Hard to believe, but 2018 is here! For GCI, it will be a year of transitions, and so that is the theme we’ve chosen for GCI Equipper in 2018. Early in the year, we’ll be moving the GCI Home Office from Glendora, CA, to Charlotte, NC. Then, throughout 2018, we’ll see several personnel transitions. I’ll become GCI President at the end of 2018, when Joseph Tkach retires. Several other denominational leaders, Home Office staff and pastors will also retire this year—we’ll share the details as the year progresses. Thanks for your prayers!
These transitions come with excitement, some apprehension, and several questions: Will GCI remain the same? Will we hold to the same truths? Will our new leaders be as effective as the ones who are retiring? Though I don’t have complete answers to these important questions, I’m not worried—I know that Jesus is the head of GCI and of all his body, the church. For that reality, I give God thanks.
As we journey together through the transitions of 2018, I pray we will do so reassured that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). Though Jesus transcends our earthly limitations, we rejoice knowing that he never stops caring for us. Through the Spirit, he joins us in our struggles, including our transitions, to guide us through them.
Will GCI change? I certainly believe so, since Jesus has always been about transformation, and I think you’ll agree that God is continually transforming us. In our journey forward with Jesus, will we hold to the same truths? The answer is that God has put us on a remarkable path of renewal, and I’m confident he will continue to lead us on that same path. As we journey forward, we will continue to strive to gain an even better understanding of the truth—Jesus, himself, is that truth.
Will GCI remain the same denomination? Our collective prayer and commitment is that we will continue to strive to be the denomination that Jesus wants us to be. We will seek to continue going where Jesus leads us by his Spirit and through his word.
In the opening chapter of Colossians, Paul reminds us about who Jesus is: He is the creator of all things. He is “the firstborn from among the dead.” He is the one who is “before all things and in him all things hold together.” Jesus is, and always will be, the head of the church (including GCI). Though being under Jesus’ headship means many things, let me address three here: 1) mutual submission, 2) corporate testimony and 3) shared ministry.
1. Mutual submission
Mutual submission occurs when men and women submit their individual lives to Jesus as Lord; and then these individuals join as a community of believers, collectively submitting to Jesus as Master over the life of the group—the body, the church. Knowing Jesus is head over all things to the church is encouraging and comforting news to those in leadership positions, and maybe even more reassuring to the members.
2. Corporate testimony
The church (ekklesia) is the “assembly” of God’s people. The writer of Hebrews encourages believers to not forsake assembling together. Why does the church gather? From our perspective, we do so to be built up and encouraged (submitting one to another) and to worship (giving glory to and submitting to God). From God’s grander perspective, the church meets to make his Son Jesus known, real and accessible. This is our corporate testimony. We share the same message—we worship as we witness, and we witness as we worship. Our redeemed lives are living testimonies to the reality of Jesus and we offer ourselves daily as living sacrifices, which is our reasonable response of worship.
3. Shared ministry
The Holy Spirit leads us to find ways and means to participate in shared ministry as we worship and witness together. As he leads us to shared ministry, fruit results. This is because Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is still at work in his people. Acts tells the story of Christ’s work in and through his servants as they were energized and directed by the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus ascended into heaven, his work did not end; rather, he chose to express himself through a body of believers who would continue his life and ministry on earth. Grace Communion International is one part of that body of believers. Yes, transitions can be exciting and can lead to apprehension, but this we know: Jesus is the head of his body, the church, and even more personally for us, he is the head of GCI! For that we give thanks, and in that, we are reassured.
Looking forward to our journey together, with Jesus, in 2018,
Greg Williams, GCI Vice President
On leadership: confidentiality
By Rick Shallenberger (Regional Pastor and GCI Equipper writer)
This is part 6 of a series on Christian leadership. For other articles in the series, click a number: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8.
Let’s be honest—it is both fun to be “in the know” and a temptation to share what we know with others. This reality raises the important issue of confidentiality.
I remember the day I got engaged. I couldn’t wait to go to work and inform everyone (this was before texting, email, Twitter, Snapchat and Facebook). I also remember when my wife told me she was pregnant, and I wanted to tell everyone right away. We decided to wait, and that was difficult. It seems that good news is anxious to be told!
There are appropriate times for telling others things they don’t already know. But there are also times when what we know should not be shared. Maintaining confidentiality is a must for pastoral and ministry leaders. Breaches of confidentiality can be costly, leading to hurt feelings and even shattered relationships.
GCI’s leadership consultant, GiANT Worldwide, provides a simple tool I wish I’d had years ago (it would have helped me avoid some breaches of confidentiality). I want to share this tool with you, hoping it will be of help. Called “Discretion & Discipline,” it’s illustrated in this diagram:
This tool, which applies to the sharing of all types of information, leads us to consider three issues: 1) What to share (how much?) 2) Who to share it with (are they the right people?) and 3) When to share it (is now the right time?). An example will help. Say you are in a conversation with your supervisor and she shares that she hopes to implement a new training program this year with a few key leaders, and she is also considering promoting a couple of those leaders. You walk out of the room feeling good about this new direction, and since your supervisor didn’t say anything about confidentiality, you share that information with a few people. Of course, some of them share it with a few others.
A few days later you run into your supervisor in the hall and she expresses her frustration that word got out about her idea and rumors about who is being promoted are now running rampant. “It’s out of control,” she laments, and you must admit it’s partly your fault. The entire scenario could have been avoided by prayerfully considering the three issues addressed in the diagram above. Let’s look a bit closer at each issue.
What to share
A good starting point is to ask if this information is yours to share. Far too often we fail to ask, “Do I have permission to share this?” “Is this information confidential?” Just because the person who shares the information with you does not say that it is confidential, does not mean you have the right to share it. In fact, we’re better off assuming confidentiality. We should always ask, “Is this OK to share?”
Who to share it with
Even when we have permission to share something, it’s important to consider whom we share the information with. Minimizing the number is usually the key. Only share the information with those who need to know (and when you do, tell them of any confidentiality considerations).
This is vital when working with your pastoral team, advisory council and finance committee. Sometimes the finance committee will need to know something the advisory council doesn’t need to know. Sometimes things may be shared with the pastoral team that don’t need to be shared elsewhere. An effective leader knows who needs to know the information and then acts accordingly, starting with the smallest group, then expanding to others as needed. In making such determinations, asking a simple question can save much grief: “This is good information; may I share it with so and so?”
