Jars of Clay

October 28, 2016

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay…” (2 Corinthians 4:7a) Paul describes himself as an unassuming clay jar. It is an image of humility and weakness. Jars of clay were cheap, useful, and breakable. What was important to the users of clay jars was the contents, the treasure inside.

The point of the image is not to say that Christians are unimportant. Even within this paragraph, Paul notes that it is “so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:11, ESV). And Paul is working towards the statements that although our outward self is wasting away, “our inner self is being renewed day by day.” Even though our mortal body can be compared to a tent which can be pulled down, we await our heavenly dwelling.

Paul’s point is seen in his purpose statement: “to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7b, ESV). The Corinthians seem to have a problem with pride (see 1 Cor. 4:6, 4:18-19, 5:2, 8:1). They are way too convinced of their own wisdom, strength and honor (1 Cor. 4:10). It sometimes even causes them to complain about Paul: “his bodily presence is week, and his speech of no account” (2 Cor. 10:10, ESV).

Paul is chipping away at this Corinthian pride all through 1 and 2 Corinthians.

  • God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 1 Cor 1:27
  • Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. 1 Cor 1:31
  • “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” For it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends.. 2 Cor. 10:17-18
  • If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. 2 Cor. 11:30
  • Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 2 Cor. 12:9

Calling himself a jar of clay with a treasure inside, Paul can admit his weakness and reliance on the power of God. He can take afflicted, perplexed, struck down, and carrying in the body the death of Christ and use the power of God to face these difficulties. It is with God’s help that he is not crushed, not driven to despair, not forsaken, not destroyed, and manifesting the life of Jesus in our bodies. These contrasts (4:8-11) are instructive.

“The light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” is in us. What a treasure! Yet, we must acknowledge we are but jars of clay. When we admit our weaknesses, we find that God can use the weak things of this world to show his power. “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).

“Ghandi and Christianity”

October 22, 2016

Richard Attenborough directed the film Ghandi which won eight Oscars in 1983 and launched the career of Ben Kingsley. It is a powerful film which tells the story of Mohandas Ghandi who through his nonviolent civil disobedience broke Britain’s colonial rule of India. Ghandi admired Jesus Christ and was especially fond of the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, Ghandi lived his life as a Hindu and never became a Christian. At the time of the movie, Philip Yancey wrote “Ghandi and Christianity” which pointed out that part of Ghandi’s reluctance was due to the kind of lives he saw among those who professed Christ.1

Inconsistencies. As a law student in Britain, Ghandi became exposed to the Bible and to those who professed to be Christians. After many Sunday sermons, he complained of uninspiring sermons and a congregation who “appeared rather to be worldly-minded, people going to church for recreation and in conformity to custom.”

Prejudice. Attenborough’s movie tells of Ghandi’s experience in South Africa. He was among supposedly Christian people, but he found discrimination. He was thrown off trains and excluded from hotels and restaurants, because as he put it, he was considered “a coloured man.” E. Stanley Jones is quoted by Yancey as saying, “Racialism has many sins to bear, but perhaps its worst sin was the obscuring of Christ in an hour when one of the greatest souls born of a woman was making his decisions.”

Reflecting Christ. Ghandi’s bad experiences only serve to underscore the importance of Paul’s words: “And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Corinthians 3:3, ESV). Paul is using the image of a letter of recommendation. A letter of recommendation introduces and commends someone by telling of his or her character and qualifications. Paul tells the Corinthians that they are “Christ’s letter.” They are a letter of recommendation for Jesus Christ. Their lives are introducing others to Jesus. Their lives are speaking volumes about who Jesus is.

Christians should live lives “worthy of their calling.” We should conduct ourselves so that we are an accurate letter of Christ for the world to read even though we are not perfect. We may be the only “letter” that some may see, and we may be the “letter” that influences their decision. Let us be conscious of our function as letters of recommendation. Ghandi’s life reminds me that this has at times been done poorly. Let us rise to the task and reflect Christ in our lives.

1Christianity Today (April 8, 1983):16.

Are You Connected?

September 16, 2016

Psychiatrist, Dr Edward M. Hallowell, in his book Connect, argues that we all need connectedness to live more fulfilling and healthier lives. Connectedness is more than just human contact. It is to feel a part of something larger than yourself. It’s feeling close to another person or group. It’s feeling welcomed and understood.

To connect to other people is not just emotionally desirable—it affects us physically. He cites the Alameda County Study by Dr. Berkman. She and her team surveyed people between the ages of 30 to 69 to determine how they were connected or not connected. The group was followed over a period of nine years. Isolated people were found to be three times more likely to die in that nine-year period than those with stronger social ties. The statistical advantage of living longer was evidenced in every age group. Even those with poor health at the beginning of the study or whose life style posed greater health risks lived longer if they had strong social ties.

