Pressing On

with THE WORD

A study of the Scriptures to discover who God is, what He is like, and how to partner with Him now.

Filtering by Tag: focus on Christ

How to clear the path

“But what does God want me to DO?”

Ever ask that question?  Yeah, me too.

We are now at the start of Hebrews 12.  From here to the end of the book, the author gives specific details about the doing of a Christian’s life.  And we’re prepared to fully understand what he recommends…because we have traveled with the author as he directed the orchestra of examples, warnings, and encouragement around the one central theme – the importance of our life choices now and how they affect our participation with Christ in the future.

We are ready to ask, “So what does this type of life look life?  What are we supposed to DO?”  Now that we have the context, the WHY behind the author’s direction to DO will make more sense than if we just plopped the Bible open to Hebrews 12 and began to read.  Even better, knowing the context always makes the text easier to apply.  So, let’s take a look:

Hebrews 11:39-12:1
All these [Old Testament heroes] were approved through their faith, but they did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, so that they would not be made perfect without us.

Therefore, since we also have such a large cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us lay aside every hindrance and the sin that so easily ensnares us.  Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us


The ancient heroes of the faith act as courtroom witnesses who testify that living for God now is worth the sacrifice.  We can, by our actions now, participate in the fulfillment of what the ancients longer for.  It is almost as if the author is asking:

If God sticks to His promises, why wouldn’t we want to avoid sin altogether…but also avoid anything that may hinder us in our pursuit of the life Jesus has laid out for us?

But that’s just hard, isn’t it?

Not only do we have to contend daily with the nagging desire to sin…there are a lot of things that clamor for our time, many ‘good’ things that can take up a lot of our day.

Social media, hobbies, app games on our phones, sports, TV shows, and movies can quickly take up our free time.  Let’s be honest – we watch a ton of TV, and if we’re not watching TV then we’re probably on our phones.  (Or maybe we’re doing both at the same time?  Yep, I'm guilty of this, too.)

We start ‘relaxing’ and oh-so-easily slide into indulgence.  Is it time to set a timer on our TV?  Is it time to delete that app? (You know the one.) How can we use our hobbies to invest in others and contribute to God’s purposes, not just our own?

It’s a mental shift.  It’s a purposeful decision.  It is a constant, day-by-day choice, which is why the author says to do it, we must run with enduranceEndurance is only needed for hard things, but he says that it is worth it in the end.  Even if I have to give up a ‘good’ thing now, in order to do the ‘best’ thing for eternity future.

But we’re not left hanging with a simplistic ‘you should do this’ statement, either.  Not only does the author give us that WHAT to do, but the HOW to accomplish this lifestyle:

Hebrews 12:1-2
Let us run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith.  For the joy that lay before Him, He endured the cross, despising the shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

We end up where we look.  Our focus determines our direction.  We aren’t the first one to walk this path.  With Jesus as our example to imitate, we know what success looks like.  As we focus on Him – there is nothing that can deter us from our task, no earthly hindrance that will keep us from completing our race.

And as we are among those who complete this race, we will also participate with God when He fulfills the trust of the Old Testament heroes.

What an opportunity!

Keep Pressing,
Ken
 

His origin story isn't what you would expect

We love a good origin story, don’t we?  A movie does well in the box office and instead of providing us with what happens next, Hollywood is ready to film a “prequel”.  We want to watch these backstory accounts because they help us get to know a character better, and they explain a character’s motivation and influences, for better or worse. 

We want to hear how someone “came from nothing” and bettered himself.  We want to know how she “beat the system”.  Stories like that give us hope that, somehow, some of us will “make it” and be successful.  But it’s the impossible-odds stories that really make us sit on the edge of our seat and silently wonder: I’m not sure I could have done what they did.  That much effort, for that long?  To risk like that?

We have the same tendency to revere mature Christians like that.  From a distance, they look like peaceful giants; yet we have a sneaky suspicion they could pray for thunder on a clear day and God would answer with a downpour.

However, when we drum up the courage to ask them about their faith’s origin story, how they learned to trust Jesus as much as they do…their answer has very little to do with themselves.  Instead, their focus is much like Paul explained to Timothy:

1 Timothy 1:12-16
I give thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, appointing me to the ministry – one who was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an arrogant man. 

