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Initiated into Excellence and Failure July 07, 2015

Posted by preacherwin in Devotions, Devotions on Philippians.
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“I also know how to be humbled and I know how to excel. In anything and in everything I have been initiated. Either food or hunger, excellence or failure, I can do all things in the one who strengthens me.”

(Philippians 4:12-13)

I expect that it is a fair statement to say that Philippians 4:13 is one of the most misquoted verses of the Bible. This passage is not stating that I can win an NFL contract just because I have faith (truly, I don’t have the skills!) nor is it even stating that Paul can be content in all things, though that statement is closer; the difference being that contentment often implies a degree of acceptance toward one’s situation.

In context, Paul has been stating that there is no circumstance that he fears — whether hunger or an abundance of food — whether success at what he does or failure (at least by human standards) — that he can face all of these things in the power of the one who strengthens him…namely, Jesus Christ.

How often we are tempted to judge success and failure solely on human terms. I recall when I began doing homeless ministry while in seminary, we initially envisioned that we would see revival on the streets of Jackson, MS. We didn’t and the temptation was to be discouraged. At the same time, God used this experience along with our initial setbacks and failures, to teach us an important lesson. My success or failure is not found in numbers nor is it found in terms of one’s fame or reputation; my success is found in whether or not I am being faithful to what God is calling me to do. Regardless of the fruit I see around me, the fruit that is most important is the fruit of my own obedience.

And that, loved ones, is the heart of Paul’s message in these words. The important thing is obedience. And if we face hunger or abundance, human success or failure, whether we are humbled or lifted up…the question that we must ask ourselves is whether we are being faithful to God’s call upon our lives. If we are being faithful, we can face all of these things that the world might throw at us in the strength of the Spirit. If we are not faithful, these things (even human success) will crush us under their weight.

A note should be made in terms of the word “initiated” as Paul uses it. This is the Greek word mue/w (mueo), which is understood to refer to being initiated into or made part of a group of people. The term is only found here in the New Testament, but is also found in 3 Maccabees 2:30 where it is used to refer to one who has learned the rules for living within a particular community. Today, we often use the term “initiate” to refer to one’s entrance into a secret fraternity or organization, but that is not so much the way the term was used in Paul’s era. In Paul’s era it referred to one who was not new to a given lifestyle…Paul was no amateur at ministry and in doing so, had faced plenty and hunger and he had faced successes and failures. Yet, Paul persevered in the strength of the Spirit. That is what it means to say that he had been initiated. Indeed, we should not forget that our Lord, too, endured both good times and bad times, successes and times of great humiliation and suffering, yet was infinitely faithful to the task for which he had been sent — and praise the Lord for that success!

Concern and Contentment July 03, 2015

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“So, I rejoice in the Lord greatly for even now you have blossomed in your thoughts for me. You did think about me, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I am in poverty, I have learned in everything to be self-sufficient.”

(Philippians 4:10-11)

I have ranted more than a few times in this series of reflections about our modern Bible translator’s tendency to express the idea of thinking and reasoning in terms of feelings and emotion. In verse 10 the word in question is frone/w (phroneo), which means to think or to form a reasoned opinion. Yet, as we have often seen, the ESV, the NIV, and the NASB have chosen to use the term “concern” and the KJV and NKJV have used the words “care.” While it is most certainly true, given all that Paul has already written, that when the Philippians thought about Paul and about his situation, these thoughts did evoke concern, that is an inference from the text, not what Paul wrote. Further, while we might also argue that concern should be considered a thoughtful activity, in our culture it often is nothing more than an emotional response to difficult events in the lives of those around us. So, concern is not out of line, yet the concern that is being expressed is a thoughtful concern based on reasoning through the situation their beloved friend, Paul, was in.

The last clause in verse 10 is a little awkward in English. What does it mean that they did think about Paul but lacked opportunity? The Greek word that is translated as “opportunity” is ajkaire/omai (akaireomai), which refers to the time or opportunity to act upon something. In this case, to act upon what they perceived that Paul had need of while Paul was in prison. So, he is saying that he is aware that they had been thinking of him all along, but now, in sending Epaphroditus with their love gift, they had opportunity and acted upon the thoughts that they had.