Being connected gives meaning in life. It provides emotional resources in times of crisis and the physical benefits noted in the Alameda County Study. Yet modern life often frustrates these important relationships. Hallowell comments: “But many things get in the way of people reaping these benefits, stumbling blocks like too many daily obligations, or shyness, or time, or fear.”

This research shouldn’t surprise the reader of the Bible. God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone,” which resulted in the creation of woman and the family. Through history, God has also desired a people to worship and serve Him—the families of the patriarchs, the assembly of Israel, and now the church of Christ. Hallowell certainly argues that connectedness can be found in many different ways, and he is primarily dealing with emotional and physical health benefits. But it is obvious that the church provides this connectedness with its emotional and physical benefits, plus a spiritual benefit.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Hebrews 10:19–25, ESV)

The stumbling blocks to connectedness in general can also be stumbling blocks to connectedness in the assembly—“too many daily obligations, or shyness, or time, or fear.” For emotional, physical, and spiritual health, we need one another. Are you connected?

Do the Book of Revelation

February 1, 2016

People like to speculate about the Book of Revelation. It has suffered much at the hands of its readers. If you are interested in the symbols of Revelation, I recommend Stafford North’s Unlocking Revelation: Seven Simple Keys. But there are a number of ways to get a handle on Revelation’s message. I think if you grasp the seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor in Revelation 2-3, you have a pretty good idea what the book is about. Revelation contains seven beatitudes (1:3, 14:13, 16:15, 19:9, 20:6, 22:7, and 22:14). If you understand these beatitudes, I think you have a pretty good idea of the message of the book. But there is even another way.

The sixth beatitude in Revelation reads: “Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book” (Revelation 22:7, ESV). This beatitude says the book is about doing. Revelation contains 96 commands, but most of those have to do with the dramatic action of the visions. If we narrow the list down to those commands that have application to all Christians, the list is shorter.

  • Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. 2:5
  • Do not fear what you are about to suffer. 2:10
  • Be faithful unto death…. 2:10
    Therefore, repent. 2:16
  • Only hold fast what you have until I come. 2:25
  • Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die… 3:2
  • Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. 3:3
  • Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown. 3:11
  • … so be zealous and repent. 3:19
  • And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.” 14:7
  • Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!” 18:20
  • And from the throne came a voice saying, “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, small and great.” 19:5
  • Worship God. 19:10, 22:9 (with the implication worship God only)
  • Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy. 22:11

Read Revelation and pay particular attention to the commands. If you practice these commands, I think you understand the message of Revelation. Jesus and John want us to do the Book of Revelation.

The Accumulative Effect

January 12, 2016

Have you ever tried to catch a snow flake? How small and ephemeral they are! They touch your hand and quickly melt away. But before they do, we glimpse their intricate and wondrous crystalline patterns. How small is a single snow flake! Yet put them all together in a snowstorm—there’s an accumulative effect. Such small things can bring the hustle and bustle of daily life to a grinding (or should I say sliding) halt.

Does the impact of small things sound familiar? The kingdom of heaven is compared to a mustard seed that is planted and grows larger than the garden plants (Matthew 13:31-32). Jesus compares our little faith to a grain of mustard seed (Matthew 17:20, Luke 17:6). But Jesus goes on to say that faith can move mountains. God takes note of small deeds—the giving of a cup of cold water because of Jesus (Matthew 10:42). There is reward for even giving cups of cold water.

Sometimes great things happen because of one person’s faith, one person’s prayer (see Nehemiah 1:4-2:8). Nehemiah’s prayer and God’s providence in answering his prayer led to the walls of Jerusalem being built. Nehemiah didn’t do it by himself. Nehemiah chapter 3 names 43 work groups. Each individual in each group did a small part of the wall, but the accumulative effect was the wall was built. Each individual’s part was seemly insignificant, but the accumulative effect was transformative.

The world with all of its needs and problems is overwhelming. Yet, God has given to His people the great commission (Matthew 28:19-20). Have you ever thought, “What can I do?” Yet, I suspect that part of the answer is found in each of us doing our part and working together as a church. Like individual snowflakes our part may seem small, but the accumulative effect may change the world around us.

Don’t underestimate your participation in the life of the church. Don’t underestimate your presence in the assembly. Don’t underestimate your gift in the collection. Don’t underestimate your deeds of kindness. Don’t underestimate your attempts to share your faith. Don’t underestimate your prayers. Like individual snowflakes we are part of a larger whole. The point is simple: God can do wonderful things through the accumulative effect of all of us working together by faith.

The Danger of Distractions

January 1, 2016

A man walked off a cliff while distracted by his cell phone plummeting to his death. Automobile fatalities have occurred with drivers texting instead of noticing the on-coming tree or vehicle. We cannot but conclude there is danger is distraction. Yet, distraction is a big part of our world.