When to share it
So, you’ve received permission to share the information and you know who needs it. The next issue to consider is the timing. When is the best time to share this information? Is the person receptive? Is their mind on something else, and thus unable to appreciate what you are about to share?
Let me make this point using a bit of humor: a best man should not announce his engagement while raising a toast to the newly married couple. Though it’s good news you want to share with a lot of people, the timing is not right. Here’s another example: I heard of an employer who announced to his staff that there were going to be layoffs. “The good news,” he said, “is those who aren’t being laid off are getting a bonus.”
Maintaining appropriate confidentiality in ministry is vital and it should always be accompanied with prayer. Sometimes it’s not clear what to share, who to share it with, and when to share it. Always pray about it, asking God for wisdom and discernment. In most situations where confidentiality is involved, less is best. Keep in mind the popular THINK before you speak acronym:
T – Is it true?
H – Is it helpful?
I – Is it inspiring?
N – Is it necessary?
K – Is it kind?
Kids Korner: Start with a thankful heart
By Pastor Lance McKinnon
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. (Psalm 100:4, NRSV)
This Psalm serves us well when considering the New Year with our children. The best start is with a thankful heart. In fact, it’s the best start we can have each new day.
It’s amazing how a little thankfulness for my children helps me see how they really are an amazing blessing and gift beyond measure. That’s how thankfulness works. We are thankful only for that which we willingly receive. When God gives us a gift, we can either receive it and say, “thank you” or we can reject it with “no thanks!” When God gifts us with a relationship with a child he does not give us a project to complete—he gives us himself to encounter:
Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. (Matt. 25:40, NRSV)
The reality of Jesus’ presence in all our relationships transforms our interaction with others, like our children, where deep thankfulness emerges as the environment of engagement. It is within this environment that God works his transformational purposes.
How often do the letters addressed to churches in the New Testament begin with thankfulness for the people they are about to address? This can tell us something about how we approach those we are called to minister to. How might our approach to our own children or the children we are serving at church or in our communities change if we started with a mindset of thankfulness? There are at least three ways that a thankful mindset towards our children works towards building a relationship with them that is mutually transformative:
1. Thankfulness moves our hearts from despair to hope
Let’s face it, sometimes kids can be challenging. Sometimes it feels like there is absolutely no progress or transformation taking place. Thankfulness places those challenges in the faithful hands of the Lord who is present with our kids, working in them for the good purposes he has for them. He does not call us into despair as we serve children through their ups and downs. We know the one who is present with them, therefore we can serve out of hope, knowing that Jesus does not call us to participate in a vain endeavor. Thankfulness for our children moves us beyond seeing them only in some state of arrival somewhere down the road and instead, enables us to enjoy them, and Christ in them, now, while we journey with them.
2. Thankfulness moves our thinking from scarcity to abundance
Ministry with children can leave us feeling inadequate and ill-equipped for the challenges our kids are facing. For example, parents often feel like they wish they could start over and do things differently. Maybe with a little more knowledge, a few more skills, a better methodology (and the list can go on) we could minister to our kids effectively. But thankfulness reminds us that God is the primary and fundamental person working for the child’s good—through Jesus and by the Holy Spirit.
Thankfulness helps us see that our Triune God richly provides for his purposes to our kids. Our relationship with them becomes another part of his gracious provision. Thankfulness towards our children opens our eyes to the abundant grace already being poured out on our children and ourselves. There’s nothing more we need in order that we may continue daily receiving from the Lord his gracious provision for us as we minister to our children.
When we start from a ground of thankfulness, good fruit comes forth from fertile soil. Thankfulness guards our hearts from acting (and overreacting) out of fear or guilt. When I’m devoid of thankfulness, complaining seems to quickly rush in to fill the void. We see this in the parent who is unable to have a soft answer for a child in a hard spot. Or the children’s ministry worker who is not open to the child who presents roadblocks to the program’s goals. Maybe you have observed the child who is considered an annoying intrusion to our otherwise “worshipful” church service experience. Thankfulness reverses these curses into expressions of blessing as we act toward and for the child out of the rich grace that God is given us with them.
A challenge to consider
If you are a parent, I challenge you to say a prayer of thankfulness for your children before you see them each morning. If you are a youth leader or worker at church, you may want to say a prayer of thanks for each kid by name before you interact with them. In any engagement with children you find yourself in, I encourage you to lift those children up in your prayers and smother them with thanksgiving as you see Jesus in them, blessing them, and blessing you with a relationship with them. Maybe you will find yourself wanting to tell that child directly, “I’m so thankful for you in my life—you are a blessing to me.” I think you’ll be thankful you did.
Sermon for February 4, 2018
Scripture readings: Isa.40:21-31; Ps. 147:1-11, 20c;
1 Cor. 9:16-23; Mark 1:29-39
Sermon by Ted Johnston from 1 Cor. 9:1-27
(drawing on commentary from Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Expository Commentary and Bruce Winter in The New Bible Commentary)
Exercising Our Freedom in Christ, part 2
Today is the fifth Sunday after the Epiphany—the annual celebration of the revealing (epiphany) of Christ to the world. Last Sunday, we began to explore what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians concerning how Christians reveal our Lord as they rightly exercise the freedom that is theirs in Christ. We saw in 1 Corinthians 8 that this means balancing knowledge with love. Now in chapter 9, Paul tells us that it also means balancing freedom with discipline—a principle he illustrates with the example of his own ministry in the city of Corinth—specifically the way he approached the matter of his personal finances.
As an apostle of Jesus Christ, Paul had the right to ask the Corinthian church for financial support. Nevertheless, he waived that right, supporting himself instead by working as a tentmaker. This was a radical thing to do in Corinth, where the Greek populace despised manual labor, which typically was assigned to slaves. Free citizens like Paul would normally enjoy sports, philosophy and leisure. But Paul balanced that freedom with personal discipline, denying himself some of the freedom that was his right in order to benefit others.
A. Paul defends his authority to seek their support (1 Cor. 9:1–14)
Our passage begins as Paul, through five related arguments, points out that he has the authority (the right) and thus the freedom to ask the church at Corinth for financial support.
