Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Identity: Knowing Who We Are in Christ

The professional women sitting next to our dinner table last week gloried in their roles as nurses as they traded recent stories of pain and recovery from the hospital down the street. Yet I wondered whether they realized that nursing is merely their vocation, not the core of their identity. Likewise, my niece and her closest friends encourage one another as they share the challenges of homeschooling in their common vocations as young moms. But do they understand how fleeting this season of life will seem in a matter of a few years when their raucous, chaotic living rooms morph into much quieter empty nests?
Another young woman, whom I have discipled in the past, regularly introduces herself as “an addict” to close acquaintances, even though she has not taken a mood-altering substance in nearly four years. She understands that in her weakness she is still susceptible to temptation. So for her, retaining the “addict” moniker helps to keep her humble and realistic about the remaining potential to slip up. However, I still wonder whether she fully understands that her temptation does not define who she is as a person in relationship to others and who she is becoming as a Christian believer.

Far too often, we think of ourselves mainly in terms of what we do or how we feel about ourselves and our relationship to our temporal circumstances. Becoming aware of our position and identity in Christ uplifts us by pointing us to tremendously empowering truths and confronts us with some sobering facts.

James gives an example of this paradox when he exhorts the poor and lowly person to “boast in his exaltation”, while simultaneously telling the prosperous person to glory “in his humiliation” (1:9-10). Remember, in context, James is discussing temptation, desire, and sin. It is no mere coincidence that James drops this gem right in between his teaching about trials and temptations. Self-skewing illusions of personal grandiosity and personal loathing will taint our view of who we are before God, making us susceptible to wiles of the evil one. We must look to Christ to see ourselves rightly.

Creation and Fall

Typically, as reformed women, we are keenly aware of the danger of emphasizing worldly wealth and position, recognizing it as potential idolatry. Few of us knowingly dare to set ourselves up as empresses and cosmic judges, out from under the scrutiny of our Holy God and Creator. Before congratulating ourselves, let us be careful, lest we fall (1 Cor. 10:12).

The subtle lie that the serpent used to entice the woman before the fall remains a temptation about which we ought to be vigilant: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Gen. 3:5a).  The distortion of the Creator/creature distinction is at the heart of much sin and most heresy. “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Prov. 16:18).

The poor and downtrodden, on the other hand, perhaps more acutely understand and experience the insipid nature of the fall. Regularly reminded of the effects of remaining sin in the world and in themselves, the lowly and oppressed often struggle to grasp the inherent dignity of human beings, created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27).  Rather, the tendency of those of us who are poor in spirit can be to view our identities based on what we perceive we lack, rather than what we inhere.  

God created both the woman and her husband to have dominion over every living thing – except for God and one another. God said, “Let them to have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing than creeps on the earth” (Gen. 1:26).  

The irony, of course, is that a mysterious “beast of the field”, that crafty serpent, “more crafty” than the other beasts, deceived and interrogated Eve as though he held dominion over her. The serpent's questioning of Eve took precedence over God's goodness and her calling. The serpent deceived the woman into denying her calling as image-bearer of God and to falsely perceive a lack in God’s good creation. This false perception was the deception that led her to disobey the Creator’s command.

Similarly, we also fall prey to the deception of sin and temptation when we imagine ourselves as mere brute beasts, defined by “natural” desires that we imagine God gave us. In reality, deception and distortion of the imago Dei sneakily lies underneath the fig leaves of our self-made identities, because we define ourselves by that which we imagine God has failed to provide. Whether we base our identity on spiritual poverty, such as a sinful temptation toward substances or relationships, or define our identity by actual poverty or lack of privilege, we have forsaken our Divine calling as image bearers.  

Redeemed Identities

Our loving Creator, who rightly despises sin and rebellion, rescued fallen sinners from this evil, for His ultimate glory, in the Person of Jesus Christ. The Lord, our God, came to renew and restore His people to right relationship with Himself. Whether we lean toward the prideful and prosperous, who eschew the creature/Creator distinction, or toward the lowly and poor of spirit, who diminish the goodness of the image of God, if we are in Christ Jesus, we are being made new. As new creations in Christ, our story does not end when our redemption begins.

When God saves us, He enables us to walk in union with Christ. We are not yet what we will be, but we are no longer what we once were. By the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to live out our callings as image bearers again, as new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 517). James tells us:

 "Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures (Ja. 1:16-18).

