all their iniquities.  But His first coming does not do away with waiting.

Paul explains this in 1 Thessalonians chapter 1 (the passage from which our phrase originates).  He narrates the conversion story of the Thessalonians:

“Ye turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God; And to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come.”   (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10)

The Christian waits for Christ to come again.  We don’t wait nervously for ‘Judgement Day’, unsure of the outcome.  No, through His first coming Christ delivered us from the coming wrath.  We wait confidently as those who love Him and long to see Him face to face.

When I was engaged to my wife we were on opposite sides of the planet.  In fact our relationship was ‘long-distance’ for over a year.  But here’s what kept me faithful to her – and more than that, here’s what kept our long-distance relationship positively vibrant:  We were waiting for our wedding day.  And that expectancy shaped virtually every minute of our lives.  Simply waiting for this future rendered any notions of infidelity unthinkable.  Waiting was not an absence of activity.  It wasn’t a lack that needed filling.  It was not a nothing preceding a something.  It was a something of enormous substance.  Waiting in this sense is a tangible reality.

So it is with the Christian.  We wait to see Jesus.

But how do we wait?  Like the picture above?  Scanning the sky for signs of His coming?  Scouring the newspapers for clues to His advent?

We’re called to be on the welcoming committee, but many want to be in the planning group.  It’s something Jesus refuses to bring us in on.  Just before He ascended His followers wanted to get an eschatological timetable from Him:

“When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?  And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.  But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you:  and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”  (Acts 1:6-8)

They wanted to know times and seasons.  Jesus says ‘That’s not your job!  Your job is to be witnesses to the ends of the earth.’

We do not wait by worrying about when.  We wait by witnessing.

It’s interesting how Acts 1 continues.  Jesus ascends to heaven, the disciples are – understandably, you’d think – gazing into the heavens.  But angels appear to tell them to stop gawping at the skies (Acts 1:10-11).  The posture of the church, as we wait for Christ, is not stationary, faces heavenwards.  Instead our posture is shaped by Acts 1:8 – we’ve been given our marching orders and out we go – to the ends of the earth as witnesses of Christ.

And so in the same chapter that tells us of the Thessalonians “waiting for God’s Son from heaven” Paul also gives us this description of their current life:

“[We remember] without ceasing your work of faith, and labour of love, and patience of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  (1 Thessalonians 1:3)

Here again is Paul’s famous trio:  faith, hope and love.  Our faith looks back to Christ’s first coming and it inspires work.  Our hope looks forward to Christ’s second coming and brings patience.  And love is the atmosphere of our present lives – confident of the salvation Christ has won, and expectant of the cosmic redemption He will bring.  Now we are free from having to build our own identity or secure our own future.  Now we can love.  And this love will be a busy, active thing.  It is a “labour of love.”

We’re not working towards our vindication, our joy, our purpose in life. We’re working from that sure gift from Christ.  Therefore Christian work is a “labour of love.”

Are your Christian efforts “a labour of love”?  If they’re feeling more of a “millstone around your neck“, then these aren’t the kind of labours that will honour Jesus.  Let me suggest that you may have forgotten the other two elements of the trio.  Remember, we have a sure faith, grounded in Christ’s first coming.  And we have a certain hope, expectant of His second coming.  If you want to rekindle the love: look again to Christ this Advent – His faultless work for you and your expectant wait for Him.  A fresh vision of Jesus turns labour into “a labour of love.”

Bowels of mercy

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Colossians 3:1-17

Anyone who’s really loved (or feared) knows that the heart is not the only emotional organ.  Some of our greatest loves and our greatest fears are felt a little further south – in the guts!

So while we might be used to speaking of a sinking heart, the Scriptures are comfortable speaking of churning bowels!

Genesis 43:30 “And Joseph made haste; for his bowels did yearn upon his brother [Benjamin]”

Song of Solomon 5:4 “My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.”

Jeremiah 4:19 “[The LORD says] My bowels, my bowels!  I am pained at my very heart; my heart maketh a noise in me;”

Lamentations 1:20 “Behold, O LORD; for I am in distress:  my bowels are troubled”

We speak of gut-wrenching emotions.  The King James Bible, in faithfulness to the underlying Hebrew and Greek, just takes that language one step further.  And notice that all of these visceral reactions are right and good responses to the situation.  You might call them healthy bowel movements.  On the other hand, a lack of compassion is considered to be a nasty bowel complaint.  So to the loveless Corinthians Paul writes:

“ye are straitened in your own bowels.”  (2 Corinthians 6:12)

And John describes a loveless Christian who has “shutteth up his bowels of compassion.”  (1 John 3:17).

