A Parable for Today

Sometimes I hear God speak in parables to me, not in words but in the things that surround me.  Recently I had one of those moments as I was mowing my lawn.  You see, I have one of those “typical” Vermont lawns that are a mix of four varieties of actual grass (none of which match), at least that many kinds of broadleaf weeds, some well-established clover, the perennial dandelions, a smattering of Indian paintbrush, an occasional nettle, and other things that I don’t even recognize.  And this lawn could be a source of frustration to me if I was a perfectionist who was obsessed with fertilizing and reseeding it, digging out everything that I thought did not belong, setting its exact limits and layout, and never being satisfied until it was uniform and manicured, a lawn that met all of my expectations and preferences.  But I am no longer that person.  I look at the lawn and I have a certain satisfaction in its variety and content…it always grows and needs frequent mowing, it is mostly green, there are very few bare spots, and it seems to tolerate seasons of both rain and dryness without dying out.

And it was at that moment that I recognized that what was true of my lawn, was true of my community, my nation, my world, my church.  None of these venues will ever fully meet my expectations, I will never find a uniformity of belief, or opinion, or lifestyle.  And that diversity could continuously vex my soul, or it could simply be the reality that I have to live in by the grace of God and to the best of my abilities, trying, as the Apostle Paul said, to live at peace with every person so far as that possibility is present in me.  As Jesus taught in the gospel, I cannot seek to justify myself by asking the question “And just who is my neighbor?”  I have no other option than to love each and every neighbor as I love myself, regardless of whether I agree with them, like them, or even have anything in common with them.  They do not answer to me anyway, they belong to Jesus and He has already warned us that there are wheat and tares growing up side by side but that this does not bother God as much as it seems to bother me.  I have come to realize that I no longer wish to be fighting a constant war with a world that Jesus came to save.  There will come a day when all things are made clear and when the final sorting out takes place, but that task is given to Jesus, not me.  My part is simply to love my neighbor as myself; in doing that I find that I find that I also love and honor God with every part of my life and being.

When Jesus Is Angry

“Get out!”  he shouted.

I remember sitting in church as a single man some 15 years ago and watching in shock as the singles pastor screamed those words as he threw a chair across the stage, mid-sermon.  He was a big guy and the chair went soaring.  It was an unforgettable moment.

His topic that night was Jesus’ cleansing the temple.  The chair toss was his attempt at demonstrating the intensity with which Jesus drove the people and animals from the temple that day.

A few weeks ago I preached on John’s account of that moment from the life of Jesus.  I recalled that night at the church in Charlotte, North Carolina, when my breath was taken away.  Not just because the pastor chucked the chair, but because of the thought that Jesus, was capable of such.

When Jesus makes a whip of cords, flips tables, scatters animals, and is consumed with zeal, it doesn’t jive with the Jesus we are told about in a great many churches today.

For many people in the church (and outside the church too, for that matter), Jesus is viewed as a tame, tolerant, laid-back, easy-going, softy, who is almost impossible to rattle.

The people in the temple that day would have laughed at this depiction of Christ.

What Pushes Jesus’ Buttons?

But what was it that made Jesus so angry that day?

Or better yet, what makes Jesus angry on any day?  What pushes his buttons?

Clearly, we see from John 2 (and the other accounts of that story, see Matt. 21:12-17; Mark 11:15-19; Luke 19:45-48), that Jesus is capable of anger, but what is it that provokes him?

When we looked at this passage a few weeks ago at Red Door Church where I’m pastor, I arrived at the conclusion that it wasn’t just what the merchants were doing that day (selling animals for sacrifice, changing money, etc.), but it was because their commerce made the space unfit for worship.  With hundreds of animals bleating, chirping, and defecating all over the courtyard, and with merchants vying for your business, who could focus on God?   With so many competing voices, who could hear the still, small voice of their Maker?

Jesus was angry because the commerce was keeping people from worshipping God.

The Other Time Jesus Got Really Mad

But the temple scene wasn’t Jesus’ only angry moment.  Take a minute and go read Matthew 23.

Jesus communicates in Matthew 23 his disdain for the Pharisees and scribes of his day.  We read in verses 13 and 15 of that chapter these words:

““But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.  Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.”

Jesus’ rage is once again kindled because people are keeping others from worship.  In this case, the scribes and Pharisees, who “shut the kingdom of heaven” to those who would desire to enter.