I suspect that the default setting for our world is noise. I can remember my family’s first television set when I was a child. It was a big wooden cabinet RCA, but the black and white screen wasn’t that big by today’s standards, and we received one channel maybe two if the conditions were just right. The broadcast day would end around midnight with the playing of The Star Spangled Banner. Now our large, high definition screens have more channels than I have ever viewed. Television is on demand at any moment of the day. I can even watch it on my phone and tablet wherever I am.

I remember my first transistor radio as a boy. I could stick it in my pocket and have AM radio wherever I went. It was a marvel of miniaturization with the new transistors replacing the old, large vacuum tubes. Now I carry the Internet in my pocket, and with it a world of distractions.

I’m not wanting to give up my modern conveniences. I regularly use a smartphone, a tablet computer, a laptop, and a TV that streams content on demand. But I’m also aware of their dangers. I don’t want my attention span shrunk to a 140-character tweet or the rapidly changing images of a video. A library of books that we call the Bible sustains the life of the church and the life of a Christian. We must fight against the distractions that would keep us from our heritage and great spiritual treasure.

Distractions, however, can do more damage than just shortening our attention spans. Distractions can keep us from thinking important thoughts: why am I here? Is there any meaning to life? Does God exist? Has He spoken in the Bible? Have I listened to him as I should? The distractions of life can keep us from contemplating the spiritual and eternal. The distractions are not bad in themselves, but they are the temporary and are not meant to fill the spiritual void in our lives that only God can satisfy. But sometimes we must be still to realize the void is there. One of the best things we can do for some of our friends is to get them to slow down and experience quietness, so that the distractions are silenced for a time, and they can begin to feel their own spiritual hunger.

I recognize the danger of distraction. What I’m suggesting that each us needs to carve out some quiet time: a time to read the Bible, a time to pray, time to worship, and a time to contemplate our lives and what is most important.

A man walked off a cliff looking at his cell phone. I wonder how many plummet into eternity only thinking about the distractions of life.

A Living Sacrifice

May 15, 2015

Recently, someone said in the assembly, “We ought to be able to give an hour a week for worship.” I cringed at the statement, and I’ll explain why in a moment. I think I know what the speaker meant, so let me start there.

A recent headline highlights the concern: “You Now Have a Shorter Attention Span than a Goldfish.” “The article explains researchers have found that the human attention span has dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds in recent years. The goldfish comes in with an attention span of 9 seconds explaining the headline. The source of the problem is our digital life where we may have multiple screens providing us with information. This may make it difficult for us to concentrate on one thing and maintain sustained attention.

Yet, you are capable of much deeper thoughts than a goldfish, and you can have sustained attention if you try and practice at it. Worship is one of those places that needs our sustained attention. Reading books, especially reading the Bible, is another. Somehow thoughts about God ought to rank higher than our instant messages and Twitter feed.

I hear complaints at times that people are talking, passing notes, or on their phone during worship. Granted that a person may be reading their Bible on their phone, but this is not always the case. The suspicion is that people are distracted and not paying attention and being a distraction to others who are attempting to pay attention. I think that is where “the hour a week” comment comes in. Can we learn to give sustained attention to the things God has asked us to do? This may take some effort on our part, but it is a call to be different from the world around us. It is also a call to be reverent and respectful.

What made me cringe about the statement? I don’t want to convey the idea that Christian living can be pigeonholed into an hour a week. God wants your whole life not just a token hour. He wants you to be “a living sacrifice” daily. It means being a Christian on the job, at school, and in the home. I’m giving God all of my time as I use my entire life to glorify God.

When I give God my life, then the times of worship become a no-brainer. I don’t have to decide each time whether I’m going or not. Worship, whether in my devotional life or in the assembly, becomes a part of the rhythm of my life. Worship shouldn’t be something that I begrudgingly give to God counting down the minutes until I’m free. Worship should come from the overflow of a daily walk with God. My aim is to be a “living sacrifice.”

A Second Wind

March 20, 2015

When I was in college, I ran for exercise. I was not fast, and I was no competitive runner, but I ran. Anyone who has run for any distance has probably experienced this sensation. You start to hurt, you feel like you can’t go on, and you want to quit. But as you press on, you catch a second wind, and you finish the course that you set out to cover.

The definition of second wind is “a person’s ability to breathe freely during exercise, after having been out of breath.” We then use it metaphorically as “a new strength or energy to continue something that is an effort.”1

Christian living is compared to a race, and for most of us that race is a marathon (1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Philippians 2:16, Hebrews 12:1-2). We must go the distance and not give up. This athletic imagery is also found in the use of victor’s crown or victor’s wreath. The Greek word is stephanos (from which we get the name Stephen). It is distinguished from the diadem, which is the royal crown. This is the imagery when Paul says:

Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:8, ESV — See also 1 Cor. 9:25, Jam. 1:12, 1 Pet. 5:4, Rev. 2:10, 3:11.)