Therefore there is great need for our sluggish bowels to be “refreshed.” Apparently Philemon was particularly good at this:

“For we have great joy and consolation in thy love, because the bowels of the saints are refreshed by thee, brother.”   (Philemon 1:7)

“Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord:  refresh my bowels in the Lord.”  (Philemon 1:20)

What would it mean to be refreshed in this way?  Well Paul speaks of a change that has already happened to the Christian.  It’s foundational to our emotional renewal.

“Put on therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, longsuffering;”  (Colossians 3:12)

The Christian is elect of God (that is, chosen – choice in the Father’s eyes). The Christian is holy (that is, special – set apart as His own).  The Christian is beloved (that is, a child of the King and dearly loved).

Notice in all these things that Christians are what Christ is.  Christ is the original and eternal Elect One.  Christ is the original and eternal Holy One.  Christ is the original and eternal Beloved Son.  And, by faith, we come to share in His status and life.

Therefore, says Paul, since we are such a people, let us put on His bowels of mercies.  Here is one more way we will share in Christ’s life – to share in His stomach-churning love.  You see it is Christ who loves with a visceral, gut-wrenching passion.

Let me explain.  There is a verb form of the Greek word for “bowels”.  It means, most basically, to be moved in ones bowels, but the KJV translates it more idiomatically as “moved with compassion.”  This word is used only in the Gospels and only to describe the emotional life of Jesus.

Matthew 9:36 “But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion on them…”

Matthew 14:14 “And Jesus went forth, and saw a great multitude, and was moved with compassion toward them…”

Matthew 15:32 “Then Jesus called his disciples unto him, and said, I have compassion on the multitude…”

Matthew 20:34 “So Jesus had compassion on [the two blind men], and touched their eyes…”

Mark 1:41 “And Jesus, moved with compassion, put forth his hand, and touched [the leper]…”

Luke 7:13 “And when the Lord saw [the widow], he had compassion on her…”

In addition to these Gospel accounts there are three characters in Christ’s parables that are said to be moved with compassion:  The King of the Unmerciful Servant, The Good Samaritan and The Father of the Prodigal Son.  We’ve seen previously how each of these are a pictures of Christ Himself.  It is Christ’s character to be moved with pity in His innermost parts.  Churned up inside.  Profoundly stirred towards mercy and love.

And not only does Christ share with us His standing before the Father, He shares with us His “bowels of mercies.”  When we love our brothers and sisters we are participating in Christ’s love for them.  We are “moved with compassion” in the name of Jesus.  That’s why Paul is able to say that he longs after the Philippians “in the bowels of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:8)  Paul loves with the very love of Jesus.

So please don’t think me rude, I’m only being biblical, but how are your bowel movements?  You know what I mean.  Are your bowels of mercies straitened and shut up?  Or are you moved with compassion?

Return to the Lord Jesus by faith.  See His compassion – perhaps read one of the Gospel stories from the quotes above. Allow yourself to be moved once again.  As a chosen, holy and beloved child of God, Christ’s compassion is yours.

Passeth all understanding

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Philippians 3:1-4:9

We can often feel besieged by worries.  Demands seem to threaten us from every side.  We dare not step out into our calling lest we be crushed by pressures too great for us.

Some of us respond by shutting down.  “There is a lion without, I shall be slain in the streets” we cry, bolting the door against such dangers (Proverbs 22:13).  Others of us raise a war cry and run into battle, confident of our own powers.  Paul has a different approach.

He says “Be careful for nothing.”

In the Greek, it’s the exact same phrase as Jesus’ repeated command of Matthew 6: “Take no thought”.  It means “Don’t have many and divided thoughts.”  Easier said than done.  When we’re besieged by worries our minds run in a thousand directions at once.  But Paul (and Jesus) counsel us to stop: “Be careful for nothing.”  It’s an all-embracing negative.  And it’s followed by an all-inclusive positive:

“In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.”

Paul doesn’t tell us to squash our many fears.  Instead he invites us to view them as “requests”.  Did you realise that all of your worries are actually requests?  Requests which so often go unexpressed.  Requests which God Himself is eager to hear.

What does this assume about ourselves and about God?

First, it assumes that we’re not very good at discerning our many desires… let alone expressing them… let alone addressing them to God.  But, second, it assumes that we have a God who is intimately concerned for our many troubles.  As the Lord’s Prayer teaches us, we have a Father who is not only interested in His kingdom coming but also in our daily bread.