Paul reminds them that he has not been utterly impoverished but in all things he has learned to be self-sufficient (he has a marketable trade that he often used to provide for his own needs). Many of our Bibles, again, translate this as “content,” conveying that in all situations Paul knows how to be content in his trust for God…that is certainly what is being communicated in the two verses that follow this one…but not so much here. This term only shows up once here in the New Testament, but also shows up 5 times in the Apocrypha as well as once in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, which helps us to discern its meaning. Literally, the term aujta/rkhß (autarkas) is derived from the Greek words aujto/ß (autos — or self) and ajrke/w (arkeo — meaning to be satisfied or to have that which is sufficient for one’s needs) — thus, “self-sufficient” as has been suggested by some scholars.

When looking at the Old Testament and Apocryphal uses of the term, it seems to be used in one of two ways, either to refer to being satisfied with the provision given (content) or that of being able to endure hardships. Thus, the idea of contentment is a legitimate translation of the term as reflected in most of our modern translations. At the same time, one must ask why Paul what Paul is doing during these times of hardship — namely, we know that he is working to provide for his needs (see Acts 18:2-3 and 2 Corinthians 11:9). One might argue that I am inferring just as I charged many of our translators of doing when they rendered “think” as “concern” above, and that charge would be accurate were the literal meaning of the term not before us, which reflects the idea of self-sufficiency.

The purpose of this point is not to parse hairs but to illustrate that Christian contentment does not mean that we sit back and just rest in whatever circumstances we may happen to be in. No, as a Christian, when we are in need (real need that is), we should strive to meet that need with the skills that we have or even by learning new skills.

In many cases, Christian missionaries were expected to learn a trade before they went onto the mission field. It was a means by which they could support themselves in the context and culture that they were ministering. For many small Christian churches today, pastors are bi-vocational, providing the majority of their own financial needs through a trade while serving a church that is not in a position to support them (this I did in my first calling right out of seminary). It is certainly the right of the pastor to have his needs provided by his flock (1 Corinthians 9:18, 1 Timothy 5:17-18), but because of the needs of the congregation, it is also his right to refuse that compensation. Too often Christians fall into the trap that conveys almost a poverty mindset — God will provide so I can be content! Indeed, God does provide, but often he provides through the sweat of our brow and the labor of our hands. In the end, we need to be content, but recognize that often our contentment comes through work.

Active Learning July 01, 2015

Posted by preacherwin in Devotions, Devotions on Philippians.
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“Those things that you have learned and taken and heard and seen in me, engage in these things. And the God of Peace will be with you.”

(Philippians 4:9)

The idea of the disciple being an imitator of Christ by being an imitator of Paul is a theme that we have already seen in Philippians and that is common to Paul’s writings. But notice just how specific Paul is when he speaks of this here. Paul speaks of those things that the Philippian church has learned from him — their reception of Paul’s verbal instructions is in sight here. He goes on to speak of that which they have taken from him. Some of our Bibles render this as “received,” which is an equally legitimate rendering of the Greek word paralamba/nw (paralambano). I prefer to translate this as “take” in the context of learning, though, for while “receive” can be understood in a more passive sense, “take” is always understood in a more active way. It is not good enough to passively receive the instruction that Paul offers, but we must be prepared to actively engage with the ideas that Paul presents and apply those ideas to our lives and situations. Further, Paul says to learn even from those things that have been seen and heard in him.

Paul goes on and says, all that has been learned in this sense…it is this that the people of the church are to live out in their lives. For many professing Christians, faith is practiced in a more passive sense. Yet, Biblical faith is lived out in every aspect of one’s life. For many more professing Christians, the corporate worship of God’s people begins when they walk through the church doorway on Sunday mornings. Yet, imagine how different our witness would be if we saw all of the week as a time of preparation for that Sunday service of worship? Think about how much more people would get out of the service and the sermon if Christians spent the night before praying that God would help them understand both the Word and its application in the Sunday message — and then if they took notes and actively tried to live out those things that were applied from the text! Oh my, would our churches and our public witness be radically different if we engaged in this way.