1) His apostleship (1 Cor. 9:1-6)
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who must work for a living? (1 Cor. 9:1-6)
The title apostle means “one sent under commission,” and refers primarily to the 12 apostles and Paul. These men had a special apostolic commission, along with the New Testament prophets, to lay the foundation of the church. One of the qualifications for these founding apostles was a personal and visible encounter with the resurrected Jesus. Paul, as you know, encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus. The apostles also performed special signs and wonders that validated their ministry and Paul performed many miracles in founding the church at Corinth.
As an apostle, Paul had the “right” (which means “authority”) to receive support from the people to whom he ministered. As the special representative of Jesust, he deserved to be welcomed and cared for. Paul also had the right to devote his full time to apostolic ministry. He did not have to make tents. The other apostles did not work to support themselves because they gave themselves completely to their apostolic ministry, and believers gave them financial support. However, both Paul and Barnabas labored with their own hands to support not only themselves, but also others who served in ministry with them.
2) Human experience (1 Cor. 9:7)
Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk? (1 Cor. 9:7)
Everyday experience teaches that workers deserve to be rewarded for their labor. If people are drafted to be soldiers, the government pays their wages and provides supplies. The person who plants a vineyard gets to eat the fruit, just as a shepherd gets to use the milk from their animals. The lesson is clear: Christian workers have the right to expect benefits for their labors.
3) Scripture (1 Cor. 9:8-12)
Do I say this merely from a human point of view? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ. (1 Cor. 9:8-12)
The “Law” (a term that is shorthand for what we call the Old Testament) was the Bible of the early church, since the New Testament was in the process of being written. The first believers found guidance in the principles of the Law, even though they were no longer “under” the Law as their rule for life. Here Paul quotes Deut. 25:4, which notes that it is cruel for a farmer to bind the mouth of his ox and thus prevent him from eating grain. After all, the ox was doing the work.
Paul correctly sees here a spiritual principle: the laborer has the right to share in the bounties. The ox had plowed the soil in preparation for sowing, and now it was treading out the grain that had been harvested. Paul had plowed the soil in Corinth. He had seen a harvest from the seed he had planted. It was only right that he enjoy some of the fruit of that harvest.
In 1 Cor. 9:11, Paul gives a basic principle of Christian living: If we receive spiritual blessings, we should in turn share our material blessings. For example, as noted in Rom. 15, the Jews gave spiritual blessings to the Gentiles, so the Gentiles had an obligation to share materially with the Jews. As noted in Gal. 6, those who teach us the word have the right to expect us to support them financially. We have reason to believe that Paul did accept financial support from other churches (2 Cor. 11:8). Apparently other ministers had accepted support at Corinth (1 Cor. 9:12), but Paul preferred to remain independent lest he should “hinder the gospel of Christ.” For Paul, his example was more important than his “rights.”
4) Old Covenant practice (1 Cor. 9:13)
Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? (1 Cor. 9:13)
The priests and Levites under the old covenant, (as well as the pagan priests in Corinth) lived off the sacrifices and offerings brought to the temple. Paul’s point is clear: if these priests were supported by the people to whom they ministered, shouldn’t he and his fellow ministers be supported?
5) Jesus’ teachings (1 Cor. 9:14)
In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (1 Cor. 9:14)
Here Paul refers to Jesus’ words, which he had learned from Jesus’ original disciples (the Gospels had not been written yet). That the laborer is worthy of being paid, is a fundamental principle that the church dares not neglect.
With these five arguments, Paul makes his point: he had the right to expect the church in Corinth to support him in his ministry while he was with them. Yet, he deliberately refused their support. Why? This he now explains.
B. Paul defends his freedom to refuse their support (1 Cor. 9:15–27)
Paul had the authority (right) to receive material support, but being a mature Christian, he balanced authority with discipline. Though he did not have the right to give up his liberty in Christ, he did have the liberty to give up his rights; and that is what he did. Now his appeal to the Corinthian believers is that they follow his example. The stronger believers in the church should be able to set aside some of their rights for the sake of the weaker ones. Was eating meat more important than edifying the church?Paul is here addressing their priorities. It’s unfortunate that some Christians have their priorities confused and, as a result, hinder the work of Christ.
Paul gives three reasons that explain why he refused financial support from the church in Corinth:
1) For the sake of the gospel (1 Cor. 9:15-18)
But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me. I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast. Yet when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!
If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it. (1 Cor. 9:15-18)
Paul did not want to “hinder the gospel of Christ.” In that day, Greek cities were frequented by all kinds of itinerant teachers and preachers, most of whom were in it for the money. Not only had Paul refused to use their kind of oratory and argumentation (as noted in 1 Cor. 2), but he also refused to accept money from those to whom he ministered. He wanted the gospel message to be free from any obstacles or hindrances in the minds of his audiences and he did not want his audiences to exert any influence over what he would preach.
Paul could not claim credit for preaching the gospel, because he had been called of God to preach it. God had given him a divine stewardship (trust), and, as Paul said, “it is required of stewards, that one be found trustworthy” (1 Cor. 4:2, NASB). God would see to it that Paul would receive his “reward” (translated “wages” in Luke 10). What was that reward? The joy of preaching the gospel freely! This meant that no one could accuse him of underhanded motives or methods as he shared the good news about Jesus Christ.
2) For the sake of non-believers (1 Cor. 9:19-23)
Though I am free and belong to no one, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak.
I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Cor. 9:19-23)
What a paradox: free from all people, yet servant of all “for Jesus’ sake.” Paul exercised his freedom by setting aside some of his rights in order that he might more effectively serve others. His tactics did not mean that he changed his message and methods with each new situation. Nor did he compromise his message to please his audience. Rather, Paul was a master at relating the gospel to diverse audiences. Whenever he went into a new city, he headed straight for the Jewish synagogue, if there was one, and boldly shared the gospel first to his kinsmen Jews. If he was rejected by them (which was usually the case), he turned to the Gentiles.
What separated Jews and Gentiles in that day? The Law of Moses (the Torah), which was a central feature of the covenant as administered between God and Israel in what is sometimes called the old covenant. In his personal life, Paul sought to live in such a way that he offended neither Torah-observant Jews, or non-observant Gentiles. He also sought not to offend “the weak”—Christians who did not have the freedom of conscience that he possessed. Thus, Paul did not parade his freedom from the Law before Jews, nor did he impose the Law upon Gentiles.