Therefore, of course we pray “with thanksgiving.”  We are grateful for a Father so kind and so powerful that He attends to our every supplication.

The little phrase “with thanksgiving” is so easily forgotten.  But there can be no peace if we simply bring our shopping lists to God.  Without an awareness of the grace of our Father and an attendant gratitude, all our petitioning is liable to heighten our fears, not allay them.  But with faith in a generous Father, Paul attaches this promise to our prayers…

“the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.”

Here is something unknown to the world.  Not just stress management but a peace that “passeth all understanding.”  No mere trick of the mind can deliver what Paul offers here.  There can be no earthly explanation of this peace.  It’s beyond our wit and wisdom.  Because this is a peace that wages war on our fears.

What do I mean?  Well the word for “keep” is very strong.  Paul uses it in two other places.  In 2 Corinthians he uses it to describe a garrison of soldiers guarding a city (2 Corinthians 11:32).  In Galatians 3, he speaks of the saints of old “shut up” under the Mosaic law (Galatians 3:23).  It’s a word that means “hold prisoner” or “besiege.”

So this is the reversal of our fears.  Right now you may feel besieged by worries. But there is a cavalry.  There is a greater force to call on.  ”Through Christ Jesus” you have perfect access to a generous Father.  So then, turn your problems to prayers and know: it’s His peace that besieges you.


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Philippians 2:1-30

William Tyndale gave us the word, “likeminded”, but what gives us the reality?

On the internet it’s easy to find “people like us”.  No matter how specialist our interests might be, the online world is so large, any subgroup at all can find “likeminded” members.

But what about in the local church?  What about in face to face community where people of all ages, races and cultures are called together by the Spirit?  How can we find unity there?

That was a big concern for Paul in his letter to the Philippians.  There were high profile spats within the congregation and it was affecting the witness of the church.  Therefore Paul urges these Christians:

“… be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.  Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.”  (Philippians 2:2-3)

Notice how important singleness of mind is to Paul.  But how will it come about?

Well the answer, as always, is in Jesus.  Paul writes in verse 5:

“Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:”

The mind we are to be like is Christ’s.  And what is the mind of Christ? Well in the following verses, Paul either writes or quotes from a stunning hymn that reveals the eternal thought-life of the Son of God:

“Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:  But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:  And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.”  (Philippians 2:6-8)

You and I did not choose to be born.  The eternal Christ did!  He made up His mind to take flesh.  This is incredible.  Because if I ever did have the choice to be born, I would not have chosen what Jesus chose.  If I was in the form of God, surrounded by the worship of heaven, in the direct presence of my Father, I would not have chosen the birth, life and death which the Son of God determined for Himself.   Jesus chose a life of “no reputation”, of service (slavery even), humility, obedience and death – even the godforsaken death of the cross.

When we see the baby in the manger, it’s like watching a man falling.  He has come from the highest heights.  And on Christmas morning we see Him heading down, down, down, from heaven to earth, and eventually to hell on that cross.

And all of this happens because Jesus made up His mind to serve. Being in the form of God He has a mind to serve.  And – this is crucial to understand – such service was not a departure from the divine glory, it is the very expression of it.  The true Godness of God is shown when Christ climbs down off the throne and pours Himself out as a servant.  Wriggling in the manger, writhing on the cross – there is the expression of true deity.  And when the Father sees His Son pouring Himself out in service…

“Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:  That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”  (Philippians 2:9-11)

Because of the crib and the cross, therefore the Father says “Have the crown!”  What is crowned is the self-emptying love of the crib and the cross.  The Father vindicates suffering love as the true display of divine glory.  He vindicates the suffering Servant as the true LORD of heaven and earth.

And one day everyone will bow the knee to Jesus, the LORD.  They will do so because He poured out His life to death.

“Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour, and glory, and blessing.” (Revelation 5:12)

One day the whole world will recognise what the Father has declared in exalting Jesus to His right hand:  The sacrificial Servant is LORD.  Humble, self-abandoning love is enthroned as the very heart-beat of deity.  The mind of the Servant is the mind of God.

And so Paul says:  “Be likeminded… let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.”  (Philippians 2:2,5)

We are a fractious bunch, we humans.  But here’s the solution.  The Christian has their thinking completely reoriented by the mind of Christ.  Humility is greatness, service is glory,  but sacrifice is divine.  When we really think like that we will esteem each other better than ourselves.