John Calvin wrote in his commentary on this passage that “It is no common nobility into which God extols his own children… justly are they said to be excellent as firstfruits, when God's image is renewed in them.”

When the Truth of who God is emerges to reorient our hearts and minds, we will begin to see ourselves rightly. No longer will we desire the path of the prideful, prosperous fool, setting ourselves up as mini-empresses who usurp the Creator. No longer will we see ourselves as spiritually impoverished beasts, enslaved to the sin nature and the world system.  For we died to sin and are now alive to Christ (Rom. 6:17, Eph. 2:4-5). We are righteous with the righteousness of Christ alone, the perfect Son of God (Rom. 4:5).  Let us praise Him!
Soli Deo Gloria!

Monday, March 20, 2017

Women in Scripture: Euodia and Synteche

 Euodia and Syntyche
An Open Letter to Euodia and Syntyche

"I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women, who have labored side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”
To the beloved sisters in Christ at Philippi, 

Greetings in the Lord. I pray my letter finds you both in good health and I trust your souls to prosper, even as you have been taking pains to seek the Lord during this difficult season. May God be pleased and His Name be hallowed among us and among all the saints throughout the world. 

I write to you both, Euodia and Syntyche, as your names and faces have come to mind repeatedly, oftentimes late in the night. I believe God’s purpose has been for that of prayer on your behalf. Over the past few months, I’ve spent many fitful nights weeping over things I’ve hardly understood. I only know the burden has been great, and the urgency relentless. Countless times I have wrestled until my entire body ached while holding you both before the Lord in prayer. Most days, when I was not occupied looking after the widows in our midst and other certain needs among the brethren; I’ve gone about as though a part of me were missing, as if to be left standing without eyes or limb. The sense of loss has been diminishing. And my longing for you in the Lord is equal to my affection for the Lord Himself. 

As you know, it has been some time since our beloved Paul wrote to the church at Philippi. You recall his pleadings — that you settle your differences in the Lord — and how he had called on me to come alongside to help you. Now, after much concerted prayer, I believe time has come to assist you further. Through this open letter, I’m compelled to share with you and the church at Philippi what has been my observation and that which burns continuously in my heart. 

You are both true servants of God. Your love for the Scriptures is without question. You are like the noble Bereans, and I commend you for holding fast to sound doctrine. Your faithful service to the ministry and your loving care for the flock here at Philippi has been evident to all. By God’s grace, you have both worked untiringly to advance the gospel. Whether by keeping prayerful watch or diligent study, or by washing the feet of the saints or cooking meals for the infirm, you have proven yourselves in these things, thinking nothing of yourselves. The entire province has heard of your good works, and it’s been clear to all that your greatest privilege has been to serve God with an undying love. These things have been a great example to me and the rest of the family of God. We remain indebted to you for your zeal and gracious service. 

But now, as I have waited upon the Lord, I must unburden my heart and speak of difficult things I fear may pain you to hear. But I trust the mighty God within you to convince you against any petulance. 

Thus, here is what I have observed: You’ve allowed troubled waters to run dry under the bridge. Although you have seemingly forgiven one another, having formally reconciled, and that in the presence of the elders, I’ve noticed you no longer come together in prayer like you did in times past. The friendly banter and warm smiles exchanged at mealtimes have all but stopped. You have somehow become polite, to the point of coldness, even avoiding one other before and after the meeting! What is more, you have become selective with whom you speak. There is, I daresay, a stale air within your circles of fellowship. The proof of such has borne out, as I am pained over the two sisters who have recently come to us from Troas. They were reluctant to say at first, but a few days ago they told me of how they have not been well received, as no one has offered to disciple them. They are feeling bruised and disheartened, and are making plans to visit the church at Ephesus soon. 

Disagreements are inevitable. The Lord Jesus said offenses would come. I well understand how tensions can easily mount when there is no singular vision on a matter. But disputes are such that they prove our discipleship: are we serving God or are we still trying to please ourselves? How many occasions are there to see things differently than our brother or sister? Innumerable! When provisions are limited or when guests are hungry and tables have not yet been set, Greeks do it one way, Jews another. Like-mindedness is a holy challenge to which we mortal creatures must aim. Granted, it would be much simpler to be a Stoic, but that is not our goal, to stand apart and self-sufficient. Ours is a higher calling. His blood was shed for each member of the Body of Christ that we be one, even as Christ and the Father are one. 

