For Paul, those who wish to identify as Christians, are expected to live like Christians. Sadly, as obvious as this might seem, many who claim to be Christians fail to demonstrate in their behaviour that they are any different from the rest of humanity. Paul expects their behaviour, attitudes and a lifestyle of purity will mark them out as followers of Christ (Phil 2:14-16). The model which they are to copy is the example of Christ himself (Phil 2:5-11). His example surpasses all others because he was God, and who in becoming human, submitted himself to God’s will and became a slave, even becoming obedient to death. This ‘descent’ of Christ to absolute humility, is what is to characterise the Christian’s attitudes to others, especially in the church (2:3-4).
In place of selfish ambition, pride, envy and a strong, independent will expresses itself in the claim they are right, Paul wants them to be united in love, with tenderness. Pushy ambition has no place in the church either (Phil 2:2-3). Evidence of God’s will and blessing on someone’s idea or view will be seen in the fruit it produces. Does it promote a common mind, a sense we are all sharing in the same plan? If it does, this is an indication that the Spirit of God is at work (2:1).
Our lifestyle, the way we speak to each other and treat each other, must be like that of Christ. Paul highlights that they, as Christians, live in the midst of a ‘crooked and morally twisted generation’ (2:15). Against this dark background, the Christian shines like the stars on a dark night (2:15). If we claim to be one of Christ’s, we must act like we really are one of his followers.
Being in jail is not the place to be, if you are wanting to promote your cause. But for Paul, it is. His optimistic view of his situation is not due to the ‘power of positive thinking’. He tells us that being in chains has got people talking and asking, “Why are you here?” (Philippians 1:12-14). It gives Paul the opportunity to tell others that he is in jail because he has appealed to Caesar as the highest court in the empire. What is at stake for Paul? The resurrection of Christ. The Jews in Jerusalem however, claimed that the dead are not raised and therefore Jesus the Messiah has not been raised. Paul’s claim caused a riot, then his arrest which was followed by several other trials, before his appeal and then transportation to Rome (Acts 21:27 – 26:32). At stake for Paul are two issues. The first is that he and this new religious movement he has joined, are law abiding citizens; not law breakers. He persistently shows his obedience to the authorities as a Roman citizen. The second, and most important, is that the truth of the gospel rests on the resurrection.
But what then is the gospel? It is the good news that Jesus the Messiah and Son of God has died for our sins and he been raised from the dead. As proof that his death was sufficient to deal with our sins once, for all time, is the resurrection. It also points to the Lordship of Christ, that he has the authority to raise all people to life and then judge them (Acts 17:29-31). Everyone who dies will face judgement and be condemned if they have not sought the solution provided by the death of Christ. This upset the religious people of Paul’s day because they trusted in their religion, not Christ. And so it is the case today.
Christians have never found it easy to get along. It is not just personality differences which are the cause, it is how we see things and what we consider important. Consider the different views Christians have had over music and even whether organs can be used in a church. Canadian Christians live happily under a constitutional monarchy (like Australians do also), while Christians across the border in the United States believe a republic is better.
Paul knew the Roman church was divided over the issue of whether a Christian had to keep a Sabbath (like their brothers with Jewish heritage), or whether it was optional (Romans 14:1-6). How do we live together when we disagree? Paul distinguishes between what might be called ‘foundational’ truths and ‘secondary’ issues. A foundational truth is one on which our faith rests. Change it, and you change the very nature of Christianity. The rejection of the resurrection would be a foundational truth. When Christians differ over ‘secondary’ issues, like wearing hats in church, or women wearing trousers, Paul’s concern is that the one who is ‘more permissive’ and accepting of things, does not treat with contempt the person who is convinced their narrow view is true. Conversely, the person who is convinced their position is right and it is a black and white issue, is not to judge the person who is more liberal in such matters (Rom 14:3). The person with the liberal view will be answerable to Christ. Then Paul reminds us that we will all appear before Christ and be answerable to him (14:12). We need to remember that Christ also died for those we argue with and respect them (14:15).