You see the saying from today’s picture is wrong.  Or at least it needs recalibrating by the gospel of Christ.  But the reality is this:  Humble minds think alike.

Let not the sun go down upon your wrath

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Ephesians 4:1-32

In his wonderful book on Ephesians, Watchman Nee observes that the letter can be divided into three movements:  “Sit, Walk, Stand.”

We are seated in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. (Eph 2:6)

We then walk worthy of our calling in Christ. (Eph 4:1)

And we stand against the assaults of the evil one. (Eph 6:10-17)

The order is important.  First we learn our true position in Christ – raised, forgiven, adopted, beloved and inheriting the cosmos.  Then we learn how to walk out into the world on that basis.  Finally we learn how to stand against Satan’s attacks, knowing that we already hold the high ground.

As far as Nee was concerned, all our problems in the Christian life stem from a failure to appreciate our seatedness.  When we try to walk before we have sat, we fall down!  We imagine that Christianity consists of performing certain duties or cultivating certain characteristics.  Yet our new life really has been given to us in Jesus.

Thus, as he turns from “Sit” (Ephesians 1-3) to “Walk” (Ephesians 4-5) Nee makes this comment:

“God has given us Christ.  There is nothing now for us to receive outside of Him.  The Holy Spirit has been sent to produce what is of Christ in us; not to produce anything that is apart from or outside of Him…We have been accustomed to look upon holiness as a virtue, upon humility as a grace, upon love as a gift to be sought from God.  But the Christ of God is Himself everything that we shall ever need… Our life is the life of Christ, mediated in us by the indwelling Holy Spirit Himself.”

Given that this is so, the very first area of our “walk” which Paul addresses is the realm of “words” (Ephesians 4:1-25).  In the word, Christ is given to us again by the Spirit.  Therefore the body of Christ is a word-full body.  We are forever returning to the gospel word to tell us of our true position – seated at God’s right hand.  In spite of all worldly evidence to the contrary, we walk by faith not by sight.  In other words, we “walk” by the “word”.  Thus we are constantly “speaking the truth in love [that we] may grow up into him in all things.” (Ephesians 4:15)

As Paul considers this, he raises the issue of words that go wrong.  In verse 29 he will talk about “corrupt communication.”  In verse 31 he exhorts us to put away “evil speaking”.  But in verse 26 he writes our fascinating little verse:

“Be ye angry, and sin not:  let not the sun go down upon your wrath.”  (Ephesians 4:26)

Paul is aware that anger is a reality in our daily communication.  If we’re not tempted to daily anger, perhaps we are not walking with our brothers and sisters in close enough communion!

Anger arises when our desires are thwarted (James 4:1-3).  Most often our desires are inappropriate, but sometimes our desires are good and proper and therefore their frustration involves a righteous anger.  In such situations we are to “be angry and not sin.”  The anger is not to be suppressed but addressed.  And addressed quickly.

In the Bible, days end at sunset because each day is a microcosm (a little world).  Each day begins in darkness (at dusk), but the light triumphs over the darkness.  If that is the story of the world, then it must be the story of our lives.  Darkness must not have the last word in our relationships.  We must end with the light of grace and reconciliation.

Therefore Paul exhorts us to sort out our quarrels before the day is out. In this way we will be imitators of God.  His final word to the world is not wrath but mercy.  Notice how Paul grounds all our human acts of reconciliation in God’s great reconciliation in Christ.

“Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.  Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us.”  (Ephesians 4:32-5:2)

Sit in that truth – Christ has loved us and given Himself for us.  We are at peace with the living God, though it cost Him everything to secure it. Now walk by that light.

Are there people you need to reconcile with?  “Let not the sun go down upon your wrath.”

The unsearchable riches of Christ


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Ephesians 3:1-21

What is the message of Christianity for the world?  If you could boil it down, what is the proclamation of the church?  Paul has a wonderful summary in Ephesians 3:8.

John Wycliffe translated it:  “the vnserchable richessis of Crist”.

William Tyndale put it as:  “the unsearchable ryches of Christ.”

And, in that tradition, the King James Bible rendered the verse like this:

“Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.”

This is the subject of Paul’s preaching: “Christ’s riches.”

He uses the word “riches” six times in Ephesians (1:7,18; 2:4,7; 3:8,16). It’s the word that describes Abraham’s wealth (Genesis 13:2), and Solomon’s (1 Kings 3:13), and ‘the rich man’s’ (Mark 10:25).  Yet Christ’s abundance far surpasses these “rich men.”  It is “unsearchable.”