So, what of this language of the God of Peace? Often peace, when referred to in this way, refers to peace from the oppression of evil. And, while the enemy will attack at every corner when the Church is faithfully being the church, God will be faithful as well and preserve his own even in the midst of trials and tribulations. So, be of good cheer, learn from Paul’s words and example and live out those things in life and while the enemy will be relentless, God is infinitely greater than all the power at the enemy’s disposal.

Think on These Things June 30, 2015

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“The last thing, brothers, is that whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is upright, whatever is holy, whatever is lovely, whatever is praiseworthy, if there is virtue and if there is praise, think on these things.”

(Philippians 4:8)

There is one more aspect of Paul’s counsel to us here that we need to dwell upon…something of which we have spoken repeatedly throughout this letter that Paul writes. Paul writes of these things that are good and holy and praiseworthy and states that we must think on these things. Paul does not speak of how these things might make us feel or of how these things might move us. He says that we are to think on these matters — we are to reason them through and apply our minds in an orderly way to the ideas conveyed within that which is good and holy and praiseworthy.

The word that Paul uses here is logi/zomai (logizomai), and it means to come to a conclusion through a rational process. It refers to the notion of looking at all of the options that vie for our attention in a given area, to ponder them in our minds, and then to come to a reasoned decision about them. This is not a matter of feeling or of good wishes; this is not a matter of what emotions some experience might stir up within me; this is a matter of reasoned thought.

And if there is something that the church has abandoned over the past several decades, it is reason. Often worship services are all about how one feels. Often worship is only understood in the context of those happy songs that might be sung and one neglects that sitting under the instruction of God’s Word is also a vital aspect of worship. One also often forgets, when only the bouncy, happy songs are sung, that the Prophet-King, David, wrote more laments than he did bouncy-happy songs (not a surprise when you think about the fallen world in which we live!).

Even when it comes to doctrine…which simply is taken from the Latin word, doctrina, which means, “teaching,” people fail to use their reason. Every new idea is evaluated on the basis of preference and the feeling that it evokes rather than evaluating ideas as one rigorously reasons through the Word of God. This reasoning about the Word of God was the practice of the wise Bereans when Paul first showed up in their city (Acts 17:10-12). Shall this not be our practice as well? Woe to the church today that only moves only on the basis of their passions. Woe to the church whose feelings and emotions rule over their minds. For God has not called us to feel these things, he has called us to reason about them…to think them through…and to govern our passions with our minds and what we know is right.

There is no doubt that emotions have their place in the Christian life. God has made us with every expression of life that we attribute to the passions. Yet, the place of the passions is to be governed by the mind. The passions must be reminded by the mind what is right and true or the passions will descend into utter despair and irrationality. The mind must also defend the passions against the seduction of feeling, at least in the way feelings are often manipulated by those leading in worship or worse, from those leading into hedonistic error.

Further, the church in the west has dominantly bought the lie that there is a separation between our spiritual life and the life we live in every other context. The lie states that while reason is reserved for non-spiritual matters. Some even fear that they will lose their faith if they reason about what that which they say they believe! “If it makes you content and fulfilled,” the lie of the enemy states, “go on and have your religion, but keep it out of the marketplace.”

Yet, I tell you that Paul says that we ought to reason about our beliefs and further, if we do, it will mature and strengthen the beliefs we have! Further, Paul tells us that our religion belongs in the marketplace — do you not think that while Paul was making tents in Corinth that he was not “reasoning with” those for whom he made tents, to show the Jew that Jesus was the Christ from the scriptures and to show the Greek that Jesus was ultimately the reasonable redeemer whom we all need? Dear ones, do not give up on your minds. Do not “blindly believe” what is taught in church or in the Bible, but believe because you have reasoned them through, guided and instructed by the whole council of God. “Think on these things,” Paul says, and it will help keep you from error.