Now, I say this in all humility, while you may have done everything right outwardly, we know from the scrolls that God looks on the inward parts. If I am to serve you honestly, I must make my appeal to you forthrightly. Be reconciled to one another in truth, from the heart. 

You have been amply supplied with instruction to know what you ought to do when disputable matters arise. Even you yourselves have said, “Is food more important than Christ and our brother for whom Christ died? I implore you, my dear sisters, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to one another. Cast away your silent stones. Remember Jesus. When the saints are assembled, come together again; lay down your pride, your will, and your heart. As you kneel before the throne of God, raise your hands in declaration of the cross of Christ, forsake your own way and surrender your spirit to Him once more. 

As for the elders, deacons, and all the saints at Philippi, we shall continue to pray, asking God to heal the delicate rift in His precious body. May the Lord bind your hearts once more unto full restoration. And may righteousness, joy, and peace be found again in the house of God.

Your loyal brother, 

End Note: The name “Syzygus”- Gk. syzygos means “true yokefellow” (ESV footnote). Not all Bible commentators agree as to who is the “true companion” to whom Paul refers in his letter. It is not made clear. Some say Syzygus could be the proper name of a certain individual, while others suggest Epaphroditus. 

About the Author: Elizabeth DeBarros makes her home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Virginia with her husband of 24 years, their two sons, and beloved cat, Adagio. She cares deeply for people, words, theology, Darjeeling, and likes taking long walks in any kind of weather. She can be found at Finding the Motherlode sharing her thoughts, observations, poems, and the occasional firebrand.

Note: This post originally appeared on September 30, 2013.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

An Inexaustible Fountain of Goodness

The LORD is good to all, 
 and his mercy is over all that he has made.
The eyes of all look to you,
 and you give them their food in due season.
You open your hand; 
 you satisfy the desire of every living thing. 
(Psalm 145:9, 15-16)
The eighteenth century English Baptist pastor John Gill described God’s goodness as “an inexhaustible fountain” overflowing forever even as he continually shares his goodness with the living things he has made. In John Gill’s time, city fountains didn’t recirculate their water like the fountains we have now. They drew their water from a reservoir or some natural springs, and provided it to the people who lived around them. Fountains were a source fresh, clean water for drinking and washing. God’s inexhaustible fountain of goodness is this kind of fountain—one that constantly provides us with fresh goodness. But with his fountain of goodness, there is no danger the reservoir will run dry or the springs will dry up. He has an infinite, eternal supply of fresh goodness. There is no limit to his kindness and no end to his generosity, but his goodness flows from him forever in a never-ending stream.

From the abundance of his generosity, God grows mushrooms to feed squirrels and saplings to feed deer. He provides earthworms for robins and mice for foxes. The greens I grow in my garden come from his goodness, too. He could have created only one kind of salad green, or none at all, but instead, he created crispy romaine, buttery spinach, chewy kale, spicy arugula, and red leaf lettuce for extra visual punch, each variety increasing my pleasure as I eat my salads. Vegetables, fruits, grains, and meats—every different kind is a good gift from our good God.

Sustaining Us and Giving Us Joy

God directs everything in the universe, so every benefit we receive—every “good gift”—comes from him (James 1:17). Beyond our food, homes, and families, he gives us jobs, friends, vacations, sunshine, music, colours, and even the air we breathe. Everything that sustains us and everything that gives us joy—all are God’s gifts to us. Even when other people give to us, underneath their gifts is the goodness of God. He gave them enough to share (1 Corinthians 4:7) and the desire to share with us.

God is generous to everyone, even those who don’t acknowledge him or his gifts. “[H]e is kind to the ungrateful and evil,” Jesus said (Luke 6:35). “[H]e makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44-45). Even God’s enemies receive good gifts from him.

But for those who belong to him, God's generosity continues throughout eternity. Even in this life, every single circumstance is a good gift working an eternal purpose. All things, including life’s trials, are part of God’s benevolent plan to make believers more like Christ (Romans 8:28-29). Can you see why the apostle Paul reminds his readers to be thankful in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18)? Our generous God uses everything, even the hard things, to remake his people in his image.