How do we feel about the super-rich?  Envy?  Contempt?  Fear?  Well Christ has “unsearchable riches”.  He’s not just “the 1%,” He’s the 0.000000000000001%.  What do we feel about His fabulous wealth?

Actually Paul feels brim full of joy and gratitude.  Because these riches are riches of grace and mercy.  Christ is not only stinking rich, He is a profligate philanthropist, as we shall see.

Let’s trace through Paul’s use of “riches” in Ephesians.

We begin before the foundation of the world with Christ, the Father’s heavenly storehouse (Ephesians 1:3).  From eternity He commits all things into the Son’s hands (John 3:35).  The nations are His inheritance (Psalm 2:8).  The whole creation is a love gift for Him (Colossians 1:15-16).  Christ has unsearchable riches because He is the Father’s Firstborn, the Heir Apparent, the Beloved Son.  But just as these riches flow from Father to Son, so they overflow from Christ to the world.  Such riches are a super-abundance of divine love and generosity, and so…

“God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, (by grace ye are saved).”  (Ephesians 2:4-5)

God’s riches are riches of mercy. And they are lavished on we, the dirt poor.  We weren’t just “in the gutter” we had “bitten the dust” – dead in sins.  Yet the Father’s fabulous wealth is employed in raising us up with Christ.  This wealth is expended in a costly “redemption”…

“In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace; Wherein he hath abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence;” (Ephesians 1:7-8)

These divine riches are not drawn down without cost.  The astonishing mercy of Christ is purchased with His own blood.  Yet, in His grace, He pays this ultimate price for our freedom and forgiveness.

Now we stand as witnesses to heaven and earth of our generous Father:

“God hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus:  That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus.”  (Ephesians 2:6-7)

God is rich and will be known as rich.

But perhaps you don’t feel able to appreciate this wealth.  Maybe you’re not feeling the benefits of this incredible union with Christ?  Well God’s riches don’t just bestow grace, they also enable you to appreciate such grace:

“[I pray that the Father] would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.” (Ephesians 3:16-17)

Here is a wonderful truth:  God even has riches that awaken us to the riches that He’s already bestowed!  Talk about grace upon grace.

So God’s present riches make us appreciate His past riches.  But, more than this, Paul prays we would know His future riches too…

“[I pray] that ye may know… the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints.”  (Ephesians 1:18)

What a day of sumptuous opulence!  What overwhelming prosperity we will enjoy when we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ of the whole cosmos.  To cap it all off, that day will be the day that the Lord inherits us, His saints.  How incredible – the riches that will flow when Christ returns!

What can we do in the meantime except…

“…to preach among the nations the unsearchable riches of Christ.”  (Ephesians 3:8)

Christ is the storehouse of the Father’s overflowing bounty.  We are beggars, more than destitute in our sins.  Yet, through Christ, we have been adopted as heirs into that eternal royal Family.

We call on an “Abba, Father” who is mind-blowingly rich and who, literally, loves us to death!  Does that change the way you approach your day today?

Maybe your earthly father had short arms and deep pockets.  Or long arms and shallow pockets.  Or crossed arms and closed pockets.

Your Father in heaven is different.  In Jesus we have come to a Father who is both super-wealthy and over-flowingly kind.  So rejoice in your generous God.  And preach to the world “the unsearchable riches of Christ.”

A man reaps what he sows

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Galatians 6:1-18

The saying is instantly recognisable as religious.  Even if few people know where it comes from, most will assume it’s biblical.  And they’ll assume that they know what it means.

It’s about cause and effect right?  It’s saying:  ‘What goes around, comes around.’  ‘If you play with fire, you’re going to get burned.’  ‘Everyone gets what they deserve.’

Perhaps we think it’s the Bible’s version of Karma – a conditional, performance-based spirituality where the books will all balance and justice will have the last word.  Therefore, Look out sinners – a man reaps what he sows.

But actually Paul’s letter to the Galatians (from which our phrase comes) radically subverts this way of thinking.

He begins the letter by pronouncing a deadly anathema on anyone who denies or perverts the gospel of grace (Galatians 1:6-9).  Even the Apostle Peter gets a blast from Paul when he forgets the truth of our gracious justification (Galatians 2:11-21).  Paul is at pains to show that true righteousness has never been won by moral obedience but only by faith alone (Galatians 3-4).  It is Christ who earns our salvation through His life, death and resurrection – not us.  We are incapable of producing the life of God.  The “flesh” we have inherited from Adam (our old nature) cannot work righteousness – though it constantly tries to do so.  One of the characteristics of the “flesh” is its desire to self-justify.  The flesh loves to live under the law in order to boast in its moral abilities.  But no, Christ works righteousness for us, without any assistance from us.  Then, wonderfully, we are “clothed in Christ” as the Spirit unites us to Him (Galatians 3:26-4:7).