Studying God’s Honor June 22, 2015

Posted by preacherwin in Devotions, Devotions on Philippians.
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“The last thing, brothers, is that whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is upright, whatever is holy, whatever is lovely, whatever is praiseworthy, if there is virtue and if there is praise, think on these things.”

(Philippians 4:8)

Though in English the words praise and praiseworthy come from the same root, Paul employs two different words here in the Greek to emphasize his point. We already spoke above about that which is worthy of praise, as he closes this verse, he is speaking of that which generates admiration or approval within us. When applied to humans, this word is sometimes translated as “fame,” but perhaps honor is a better term. Towards God, it reflects the notion of giving praise and honor to His name (see Philippians 1:11).

All of that which Paul speaks about culminates in this…honoring God. It is this notion that drives our sanctification and our life as believers. Yet how often we choose to set our minds and thoughts on other things during the day, during the weeks, and during the years. How often we set our affections on the things of this world rather than on the one who is most worthy of our honor.

It has long been my position that while most relationships begin in the shared experiences that people have with one another; lasting and mature relationships make a transition. Instead of falling in love with the person through the things that are done together we fall in love with the person because of who they are — their attributes and personalities and things like this. Genuine love and relationship with God is nurtured in the same way. We may begin our relationship with God through a deliverance from sin, through a grace that was given, or through a recognition of our own wicked and fallen state. Yet don’t stop the relationship there, because the relationship you have with God will mature as you grow deeper in your understanding of God’s character as revealed in his Word.

Thus, spend time focusing on a character trait of God. He is love, he is Truth, he is a God of justice and grace. God is creative and powerful and while loving toward his own, he pours out his wrath upon the wicked. Think on these things. Study how God reveals these character traits of his in the Scriptures. Pursue him through his character. And note too, Paul’s language…think on these things. God has given us minds to understand; he expects us to use our minds to understand his character as he reveals it. Such an understanding will draw us closer to him but such an understanding will also draw us away from the things of the world that distract and pull us away from godliness.

Pursuing Virtue is a Virtue June 19, 2015

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“The last thing, brothers, is that whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is upright, whatever is holy, whatever is lovely, whatever is praiseworthy, if there is virtue and if there is praise, think on these things.”

(Philippians 4:8)

Virtue is again one of these words we don’t hear a lot in our modern, western culture…perhaps apart from a phrase that no one really seems to take seriously: “Patience is a virtue.” Indeed, patience is a virtue but few people seem to want to work on practicing patience as they live out their lives. Everyone seems to want the things they want… “And we want them, NOW!”

Yet there is more to the idea of a virtue than just patience. The meaning of the term is to have “excellence of character.” Interestingly, this Greek term only shows up 4 times in the New Testament…in each case, commending us to live virtuous lives, but never giving us a detailed exposition of those traits that one might consider virtuous. Yet, as we study the Bible, we are not left to our own imaginations as to defining the term for virtue, because it is also used 6 times in the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and in each case, the term is applied to the character of God. Thus, it is God’s character that defines what is virtuous and as we seek to model our lives after the example of Jesus Christ, we then seek virtue.

In historic Christian theology, virtue was often defined as “Faith, Hope, and Love,” reflecting Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 13. During the reign of King Louis IX (1226-1270 AD) in France, the notion of Christian virtue was nuanced slightly to become “faith, wisdom, and chivalry,” but again, embracing the notion of excellence in character. In the Roman Catholic Catechism, they present 7 virtues (to contrast with the “Seven Deadly Sins”) by combining the ancient Greek “Cardinal Virtues” of prudence, justice, temperance, and courage with the three “Theological Virtues” of faith, hope, and love.

However you construct or deconstruct these lists, the end result should be the same…we should emulate the character of God as we live our lives and in doing so, that produces virtue within us. God is the source and seat of all virtue, we will only find that virtue in emulating Him and His ways. Further, Peter reminds us that adding virtue to the faith God has given to us is not simply a virtuous thing to do, but it is commanded lest we remain “nearsighted to the point of blindness” (2 Peter 1:9).