But how?  The Pharisees are not ones to sell animals outside the temple and the scribes are not setting up booths for changing of currencies, so what is it that they are doing to get in the way of the devotion of the people?

They were misusing the law.

The money changers were misusing the temple.  The Pharisees and the scribes were misusing the law.

Instead of seeing God’s heart in the law, they saw it as a ladder–a way to climb to God.  And the Pharisees were really good climbers.  As they outwardly obeyed God’s standards they began to feel superior to others.  They got to be so good at following all the rules, they even began to make up new ones!

The problem is, they missed the entire spirit of the law.  The law was intended to help people see their brokenness and need for God’s mercy and thus lead them to repentance (see Galatians 3:24).  As they drew near to God in repentance He would draw near to the worshipper in love and grace and compassion.  In the end, they would see life as a parable of a loving, heavenly Father, providing any and every need for the children he loved.1

The Pharisees missed the love of God because they were simply going to grit their teeth and white-knuckle it into the Kingdom (and insist that everyone else do it the same).

Not only was it impossible to enter the kingdom that way (for no one is righteous enough)2, in Jesus’ mind, this was an out and out rejection of the love of God.

God loved the world so much he intended to give Himself up as a sacrifice to save it.  But the Pharisees didn’t need a savior; their works would commend them to God.  Their “savior” was the law of Moses.

The tablets of stone, however, were cold and unforgiving (which is why the Pharisees were cold and unforgiving).

If you were to feel any warmth or any love from the law, you had to look through it to the God who gave it.

You must try and understand why He gave it.

The Spirit of the Law

The why of the law leads us to something often called the “spirit” of the law.  To understand the spirit of the law you must understand its goal.3

Most of us just think of laws as rules to obey.  The goal, therefore, is just obedience.  But this is an overly superficial way of thinking about laws.

To understand how a law can have a different aim than just obedience, let’s take a modern day example.  Driving the speed limit.

Let’s start with the question: what is the point of having speed limits at all?  

The point is not just for local police to have a reason to pull people over and for the state to make money off of tickets (though some would argue that).  The point is to create roads that are safer–roads where accidents are less likely to happen.  Underneath that point, is a respect for life.  Accidents are bad and very often cause great pain and even ruin lives.  The spirit of the law is a respect for life (and property).  So when we obey traffic laws, it’s not just about raw obedience to some arbitrary standard that local authorities put into place, it’s about a respect for life and property.  It’s about the idea that I don’t want my neighbor to have to go through the agony of losing someone in a car accident, especially not at my hands.4  These laws are established not to be repressive, but because of love for self and neighbor.

The Pharisees, the teachers of Israel5, missed the true spirit of the law by making it about achievement and raw, external performance.  They used the law as a ladder to look down on others and to climb up to God.6  But as we’ve seen already (above), the law was intended to lead people to repentance and into the arms of a loving, merciful, God.

This is the kind of stuff that made Jesus start turning over tables.  Once again, someone is standing in the way of worshippers wanting to encounter God.

Jesus Zealous for Us to See God’s Love

In both the cleansing of the temple and in the denouncing of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus is angry for one reason: His people are being kept from worship.

So when we see the angry side of Jesus in Scripture we should see our God’s passion and zeal to let nothing stand in the way of His people’s knowing and understanding the depth of God’s love for them.7

  1. For the Christian, this all culminates in Jesus Christ. See Romans 10:4 and Galatians 3:24.
  2. This was clear from the Old Testament which would have been the “bible” of the Pharisees. See passages like Psalms 5:9; 14:1-3; 36:1; 53:1; 140:3; Isaiah 59:7, 8.
  3.  We know from Scripture, that the goal of the law was not achievement.  It was not given to us so that we could achieve something, i.e., for us to merit or earn bragging rights over others or God’s approval or entry into Heaven.  We know this because Jesus makes it clear in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 through 7), that raw, external obedience is not enough.  A mere lustful thought after a woman that is not your wife is adulterous in the eyes of God (see Matt. 5:28).  No one can keep the law in this way perfectly, not even the Pharisees who were masters of external, outward obedience (on the inside, they were rotten, see Matt. 23:25-28).  If God gave us such a law as a means to some kind of achievement, then it was a massive failure.
  4. This is why most police, rightly, won’t (and I will argue, shouldn’t) pull you over if you are going just a few miles per hour over the speed limit.  If you’re driving under control, are on the correct side of the road, are paying attention, and are not swerving all over the place, have your lights on at the proper time or your wipers in rainy weather, and so on, then it’s fair to say, that the spirit of the law is being kept, though the letter of the law may not be.  If you drive 68 in a 65 mile per hour lane, it does not necessarily mean that you have no respect for the law or its spirit, namely, to protect life and property.  Which is why the police do not pull people over for every single infraction.
  5. See John 3:10 when Jesus calls Nicodemus, a Pharisee, “Israel’s teacher.”
  6. In the minds of the Pharisees, if a person did not tithe even their spices to God, they were not being faithful.  If a person, went out to help a neighbor or a friend in need on the Sabbath day, or picked a single head of grain and ate it as they passed by, they were in violation of God’s laws.  If a person did not wash their hands properly, then they were in violation of God’s laws.  If a person even associated with people who did not perfectly keep God’s laws, people they called “sinners” at the time, then they were in violation of God’s laws.
  7. That is not to say that we should not also see God’s infinite hatred of sin.  My point here in this post is to draw attention to the fact that even in Jesus’ anger we can see the love of God for His people.