Reflecting His Goodness

And as those who are being remade in his image, God’s people should reflect his goodness. Since he is good to all, even his enemies, we are called to do good to our enemies, too. And who are our enemies? When he commanded his followers to love their enemies, Jesus included a wide range of people in this category. According to Jesus, anyone who didn’t love them, anyone who wasn’t a brother to them, along with anyone who was actively persecuting them (Matthew 5:43-48), was an enemy. The grumpy neighbor who doesn’t like your family because she prefers silence to the sound of children playing in your backyard is, according to Jesus, your enemy. As a follower of him, you are called to not retaliate, but do good for her instead. If you take her fresh muffins, you are fulfilling his command to love your enemies. You are providing for someone who doesn’t love you or your children, just as God provides for those who don’t love him or his children. Likewise, when you treat your difficult co-worker kindly, you are imitating God’s kindness to both the just and the unjust. And if you pray for someone who is hostile to you because of your Christian faith, you are also reflecting God’s generosity to his enemies. You are following Jesus’s command to be like “your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:45).

But just as God is especially generous to those who belong to him, his people should be especially “good to… those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Yes, we should give to people in our neighbourhoods and across the world because our God gives to everyone, but the priority for our generosity should be our fellow-believers. Even as we donate to needy children world-wide, our first duty is to make sure the needs of the children in our own churches are met.

And whenever we give to others—to our fellow believers, to the community around us, or to people far away—we are simply giving from what we have already received from God. Any praise we receive for our generosity should be redirected to him, who gives to us so we can give to others. All the glory for both the gifts we receive and the gifts we give is rightfully his.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Women in Scripture: Priscilla

“Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well.” - Romans 16:3-4

    Prisca (also known by the diminutive name Priscilla) and her husband Aquila were special to the Apostle Paul. Tentmakers who had been forced to leave Rome when the Jews were exiled by Claudius, the couple first met Paul in Corinth. They took him into their home and allowed him to work alongside them in their trade while he proclaimed the gospel there (see Acts 18:1-3). After remaining with them for 18 months, Paul departed for Syria and took the couple with him (vv. 11, 18). He later left them in Ephesus to establish the church there (v. 19).  In his letter to the Romans, Paul doesn’t elaborate on how Priscilla and Aquila “risked their necks” for him, but it may have been during his stay in Ephesus (see Acts 19:23-41; 1 Cor. 15:32; 2 Cor. 1:8-11).
    The mentions of the couple in Scripture are brief, but one verse in Acts 18 tells us much about them. Hearing Apollos preaching in the synagogue in Ephesus, the couple realized that he did not have a complete understanding of the gospel, so “they took him and explained to him the way of God more accurately.” (v. 26). There is much we can glean from this verse, regarding both women’s roles in the church and the best way to handle conflict.

   First, after realizing Apollos was in error, they went to him privately. The didn’t berate or accuse him publicly, but took him aside to explain (Gk. “ektithemi”: explain, elaborate, expound) his error. Acts 18:26 “provides positive support for the idea that men and women can explain God’s Word to each other in private and informal settings (such as personal conversation or a small group Bible study) without violating the prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12 against women teaching an assembled group of men.” (ESV Study Bible, p. 2125) 

   How is this so? In  Acts (Reformed Expository Commentary), author Derek Thomas explains that Ephesians 5:22,24 requires a woman to be subject to her own husband, but not to every man. 