Was Paul thus behaving inconsistently? No, he was adapting his evangelistic approach to the needs and consciences of different groups. You will find this evangelistic strategy in his sermons in the book of Acts. When preaching to Jews, he started with the Old Testament patriarchs; but when preaching to Gentiles, he started with creation and its Creator. From these points of common ground, Paul led both groups to an awareness of Jesus—the God of the Old Testament and the Creator of all. As a good evangelist, Paul built bridges, not walls.
Though to immature people Paul’s tactics looked inconsistent, even scandalous, he was being consistent—his overriding purpose was always to lead people to Jesus. In fact, consistency can itself become legalistic—we can become so bound by humanly-devised rules and standards that we lose our God-given freedom to minister.
Paul had the right (freedom) in Christ to eat whatever he wanted, yet he gave up that right to reach Jews for Christ. As a Jew, he had a high regard for the Law of Moses, yet gave up his right to be Torah-observant to reach Gentiles. He even identified himself with legalistic weak Christians to help them grow up in Christ. This strateghy was not compromise, but rather total abandonment to the law of love (“Christ’s law”). It involved humbling himself to be the servant (bond-slave) of all. This is the way of Jesus.
3) For his own sake (1 Cor. 9:24-27)
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.
Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Cor. 9:24-27)
Paul, a fan of sports, often used athletic images in his letters. The Corinthians would have been familiar with the Greek Olympic Games as well as their own local Isthmian Games. Knowing this, Paul used a metaphor very close to their experience. Athletes (whether runners or boxers) must be disciplined if they are to win the prize. Discipline means giving up the good and the better for the best. And so it is for the Christian who “competes” in Christ’s service. They strive not to be saved, but because they are saved.
Only Greek citizens could participate in the games, and they had to obey the rules both in their training and performing. Any contestant found breaking the training rules was automatically disqualified.
To lead others to Jesus, Paul was willing to give up his rights by disciplining himself. The emphasis of this chapter is that rights must be balanced by discipline. If we want to serve the Lord effectively, and thus win his reward (the “crown”), we must pay the price. At the Greek games, there was a herald who announced the rules of the contest, the names of the contestants, and the names and cities of the winners. He would also announce the names of any contestants who were disqualified.
Paul saw himself as both a herald making such announcements, as well as a competitor in the race. He was concerned lest he be so busy helping others in the race that he ignore himself and find himself disqualified. Again, it was not a matter of losing salvation (the disqualified Greek athlete did not lose his citizenship, only his opportunity to win the prize). The emphasis here is on rewards, and Paul did not want to lose out on his.
Only one runner could win the olive-wreath crown in the Greek games, but every believer can win an incorruptible crown that will be given them when they stand to receive their reward before the Judgment Seat of Christ their King. This crown will be given to those who have disciplined themselves for the sake of serving Christ. This discipline involves keeping their bodies under control and their minds fixed on the goal.
We have great freedom in Christ—and now, from Paul, we’ve heard how we may exercise that freedom in the balanced way that glorifies God and advances Jesus’ work of reaching out with the gospel to a world that does not yet know him. May we all, like Paul, balance our personal rights—our freedom in Christ—with self-discipline. To do that, we’ll often need to sacrifice personal, temporary gain and comfort for eternal joy for many. This is our calling and our participation in the life and love of Jesus, the servant of all. Let us live free as the servants of Christ that we are! Amen.
Sermon for February 11, 2018
Scripture readings: 2 Kings 2:1-12; Ps. 50:1-6;
2 Cor. 4:3-6; Mark 9:2-9
Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday by Martin Manuel from Mark 9:2-9
Eyewitnesses of Jesus’ Glory
Poets, composers, authors and preachers—all have captivated us with the phrase, “Touch the face of God.” But has anyone touched God’s face? Has anyone seen God? The answer is yes and no.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had direct, two-way communication with their Creator, Adonai Elohim. Later, so did their sons, Cain and Abel. El Shaddai appeared to Abraham as one of three men—the other two were angels. Jacob wrestled with a man, and afterward said he had met God face to face. In each case, God appeared as a man to these people. Adonai Elohim and El Shaddai are names of God.
Yahweh is another name of God. Moses asked to see Yahweh’s glory, but he was told, “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Ex. 33:20). However, Moses was allowed a glimpse of Yahweh’s back side as he passed by. He talked to Moses face to face, but Moses never saw him without a shroud to mask God’s glory.
Humans have seen God in the form of a man, even face to face, but no one has ever seen God in all his glory. That is what John meant when he wrote:
No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. (John 1:18)
The Son of God existed in glory before his human birth. He was born Jesus, a human being, later to appear following his resurrection as a glorified human, but never seen by humans in the full glory and power of God.
Today, which is Transfiguration Sunday, our Scripture readings include the story of Elijah taken away by “the chariot of Israel” in the presence of Elisha, the Psalmist speaking of God coming in glory and gathering the saints, and Paul writing about the gospel of the glory of Christ. Glory is the common theme, and the Gospel reading today in the book of Mark is about Jesus appearing in glory.
The scene is set in Mark 8 when Peter, under inspiration, identifies Jesus for who he truly is, the Messiah. But there is a problem. Peter, along with the other 11 disciples, had his own mental vision of Jesus as Messiah. That vision, formed as it was by the religious teaching handed down to them, and a major part of their core values, was different than the true vision of the Father, Son and Spirit. To these disciples, it did not make sense to keep Jesus’ Messiahship secret as Jesus had told them.
Upon hearing Jesus speak about an impending clash at Jerusalem in which the Jewish religious leaders would reject him, resulting in his death and resurrection, Peter decided to disagree with him to his face. He took Jesus aside to rebuke him. In response, Jesus rebuked Peter, and knowing that Peter was expressing a broadly held opinion, Jesus extended the conversation to the whole group of disciples and other followers standing nearby, telling them that they would have to be willing to follow him into impending persecution (Mark 8:29-37).
After this rebuke and warning, Jesus have a rather mysterious reference to his future return to earth in glory. He then followed that by foretelling that some present with him would see the glory of the kingdom of God in their lifetime (Mark 8:38-9:1).