Just like my night runs in college, running the Christian race gets difficult. We may feel the need for a second wind as we face difficulties, sorrows, and temptations. Here’s a couple of my favorite “second wind” passages.

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10:13, ESV)

Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:30–31, ESV)

Are you struggling? I believe God is faithful to those who love him — just hold out for a second wind.

1New Oxford American Dictionary

Tactics for Handling Conflict

September 30, 2014

Dr. Nick Stinnett spent twenty-five years studying successful families. Yes, every family has conflicts even successful ones, but successful families develop strategies for dealing with conflict. Here are some tactics to use in developing your own successful family’s conflict resolution skills.

Tactic #1 – Deal with Conflicts Quickly.

  • “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry…” Ephesians 4:26
  • “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.” Ephesians 4:31
  • As a practical matter, you may have to schedule a time for a discussion.

Tactic #2 – Deal with One Issue at a Time.

  • 68% of both husbands and wives say that disagreements are seldom resolved.
  • Blaming and bringing up other issues will cloud the situation.

Tactic #3 – Be Specific.

  • The real issue in an argument can be elusive.
  • State the offending action or situation, your feelings, and possibly impact.

Tactic #4 – Become Allies.

  • Attack the problem not each other.
  • One strong family member states it this way: “It would be silly to get caught up in personal attacks when we fight. All that does is hurt feelings and fan the fires. We try to see ourselves as being on the same side–as a team. The enemy is the problem. We fight it—not each other.” Stinnett & Beam, Fantastic Families, p. 92

Tactic #5 – Ban the Bombs.

  • “I know more about my husband and children than anyone else does. I know their fears, their vulnerabilities. I have power to hurt them. … I feel that it would be a serious violation of the trust we have in each other to use our knowledge, or closeness, as weapons. Even when I get very angry, I keep sight of that. To use sensitive areas as attack points is a good way to destroy a marriage or parent-child relationship.” Fantastic Families, p. 92-93
  • Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. Eph 4:29 NIV
  • Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. Eph. 4:32, NIV

Tactic #6 – Open Up Understanding.

  • Be an active listener.
  • Check out and confirm what is being said. This involves repeating back for evaluation what you think the other person has said.
  • Many arguments are solved simply by coming to an understanding.

To Be a Living Sacrifice

September 5, 2014

Does Jesus make a difference to the way you live your life? Paul makes an appeal. It is a strong exhortation with the authority of the Apostle Paul behind it (see Romans 12:1). The appeal is motivated by the mercies of God which Paul has explained in the first eleven chapters of Romans. Because of the difference that Jesus makes, Paul says that it should change the way we live.

Paul wants us to present our bodies to God as a living sacrifice. Paul has already said earlier in the letter that we are to present ourselves to God (6:13). The emphasis on bodies may remind us that we are not to let sin reign in our mortal body (6:12), and that we are to put to death the deeds of the body by the Spirit (8:13). It is with our bodies that we serve. It is a living sacrifice as opposed to a dead sacrifice like the animals killed and placed on the altar under the Law of Moses. It is a thank offering. I do not add to the work of Christ. My service is the joyful response to what has been done for me. It is to be a holy sacrifice. We are set apart for God, and we are to be holy, walking not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit (see 8:4). It is well pleasing to God when we live this kind of life.

Presenting our bodies to God is then called by Paul your “reasonable service” or “spiritual worship” depending on translations. Let’s tackle the service/worship word first. It is latreia in Greek (G2999). This is the normal word for service done within the temple, which explains worship as the other translation. For Paul, Christians are priests and the people of God, the temple. Paul has smashed any secular versus sacred distinction that we might create. What I do in everyday life, I do as if service to God. Or as Paul did say, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord” (Colossians 3:23, ESV). I don’t get to bracket off a portion of my life and say this part is mine, God, you can’t have it.

But what kind of service is Paul talking about? The Greek word is logikos (G3050). A classical Greek lexicon would define this word as “possessed of reason.” The standard Greek New Testament lexicon (BDAG) suggests “pert[aining]. to being carefully thought through, thoughtful.” It is translated as “reasonable” (KJV, NKJV, NET) and “spiritual” (ESV, NASB, NIV84). It is the kind of service that reason gives. And possibly, the most helpful suggestion is to say that it is the opposite of the “futile thinking” and “debased mind” found in Romans 1:18-32.

If it sinks in what Jesus has done for me, then it makes sense to be a living sacrifice! But someone has quipped, “The problem with a living sacrifice is that it keeps trying to crawl off the altar.” Paul wants us to have renewed minds. He does not want us squeezed into the world’s mold. When we get it right, we dedicate ourselves to be a living sacrifice.