I Will Never Divorce You

Have you ever been to an awkward wedding?

Recently I heard a story of a man who, despite his deep social anxiety, decided to write and memorize his own wedding vows. Unfortunately, the wedding was held in front of a very large group of people. Things went as expected—horribly! Cringe-worthy doesn’t begin to describe it. But after stumbling and fumbling with his words for what seemed like an eternity, he ditched what he’d memorized and began to speak off the top of his head and from the bottom of his heart. Because he was so nervous, he forced himself to stare deep into the eyes of his new bride,. His stare wasn’t romantic—it was desperate. In short and intense bursts, he professed his love for her. And his vows culminated with one sentence that got right to the point:

I will never divorce you.”

That kind of love is powerful. Do you think God loves you like that?

On the night before his death, Jesus was all too aware of what torment he would undergo at the hands of evil men. More terrifyingly, though, he knew the suffering the Father would lay on him as the Lamb who takes away the sins of the world. So it’s no wonder that he “was troubled in spirit” (John 13:21).

But the terror of the coming day didn’t dissuade the Lord Jesus from his plan. His love for us brought him into the world; his love for us sustained him in the world; and his love for us saw him through to the cross and the grave. As his beloved disciple John put it decades later, Jesus’ last night on earth shows the essence of his true feelings toward us: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love” (NIV). Or, as most other translations read, “he loved them to the end.”

Will Jesus stop loving you because of your deep discontentment over your job situation?
Will Jesus stop loving you because you know better than to do what you’re doing anyway?
Will Jesus stop loving you because your physical and mental weakness keep you from being productive (whatever you think that means)?

This brings us to one of the most important things for Christians to remember—and the more people I serve in pastoral ministry, the more people I think need to hear this—is that Jesus will not give up on you. Even if you are sick of yourself, he isn’t sick of you. And you don’t have to lean on wishes and empty hope. The cross, which actually happened whether we feel like it or not, shows that Jesus saw his love for us through to the bitter end. His love for us doesn’t depend on our fears or doubts—it never did.

The cross shows us something else, too. It proves that sin and abandonment and denial couldn’t end Jesus’ love for his people. It shows that love really is stronger than death. The cross reveals to us that there really is a God, and that he really doesn’t divorce those he’s committed to—even if it means he has to die for us. You can—you must—follow this Jesus, who will never leave or forsake you (Matthew 28:20), though he was forsaken for us (Mark 15:34).

This Easter, may you realize that Jesus, the Bridegroom of his church, will see you through to the end.

The Fruit of Following God – Part 6: Demonstrates Love

The first fruit listed among the fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of love. This beautiful fruit begins to mature when Christ enters a person’s life. Romans 5:5 states:

“And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.”

In so many ways the person who has lived life without Christ has lived life for self. No matter what great deeds a person may accomplish, the Apostle Paul states that if done without “agape” (God’s unconditional, sacrificial) love, those deeds are worth nothing (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).  Good works have no value before God without the appropriate motivation and self love is not a pleasing motivation to God. Any semblance of self love ruins a good work in God’s eyes because the motivation is impure. Conversion to Christ is an experience of God’s great love and out of that new life flows a new and growing love.

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” (John 15:12-13).