Therefore a Christian is someone who has their flesh from Adam, but their Spirit from Christ.  While the flesh produces Adam-like sin and death, the Spirit bears Christ-like fruit in our lives (Galatians 5).

Therefore Paul exhorts us to live in accordance with the truth.  We ought to walk by the Spirit and not by the flesh.  That is, we ought to dwell on Christ’s performance and not our own.  We ought to be about Christ’s doing and not our own.

In that context we come to our verse for today:

Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.  For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.”  (Galatians 6:7-8)

It turns out that Paul isn’t affirming a Christian Karma after all.  Actually he’s speaking against it.  You see the way of the flesh is the way of earning, performance and self-glorification.  But Paul says – that is a perishing path.  To invest in that is to invest in corruption itself.  There is an organic union between flesh and death.  To sow on this soil reaps exactly what you’d expect.

Yet there is another kind of life.  And it’s not life ‘under the law.’  It’s not about getting your just deserts.  The way of the Spirit is the way of grace. He is always bringing us the things of Christ (John 16:15).  To ‘sow’ to the Spirit is to invest in the gospel word and live by this truth from beyond ourselves.  So, again, there is an organic union, this time between the Spirit and life.  There’s no sense of reward or earning here, it’s just natural that dwelling in Christ and He in us will bear good fruit.

A man indeed reaps what he sows.  But this is not the law of ‘just deserts’, this is the truth of undeserved mercy.  Stop sowing to the way of Adam, the way of flesh, the way of boasting, the way of performance, the way of law.  That life is over for you.  Only corruption can be reaped there. Instead, allow the Spirit draw you into the unshakeable love of the Father and Son:

“God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.”  (Galatians 4:6)

This is the truth of our position – filled with the Spirit, united to the Son, calling on the Father.  Receive that sure reality by faith and you are sowing on very fertile ground.


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Galatians 1:1-10; 2:11-21

What do we consider beyond the pale?  What behaviour or what belief is out of bounds? How does a group or individual prove themselves to be completely unacceptable?

In this context we might say that so and so or such and such is “anathema.”

It might be as trivial as the way a Mac user considers PCs.  It might be as serious as the way a pacifist considers torture.  But they will label these things “anathema.”

It’s an untranslated Greek word which literally means, ‘something that is placed or set up.’  In some circumstances it means a gift – perhaps a sacrificial offering.  But in other contexts it means something set apart as cursed.  That’s the meaning it has for us today.

So what do you consider to be “anathema”?  What would you guess is the King James Bible’s one great “anathema”?

Perhaps we immediately think of behaviours.  Perhaps we immediately think of certain heretical doctrines?  What is it that the Bible rules out of court so emphatically?

Well look at how the Apostle Paul uses the term:

“If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema. Maranatha.”  (1 Corinthians 16:22)

Here are two untranslated words – “Anathema” is Greek, “Maranatha” is Aramaic (it means “Come O Lord”).  Between them we see the depths and the heights of his feelings regarding Christ.  Paul can think of no greater blasphemy than a loveless heart towards Jesus.  And he can think of no greater comfort than the second coming of this Lord who he loves.

When the Lord Jesus does come again, there will be one issue which faces the world.  None of our many sins will be held against us (2 Corinthians 5:19).  We won’t be able to hide behind our goodness or our badness.  It’s Christ Himself who confronts us and the only question will be “Do you have love for Him who has loved you so extravagantly?”

If we have no love for Jesus we are anathema!  The universe was created by Jesus and for Jesus (Colossians 1:16).  If we too are not for Jesus we are completely out of place.  We are violating the very nature of reality.  We are cutting against the grain of the cosmos.  We do not belong.  We are anathema.  What place can there be at the Bridegroom’s feast for those who do not love the Bridegroom?

This is the one anathema of the King James Bible.  (The Greek word is used elsewhere, but here is the only place the Authorised Version leaves it untranslated).  Yet the great anathema does not regard bad behaviour or bad belief but a bad heart towards the Lord Jesus.  This is the issue for that day when the Lord returns.  But it’s also the issue for this day.

