Whew! We have done a lot of reading this last week. So, as usual here are some thoughts from what we have read. One of the things Paul was intentional about was making sure the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem and the gentile Christians in Asia were connected as one in the body of Christ. He did this not only by his teaching but by receiving an offering from the gentile churches to take to the believers in Jerusalem who were suffering from extreme poverty. Paul taught about the importance of giving in 2 Corinthians. First he spoke of the spiritual gifts God had given to the believers and one of the gifts we receive as believers is the gift of giving. Some people give because they know they are supposed to. Some give because they know there are needs and some of us give because we are happy to return to the Lord a portion of what He has blessed us with. Bountiful giving is a mark of true grace. The thing is…we GET to give. We see the grace in the Lord who by His poverty He made us wealthy and became one with us. We receive His unmerited gift in our salvation and so we give sacrificially in response to His gift to us. Paul’s teaching on giving tells us that our giving should spring from a willing heart and mind. He reminds us that true giving is a joy, in contrast with grudging gifts. There is joy in sowing seed, like a farmer who anticipates crops. There is joy in sharing with others in need. Christian giving is marked by generosity and it might entail sacrifice like it did for the Macedonians.
The key issues for the church in Galatia were: how do people become acceptable to God? What do people need to do to earn God’s favor? How do people become members of God’s family? For Paul the answer was fairly simple. There is nothing we can or need to do. Only Jesus Christ can do, and has done, what must be done to make people acceptable to God. Because of that we should simply receive His gift, gratefully thank Him for what He has done, and trust in Him. For Jewish Christians in the first century it was hard to accept this answer. From the time of Abraham, their relationship to God had been defined by circumcision. Every male who was part of God’s family had to be circumcised. Those who neglected to do so were cut off from God’s people. Those who had received circumcision were also expected to keep the laws regarding the sabbath, what foods could and couldn’t be eaten, and keep the rest of the laws. When the Christian faith moved from the Jewish to the Gentile world, it was natural for questions to arise. Do Christian need to be circumcised and keep God’s law in general to be accepted as part of God’s family? Or, does God accept people purely on the basis of their faith in Christ’s work on the cross? As Paul mission to the Gentiles advanced, these questions became more and more pressing. Peter understood from his vision in Joppa and his experience in Caesarea that God accepted Gentiles as Gentiles on the basis of their faith in Christ’s finished work. They did not have to become Jewish first by observing circumcision, for Christ provided them open access to God by faith. Peter and the Jerusalem church then welcomed gentile believers into the fellowship. However, later Peter temporarily withdrew from fellowship with Gentiles when some Jewish Christians criticized him. In response Paul rebuked Peter for communicating that Gentiles must become Jews in order to be accepted by God. Galatians 2:11-31. No one is accepted by God and made righteous before Him on the basis of keeping the law. Even Abraham was accounted as righteous and accepted by God because of his faith, and not because he was circumcised. That came later for Abraham. Both Jews and Gentiles are accepted by God and made righteous before Him on the basis of faith alone.
One of the enduring questions of the Christian faith is; do Christians need to keep the Old Testament law in order to become mature followers of Christ? Does following God’s law provide sanctification? When Christians in Galatia had received the Good News of salvation through faith in Christ, they had also received the Holy Spirit as the guarantee of their status as believers. Not only had God given His Spirit to them, but He had also worked miracles among them. They knew from experience that the Holy Spirit has the power to make them new people. Paul taught them to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide them. Shortly after Paul left Galatia, Jewish Christian teachers arrived who taught the need to observe God’s law, both to be accepted by God and to be sanctified and become mature. They argued that Paul’s approach to sanctification by the Spirit would lead to lawlessness and sin. Paul responded that just as God accounts us as righteous by faith, so also He makes us righteous by faith by the working of the Spirit. Those who rely on the Spirit and follow His leading will not sin. God’s Spirit will never lead people to sin. The real problem is not a lack of understanding regarding right and wrong. Our God given conscience tells us when we are doing wrong, and God’s law makes the requirements of His righteousness even clearer. The real problem is that by nature, our hearts are hard and sinful, and we lack the wisdom to know the right thing in a given situation. By nature, we are unable to apply God’s Word in a way that is consistent with faith in His love. The law cannot ameliorate (make something bad or unsatisfactory better) our condition. But, when the Holy Spirit guides and controls us, He changes our hearts and guides us to do the things that please God. God’s Spirit guides His people to fulfill His law in its truest sense and intent. But fulfillment of the law is not the goal or focus. The law is just our guardian. It cannot save us. It only convicts us and hopefully drives us to repentance and a renewed relationship to the Lord. The focus is on trusting God, relying on the Spirit, and loving others. God’s Spirit gives us the will and the power to do these things and please God.