I still recall vividly seeing the expressed love between Christian believers just weeks after I became a Christian as a freshman at the University of South Carolina. I knew that I did not have a similar love for others in my heart that these believers demonstrated. How I envied them for the love they displayed and exhibited toward one another!  My life, although churched and “good” in a relative sense, had always been about me. I had little regard for others (some “common grace” – or natural care was in my heart of course) and had only concern for myself, my survival and my own well being. How could I love others? I literally begged God to give me a love for others that was presently not in my heart. And something amazing happened as an answer to that prayer. I don’t know if I had been what some would call “emotionally” damaged in my upbringing, but in almost miraculous fashion, I actually began to experience emotions for others – a caring love and compassion – that I had rarely, if ever, experienced in my entire life. I had prayed that God would make me a person of love instead of a selfish person (which was really all that I had ever known) and He began to do that work in my heart. He put love for others into my heart. What a blessing it was and still is to bear this fruit by His grace – His undeserved gift to me.

Sacrificial and committed “agape” love for others (even for their enemies) is a sign that an individual is a disciple and follower of the one who gave His life for us!

Your Neighbor Probably Doesn’t Agree With You About Love

I clearly remember being down at what used to be Tom and Lib Phillip’s field (now Robert and Mariam Hayes Stadium) at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.   It was a beautiful spring afternoon and I was chatting in the outfield during batting practice with one of my non-Christian teammates about God.  As these conversations often do, our discussion moved towards the topic of the afterlife.  Without any hesitation at all he said to me: “But God is love and would never condemn anyone.  I believe that we will all be in Heaven together one day.”

Not only do the majority of people today still believe in God, my experience tells me that most of them share a similar conviction with my old friend on the baseball team.

It’s popular or “in” to conceive of God as loving.  Rarely will you hear of a Westerner say that they find the idea of a loving God grotesque or undesirable.  Who would, right?

But this presents a major problem for bible-believing Christians.

Why?  Wouldn’t it create some common ground and make the “bridge building” process between Christians and non-Christians easier?

I don’t think so.  In fact, I think it makes it significantly harder.

Because the other beliefs that non-Christians hold along with their conception of love simply cannot be married with a Christian worldview.  Which means “love” as Christians conceive of it, is not the same “love” that can be found in popular culture or in non-Christian belief systems.  So if you’re a Christian, your neighbor probably doesn’t in fact agree with you about this thing called love.  As D. A. Carson states:

“If people believe in God at all today, the overwhelming majority hold that this God—however, he, she, or it may be understood—is a loving being.  But that is what makes the task of the Christian witness so daunting.  For this widely disseminated belief in the love of God is set with increasing frequency in some matrix other than biblical theology.  The result is that when informed Christians talk about the love of God, they mean something very different from what is meant in the surrounding culture. Worse, neither side may perceive that that is the case.”  1

The Importance of Context

We all know that words change meaning depending upon the context in which they are used.  To give a really simple example, take the word chair.  As a noun it can mean a seat with a back and four legs in one sentence, as in

“Jennifer got up to throw her gum in the trash and then returned to her chair.”

Or the word chair can mean “the person in charge of a meeting or organization” in another: “John spoke up and addressed the chair.”

If you take the second sentence and use chair in the sense that it is used in the first sentence, you end up talking not to person, but to a seat with four legs.  (Something that most of us would consider a bit unusual.)

Our belief system too can function this way.  Take the concept of death for instance.  If you are a Christian, death is bad. 2 It was introduced into the world in response to human sin; it is a form of judgment.  But if you are an atheist who believes in Darwinian evolution, then death can be conceived of much differently:

“Death…in the biblical worldview is an intruder into an otherwise ‘very good’ world, and the consequence of human sin.  For the Darwinian, on the other hand, death is the necessary method of selecting out those less well-suited to survive and pass on genes, and therefore part of the ‘creative process’ of life which resulted in the arrival of human beings.” 3

That’s a pretty big difference.

Love too is like that.  Just because two people can say that they think God is loving doesn’t in any way mean that they are on the same page.  In fact, they could be in completely different ballparks.

This is what makes the task of the Christian challenging in today’s world.  We have to be able to parse the differences in the various meanings of love when we are talking with our neighbors or on Sunday mornings from our pulpits.