We can make life very complicated.  Right now, dozens of priorities will be jostling for precedence in your heart.  But Paul wants to simplify things for us.  Before all else, look to Christ.  Before you look to your deeds or your creeds, it’s the receiving of Christ Himself that matters.  Know in your heart that Jesus has loved you and given Himself for you (Galatians 2:20). His posture towards you is arms-wide-open.  Do you have love for the Lord Jesus Christ?  Look to Him again, today and every day.  Such a look to Jesus is the very stuff of life, now and forever.

A thorn in my flesh

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2 Corinthians 12:1-21

Difficult people, chronic illness, vocal opposition, disability, bureaucrats in your way – all sorts of long-term problems might be called “a thorn in your flesh.”

Ever since the curse was pronounced in Eden, thorns have tormented us:

“Cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life; Thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee.”  (Genesis 3:17-18)

Notice that the thorns are “to thee.”  Like razor wire pointed at man, the thorns are directed at us.  They are designed to make life painful for us. The world is rigged for frustration and the thorns press into our flesh.

In particular, “thorns in your side” is an Old Testament euphemism for foreign enemies (e.g. Numbers 33:55; Judges 2:3).  Israel sits among  the surrounding nations like a lily among thorns (Song 2:2).  True prophets of the LORD are not to be put off by the thorns that encompass them (Ezekiel 2:6), they must continue to hold out the word of the LORD.  Unfortunately Israel does not heed those words.  Israel itself starts being fruitless and begins to produce thorns (Isaiah 5:1-6).  In the end thorns are good for nothing – they will be burned up (Isaiah 9:18; Hebrews 6:8).  Yet in the ultimate act of redemption, Christ wears thorns as a crown in order to exhaust the curse in Himself.  His resurrection future will be a time when thorns and briers are replaced by fruitful trees (Isaiah 55:13).

With this background we come to our phrase for today.  Paul is writing 2 Corinthians 12.  Here he continues his subversion of the boasting carried on by the false apostles. Where they boasted in their strength, Paul boasts in his weaknesses.  Where they recount their fabulous spiritual experiences, Paul is remarkably circumspect about his own.

Yet he does allow himself one oblique reference, here in 2 Corinthians 12. Doubtless Paul refers to himself here, but he distances himself from the experience so much that he recounts it in the third person:

“I will come to visions and revelations of the Lord.  I knew a man in Christ above fourteen years ago, (whether in the body, I cannot tell; or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knoweth;) such an one caught up to the third heaven.  And I knew such a man, (whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell:  God knoweth;)  How that he was caught up into paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.  Of such an one will I glory: yet of myself I will not glory, but in mine infirmities.  For though I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth:  but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me.  And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure.  For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.”  (2 Corinthians 12:1-8)

Many have speculated about what this thorn might have been for Paul. Perhaps it was a physical infirmity, specifically his eyes (Galatians 4:13-15; cf. Numbers 33:55).  Perhaps it was a person or particular sect (note how Scripture describes human enemies as ‘thorns in your side’ – Judges 2:3; Numbers 33:55).  Perhaps it was a particularly strong and enduring spiritual attack (note how Paul calls it ‘the messenger of Satan.’)  But whatever it was, Paul was not able to be free of it.  In fact, no matter how he begged Jesus, Jesus would not remove it.

I wonder if our theology of suffering can handle that.  Are we able to cope with the fact that, often, Jesus does not remove thorns which torment and buffet us?

Sometimes people quote Isaiah 53:5 – “with his stripes we are healed” – and they say ‘All healing was purchased at the cross, therefore all healing is available now, we just need to believe for it.’  But of course that is faulty theology.  It is true that Christ’s cross and resurrection purchased all healing.  It also purchased a deathless eternity.  But we don’t enjoy that yet.  And Jesus is not committed to prolonging the old world – the cursed creation, doomed in Adam.  Jesus is committed to putting that to death and rising up a healed world on the other side of the grave.

Sometime Jesus may choose to heal as a token of that new creation life. But that’s not His ultimate commitment for this perishing age.  Jesus will not remove all our suffering.  And He will not continue to prolong our old lives in these Adamic bodies.  Praise God for that!  Our hope does not lie in mini-healings and mini-deliverances now.  Our hope is not for a present papering-over-the-cracks.  Our hope lies in cosmic resurrection when the thorns will be replaced by fir trees (Isaiah 55:13).