Have you had the problem assembling the Ikea furniture or using paint at home? Our response is then to read the instructions. For Christians, when confronted with something they have not considered before, their response is to consult the ‘instruction book’, the Bible, to find out what it really says. Our reading from Romans 13:1-7 is one of these passages. When the ruler of the day begins to impact their life, Christians turn to it to see what it really says about our relationship to the state and its laws. Few passages in the NT have been studied and analysed over the years than this one. The history of interpretation has largely been the history of attempts to avoid what the passage at first sight plainly seems to say. Paul appears to be demanding that every person always obey whatever any government authority tells them what to do, for God has appointed every authority that exists. But Christians in every generation have questioned whether we should obey rulers who are corrupt, advocating policies they disagree with or persecuting the church. We remember the German people’s unquestioning obedience to the Nazi government and the consequences which followed, so we are reluctant to obey the government without questioning its policies and practices. Yet it is God’s goodness in creation which makes civil order possible, but it is the corruption of sin which makes civil order necessary. Paul does not say that a government must be ‘Christian’ or democratic to fulfil their duty. But it must reflect the divine order of honouring good and punishing evil. When it fails, personal resistance as seen in Revelation, may be then be necessary.
“All you need is love” sung the Beatles. But that rarely worked for my generation with high divorce rates. Jesus himself put love for God and love for others at the heart of his teaching. However, it is rare in the NT to find the various authors calling on the Christian to love God. They prefer to speak of faith and obedience instead. But they follow Jesus almost identically by making love for other people the focus of their application of what it is to be a Christian. Love is, after all, what should be the defining mark of those who are his disciples (John 13:35). But what it means to love can easily remain a vague idea.
Paul prefers to give instructions about what behaviours demonstrate love in action. (The Greek word used in the NT is agape, a sacrificial love.) So in our reading of Romans 12:9-21 we see a series of practical exhortations which express love practically. It is not surprising that this passage is sometimes read at weddings (or the other one which Paul wrote – 1 Corinthians 13). But when Paul writes about love, it is about how we as the church, express our love for each other and love the neighbour who is outside the church. Paul is seeking to establish a new, alternative, community to the human family and the Roman Empire. He wants the church to show God’s love in our actions as this will promote the message of the gospel.
‘Who do people think I am?’, Jesus asked his disciples. It is a searching question and our answer often reflects our expectations. His disciples reported the gossip surrounding Jesus. But he pushed them further: ‘Who do you say I am?’ (Matt 16:15) Peter characteristically voices the insight which the other disciples no doubt shared. ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Peter recognises that Jesus is the anointed representative and king of God; but also that he is the Son of God – a title pointing to his divine nature. In both Jewish and Roman thought, the ‘son of God’ embodied the reality of God in all his fullness in himself.
No sooner than they grasp this insight, Jesus tells them to tell no one that he is the Messiah. (Matt 16:20) Why? The answer is found in the verse which follows: ‘From that time on Jesus began to explain that he must go to Jerusalem, suffer many things, be killed and raised from the dead on the third day.’ (16:21) Jesus will define on his terms what his messiahship is like and it will not be one which fulfills popular expectations. Peter objects; it is incomprehensible to him. (16:22). Yet the example of Jesus the Messiah, of suffering, humiliation and death before vindication and exaltation – will be their pattern as they follow Jesus. They must pick up their cross and follow too. This surprises modern expectations concerning Jesus.
‘Religion’ in all its various expressions, can be a force for great good – and evil. Men and women can use it to promote their selfishness and use it to control others by inducing guilt. They can appeal to their religious convictions to justify their actions (the oppression of women and slavery), and to place themselves above scrutiny. The Jewish legal experts and those who followed their teaching, were doing exactly this. They used the Law of Moses to justify why they bore no responsibility to care for their aging parents. In a deft ‘sleight of hand’, they dedicated their wealth to God, an outwardly noble act called ‘korban’ (Matt 15:5), but then would take on the role of managing it on behalf of God which absolved them of the Law’s commands to ‘honour their mother and father’ (Matt 15:16).
Jesus, gets to the heart of issue. They had elevated the traditions taught by the elders above the commandment of God (expressed in the Law of Moses). They were superficially religious, but their hearts were far from God (Matt 15:8-9). The issue sparking the confrontation was that Jesus’ disciples were not washing their hands before eating – thus being ceremonially unclean. Jesus returns to this issue after castigating the legalists who confronted him by turning and teaching the crowd that it is not what we do or eat that pollutes us, but what flows out of our heart that is then expressed in our behaviour and in our speech (15:19). This unfortunately is where those who claim allegiance to Christianity too often fall short. They focus on ‘keeping up appearances’, but ignore the condition of their heart that is leading them to break the commandments of God by their actions.