Love is Tricky and Sticky

I think the sum of what I’m wanting to say here is this: just because your local community member says that “God loves everyone” or that “God is love”, that does not in any way mean that they agree with the Bible which says things like “God is love” and “God so loved the world…” and so on.  I’ll go back to Dr. Carson to close:

“To put this another way, we live in a culture in which many other and complementary truths about God are widely disbelieved.  I do not think that what the Bible says about the love of God can long survive at the forefront of our thinking if it is abstracted from the sovereignty of God, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, the providence of God, or the personhood of God–to mention only a few nonnegotiable elements of basic Christianity.” 4

God’s love cannot be conceived of in whatever way we want it to.  In biblical Christianity love is something that is possible only because of God (1 John 4:19), sees discipline as necessary and healthy even (Proverbs 3:11-12), believes there is a connection between truth and love (Ephesians 4:15, 1 John 3:18), considers others as better than self (Philippians 2:3), sees the cross as the paradigm of love (Philippians 2:1-11), and the loving marriage relationship between a man and a woman as a picture of Christ’s love for his church (Ephesians 5:21-33), and finds the ultimate meaning of human love in the mutual love that existed from eternity between the members of the Trinity (John 17).

This is hardly the picture of love that we find in popular culture.

So when we assume that what we say and what the world says is the same, we may find that we are telling people that we are addressing the four legged seat with a back and not the chair of the meeting.

No wonder the world looks at us a bit cross-eyed when we talk about love.

  1. D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2000), 9-10
  2. Someone might object by saying that the apostle Paul says that “To live is Christ and to die is gain,” in Philippians 1:21. Good question. But the reason dying is gain is not because death is good–the result of death is good, namely being with the Lord, but death itself is bad in the Christian worldview.  Romans 5:12 teaches that death entered through sin, which of course means that death is bad.
  3. Alistair McKitterick, “The Language of Genesis,” in Norman C. Nevin, ed., Should Christians Embrace Evolution, 28.
  4.  The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, 11.

Loving Two Brides

(The reflections below were published in the Hickory Daily Record June 4, 2011 and also at http://corinthpastorbob.com/2011/06/loving-two-brides/ on the same date.)  The entry is used here with permission from Rev. Dr. Bob Thompson of Corinth Reformed Church in Hickory, NC.  Bob has posted on Red Door’s Blog before.  Check out his last entry “When You Give Yourself a B.”


I have loved two brides in my life.  Only one of them is mine.

My wife and I will celebrate our thirty-third anniversary July 1.  We vowed our love, loyalty and faithfulness before our 22nd birthdays.  We have kept those promises through every phase of life from honeymoon to empty nest, during seminary or sickness, facing opposition or enjoying stability.  Linda is still my best friend, my partner in life and ministry.  I protect and defend her, valuing her above anyone else and treasuring the times we can be together.  I would give my life for her if I had the opportunity.

The other love of my life is the bride of Christ.  He loves his bride as I do mine – only infinitely better and deeper.  The Apostle Paul made that analogy in Ephesians 5 when he instructed husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church.  Giving his life for his bride was more than theoretical for Jesus.

A man and a woman marry, at least in our culture in time, because of a combination of attraction and friendship we call “falling in love.”  Couples whose marriages endure learn that the “enchantment,” as C. S. Lewis called it, is transient – or cyclical at best.  The glue that keeps a marriage together is rather a commitment to mutual sacrifice and submission that includes patience, forgiveness, and a choice to keep loving when the enchantment wanes.  When Linda and I wrote our own wedding vows, we both promised to love the other in full knowledge we would at times be disappointed in each other.  The Greek word for that kind of love is agape.

Agape describes Christ’s self-sacrificing love for his bride.  He loves her as she is, and claims her as his own.  He knows her flaws better than she knows them.  He protects, defends, forgives, and waits for her, even with the realities of her imperfections.

Given Christ’s love for his church, I am sometimes surprised at the disdain and apathy of his followers toward his bride.  I am not surprised at the cynicism and distance of non-believers toward the church.  I find it, in fact, understandable for those who have not experienced grace.

Long before your church or mine ever came into being, Jesus’ Plan A was to gather his people into communities for worship, encouragement, learning, service, and witness.  It does not surprise Jesus that these faith communities would be imperfect.  He was aware from the beginning that within the church we would encounter hypocrisy, gossip, power struggles, anger, immorality, pride, error, greed, racism, envy, and deceit.  The biggest problem with churches has always been that they’re full of sinners.

Is it frustrating to pastor a congregation of the imperfect?  It would be, if I weren’t among those deeply flawed.  As in marriage, disappointment with another’s brokenness should cause me to name my own, and then be merciful.  The church is where sinners gather to name and share the benefits of grace.

