Romans 2 Christians Living in a Romans 1 World

I have been wrestling lately with the intersection of Christ and culture.  Recent social and political events in the United States have challenged me to rethink what it actually means to be a “Christian” or an “American,” including how the two identities mix… or whether they are altogether mutually exclusive!  The issue is so immensely complex that my journey has only begun.  Yet through scripture, educational studies, and friendly dialogue with mature and contemplative individuals of all walks, God is working on me.  Bit by bit, He is increasing my understanding and changing my heart.

The group I attend weekly is studying the book of Romans.  Our most recent reading and discussion presented a unique challenge to 21st century Christians.  To provide some context, Paul’s letter to the church in Rome opens with the foundational idea that “ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (3:23)  Chapter 1 starts with his condemnation of non-Jewish peoples, or the non-believers of his day, the men and women who “exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” (1:25)  The parallels to our modern society are evident.  Then, so as not to inflate the egos of behavior-oriented, self-righteous Jewish readers, Paul unashamedly calls out their hypocrisy in Chapter 2 as well.  Here is a copy of Paul’s words to the Jewish audience (2:17-29):

17 Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; 18 if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19 if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20 an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth—21 you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22 You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23 You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24 As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

25 Circumcision has value if you observe the law, but if you break the law, you have become as though you had not been circumcised. 26 If those who are not circumcised keep the law’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were circumcised? 27 The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law will condemn you who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker.

28 A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. 29 No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.

Now, what happens if make a few liberal substitutions to draw Paul’s message into our own cultural context?  Replace Jew with Christian, law with great commandment, and circumcision with baptism.  One of my group members did this and the outcome is quite compelling:

Now you, if you call yourself a Christian; if you rely on the great commandment and brag about your relationship to God; if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the great commandment; if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the great commandment the embodiment of knowledge and truth— you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you take advantage of others? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you lust? You who abhor idols, do you cling to your wealth, sports teams, or political party? You who brag about the great commandment, do you dishonor God by breaking the great commandment? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the non-believing world because of you.”

Baptism has value if you observe the great commandment, but if you break the great commandment, you have become as though you had not been baptized. If those who are not baptized keep the great commandment’s requirements, will they not be regarded as though they were baptized? The one who is not baptized physically and yet obeys the great commandment will condemn you who, even though you have the written scriptures and circumcision, are a violator of the great commandment.

A man is not a Christian if he is only one outwardly, nor is baptism merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Christian if he is one inwardly; and baptism is baptism of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the cultural markers. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God.

If this description at all fits me, you, or the local church it is time to wake up and seek a radical heart change.  Whether it is warranted or not, this is how the world perceives Christians: self-centered, hypocritical, idolatrous, fake people.  It should come as no surprise to find the type in our society; that is the nature of living in a Romans 1 world.  In fact, as Paul declares in Romans 2, no one is exempt.  Even the most obedient and faithful in Christ still sin.  ALL fall short of the glory of God.  But those moments should be the exception, not the norm.  In God’s kingdom, there is no room for carnal Christians.  The church cannot afford to present a non-believing world with such a false image of Christ.

Because we all have a fallen nature, it is dangerous to both identify with Christ and identify with American culture as though they were one and the same.  Rather, in faithful obedience, followers of Christ must seek inward transformation that so distinguishes us from the unrepentant world.  Most likely one part of that transformation requires a choice to discard one identity in favor of the other.


O Come O Come Emmanuel (Part 2)

It gets better!  I just found that one of my favorite independent music artists – Lindsey Stirling – recorded her own rendition of “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” The violin has such a melodious sound and the piano provides a beautiful accompaniment.  Best of all is the music video with a very inspirational message. Check it out here:

P.S. Yes, I do have one minor qualm with the video and would challenge the whole “Be true to yourself” message, but I won’t lose the forest for the trees. Again, I am thankful for this carol, the talented performances, the gifts that God has blessed me with, and the gift of His son above all else.


O Come O Come Emmanuel

Hard to believe we have arrived at the end of another calendar year already, but it’s advent season.  That means, among many other things, that Thanksgiving has passed and it is now permissible to play Christmas carols!  My absolute favorite is “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”

For many, they would see that as an unusual choice because O Come O Come Emmanuel doesn’t fit the stereotypes of a Christmas tune.  The music is written in a minor key, which makes it sound mysterious and eerie.  It has no culturally relevant subjects, i.e. no Santa Claus, no tree trimmings, no bells or sleighs.  Yet it does have the same effect as many other carols which is to bring great anticipation to this Christmas season.