Ephesus stood at the crossroads of both the north-south and east-west trade routes. The city was also known as the guardian of the temple of Artemis. The city was founded by Greeks about 1044 BC on a natural harbor where the Cayster River emptied into a gulf of the Aegean Sea. The city came under Roman rule in 41 BC. At the time of the apostles Ephesus was a wealthy city, a commercial and religious hub, and that made her the most important city of the Roman province of Asia. The worship of Artemis in Ephesus was nearly as ancient as the city itself. The temple of Artemis was one of the keys to wealth and commerce in Ephesus. The worship brought thousands of pilgrims to the city and provided many commercial opportunities for idol makers and other vendors of goods and services. When Paul arrived there on his third missionary journey in 53 AD, Ephesus had been a city for over 1,000 years continuously and she was deeply devoted to her patron goddess and temple. As Paul’s message began to gain more followers, Christianity threatened that pagan temple and the commerce it produced for the makers of idols. The ensuing riot nearly cost Paul his life. See Acts 19:24-31. The church of Ephesus became strong under Paul’s teaching and leadership, and churches in the surrounding communities were founded by people who had learned from Paul in Ephesus. Paul warned the leaders of the Ephesian church that they would be troubled by false teachers. The apostle John is thought to have settled there in approximately 70AD and from there he was exiled to the island of Patmos where he wrote the Book of Revelation in the early 90’s. At that time the commendable love and good works of the Christian community described in the letter to the Ephesians had been largely abandoned. After the apostle John’s exile on Patmos, church father Irenaeus records that the apostle returned to live in Ephesus and lived there until the end of his life during the reign of the emperor Trajan, who ruled from 98-117 AD. According to tradition, Mary the mother of Jesus also finished her days on earth in Ephesus under John’s care. The temple of Artemis was burned by the Goths in 262 AD, and Artemis was no longer influential among the Ephesians when the third ecumenical council was held there in 431 AD. This was a perfect illustration of Paul’s message that hand made gods like Artemis are not gods at all.
The Book of Ephesians highlights the role of the church in God’s eternal plan. The church is the one body of Christ. In Jesus Christ God has revealed His desire to unite Gentiles with Jews in a new group of people, the church. What is the church? The church is the community of those who recognize the lordship of Christ and submit to Him. In the Greek world the word church is translated “ekklesia” and designated an assembly of people. In the Greek translation of the Old Testament called the Septuagint, this term referred to the assembly of Israel. In the New Testament ekklesia is used to refer to the entire body of Christ in the world, all the believers in a given locale, or to an individual local congregation that gathers regularly for worship, instruction, fellowship, and prayer. The church is part of God’s plan to bring everything in heaven and on earth under the authority of Christ. Through Jesus Christ, God has called people from both Judaism and the Gentile world to be one new people of God who are empowered by His Spirit to be present in the world, to worship Him, and to share the Good News of His unconditional love. The church is both grounded in Judaism and is the fulfillment of God’s intention in calling Israel to become light to the Gentiles who will bring His salvation to the ends of the earth. In this new Jewish-gentile community, the traditional barriers that divided people from one another and categorized them into inferior and superior classes; barriers of race, social standing, and gender; are shattered. Those who are united with Christ are members of His body. Paul expressed the reality of the intimate connection between Christ and His people as the organic unity and integration of the physical body. To be “in Christ” is therefore to be “baptized into one body by one Spirit”. As a result, all of you together are Christ’s body and each of you is a part of it. Believers do not relate to God in isolation but as part of this new family. To be “in Christ” is at the same time to be in the church. To be a Christian is to be incorporated into a community of people that is growing toward expressing the reality of Christ in its life together. Because the church is one body, unity is called for. So Paul repeatedly urged the Christian community to be united and not to let their differences divide them from one another. Because the church included people of different ethnic groups, it is to be a community of harmony and peace as believers live together in love, bound together by the shared experience of the Spirit. God’s goal for the church is that it will achieve the fullest possible experience of unity, faith, spiritual understanding, and Christian maturity…to the full perfection of Christ, the likeness of God Himself. Like every part of the human body, every member of the church had their function. God has provided people in the church with many diverse gifts to build up the body and bring it to perfection. God’s intention is that the church should be a showcase of His forgiving grace, a community in which God’s glory can be seen, and one devoted to the praise of that glory.
And last, we look at the divine nature of Christ. Philippians 2:6-11, often called the Christ hymn, reveals early Christian beliefs about the nature of Jesus Christ. This hymn affirms that the early Christians believed in the Preexistence and divine nature of Christ. Christ is not simply another human prophet, he was present with God the Father from the very beginning, and He is the one through whom the universe was created. As the Son of God, He shares the nature of God Himself. The hymn also affirms that Jesus Christ came to earth in an act of immense humility, the infinite God became human. Jesus Christ the glorious creator of the universe, died as a sacrificial offering for the sins of human beings so that we might be forgiven and be reconciled to God, just as the scriptures foretold. This hymn also affirms that God raised Jesus from the dead, has given Him the place of highest honor in heaven, and conferred on Him the title Lord. One day all created beings will bow down before Him and acknowledge that He is Lord of the entire universe, deserving of the worship that God alone is worthy to receive.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W