Notice how all of Paul’s “I’s” and “me’s” point back to Jesus.  Everything that Paul has done as a missionary found its start in Jesus:

thanks to Christ Jesus our Lord…[He] has strengthened…He considered…[He] appointed…

The only portion of his origin that Paul contributed was his actions as a blasphemer (someone who either credited God’s work to Satan or wrote it off as simply evil), a persecutor (someone who actively sought to harm and kill Christ followers), and his own arrogance (being full of pride and insolence).

As Paul continues, he will marvel at this contrast and Jesus’ acceptance.  For reasons unclear to the human eye, Jesus was willing to accept someone with that monstrous of a history…and then strengthen him, because Jesus considered that Paul would be trustworthy for, of all things, ministry!

A modern day equivalent to Paul’s origin story would be the leader of ISIS becoming a missionary for Jesus.  Can you even imagine it?  Paul knew that Jesus was entirely responsible for his backstory, and he wanted Timothy to share that with the believers in Ephesus.

Since the Ephesian believers only saw Paul during the missionary and letter-writing phase of his life, they could have been tempted to believe that Paul had always walked closely with God or that being a Christian came easy for Him.  However, Paul dispels that notion and doesn’t gloss over who he was without Christ.

So if we’re tempted to think the mature Christians we know have had it easy, or that they survived because of how strong or good or caring they naturally are…just ask them about their origins.  And then listen for all the ways Jesus moved in their life.

Keep Pressing,
Ken

 

How to be an effective Christian

As Paul began his short letter to Philemon, he shared what he had been praying for his friend:

Philemon 5-6
I always thank my God when I mention you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and faith toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints.

I pray that your participation in the faith may become effective through knowing every good thing that is in us for the glory of Christ.

Lewis Sperry Chafer counted 33 benefits the believer receives at the moment they trust Jesus for eternal life.  A sampling of that list includes the following facts:

We are redeemed by God.
We are now related to God.
We are now acceptable to God.
Our sins are permanently paid for.
We are brought close to God.
We are delivered from the power of darkness.
We are part of a Holy and Royal priesthood.
We have a Heavenly citizenship.

These are incredible benefits, and Chafer’s entire list is just the starting point for our relationship with Christ.  From here, we launch into an eternal relationship with God where we grow and mature, becoming more and more like Christ.  On top of that, we even have the opportunity to earn eternal rewards for our participation with God in what He is doing here and now.

However, we will not be effective in our partnership with God and our maturity will be stunted if we think that any of our good qualities originate within us.  This is what Paul is praying about for Philemon. 

Just think about it…Philemon has a good reputation and hosts the local church meetings in his house.  Philemon has the money and property to have the local church meet in his house.  With blessings like these also comes the temptation to believe that he’s self-sustaining or that God should bless his efforts because he’s “so good”.  However, that shift in attitude also brings a dangerous shift in focus…he would begin to focus on himself rather than on his Savior.

How can Philemon effectively minister about Jesus if he’s busy looking at himself?

Paul prays that Philemon would protect himself and his ministry from being ineffective; yet it’s a trap that we can easily fall into as well.  The American Christian is quite rich, especially in comparison to our brothers and sisters in the rest of the world.  We need to watch that our affluence doesn’t influence our understanding of where our blessings come from.  As always, a Christ-focused mindset is the cure.

Keep Pressing,
Ken

Time to get personal

Although Paul wasn’t directly involved with Colossian church, several people he knew and cared about were.  Epaphrus, Archippus, Nympha, and Philemon all played various roles and had specific ministries to the believers in Colossae.  The rest of the congregation hadn’t met Paul.  So when he sent Tychicus with the letter to the Colossian church, Paul wrote from a position of a guest preacher who would teach them important truths and show them practical ways to live out their new life in Christ.

Notice how Paul identifies himself at the beginning of the letter:

Colossians 1:1-2
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, and Timothy our brother. 
To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ in Colossae. 
Grace and peace from God our Father.

From the get-go, Paul identifies himself as an apostle of Christ Jesus, which also provides the credibility for the things he wrote to them.  However, along with this letter, Paul had Tychicus deliver a second, more personal note.  The subject of this second letter was Tychicus’ traveling partner, Onesimus.  We were briefly introduced to him at the end of Colossians:

Colossians 4:7-9
Tychicus, a loved brother, a faithful servant, and a fellow slave in the Lord, will tell you all the news about me.  I have sent him to you for this very purpose, so that you may know how we are, and so that he may encourage your hearts.  He is with Onesimus, a faithful and loved brother, who is one of you.  They will tell you about everything here.