In the meantime thorns will buffet us.  We should pray, as Paul does, for deliverance from them.  Ask, seek and knock for such a healing .  But no matter what Christ’s answer, here is the heart of His word to you today:

“My grace is sufficient for thee:  for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”  (2 Corinthians 12:9)

Anyone can bear a miracle to the world as evidence of Christ’s grace.  Paul bears his suffering to the world.  And this is the perfect display of Christ’s strength.  When His grace sustains the sufferer, it is a remarkable show of divine power.  Not the power that teleports us out of trouble, but the power that sustains us through it.  Christ’s strength is a cross-shaped strength.

So Paul concludes…

“Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake:  for when I am weak, then am I strong.”  (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

Suffer fools gladly

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2 Corinthians 11:1-33

“He didn’t suffer fools gladly” reads the obituary… “Cantankerous old grouch” we imagine…  Or at least I do.  I might be wrong in the particulars, but that’s how I read the phrase in general.

No-one ever does suffer fools gladly.  We are only told when someone definitely does not.  And since, generally, no-one seems to have any patience for fools, the person who is said ‘not to suffer fools gladly’ must be very irritable indeed.  We can imagine that, in this person’s company, it is the fools that do the suffering.  And not gladly.

So perhaps we think that the Christian response is that we should suffer fools gladly.  Perhaps this biblical phrase arose as an exhortation to bear with fools with infinite patience.

Well there is something very Christ-like in that practice.  Jesus put up with a lot of folly – mainly from His nearest and dearest.  We can think of Mark chapter 10 where He has just described the agony and sacrifice of the cross which is before Him (v32-34).  Instantly James and John ask Him for glory – they want cabinet posts in the coming kingdom (v35-41). It is such a vulgar and stupid request, especially with the prediction of Golgotha still hanging in the air.  If Jesus “didn’t suffer fools gladly” we would now get to see James and John put in their place.

But how does Jesus respond?  He calls them all together and, with great patience, tells them again of His servant-hearted love (v42-45).  That is to be their model.  Not worldly power-grabs.

Jesus does suffer fools gladly.  And through His glad-hearted patience He teaches fools that they might cease to be fools.  How astonishing!  Here is the one Man who does suffer fools gladly.

But that is not what the Bible exhorts us towards with the phrase “suffer fools gladly.”  St Paul, who coined the term, does not put himself in the shoes of the patient sufferer.  In this phrase, Paul is the fool.

In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul is concerned about the Corinthian church.  They are putting up with (i.e. “suffering”) the ministry of false apostles (v13). Such false apostles expected generous payments while they boasted of their accomplishments and great giftings.  On the other hand Paul expected nothing, nor did he boast about his own service or experiences. But in order to make his point, Paul decides that boasting is the order of the day.  Therefore he will make his own boasts to the Corinthians, but they are nothing like the boasts of the false apostles:

“Seeing that many glory after the flesh, I will glory also.  For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.  For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face.”  (2 Corinthians 11:18-20)

There are fools that we should not suffer gladly.  They are called false teachers.  And we should not tolerate them.  Yet Paul says that a curious thing has been happening in Corinth.  They have suffered to have slave-drivers among them, bringing them into bondage through their false gospels.  Paul is amazed.  And so he seeks to shock them out of their complacency by subverting the boasts of the false apostles.  He speaks as a fool (v21).  In other words he uses the rhetoric of the foolish false teachers, but his message is very different:

“Are they Hebrews?  so am I.  Are they Israelites?  so am I.  Are they the seed of Abraham?  so am I.  Are they ministers of Christ?  (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft.  Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one.  Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.  Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches.  Who is weak, and I am not weak?  who is offended, and I burn not?  If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.”  (2 Corinthians 11:22-30)

Paul’s boast is that he is vastly less prosperous, less healthy, less settled and less respectable than all the false teachers they have been entertaining! He boasts in his weakness because this is the mark of an authentic follower of Christ.

If Paul is forced into the foolish game of listing his resume, he will “glory of the things which concern [his] infirmities.”  If the Corinthians suffer those proud fools – the false apostles, Paul hopes they will suffer him – a humble fool for Christ.

Today, if someone “doesn’t suffer fools gladly”, it’s usually because they consider themselves to be above the fools.  Paul puts himself beneath the fools and begs for the sufferance of the “wise ones”!

In this way he resembles his Lord who could easily have cast away fools like us.  Instead Jesus humbles Himself beneath our folly – subverting it with His own up-side-down glory.  Jesus became a fool on the cross, and His weakness became His glory.

So the question is, Will we be impatient with the folly and weakness of the cross?  Or will we suffer His kind of folly gladly?

“We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.  Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”  (1 Corinthians 1:23-25)