Today’s sermon is about the fulfillment of this prophetic statement. We will see that Jesus was speaking of his forthcoming Transfiguration, which would be witnessed by three of his disciples. In studying Mark’s account of the Transfiguration, we will gain a better understanding about this historical event and what it means to the followers of Jesus as well as all humanity.
The event on a mountaintop
It was not long before Jesus brought his mysterious statement about seeing the glory of the kingdom into clarity:
After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. (Mark 9:2)
Though it is not certain, many believe the Mount of Transfiguration was Mt. Tabor, which lies between Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee. The actual location doesn’t matter—what’s important is that Jesus wanted it to be a private event. Only he and the three disciples were there.
What significance was the time period of “after six days?” The text doesn’t say—perhaps it took that long to travel there. More importantly, Mark wanted to relate the event to Jesus’ statement about some seeing the kingdom in glory.
What does “transfigured” mean? The Greek word is similar to the English word metamorphosis, meaning to change in form and appearance as a caterpillar changes into a butterfly. Mark 9:3 describes it this way:
“His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.”
Even Jesus’ clothes were transfigured, yet these Jewish men, though shocked a bit, did not seem to be mystified at the significance of this change in appearance. They were familiar with the Holy Scriptures such as Daniel 9:9, which describes the clothing of the Ancient of Days as white as snow; and Psalm 104:2, which speaks of God clothing himself with light. Now this transfiguration of Jesus built upon their notion of his identity as the Anointed One of God. Although Peter had stated it, these three disciples did not seem to fully grasp it. As Jesus changed, so began the change of their opinions. They began to understand that there was more to Jesus than they had realized. Then, came another surprise:
And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. (Mark 9:4)
How astonishing this must have been! As noted in Luke 9:31, the most venerable of Israel’s prophets appeared, talking with Jesus about his impending suffering in Jerusalem. This should have decisively reshaped the disciples’ vision but, apparently, they still didn’t grasp what was happening. Notice Peter’s next words:
Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.) (Mark 9:5-6)
More influenced by his emotions than by his rational mind, Peter blurted out his misunderstanding, implying that the vision they were seeing depicted the equality of Jesus, Moses and Elijah. The next thing that happened took care of this misunderstanding:
Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7)
Though frightened, the disciples’ understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures and traditions should have helped them make sense out of what they were now witnessing. They should have remembered Exodus 40:34, which tells of the overshadowing cloud signaling the divine presence. The voice that now spoke out of the cloud about the Son of God should have been recognized as the divine voice.
Though these three disciples were not present when a similar testimony from heaven took place at Jesus’ baptism, this time they were eye-witnesses, and their understanding began to unfold. The voice authoritatively addressed Peter’s misconception. It was saying, in effect, “Don’t put Moses and Elijah in the same category as Jesus; he is my beloved Son! Don’t compare their words to his; listen to him!” With this strong declaration, the disciples would, as eyewitnesses, have realized more clearly that Jesus was not just another rabbi or servant of God; he was far more than that, and what he said and did had far greater weight.
The significance of the Transfiguration
Let’s consider a little more deeply the significance of these ten short words: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” Moses, now standing with Jesus, was Israel’s lawgiver. The Law, part of which was dictated by God and transcribed by Moses, was even called The Law of Moses. The first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures, authored by Moses, were sometimes referred to as The Law. Moses himself foretold the coming of “a prophet like me,” warning Israel, “You must listen to him” (Deut. 18:15). Together with the voice from the cloud, this passage elevated Jesus above The Law.
In a similar way, the voice also elevated Jesus above the second part of the Hebrew Scriptures, The Prophets, now represented by Elijah, standing with Jesus. Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. It is in knowing Jesus that we can understand the full intent and message of the Law and the Prophets.
The three eyewitnesses probably did not grasp immediately the full significance of what was spoken, but in time, and especially after they received the Holy Spirit, they would realize that Jesus transcended any rabbi, teacher, prophet, or messiah of their imaginations. The Father, Son and Spirit had made their point, and the great event ended:
Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus. [Moses, gone. Elijah, gone.] As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (Mark 9:8)
The three eyewitnesses kept Jesus’ order not to discuss what they had witnessed on the Mount of Transfiguration. Later, following Jesus’ resurrection, they were free to share their experience, and we read of Peter’s impressions in his second letter:
For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. (2 Pet. 1:16-18)
Peter’s words shed light on the intentions of the Father, Son and Spirit in that special event—the Transfiguration. They chose three humans to be eyewitnesses of Jesus’ true glory, concealed from humanity to some extent now, but to be seen fully by all when Jesus returns in glory. In the Law of Moses, three witnesses were considered reliable for testimony of a fact. Through the eyes of these three witnesses, all who believe have access to a vision of Jesus’ identity that is consistent with the truth.
The Father, Son and Spirit, through a small, specially-selected audience, using the Son of God and Son of Man, Jesus Christ, gave humanity a peek into the splendor, majesty, power and glory that they possess. Words alone were inadequate, so Peter, James and John were given a visual exhibit for a moment. If, as the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine the impact this vision had in the lives of these three men. Although what was visibly and audibly displayed was only a peek, it was enough to give them insight into what eyes otherwise had not seen nor had ears heard.
In human history, the Transfiguration was one of those special events to point humanity toward the day of the manifestation of the children of God. To all who believe now, the Transfiguration was a powerful testimony to the true identity of Jesus, God’s Son. Although Peter had testified to that truth before the Transfiguration, he obviously didn’t really understand what he was saying. He did not realize who he was talking to when he took Jesus aside to rebuke him.
The Transfiguration distinguished Jesus from Moses and Elijah, the Jews’ most venerated prophets, one of whom wrote that God would send “a prophet like me” and the other of whom Scripture stated, “I send you Elijah the prophet.” The Transfiguration emphasized the preeminence of Jesus and his word over Moses, author of the Law, and over Elijah, who symbolized the Prophets. Thus, Jesus is preeminent over Scripture, which exists to testify concerning him.
We see now, only in part
Though the Transfiguration provided a glimpse of who Jesus really is, his humanity as the son of man masked to some extent the fullness of his glory as the Son of God. John, one of the three eyewitnesses to the Transfiguration, wrote this near the end of his life:
Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)
Though John witnessed Jesus’ glory at the Transfiguration and then after his resurrection, it was still not fully clear to him what being transformed into the likeness of the glorified human person Jesus will be like for us when Jesus returns. However, he was assured that when that time comes, we will be like him, for then we will see Jesus as he truly is.