I appreciate the theological richness of its lyrics, how it not only helps me to reflect upon the birth of Christ but it also reminds me how desperately I need a savior.  This year I have fallen in love with the song all over again!  Paul Baloche has released a Christmas album in which he added his own original lyrics to the same melody.  One of them spoke to me as I sang it in church this morning, and it is so fitting to the intended theme of this blog. Take a moment to reflect upon these words to see how it applies to your own condition, go listen to the CD, and make it a point to draw near to Jesus this Christmas season.

Paul Baloche - Christmas Worship  O come, O come, Emmanuel,
  And ransom captive Israel,
  That mourns in lonely exile here
  Until the Son of God appear.

  O come, O Son of God most high
  Deliver us from sinfulness and pride
  Restore in us a childlike heart
  To consecrate and set us apart

Rejoice!  Rejoice!  Emmanuel has come to us!

Intelligence and Wisdom

There seems to be a correlation between a person’s intelligence and the amount of time it takes them to complete a task.  I learned this today as I was loading a new class set of laptops into their storage cart.  For each laptop I had to remove a tray and attach the power supply using a combination of velcro straps and twist-ties.  Then I had to label the laptop, its designated space in the cart, and its corresponding power outlet.  The first time I attempted this it took me nearly 15 minutes.  As simple as the task sounds, it took me awhile of studying the cart’s design and reading the instruction manual to figure out how everything fit together.  Securing and labeling the next laptop became much quicker because I had learned some of the basic steps.  Then I found ways to be make the process more efficient so that by the last laptop I had reduced my time to under 5 minutes.  Practice and routine helped, but truly it was a problem-solving approach that allowed me to speed up the process.  My knowledge of the materials – that is, my intelligence – grew.

There are exceptions to this principle, but I think we can find numerous applications beyond my own.  For example, a fluent reader is able to work their way through a text much more quickly than one who is developing their reading abilities.  An auto mechanic is able to change an oil filter much quicker than a new car owner reading their owner’s manual.  An experienced chef can execute a recipe and even serve a large number of people in little time.  And by this logic we might even evaluate the creative processes of this universe.  If the evolutionary science holds that chaotic matter spawned life forms over an extended period of time then what would those same scientists be confessing about a God who speaks life into existence within a matter of seconds?

Proverbs 9:10 says, “Fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.”  This is not a troublesome cowering in fear, but a reverent awe-full fear.  A respect for God in His holiness but also a respect for God in His judgment.  He not only sets laws but He is the standard and will punish all violators.

My previous reflections on intelligence cause me to look at this verse a little differently.  If the wise man is one who fears the Lord, the wise man would, therefore, be one who learns quickly.  One who recognizes what brings glory to God and what grieves Him.  And the wise man not only has knowledge of these things, he furthermore acts rightly upon it.  We are all intelligent in our own ways, but wisdom is a higher calling.  Wisdom is a learned (and demonstrated) obedience.


Reposted from My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers, July 29:

In the Bible clouds are always associated with God. Clouds are the sorrows, sufferings, or providential circumstances, within or without our personal lives, which actually seem to contradict the sovereignty of God. Yet it is through these very clouds that the Spirit of God is teaching us how to walk by faith. If there were never any clouds in our lives, we would have no faith. “The clouds are the dust of His feet” (Nahum 1:3). They are a sign that God is there. What a revelation it is to know that sorrow, bereavement, and suffering are actually the clouds that come along with God! God cannot come near us without clouds— He does not come in clear-shining brightness.

It is not true to say that God wants to teach us something in our trials. Through every cloud He brings our way, He wants us to unlearn something. His purpose in using the cloud is to simplify our beliefs until our relationship with Him is exactly like that of a child— a relationship simply between God and our own souls, and where other people are but shadows. Until other people become shadows to us, clouds and darkness will be ours every once in a while. Is our relationship with God becoming more simple than it has ever been?

There is a connection between the strange providential circumstances allowed by God and what we know of Him, and we have to learn to interpret the mysteries of life in the light of our knowledge of God. Until we can come face to face with the deepest, darkest fact of life without damaging our view of God’s character, we do not yet know Him.

“. . . they were fearful as they entered the cloud” (Luke 9:34). Is there anyone except Jesus in your cloud? If so, it will only get darker until you get to the place where there is “no one anymore, but only Jesus . . .” (Mark 9:8 ; also see Mark 2-7).

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Unexpected Blessings

The last three years of my life have been…well, less than ideal.  At one time I had a certain anticipation of what I would be doing, where I would end up, what my life would look like.  Since graduating college, those visions were obliterated and now, three years later, my prospects of achieving those dreams are no closer to reality.