Onesimus needed to be reconciled with Philemon.  We’ll get into the details of what was broken in their relationship later, but it was serious enough that Paul chose to step into the fray with these two people he dearly loved.  For now, notice how Paul identifies himself at the beginning of his letter to Philemon:

Philemon 1-3
Paul, a prison of Christ Jesus, and Timothy, our brother:
To Philemon, our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church that meets in your house.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

A little later, Paul says

Philemon 8-9
For this reason, although I have great boldness in Christ to command you to do what is right, I appeal, instead, on the basis of love.

There is no appeal to his apostleship.  Paul doesn’t take a stance or tell Philemon what to do based upon his authority in the family of believers.  Instead, Paul appeals to his friend out of love.  This is where the rubber meets the road – where teaching meets real life.  Paul taught the Colossians about the importance of having Jesus as the focus of our lives and the difference made because of it…but Paul himself must also live it out. 

There are many relationship lessons we can glean from reading Paul’s personal letter to Philemon, but it will be of greater importance for us to take those observations and apply them to those around us.  After all, a Christ-focused life is not found in the teaching of the theoretical, but in the personal living of the practical.

Keep Pressing,
Ken

Practical application: marriage

Paul has spent more than half of his letter to the believers in Colossae telling them that because of Jesus’ sacrifice for their sins, they have a new relationship with God.  Paul continued to describe the impact this relationship has on their lives now and in eternity…with the entire focus on Jesus.   As they grow in understanding of who Jesus is and what a relationship with Him is like, these believers will live a fulfilled life of continual thankfulness that reflects the glory of God.

As Paul encourages the Colossian believers to press on toward maturity, in 3:12-17 he gives them a list of Christ-like characteristics that will come from their relationship with God:

…put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience…
…forgive one another…just as the Lord has forgiven you…
…above all, put on love…
…be thankful…
…let the message of the Messiah dwell richly among you…
…whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus…

And then, Paul gets real specific as to where these characteristics are to be practiced and developed.

Colossians 3:18-19
Wives, be submissive to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.  Husbands, love your wives and don’t become bitter against them.

That’s about as real as it gets, isn’t it?

We go from talking about theoretical living – yeah, I need to be more compassionate…I know I should be more thankful…and I’ve been working on my patience – to suddenly being told to apply these things to the person we see the most of in life.  We know our spouse’s good points, and we also know their flaws.  In fact, we probably know their flaws better than they even recognize them.

Submissive is hard word these days.  Keep in mind, though, that Paul does not say that all women are to be submissive to all men.  This direction is only for Christians in a marriage relationship.  The basis for submission has nothing to do with inferiority, but is instead grounded in respect for the position God has placed her husband in.  There is an important qualifier here, too – as is fitting in the Lord.  If your husband is rebelling against God and his leading of the family is contrary to Scripture, then you have the right and responsibility to not follow him.  However, if you don’t agree with the direction your husband is leading and there is no sin involved, a conversation needs to be had – first between you and God.  Maybe he does need to change.  Maybe you need to change.  But you will need to sort your own heart out with God before trying to change your husband’s mind.

Paul’s direction to husbands is equally challenging – to love your wife.  The Greek word for love here is agapao, the “give all” kind of love, and not the phileo “give and take” type, and not the erao “take all” type.  Men, how much are you willing to “give all” for your wife?  Sure, we all say we’d take a bullet for her…but what parts of ourselves are we willing to give up for her well-being?  When was the last time we set aside our hobby time to take care of her needs?  Are you willing to turn down an “opportunity” if the new job would take you away from her?  Also, if life’s circumstances change her – due to illness, injury, hardship, or anything else – will you stick to your commitment to love her, for better or worse?  Or will we allow those changes to be our excuse to become bitter toward her?  Will we resent her for not being the same woman we initially married? 

In no way does submissiveness or guarding against bitterness mean that we avoid the issues that will naturally come up when two sinful people get married and live life together.  Notice that in Paul’s practical application of marriage, none of the previous Christ-driven characteristics are disqualified or removed.  Godly submission and love without bitterness will only happen in our marriages as we

…put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience…
…forgive one another…just as the Lord has forgiven you…
…above all, put on love…
…be thankful…
…let the message of the Messiah dwell richly among you…
…whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus…

Keep Pressing,
Ken 

Dangerous rules

We like rules.  We like them a lot.  Rules seem to make things easier, right?  Everything boils down to either black or white.  “Do this.  Don’t do that.”  No in between, no grey, no guesswork, and no mess. 