Thus, the Transfiguration gave John only a partial glimpse, stunning though it was. Consider this illustration: if a friend invites you to listen to a 5000-watt sound system with speakers around a small room, you could listen to it and even enjoy it at reasonable volume, but not at its full power, which would damage your hearing. In a similar way, the glory of God is too powerful for human senses, which would be overwhelmed, even to death. Saul of Tarsus was blinded by the glory of Jesus on the road to Damascus, but even then, he did not see Jesus in the fullness of his glory.
Why should we pay attention to this account of the Transfiguration? The reason is that this vision of three eyewitnesses was intended to be shared with everyone. All of us need to understand deeply who Jesus is and have a deep sense of awe about the Father and the Spirit. As we do, we gain insight into our future glorification in the likeness of Jesus, though as John notes, we’re not entirely sure what that will be like.
Why commemorate the Transfiguration on the Sunday before the beginning of the season of Lent? In the book, Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, Laurence Hull Stookey points out that the Transfiguration “can act as a bridge into Lent by further identifying who Jesus is and by anticipating what will occur in Jerusalem” (p. 136).
By this annual reminder of the Transfiguration, the church grows in its understanding of who Jesus is and what to expect when he returns. Each of us can learn that our vision of God needs to be consistent with the vision of the Father, Son and Spirit, and that this shared vision is part of the process of our growth.
May the vision granted the three eyewitnesses to the Transfiguration of Jesus enlighten the eyes of our hearts. Amen.
Sermon for February 18, 2018
Scripture readings: Gen. 9:8-17; Ps. 25:1-10;
1 Pet. 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
Sermon by Ted Johnston from 1 Pet. 3:18-22
(drawing on commentary from Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Expository Commentary and David Wheaton in The New Bible Commentary)
Serving God in Tough Times
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, the season in which, through prayer and introspection, we prepare for Holy Week. Our Epistles reading today is from 1 Peter, where the apostle reminds us that when times get tough, we all need hope. The apostle Peter wrote this letter to early Christians facing persecution, offering them hope with an important and powerful reminder about who Christ is, and about who they are in Christ. These truths encouraged them, and encourage us today, to keep serving God, even in tough times. Let’s read 1 Pet. 3:18-22:
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. (1 Pet. 3:18-22)
Interpreters wrestle with some of the issues addressed here, and though we won’t resolve them all in this sermon, we’ll seek to embrace the core message of hope that Peter offers—a message that revolves around three particular ministries in tough times: Jesus’, Noah’s and our own.
A. Jesus’ ministry
Jesus is the perfect example of serving God faithfully no matter what. Peter describes Jesus’ ministry from four perspectives: his death, proclamation, resurrection, and ascension.
1. Jesus’ death (1 Pet. 3:18a)
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (1 Pet. 3:18a)
Having mentioned in 1 Pet. 3:17 that it is better that Christians suffer for well-doing rather than evil-doing, Peter now gives the supreme example of Jesus the Righteous One who suffered terribly for the evil-doing of others. In doing so, he gives one of the most succinct, yet profound statements in the New Testament concerning the atonement. Through his ministry, Jesus resolved once and for all the problem of humanity’s broken relationship with God. As our representative and substitute, Jesus brought us back to God. He did not suffer and die because of his own sins, but because of ours.
Being the Creator of all, Jesus, through his Incarnation, represents all humanity. His death is thus our death—when Jesus died, we all died; when he rose, we all rose; when he ascended to the Father, we all ascended. Jesus, our representative and substitute, gained for us all a place in God’s family as his beloved children. In Christ, we are adopted into God’s life and love—an adoption that we then, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, personally experience.
Because of who Jesus is and because of what he has done for us, we, by the Spirit, may come boldly to God’s throne where we have, in Christ, and by the Spirit, open access to God’s marvelous grace to meet our daily needs. All this is ours because Jesus came among us as one of us and was willing to suffer to the utmost in order to serve us.
2. Jesus’ proclamation (1 Pet. 3:18b-20)
He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit. After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits—to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built. In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water… (1 Pet. 3:18b-20)
Jesus ministry of serving us continued after his crucifixion. Peter notes this by addressing the ministry Jesus conducted between his death and resurrection. We don’t know much about that period, but we know that Jesus was fully human and fully God and that God cannot die. Jesus, in his humanity, lay dead in the tomb, but where was he and what was he doing in his divinity? 1 Pet. 3:19 seems to provide a glimpse of at least part of the answer—what early Christian creeds call Jesus’ “descent to the dead” and sometimes “the harrowing of hell.”
In his divinity, Jesus “descended” into hell—the realm of the dead—the “prison” where certain “spirits” were being held awaiting judgment. These spirits are either unforgiven human sinners (specifically those who rejected God’s warning in Noah’s day), or fallen angels who had a role in the rebellion during Noah’s time. The idea of fallen angels seems to fit the context best. Jesus’ message to these imprisoned spirits was probably an announcement of his victory over Satan and the demons. Peter’s point in mentioning this is that this victory that Jesus won is ours. How? Through our sharing in Jesus’ victorious resurrection from the dead.
3. Jesus’ resurrection (1 Pet. 3:21)
…and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ… (1 Pet. 3:21)
Jesus’ resurrection plays a key role in his continuing ministry and it is in the resurrected Jesus that we have hope. Here Peter relates this hope to Noah as a type of our baptism. More about that comparison later, but note here the great importance of Jesus’ resurrection. It declares that he is God, that his work of salvation is complete and is accepted by the Father, and that through that work, death has been conquered.
It is our sharing in Jesus’ resurrected life that brings us salvation. We should think of salvation as a relationship, not a mere event or single moment in time. It is our continuing sharing in Jesus’ life that now saves us. And it is the risen Christ who, through the Holy Spirit, gives us that life, which includes giving us a share in his power to live for God and to serve God as part of a ministry of all believers.
4. Jesus’ ascension (1 Pet. 3:22)
…who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him. (1 Pet. 3:22)
Sadly, the doctrine of Jesus’ bodily ascension is often overlooked or a least minimized. But here Peter gives it prominence. Forty days after his bodily resurrection, Jesus (God-in-the flesh-now glorified) ascended to heaven where he sits “at God’s right hand”—a reference to his exalted status. All humanity, in the person of Jesus, our representative and substitute, sits with Jesus in his heavenly exaltation.