Today a number of decisions and trials caused me to reflect upon my station in life and all that has transpired.  While I never would have asked to be where I am today, I can still be thankful for where God has brought me.  Here’s a quick snapshot of some unexpected blessings:

MCC_Cook Auditorium

Past Wish: Attending traditional, perhaps even liturgical church
Present Reality: Attending modern, multimedia heavy church

Unexpected Blessings:

  • Participating in a church where attitude of love, unity is highest priority and lived out to fullest extent
  • Opportunities to get involved with or support countless ministries, missions
  • Ability to observe church growth strategies
  • Healthy social outlet built among many other young adults where I may not otherwise have found such treasured friendships

Teacher ClassroomPast Wish: Career in ministry, youth pastor or discipleship pastor
Present Reality: Career in education, school teacher

Unexpected Blessings:

  • Work in a Christian environment has expanded my knowledge of scripture and strengthened my faith
  • Teaching enables me to present Biblical truths on a daily basis while pouring into the lives of many students – same as youth ministry but with a more consistent schedule
  • Perhaps feeling more appreciated than in any other job/work environment

Monopoly ManPast Wish: Modest but comfortable income to establish independent lifestyle
Present Reality: 
Low income to require dependence on others and forced fiscal responsibility

Unexpected Blessings:

  • Multi-dimensional perspective to see, understand, even experience obstacles affecting those in poverty/impoverished communities
  • Necessity to balance and prioritize living expenses, professional development
  • Greater trust in God’s continued provision, whether in plenty or in want

Home OwnershipPast Wish: Home ownership
Present Reality: Living at home with parents

Unexpected Blessings:

  • Increased appreciation and love for family
  • Support in all the typical household tasks which I have been unable/set as a low priority
  • Ability to save, become better prepared for future independence

Fingers IntertwinedPast Wish: Steady relationship and/or marriage (with kids?)
Present Reality: Prolonged singleness

Unexpected Blessings: 

  • Appreciation for gift of singleness (unhindered focus on loving people/loving Christ, flexibility in schedule/commitments)
  • New eyes to sympathize with, understand emotions or trials of others who are single
  • Ability to learn about love and relationships, avoid some of the pain in sin and heartbreak by observing these through others
  • Numerous experiences to filter through good and bad counsel, to compare worldly models of dating with Biblical standards

So as not to misunderstand me, many of these desires are still very real and present.  Whether they are to be achieved soon or never, I put this list into writing to say I have a lot to be thankful for!  How could I imagine trading this life that God has blessed me with for a mere fantasy that I would have created on my own?  Granted, I am not where I want to be, not even who I want to be, yet God has placed me in a position where He could mold me into someone better than I was before.

Chiasm in John 15, Part III

This entry will serve as the third and final in a series of posts concerning the structure and meaning of John 15.  Click here for Part I and Part II.  I have tried to break these up for brevity, and while all three observations contribute to the meaning of Jesus’ words, I would argue that this last one is the most important. Parts I and Part II identified chiasms on a microscopic level.  They dissected the passage’s sub units, whereas my final task is to take a step back and look at the whole chapter from a broader view.

Verse numbers and chapter breaks are sometimes obscure to my understanding – probably the product of some Englishman in the 16th century responsible for compiling the King James Bible.  That does not mean that the separations are meaningless, or that we should neglect their organization, but I don’t always agree with or follow these labels.  Therefore, I am looking at John 15:1 – 16:3 as one collective thought.  These verses might be grouped into three major units:

John 15 - 1st Major Unit

John 15 - 2nd Major Unit

John 15 - 3rd Major Unit

Maybe I should have started with these major units because they are the least complex.  It follows the simple A-B-A form and so the chiasm pattern is readily seen.  The central, arguably most important message in this dialogue, is the command to love one another.  (Part II analyzed what that looks like as God modeled perfect love for us first.)  The end caps both show the result of remaining in Jesus’ love or not remaining in Jesus’ love.  One appeals to his disciples and presents a positive picture.  The other refers to the pagan world and presents an unquestionably negative picture, even by secular standards.

Let us learn from the words spoken and see them more clearly through the pattern in which they were recorded.  Let us respond to the vine allegory, the call to love, the blessings and consequences of heeding God’s commands.  Above all things, let us love one another.

Chiasm in John 15, Part II

In my last post, I described what a chiasm is and gave numerous examples from the gospel of John.  That discussion only scratched the surface.  Chapter 15 opens with the allegory of the vine and the branches, the call to remain in Jesus and bear fruit, and then it continues into verses 12-17 with the theme of love.  In prose, we hear the command and grasp this concept readily, but a quick read will neglect the central point.