It must have been tough following Jesus around in his ministry. He has sent his disciples away following the feeding of the 5000 (Matt 14:22-33), and they have set out on Lake Galilee only to be buffeted by wind and choppy waves all night long. When Jesus appears just before dawn, they take him to be a ghost and this, with the trial of the wind and waves, adds to their fear (14:26). Jesus greets them to assure them it is him – and Peter takes his well- known walk on the water only to sink, almost without trace except that Jesus drags him up again.
Then Jesus and Peter climb into the boat. An eerie calm descends on the boat – the wind has dropped suddenly. The disciples eyes begin to dart across to each other looking for answers and back to the person now in the boat with them. Uncomfortable feelings are barely kept suppressed. Who is this in the boat with them? They know Jesus ‘the rabbi’, the man who is curiously unlike others, but so down to earth; the man who has confirmed he is superior to Moses, the messiah who has fed the crowd in the wilderness. But the conviction is pushing its way up to their consciousness: he controls the spirit world and the creation – even storms. They give way to all their objections and worship him and confess he is the Son of God. They now see what the wise men from the East saw when they visited the infant Jesus, whom they believe is ‘born the king of the Jews’ (Matt 2:2). They have come to worship him and recognise his divine authority and nature. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, following the resurrection, the response by his disciples will again be to worship him.
There are always some surprises when a well-known story from the gospels is read. Take for example, today’s reading of Jesus feeding the 5000. Matthew’s account notes this number did not include the women and children (Matt 14:21), so there were more present than commonly remembered. Is this story merely one about Jesus having compassion on the needs of crowd late in the day who were running short in food? Yes, but not quite. There is something else going on that is highlighted by understanding why Matthew has included it in his gospel. To do this we need to recognise that each gospel writer of the NT wrote their gospel with the intention of explaining the significance of Jesus to their intended readership. For Matthew, it was predominately a Jewish audience. His intention is to show that Jesus is the Messiah (Matt 1:1, 17-18), fulfilling the promises made to David and Abraham. But Jesus the Messiah is also the Son of God (4:1, 6; 14:33 & 16:16), and furthermore, he is superior to Moses and has the right to reinterpret the Law of Moses and restate its intention which has been lost under layers of legalistic interpretation (15:1-20). The Sermon on the Mount specifically deals with this, particularly 5:17-20. Keeping this in mind, we can now see the significance of Jesus feeding 5000 in the wilderness. Jesus gives bread to the crowd; Moses ‘fed’ or gave the people manna in the wilderness. The crowd are satisfied (14:20); the people of Israel complained and were not. Jesus brings life; the people under Moses died for their disobedience and lack of faith. Jesus is superior to Moses in every way. Which one will you listen to and follow then, Matthew asks? Jesus or Moses?
A knowledge of God is dependent on a knowledge of God’s word. Yes, God has certainly revealed himself, through the creation as we see in Psalm 19:1-6. (The prophet Isaiah 40:25-26; 45:18-19; highlights this too as evidence of why the LORD is superior to the idols which had waylaid Israel.) But there is an inability by the creation to ‘speak’ to us, as we ourselves silence that voice and are blind to it due to the power of sin (Rom 1:18-32). What is the solution? Paul persistently highlights that God’s word needs to be preached, taught and meditated on. Without it, men and women are unable to believe in Christ (Rom 10:14-15).
But it is not just a matter of gaining a knowledge of God’s word, the Bible, to know God intimately. God’s word must be like the seed in the parable of the sower, and be planted in our hearts where it takes root and grows (Matt 13:18-23). There are many things which threaten this seed’s growth and we need to be aware of them, as this parable highlights. Faith is nourished by God’s word with its promises. God’s word provides us with the assurance that the God we see in the historical acts of God, recorded in Scripture, is still the same God today. We see what God is like in action and especially his character.
Yet something more needs to be said: we need Jesus, the Word incarnate, the very message of God to us. As the letter to the Hebrews puts it: “he is the exact representation of his (God’s) being” (Heb 1:3), who speaks to us and expresses in our human history, what God is really like. But without God’s word explaining and interpreting God’s actions, they would remain meaningless and we uncertain about their reliability. To conclude: God’s word expresses what God intended to say to us so that we can be assured that his work in salvation, is true and that he is “. . . able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” (Heb 7:25)