From heaven, the ascended Jesus is ministering to us, with us and through us as our High Priest and Advocate. Jesus, himself, is the “place” prepared in heaven for all humanity (John 14) and we reign in life with the ascended Jesus who reigns over all, including all “angels, authorities and powers” (apparently a reference to the evil hosts of Satan). By embracing and expressing this exalted position that is ours in union with Jesus, in our struggles we do not fight for victory, but from victory—the mighty victory our Lord has already won for us in his death, resurrection and ascension.
B. Noah’s ministry
Let’s return to these verses now noting Peter’s discussion of Noah’s ministry. In Peter’s day, Noah was held in high regard among Jews and Christians. Jesus referred to Noah in Matthew 24, and Peter mentions him in 2 Peter 2 and 3. Noah is also named as a hero of faith in Hebrews 11.
Here Peter points to Noah as a positive example of faithfulness in ministry in tough times. As “a preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5), Noah ministered for 120 difficult years. Early Christians remembered how Jesus said the “end times” would become increasingly like the “days of Noah” (Matt. 24). As they saw persecution increasing, they no doubt remembered that warning. Now Peter wants them to remember Noah’s faithful example in serving God even when times are tough, and ministry seems to bear little fruit. Indeed, what counted for Noah was not success (only seven people heeded his warnings!), but faithfulness.
There is another connection to Noah here. Peter saw in Noah’s flood a type of Christian baptism. Just as the flood buried the earth in judgment and lifted Noah and his family up in the ark to safety, so too baptism pictures burial with Jesus and being lifted up with him in his resurrection to new life.
In the way Noah and his family were saved by faith because they believed God and entered into the ark for deliverance, so too sinners, by repentance and faith, participate in the life of Christ, who saves them. Thus, Peter can say that Noah and his family were “saved through water” (1 Pet. 3:20). This does not mean that baptism itself saves us, but it means that Jesus, through his death and resurrection saves us (1 Pet. 3:21). Baptism pictures who Jesus is and what he has done to include us in his resurrected life.
According to Peter, having a good (clean) conscience is vital in this (see 1 Pet. 3:21 and 1 Pet. 3:16). In the early church, those about to be baptized were asked if they pledged to obey God and serve him, renounce the devil and break with their sinful past. If they had reservations about this, or deliberately lied about it, they would not have a good conscience. Similarly, if, under pressure of persecution, they deny their baptismal pledge (and Peter knew something about denying Jesus!), they would not have a good conscience. Peter is thus reminding us of our baptismal pledge—not to burden us, but to encourage us to be faithful to our commitment to Christ, including ministering with him even in tough times, like Noah did.
C. Our ministry today
Through the examples of Jesus and Noah, Peter points us toward faithfulness in serving God in our day—particularly when things get tough. Let’s note his key points:
1. Expect opposition
In a world living in the darkness of minds alienated from the God, we can expect people to resist our efforts to serve Jesus. Jesus himself, though perfect, was mocked and crucified. If the Just One who committed no sin was treated that way, we should expect to face opposition as well, since we are far less than perfect. We must be careful, however, that we suffer because of well-doing, not because we have disobeyed our Lord.
2. Seek faithfulness not success
Noah served God for decades yet only eight people (Noah plus seven other family members) were saved from the Flood. Nevertheless, God honored Noah for his ministry. To the world, Jesus appeared a total failure when he died on the cross, yet his death was a supreme victory. His cause today may seem to fail, but he will accomplish his purposes in this world and he will do so through our faithful service. And so, we seek faithfulness, leaving the numbers (and other signs of “success”) to the Lord of the harvest—remembering that the great harvest comes at the end of this age.
3. Be encouraged by Christ’s victory
Jesus’ victory over sin, death and all other obstacles is pictured in our baptism. Water baptism pictures our baptism in the Spirit, which is what unites us to Christ. It is through the Holy Spirit’s ongoing ministry and by his power that we live for Christ and minister with him. Opposition to our ministry is energized by Satan despite the fact that Jesus has already defeated him. And so, we approach ministry, despite its hardships and disappointments, with confidence and a clear sense of victory.
4. Baptism is important
Our baptism identifies us with Christ and gives testimony that we have broken with the old life and will, in Christ, live a new life. The act of baptism is a pledge to God that we will follow him no matter what difficulties arise. Some people make too much of baptism by teaching that it is a means of salvation, but some minimize its importance. If we have not been baptized already, we should be as an act of trust and obedience toward our Lord. Then we are to live the “baptized life”—a life of sharing with Jesus in his ministry, trusting in Jesus who is our salvation. In him we are safely delivered forever from all that can harm us.
Participating actively in the life we have in Jesus will sometimes bring difficulties, even persecution. But be encouraged—Jesus is far greater than any of the difficulties that we will face. Don’t worry about “success”—instead, seek faithfulness, like Noah did. And remember that Jesus is at God’s right hand in heaven and you are seated in that exalted place with him. Share in his victory and in his faithfulness. “Hang in there”—trust in God no matter what. Take up your cross and follow Jesus. Amen.
Sermon for February 25, 2018
Scripture readings: Gen. 17:1-7, 15-16; Ps. 22:23-31;
Rom. 4:13-25; Mark 8:31-38 (or Mark 9:2-9)
Sermon by Sheila Graham from Gen. 17:1-7, 15-16;
Rom. 4:13-25; Ps. 22:27-28
The Righteousness of Faith
Today is the second Sunday in Lent, the season in which, through prayer and introspection, we prepare for Holy Week. As I look around at the world today, I must say that I’m quite unhappy—particularly with what I’m seeing portrayed in the media. There’s a lot to see there. If we’re paying attention, we know more about what’s going on in the world today than we’ve ever known. And it’s not good: wars, rampant crime (including the recent school shootings), political uprisings, genocide, starving refugees, and then there’s the aftermath of hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and earthquakes. It’s no wonder people wonder, where is the good God that Christians proclaim? If he does exist, how can he ignore what’s going on in the world? Why doesn’t he step in and stop all the horrors?
These are good questions—ones seldom if ever asked of the gods of other religions. You know why? Because we Christians claim that God is a God of love—the God who cares for everyone, who is concerned about all humanity, not just Christians. Our God, we say, is actively involved in the world today.