John 15:12-17 Sub Unit

We are commanded to love one another for the reason that God loved us first!  Any religion or secular philosophy can promote the attitude of love; however, none but Christianity has a complete object or concrete purpose for love.  The act of calling us, what theologians would label “election,” is the highest act, or the most ultimate demonstration, of love conceivable.  Therefore, we obey the command to do likewise and extend our branches far, bearing fruit that will last.

Chiasm in John 15, Part I

In a previous post, I showed that poetry is utilized in unsuspecting Biblical texts. John 5:16-18 served as an example of the A-B-A form typical of Hebrew parallelism.  That was followed by a lengthier post, which dissected the parallel structure in John 5:24-30.  Both passages have the potential to focus our powers of observation, that we might recognize what is at the center of God’s truth, and to expand our sense of wonder.

I have come to learn that the vocabulary term for this poetic device is “chiasm.” In a chiasm, certain phrases or ideas are mirrored around a central principle. Thus, the pattern might look like A B C D C B A.  In prose, the way most of us are accustomed to reading, we read the passage as a whole unit and concentrate on the progression of the argument from A to Z.  But if respect is paid to the poetic form, we would read the passage more slowly, focusing on each piece individually from A to … A!  Why?  Because the structure behind the words serves a unique purpose.  The chiasm draws special attention to what is at the center (the D section, for instance).  Like a flashlight in the dark, it focuses a spotlight on one particular object.  The objects surrounding the light are no less relevant – they are still present and contribute to the overall meaning – but a chiasm will emphasize what is truly at the heart of the message.

The gospel of John is riddled with these passages.  Chiasms can span across multiple chapters or several can be found within one chapter.  Again, their function is to keep us from losing sight of the most important part of Jesus’ message.

Here is my analysis of John 15.  In the spirit of humility, I will caution that I have no qualifications as a Bible commentator; I very well could draw conclusions that are not intended.  However, I hope my appeal to the literary form along with the comments that follow will serve you well in your own application of this passage.

First, let’s look at the common allegory of the vine and the branches.  This imagery continues throughout much of chapter 15, though verses 1-5 may be isolated with its own internal chiasm as the only lines whose language specifies “the vine.”

John 15:1-5 Sub Unit

What is in the middle and, therefore, most important?  The central relationship between persons.  Whether Jesus refers to his relationship with the Father or his relationship with us, the dynamics are the same.  We are “to abide” or, as modernized versions put it, “to remain” in him.

Another chiasm follows.  In verses 5-7, we find a series of “if, then” statements. These reveal the consequences of remaining, or not remaining, in Christ.

John 15:5b-7 Sub Unit

Perhaps a chiastic structure is not necessary here.  For us, we might do just as well to read it as a list of three mutually exclusive statements bearing either a promise or a condemnation.  We tend to think individualistically.  But for Jesus, thinking of a broader populace, his priority is for men to have a right relationship. In fact, other statements he makes in the surrounding context are consistent with this primary concern (e.g. John 17:20-21).

Drawing this section to a close, a third chiasm may be found in John 15:8-11.

John 15:7-11 SubUnit

By fitting these words to a chiastic structure, it definitely breaks the paragraph form of our traditional prose.  This is an example of where I can foresee trained scholars isolating and studying a different portion of the text.  Nevertheless, the central principle reinforces what we have seen already: we are to abide in him. Furthermore, we see the effects of remaining in Jesus restated.  God reaps the glory that He is due and we receive an incomparable joy.

Much more to point out in the structure of John 15, but I will save that for my next post.  I think that is a good word to end on.  Let our lives bear fruit, or produce an out-flowing of good works, a manifestation of our gratitude towards a loving God.  Above all, let us be satisfied in Christ and rest in the joy he blesses us with.

To Capture the True Beauty You Must Look and Listen

This is fantastic for so many reasons!

I only wish I could have been there when it happened.  The look on peoples’ faces is remarkable, their delight at an unexpected symphony in the streets as memorable as the experience itself.  It is regrettable, therefore, that only a handful of people will, in fact, remember the event.

A guide from my Costa Rica trip wisely advised us travelers to have a no-technology zone.  When you see, hear, or experience something that takes your breath away, don’t be so quick to pull out the camera.  Take a few minutes at least to absorb the sights, the sounds, to process all of your senses.  This is the act of creating a long-term memory.  Then, and only then, should you document the experience using a cell phone or a camera.

That is our faulty habit, our natural instinct.  That is what these citizens did on the streets.  Many will only recall what they recorded on a 3″ LCD screen.  They didn’t see or hear the symphony for themselves.  Their memory is too small.  Only adults could make such a foolish mistake.  In contrast, a child sits in the front row with an attitude of admiration.  A child walks away with a rich, genuine memory.


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