While there are clear-cut areas in life, the unfortunate truth is that most of our lives aren’t lived in black and white – not only are there grey areas, but life comes at us in a full spectrum of colors.  How do we deal with such a variety of circumstances and people?  How would God want us to deal with them?  When faced with difficult questions and situations in our relationship with God and with others, we often start looking for rules to clarify our course of action.

The believers in Colossae were dealing with a “new” teaching that was likely taught as a guideline for interacting with God and others, but it seems that the teachers were also insisting on rules to prove one’s spirituality.  From Paul’s letter we see that the rogue teachers were advocating rules for food, drink, festivals, sabbath days, worship of angels, and visions.  Paul took issue with these performance-based, surface-level-focused teachings primarily because they took the believer’s focus off of Jesus and put the attention on themselves. Paul summed it up this way:

Colossians 2:20-23
If you died with Christ to the elemental forces of this world, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world?  Why do you submit to regulations: “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch”?

All these regulations refer to what is destroyed by being used up; they are human commands and doctrines.  Although these have a reputation of wisdom by promoting ascetic practices, humility, and severe treatment of the body, they are not of any value against fleshly indulgence.

In the centuries since Paul wrote these words, the church has struggled with human commands and doctrines.  Attempting to earn God’s love, people have given in to legalistic, rules-focused teachings.  Teachings such as earning one’s salvation by doing enough good works, or maintaining one’s salvation by doing enough good works, or trying to live under the Mosaic Law are all examples of false teachings based on human ideas and desires.

Others have tried fasting with the intention to force God to decide in their favor.  Some have lived in isolation with the intention to avoid the temptations that could arise when around other people.  People have even gone as far as self-mutilation to try to keep their sinful urges in check.

On the surface, these ideas seem to have merit…but the truth is they’ve all failed to do what God desires to do in our lives.  God desires to make us Christ-like.  Paul was right when he said that the man-made rules have a reputation of wisdom by promoting ascetic practices, humility, and severe treatment of the body, [but] they are not of any value against fleshly indulgence.

These practices don’t get to the heart of the problem – because our ultimate problem isn’t our behavior, it’s our sinful nature.  These practices distract us from the real solution.  So we have to be just as careful as Paul wanted the Colossians to be – watching out for false teachings and ascetic practices.

Warren Wiersbe accurately described the dangers that modern believers must be wary of:

“When we make Jesus Christ and the Christian revelation only part of a total religious system or philosophy, we cease to give Him the preeminence.  When we strive for ‘spiritual perfection’ or ‘spiritual fullness’ by means of formulas, disciplines, or rituals, we go backward instead of forward.  Christian believers must beware of mixing their Christian faith with such alluring things as yoga, transcendental meditation, Oriental mysticism, and the like.  We must also beware of ‘deeper life’ teachers who offer a system for victory and fullness that bypasses devotion to Jesus Christ.  In all things, He must have preeminence!”

If the purpose of the rules, principles, or guidelines we follow are doing anything other than pointing us toward Christ or making us more Christ-like…then they are a waste of time and they will eventually lead us astray.  Our first clue that a particular practice is potentially dangerous is to ask the question “Where is the focus placed, on Jesus or on me?

Keep Pressing,
Ken 

Shadow vs Substance

There have been many ways that man has tried to relate to God throughout the centuries.  Even though the Jewish people were given God’s law, over time they added layers of additional rules to “help” their people know exactly how to (and how not to) interact with God.

However, these “helps” did not rescue the people from their sins.  They could not rescue themselves.  They needed a Savior.  Talking about Jesus, Paul told the believers in Colossae:

Colossians 2:13-15
And when you were dead in trespasses and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive with Him and forgave us all our trespasses.  He erased the certificate of debt, with its obligations, that was against us and opposed to us, and has taken it out of the way by nailing it to the cross.  He disarmed the rulers and authorities and disgraced them publicly; He triumphed over them by Him.

Now that Jesus has made you alive, how should we worship God? 

The trouble with all these additional, specific rules was that they had become the measuring stick of how “godly” a person was.  The Israelites compared themselves with each other and judged one another’s “spirituality” by how well the 600+ rules were maintained. 