“Priscilla could teach Apollos, and she did this within the confines of her own home and not in public. Even so, she must do it without crushing the role that Aquila must play in this instruction, even if he was less able than she was.” (p. 533)     
Given the fact that Acts 18:26 tells us both Priscilla and Aquila took Apollos aside, we can conclude that Priscilla had her husband’s blessing to be part of this interaction with Apollos.
 Acts 18:26 not only sets a precedence of women instructing men privately (as long as their husbands are present and approving), the verse also gives us a biblical example of how handle conflict. My pastor is preaching through the Book of Acts and he used this verse to bring out some points of consideration when differences arise among believers.
   First, is it a disagreement or a matter of miscommunication? Priscilla and Aquila knew that Apollos had limited knowledge, even though he “had been instructed in the way of the Lord.“ (v. 25) They didn’t want to discourage him, but they understood that he was miscommunicating the gospel. Thomas says, “[T]his is an example of what a godly couple can do for a young man who shows promise of future usefulness...Their generous hospitality and encouragement ensured that the church was better served.” (pp. 532, 533)
   Second, is this necessary for salvation? Apollos was a genuine believer who had the Spirit (v. 25). As believers, we will likely find ourselves in arguments over matters that are necessary for salvation. In those times, we must stand firm and speak the truth in love. (see Ephesians 4:10-16)
   Third, do believers have a history of disagreement on this? There are non-salvific matters some believers will never agree upon (e.g. the millennium, election, alcohol). In these situations, we must ask ourselves if continual debate is beneficial to those involved and those witnessing it. 
  Fourth, have I prayed about my position and searched the Scriptures? In other words, have I merely assumed my position because it’s what I’ve been taught, or someone I respect holds the same belief?
    Fifth, have I sought the counsel of others? Priscilla and Aquila had spent quite a bit of time under the Apostle Paul’s tutelage. They knew their theology was correct.
And last, have I counted the cost if I adopt the alternative position? Will changing my position make me a better Christian or will my theology suffer? We don’t know for certain, but we can assume that Apollos was affected by his encounter with Priscilla and Aquila. His ministry thrived. Verses 27 -28 tell us that “...he greatly helped those who through grace had believed, for he powerfully refuted the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus.”
 In one of my favorite lines from Anne of Avonlea, Mr. Harrison describes Rachel Lynde, “She can put a whole sermon, text, comment, and application, into six words, and throw it at you like a brick.”  Christian women may be tempted to do that more often than we care to admit when we run into someone who disagrees with us. Priscilla gives us a Scriptural example of how to behave otherwise.

About the Author:  Melissa Jackson is a working mother, living a quiet and simple life in rural Virginia with her husband and teenage daughter.  She enjoys reading, writing, coffee, and chocolate. She is passionate about the Word of God, her family, and discipling teenage girls. She blogs at One Quiet Life.
 This post originally appeared on September 27, 2013

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Ethical Adventures

It was with a little fear and trepidation that I began my Moral Theology class this semester. Thinking about ethical issues is one thing; engaging in discussion with classmates and writing papers is something new for me. Sometimes, we have inklings of our views on things, and it isn't until we're expected to articulate them that we realize we don't really know how to do that. That is where I began this class, and slowly, I am learning.

We make ethical decisions regularly. They touch our lives in the home, the workplace, in school, in hospitals, courtrooms, and the public square. They are intensely personal. Should I seek divorce when my husband repeatedly commits adultery? Or counsel my daughter to when her husband abuses her? How do I handle a dying parent's wishes to avoid heroic measures to preserve life? We will all confront such issues. As a Christian, this can be difficult, because what guides ethical decisions for the Christian runs contrary to popular opinion.

The topic for my term paper is abortion. It isn't a particularly pleasant topic to research. Even in my very preliminary research, I've confronted difficult things. As a woman and a mother, I have very strong emotional reactions to abortion, and I want to be able to separate emotion from truth. This means focusing on the major issue confronting the debate. What is life? What is a person? Two people can have vastly different answers to those questions. Further to the first question, we may ask: When does life begin? Even among Christians, there are various positions.

I believe life begins at conception; following conception, there is a person. Developmentally, he is not equal to a person outside the womb, but in essence he is. He does not differ in essence in the womb from his essence outside the womb. Functionally and developmentally, yes, he does differ. Furthermore, I believe that the child was created by God; that he reflects God's image. That imaging of God will develop as he grows.

There are those adamantly opposed to my views. They believe personhood is a matter of functionality. Equality with another human being is not based on essence, but a particular set of functions. If we can determine when that functionality occurs, anything that precedes it is not a person. It is this difference of views which sets up for conflict in discussing matters of life, death, and dying. As responsible members of society and voting citizens, Christians need to have reasoned views on the issue of abortion. It goes right to the heart of what people believe about humanity.

Especially as we sort through the issues of gender and sexuality, abortion, and dying, understanding where our value comes from is crucial. To base our value on function simply opens the door to rendering those with lesser function as lesser human beings. How can there be equality among people if we cannot begin with something as basic as our humanity? Our equality is by virtue of being created in God's image. These are very foundational truths which guide our views on abortion. I have often felt ill-equipped to engage in discussion about it. Being encouraged to always return to the question of "What is a person?" has been very helpful.

If you are looking for reading about the issue of abortion, I recommend Scott Klusendorf's book The Case for Life. It is a good introduction. It is accessible, informative, and it provides examples of how to engage in dialogue with those who disagree. Klusenforf also provides a suggested "must read" list as well as recommended resources throughout the book.