Maybe, if we were being honest with ourselves, we might occasionally have the same questions about God—especially, when we or a loved one is suffering. “Hello, Lord! We’re down here and we’re in trouble. Are you listening?”
Well, despite our occasional doubts, we do know that God cares—that he is paying attention to what’s going on in the world today. There is hope for us yet! God has a plan to save us from ourselves, a plan made from the beginning—from Adam on. Let’s look at that plan today by going to the story of God’s covenant with Abraham.
God makes a covenant with Abraham
Let’s go to our reading today in Genesis 17:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” (Gen. 17:1-5, NRSV)
God made a covenant with a man who was neither a Jew nor a Christian. At the time the covenant was made, the nation of Israel didn’t exist, and it was way before Christ was born of the virgin Mary. Further, notice that the promise was that Abraham would be the ancestor of many nations, not just Israel:
“I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.” (Gen 17:6-7, NRSV)
Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was not left out.
God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” (Gen. 17:15-16, NRSV)
God chose Abram, an uncircumcised pagan from Ur of the Chaldeans, to covenant with. Abraham didn’t have the law blasted out by the finger of God on chunks of stone to guide him. What did he have? The apostle Paul said Abraham had “the righteousness of faith” (Rom. 4:13, NRSV) or “the righteousness that comes by faith” (Rom. 4:13, NIV). The key point here is this: Abraham believed God!
The significance for Christian doctrine
Paul used this ancient story about Abraham and the covenant to teach two significant Christian doctrines: 1) That all (Jews and Gentiles) are included in God’s plan of redemption, and 2) that salvation in Christ is through faith, not through works of the law.
Let’s go to our reading in Romans 4:
For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void. For the law brings wrath; but where there is no law, neither is there violation. (Rom. 4:13-15, NRSV)
How much faith did it take for Abraham to leave country, family and home for a nomadic life in a place he had not even seen? How much faith did it take for a 99-year-old man to believe he could have children from a barren wife not a whole lot younger? And, then, at God’s command, to be willing to sacrifice that beloved son on an altar? How much faith did it take for Abraham to believe God—to believe that God was true to his word?
At the time God told Abraham that Sarah would bear him a son, he already had his son, Ishmael, who he thought would be his heir. But God told him that the promised offspring would come from old Sarah, not young Hagar. No wonder both Abraham and Sarah laughed! They wouldn’t be able to forget they laughed either, because God told them to name their son Isaac, which means “he laughs.”
But Abraham believed. Though Abram and Sarai initially laughed, they accepted God’s word to them. They believed God’s promise and thus an old man and a barren woman, through faith, became known as Abraham and Sarah, father and mother of many nations.
Through faith, Abraham and Sarah became participants with God in his plan to save all humanity. Paul continues in Romans 4:
For this reason it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham (for he is the father of all of us, as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”)—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Hoping against hope, he believed that he would become “the father of many nations,” according to what was said, “So numerous shall your descendants be.” He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” (Rom. 4:16-19, NRSV)
All are included, through faith, not works
The story of Abraham and Sarah is not just an interesting look back to the culture of the time, nor is it just the record of a pagan becoming a follower of the one true God. The apostle Paul shows from the story of Abraham and Sarah that all are included in God’s plan of salvation, and that God’s saving plan for all humanity is based on faith, not on works of the law.
Paul pointed out that the Jews weren’t the only ones who had a claim on Abraham and the righteousness that was his through faith. Paul was speaking to some of the early Jewish Christians who believed Gentiles should be circumcised and should follow Jewish dietary and other laws before they could become Christians. Paul said Abraham, whom God made a covenant with before he was circumcised and before the law was given, was the father not only of believing Jews but also of believing Gentiles. Abraham was called righteous because he believed God, not because he followed the laws and customs of the Jews.
When you read the entire story of Abraham and his wanderings throughout the Middle East, sometimes in exile from his enemies, you realize few of God’s promises to him were realized in his lifetime. Even the promised son from Sarah didn’t come until Abraham was 100 years old. But, as Paul writes, despite his long and troubled life, as the years went by, Abraham’s faith became stronger:
No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him,’ were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” (Rom. 4:20-25, NRSV)
In summing up, Paul explains why Abraham was called “the father of the faithful.” He cites Abraham’s example of the righteousness of faith—the only response needed from us to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. This is a righteousness—a right relationship with God—that comes by faith alone, not by works of the law. And, even that faith, by which we stand rightly related to God, is his gift through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The obedience that comes from faith
Don’t misunderstand: Paul teaches that there is an obedience to God that faith produces (Paul calls it “the obedience that comes from faith”)—an obedience through the Spirit, grounded in faith in God and motivated by love for God, not by fear. This obedience is about keeping Christ’s commands to love God and love one another. It’s our grateful response to God’s overwhelming love for us.
His faith in God led Abraham to offer up his son Isaac, though God stopped him short of causing Isaac’s death, providing instead the sacrifice of a ram. What Abraham, a type of God, only partially enacted, God the Father fully accomplished when, in love, he offered up his one and only Son (Jesus Christ) to die for us all—Jews and Gentiles alike. Only the death of the Son of God could accomplish the salvation of all people.
The father of us all
It’s interesting that in the Gospel of Matthew the genealogy of Christ begins, not with Adam, Noah, or Judah, but with Abraham, who, as Paul writes, is “the father of us all.” Through the covenant God established with Abraham, which was fulfilled by Jesus, we all, through faith, are included in God’s plan of salvation!
Going back to my musings about the state of the world, we can be encouraged, despite what we see, knowing that this world won’t continue forever to be the way it now is. Like Abraham, we can be sure of God’s promises. As we read in our lesson today in Psalm 22:
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the LORD,
and he rules over the nations. (Ps. 22:27-28, NRSV)
Though this world in its present condition between the first and second advents of Jesus continues to be a scary mess of division, hatred and violence, like Abraham, the father of the faithful, we believe and have faith in the promises of God, knowing that he has always had a solution in mind. Our God is not off somewhere distant and unconcerned. He is quite aware of what’s going on, and through our Savior Jesus, he’s already taken care of it. We can be very happy about that, as we continue to pray, “Come Lord Jesus!” Amen.