That Which is Worthy of Praise June 17, 2015

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“The last thing, brothers, is that whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is upright, whatever is holy, whatever is lovely, whatever is praiseworthy, if there is virtue and if there is praise, think on these things.”

(Philippians 4:8)

Whatever is worthy of praise…it is upon this that we should set our minds. Indeed, there are many things in this world of which are worthy of our honor and praise (though not worship). The beauty found within a sunset or the majesty of a bright, starry night; the eagle as it soars through the heights yet plummets to the ground with precision to grasp its prey; the complexity of the human body or the art with which one uses that body for dance, making music, or athletics are all examples of things that are genuinely worthy of praise. We give honor to a chef for an exquisite meal, we give honor to a painter for a lovely painting, and we give honor to an author who has written a book that has influenced the way we live. Again, all these things are worthy of praise…even to the extent that it would be dishonorable and disrespectful to deny such praise where that praise due.

Yet, while humans are indeed worthy of praise, it is God who excels the praiseworthiness of humans on an infinite level. We may revel in art or music but God is the one who gives art and music and who defines that which is lovely within art and music. He is the chiefest of all who are praiseworthy. Yet, how often it is that we are quicker to set our minds on the praiseworthy things of humanity and fail to give the infinitely more praiseworthy God his due. How often we will rearrange our entire schedule to attend a sporting event or a community engagement yet we fail to arrange our schedules around the worship of the Living God? If it is dishonorable and disrespectful to neglect giving honor where honor is due when it comes to humans, is it not infinitely more dishonorable and disrespectful to not give praise and honor where praise and honor are due for God? If we want to set our minds on that which is praiseworthy, we must begin by setting our minds on God and his praiseworthiness lest our perception of the praiseworthy things in the world become overinflated.

That Which is Lovely June 15, 2015

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“The last thing, brothers, is that whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is upright, whatever is holy, whatever is lovely, whatever is praiseworthy, if there is virtue and if there is praise, think on these things.”

(Philippians 4:8)

What does it mean to set your mind on that which is lovely? Literally, the Greek word that Paul uses here means “to engender a kind of brotherly love.” It conveys the notion that there are things in this world that when we look upon them, when we listen to them, when we take the time to appreciate them, there is a certain deep-felt “rightness” and satisfaction that wells up in our hearts. C.S. Lewis referred to this idea as “the Normal” in his novel, That Hideous Strength.

To develop this idea further, there are certain relationships and proportions that we see in the world around us that are naturally beautiful in our eyes. The Golden Ratio, for example, made up of the Fibonacci sequence, is found throughout the created order. This is the ratio found in numerous elements of the human body but the spiral that this ratio creates is found in everything from the structure of DNA to the spiral of the nautilus shell to the spiral of the great Spiral Nebula. Artists talk about complimentary colors and symmetry; architects use varying proportions to create an aesthetically beautiful building, composers use certain progressions of notes and chords, etc… Clearly, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, it is found in how, when we create works of art, those works mimic or approximate what was made by our creator.

Often we speak about the doctrine of the Imago Dei — that humans are made in the image of God — and all the Imago Dei means when it comes to the inherent dignity found in all mankind. We often do not talk at length about the doctrine of the Imitatio Dei — the doctrine that as those made in the image of God, we best live our our lives in imitation of the God whose image we bear. And as God is a creative God, we too are to exercise our creativity to his glory. That does not mean that we create carte blanche, instead it means that we are to create with a certain degree of continuity between our creation and God’s…that is if we want to create something of beauty.

Today, though, it seems that art has moved away from this notion and instead of seeking out that symmetry and continuity, it seems that many artists strive for just the opposite — creating things that shock us as abnormal and hideous rather than lovely. Paul implies that such is not healthy for our personal sanctification. We are to set our eyes upon that which is beautiful and lovely because it seeks to approximate the beauty of the created order to the glory of God. The abnormal that is prevalent in our culture simply reflects the rebellion against God of our times and the chaos that ensues. From this influence we should flee.