The Fruit of Following God, Part 3: Walking With God and A Life of Love

Below, we continue our survey  describing what it means for a believer in Christ to follow Him.  What does a true follower of Christ look like?  We looked at the first major quality a couple of weeks ago, the fear of the Lordnow we take up qualities two and three (all stemming from Deuteronomy 10:11-12).

Quality Two: A Walk with God

The Christian life is so often pictured in the Scriptures as a walk. The word “live” (peripateo) in the New Testament is also the word for “walk.” The picture is one of step by step progress. Slow, methodical forward moving progress and that done by faith. This is indeed the portrayal of discipleship, whether as an Old Testament saint (did they ever understand walking!) or a New Testament believer who is trusting in the One who came and revealed the Father. The follower of Christ faces the day-to-day grind of daily life and prepares to face each new sunrise as a forward moving walk, holding the hand of the Savior and more importantly taking those baby steps of faith knowing that ultimately the Savior is holding his or her hand.

Quality Three: A Life of Love

The Christian life and indeed the life of the disciple of Christ is a life that resonates with love. First and foremost this love must be a deep love for the Lord and not simply being in love with an ill-defined concept of love. We love because He first loved us. The Apostle Paul recognized that the love he had for the Lord, particularly for the saints and extending even unto the many lost and needy souls in the world, was a love derived from God through Christ, “For the love of Christ controls us….” (2 Corinthians 5:12, ESV). Until we comprehend God’s love for us, a love that exists in spite of the fact that we were his enemies, ungodly and sinners and a love demonstrated through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, we cannot exude the love of God from our hearts.

May each of us engage in a daily (even a moment by moment) walk with Christ, a walk of faith that is exhibited by a life of deep love, both for Him and for others!

Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne

A Hymn penned in the mid 1800s captures so well the amazing love and sacrifice demonstrated in the first Advent, the first coming, of our Lord Jesus Christ.  I’ve copied the verses below (the refrain is sung between each verse and goes like this: “O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for Thee”).

This is the reason for this season.

Thou didst leave Thy throne and Thy kingly crown,
When Thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem’s home was there found no room
For Thy holy nativity.

 

Heaven’s arches rang when the angels sang,
Proclaiming Thy royal decree;
But of lowly birth didst Thou come to earth,
And in great humility.

 

The foxes found rest, and the birds their nest
In the shade of the forest tree;
But Thy couch was the sod, O Thou Son of God,
In the deserts of Galilee.

 

Thou camest, O Lord, with the living Word,
That should set Thy people free;
But with mocking scorn and with crown of thorn,
They bore Thee to Calvary.

“My Very Dear Friends”

My church has been going through 1st Corinthians since late January of this year.

This week we found ourselves in the middle of a text warning the Corinthian church that their actions were dangerously reminiscent of Israel’s during their wilderness wanderings (1 Cor. 10).  Paul says even though Israel enjoyed a unique relationship with God their position did not shelter them from all the consequences of sin; “God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered in the wilderness” (verse 5).

Apparently some of the Corinthians thought that their Christian liberty was so great that there was no need to be mindful of the peril their actions might represent to themselves, or the “weaker” believers in the Corinthian fellowship.  “Therefore,” says Paul, “let him who thinks he stands take heed that he does not fall” (verse 12).

As I was studying this difficult passage I stumbled across the words “my dear friends” in verse 14 (as in the NIV).  The New American Standard renders this phrase “my beloved” because the word here for “dear friends” (or “beloved”) comes from the Greek word agape, which means love, or “Christian love” (as the Aland Greek New Testament dictionary, 4th edition has).  The King James has a combination reading of the phrase: “my dearly beloved.”  The author of the most definitive commentary on 1 Corinthians I’m aware of to date writes that the popular translation “my dear friends” should be strengthened a bit; he suggests “my very dear friends.”

In the midst of a firm warning, there is tenderness.

Too often we read our definition of love into many Biblical passages and the result is either a distrust of the Bible itself, or a skewed theology and practice.

Our culture here in America largely defines love as affirmation.  While love may at times need to be affirming, it also sees a place for warning and even rebuke.  The Bible never condones truth without love (Ephesians 4:15).

But the reverse is true as well.  Love shares truth.

Next time we read a difficult biblical passage in the Bible, we need to remember the loving God that stands behind them.  We need to remember that often the words of warning or rebuke are preceded by words like “my very dear friends.”