They were getting hung up on the ritual – the action that was supposed to help them look forward to the Messiah – rather than using the ritual to help them recognize the Messiah when He arrived.  Ritual observance and proficiency had become their focus.  It had been that way in Jewish communities for hundreds of years before Jesus came.

However, now that the Colossians believed on Jesus for eternal life, they needed to know that their previous ritual activities no longer held the same level of importance.

Colossians 2:16-17
Therefore don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a sabbath day.  These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is the Messiah.

A shadow can give us an idea of what an object is like, by revealing the outline of the object.  However, a shadow can never tell us the true value of an object.  A ball made of styrofoam and a ball made of gold will cast the same shadow.  Therefore, a shadow is ultimately just a representation of the object, and the only value a shadow has is in how well it represents the substance.  Even then, the true value is found in the object itself.

All the historical rules about food and drink, the yearly festivals and feasts, and special days had come to a close.  Their purpose was fulfilled in Christ’s work on the cross.  It was time for the people to stop staring at the shadow because the substance responsible for the shadow had come into view. 

Going forward, everything they would do to worship God would be Jesus-focused, not activity focused.  They needed to look to the person, not the ritual.

Rituals can be helpful, but only as long as they point us toward Jesus.  We would be wise to do an inventory of our lives and worship service preferences to make sure that we’re keeping our focus on the substance of the Messiah and not getting hung up in the shadows.

Keep Pressing,
Ken

Playing favorites

Titus 3:13 Do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way and see that they have everything they need. 

Last time, we were introduced to Apollos and caught a glimpse of his impact on the churches in the known world.  However, there is another important lesson to learn with a continued look at his ministry.

Apollos later went to Corinth (Acts 19:1), where he again successfully ministered to the believers.  His teaching was so well respected, that the believers in Corinth actually placed Apollos at the same teaching level as Peter, Paul, and even Jesus.  The debate of which-teacher-to-follow became such a problem in the Corinthian church that a good portion of one letter Paul wrote was to correct them in how they should be viewing himself and Apollos.

1 Corinthians 1:11-13 My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you.  What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas (Peter)”; still another, “I follow Christ”.  Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified for you?  Were you baptized into the name of Paul?

Nowadays, if a situation like this arose and one of the popular teachers wrote a letter concerning how the congregation should view the other teachers, I would expect the letter to be very territorial.  Given today’s denominational climate in America, it’s easy to envision a letter being written that sounds theologically pretty, but the author’s core message is that the believers should listen to him only.  His arguments would sound something like – “I am best suited to help you develop your relationship with Christ”, or that “Since I ministered to you first, you should stick with me”, or he could suggest that the other preacher’s teaching style or approach to spreading the gospel was inadequate.  Unfortunately, concern for a congregation is also a potential mask for a preacher’s ego and pride.

However, Paul is not one to play these kinds of games.  Direct and to the point, Paul’s main concern was that the believers were properly focusing on Christ…and not on who the message of Christ was coming from or what teaching style the person used.

1 Corinthians 3:5-9 What, after all, is Apollos?  And what is Paul?  Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task.  I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.  So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.  The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor.  For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

All teachers, preachers, and church leaders are susceptible to the trap of thinking that it is “my church, or “my” class, or “my” ministry.  The cure for this selfish pitfall is the same for the teacher as it is for those who follow the teacher…our focus must be on God, for he is the one who makes things grow

A congregation does not grow because the preacher is preaching and an individual does not grow because of the particular teacher they are listening to.  The work of preachers, teachers, and church leaders is to provide the best conditions for people to grow.  Ultimately, it was God that built us with the capacity for growth in relationship to him, and the responsibility for the development of that relationship is between the individual and God. 

1 Corinthians 3:21-23 So then, no more boasting about men!  All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

Our favorite teacher is simply a servant of the God we love.  Don’t look for them to make you grow.  Don’t put God’s responsibility on your teacher.

Since Paul was the one who started the church in Corinth, he could have been territorial about which teacher they should be follow; however, he chose not to be.  The debate about which teacher to follow was already dividing the congregation, and could have easily led to a church split.  Imagine the damage to the church’s reputation!  A division of ‘Paul vs. Apollos’ could have also spread to the young churches in other regions if Paul had either ignored or participated in their debate.

Instead, Paul kept his pride in check and didn’t fuel the fire of their arguments.  Instead, he promoted harmony within the church by turning their attention appropriately towards Christ.

Keep Pressing,
Ken