Holiness June 11, 2015

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“The last thing, brothers, is that whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is upright, whatever is holy, whatever is lovely, whatever is praiseworthy, if there is virtue and if there is praise, think on these things.”

(Philippians 4:8)

The word aJgno/ß (hagnos) belongs to a word group that derives from the root word, a¢gioß (hagios), a word that we typically translate as “holy.” These refer to things that have been set apart for divine use and preserved from blemish or being defiled by worldly things. God is the example of holiness par excellence, but he also calls his people holy (Deuteronomy 7:6; 14:2; 26:19; Ephesians 1:4) because he has set us apart for his own purposes and he calls us to strive toward holiness in lifestyle (Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15-16).

Like the vessels used in the temple worship, everything they did was dedicated to needs of the Temple and could be used in no other context, we are described in the same way. Thus, all we do, we do in the name of Christ for the glory of God (Colossians 3:17) and all that is not done in faith is sin (Romans 14:23). If we live, we are to live to Christ; if we die, we die to the glory of Christ — everything for the believer revolves around Christ (Philippians 1:21).

Does that mean that Christians are only able to pursue sacred professions? Yes! But every profession that is given by God to man is a sacred profession when done to the glory of Christ. So, whether you are a farmer, a lawyer, a mechanic, a carpenter, a secretary, a banker, an engineer, a pilot, a soldier, or a minister…or any other moral profession…you are called and gifted by God for that task so that you may do that task to His glory.

So we are holy because of God calling us to his Son, Jesus. Yet, as we are fallen and yet imperfect, we must strive towards a life that reflects our holy calling. This, Paul says, we should set our minds upon that we might live it out. The question we must all be asking ourselves is what patterns of behavior, what habits, what practices, and what things in our lives take away from the holiness to which God has called us? It is my suggestion that the deeper and more honestly you look, the more you will find. Such is indeed my own experience.

The Upright June 10, 2015

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“The last thing, brothers, is that whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is upright, whatever is holy, whatever is lovely, whatever is praiseworthy, if there is virtue and if there is praise, think on these things.”

(Philippians 4:8)

If you have spent any time in construction, the term “upright” has a very specific meaning in your mind. It has to do with those posts or rods that stand vertically in a structure which usually are used to support the structure. Whether these are upright walls or pillars, not only must they stand vertically, but they must be structurally sound to bear the weight placed upon them and to bear up against wind and weather.

When applied to a person, we see the significance of this notion. For those who are upright are those who live according to a standard of righteousness set forth by God in the Bible. The upright are men and women of integrity who can be relied upon to uphold their promises and strive for what is right regardless of the cost. The upright are those who seek to model Christ’s life for others.

In addition, the upright also provide the moral backbone of a society. When a society has no upright, but is ruled and filled by the corrupt, like a house with leaning walls, it will fall. When a community undergoes a great tragedy (whether from a tornado or another sort of crisis), it will be the upright that preserve the society from collapsing. My wife and I were living in Mississippi when Hurricane Katrina struck the coastline. Even more than 100 miles inland, we lost power to 80% of the city of Jackson, roads were closed everywhere due to downed trees, and many people in our state lost everything. Yet, what was notable, was the distinct contrast between the events in Mississippi and the events that took place in neighboring New Orleans. For while neither city was without corruption, it seemed that the upright were far more dominant in Mississippi than in their neighboring state. While there were repeated stories of hoarding, theft, looting, and murders in the news of New Orleans, there were largely stories of communities coming together to help one another in Mississippi. Why? It was due to the upright in the communities holding our communities together. Much like the strong pillars that hold up the great architectural wonders of the world, believers should be those pillars for our communities.

And Paul relays to us to think on these things. Why? For if you strive for the things that reflect Jesus Christ to the world, you too will grow to be more like Christ in your character.

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