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Friday, February 28, 2020

What Was Paul Thinking?

    What was Paul thinking when he wrote in Romans 15:29, “I know that when I come to you, I will come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ” (italics added)? He was in Greece,  preparing to return to Jerusalem with an offering for the poor among the believers there. After that, he expected to travel to Spain, stopping at Rome on the way (Romans 15:23-26).

    He never made it to Spain.

    He went to Rome as a prisoner.

    What was Paul thinking as he envisioned himself heading for Rome in the full measure of the blessing of Christ? Did he have any idea that he’d be going there in chains? Or did he see himself sailing across the Mediterranean with a group of fellow believers, maybe stopping along the way to support the churches that he had planted on earlier trips?

    God granted Paul many visions, beginning with the confrontation on the road to Damascus in Acts 9. He had much more certainty about what lay ahead for him than the rest of us usually do. And yet he still had to walk by faith, just like us.

    His trip from Greece to Rome by way of Jerusalem is described in Acts 20 through 28. In Miletus, he told the elders from Ephesus that he didn’t know exactly what would happen to him in Jerusalem, but he’d been warned by the Holy Spirit that prison and hardships awaited him. He had written his letter to the Romans not too long before that. Was he still expecting to get to Rome in the full measure of the blessing of Christ? Or did the anticipation of hardships throw a bit of cold water on his expectations?

    Prior to saying a tearful farewell, Paul informed the elders that he would never see them again in this life. In Tyre, the disciples urged him through the Holy Spirit not to go on to Jerusalem. In Caesarea, the prophet Agabus warned him that he would be bound by the Jews and turned over to the Gentiles in Jerusalem. As a result, the Christians around him begged him not to continue on his way. He responded that he was willing not only to be arrested, but to die for Jesus in Jerusalem.

    Was he as confused as I am at this point? He was compelled by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem, and yet the Spirit used the disciples to urge him not to do it. If he died in Jerusalem, he wouldn’t be going to Rome. But he was so sure of that happening. Was he trying to sort all this out in his own mind, or was he simply trusting God to bring order out of the apparent chaos?

    From my perspective, the chaos just keeps getting worse. About a week after setting foot in Jerusalem, Paul was seized by the Jews and imprisoned by the Romans, as Agabus had prophesied. When the commander found out that he was a Roman citizen, Paul was released and ordered to testify before the Sanhedrin. That led to another upheaval, so he was returned to the Roman barracks.

    A group of Jews made a vow to kill him. When Paul and his captors got wind of their plot, he was transferred to Caesarea for his own protection. Over the next few years, he appeared in court before Governor Felix, his successor Festus, and King Agrippa. Felix intentionally dragged out the process, hoping Paul would offer him a bribe. Was any of this what Paul had in mind when he said that he knew that he would travel to Rome in the full measure of the blessing of Christ?

    The chief priests and scribes pressured Festus to move Paul back to Jerusalem. They were preparing an ambush to murder him on the way. Festus wanted to do them a favor, so he was considering their suggestion. But first he sought Paul’s opinion on the idea. Paul said he should be tried by the Romans, not the Jews. He demanded to take his case directly to Caesar instead.

    What was he thinking as he made this spontaneous request? Was he annoyed by all the delays and changes in plans? Did he cry out in impatience and frustration, as some commentators suggest? Or did he have one of those aha! moments, prompted by the Holy Spirit, when it all suddenly came together in his mind?

    He knew he was going to Rome one way or another. A return to Jerusalem would have put his life at risk. He was willing to die for Jesus in Jerusalem, but he knew he was going to Rome.

    Maybe the path ahead suddenly became clear to Paul as Festus questioned him. Maybe he realized that God’s plan all along had been for a group of soldiers to escort him to Rome. I can imagine the lightbulb turning on in his head as he saw an apparent snag in his plans (his extended imprisonment) turn into an opportunity, and boldly appealed to Caesar. King Agrippa declared that if Paul hadn’t demanded an audience with Caesar, he could have been set free. Instead, he was finally on his way to his goal—Rome.

    But it didn’t get any easier. His ship was caught in a life-threatening storm. After two weeks of danger and uncertainty, the passengers and crew were shipwrecked on a sandbar near an island. The soldiers prepared to kill all of the prisoners so that they couldn’t escape, but a centurion prevented them from doing so. Everyone made it to the island safely, where Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake. Was he wondering what more could go wrong at this point, as I would have been?

    The situation finally began to turn around a bit, though. The snakebite didn’t do him any harm, and after a few months they found a ship to take them to Rome without further incident.

    What was Paul thinking when he arrived there in chains? Did he still believe that he was living in the full measure of the blessing of Christ as he sat under house arrest with a Roman guard posted 24/7?

    He answers this question beautifully and joyfully in his letter to the Ephesians, which was written at this time. One of the first things he says is, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (verse 1:3, italics added).

    Approximately four years had passed since he’d written his letter to the Romans. Was he thinking back to the words that he’d used at that time, remembering his confidence that he would come in the full measure of the blessing of Christ, and praising God as he saw his expectations fulfilled?

    Paul went through many difficult times and much opposition to develop a more mature faith and a more powerful witness to the world. But it’s clear that it was well worth it, as I hear the joy and peace in his words to the Ephesians. Joy and peace that transcended his suffering as he lived in the full measure of the blessing of Christ despite his circumstances.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Poor Little Rich People

    Came across yet another Christian pundit scratching his head and trying to explain what went wrong with America. How could a culture so grounded in biblical values do such a u-turn to become one of the most secular communities ever, promoting entertainment and sexual freedom above all else?

    What happened? Where did Christianity fail? As with other pundits, he tries to pinpoint the key decisions and events that took us down the wrong path. If only church leaders had said and done just the right thing at just the right time, all this could have been prevented. If we had only trained up our youth in just the right way, they would all have remained faithful to God.

    Got news for you, guys: This is normal. This is how human beings respond to prosperity. It happens every time. There is no prevention, no cure. Affluence leads to arrogance and the illusion of self-sufficiency and to more time and opportunity to indulge in our lusts. We then abandon God’s ways for what we think will be the much more pleasurable ways of man.

    Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:23-24, emphases added). This concept isn’t just true of individuals; it’s true of nations. Wealthy countries rarely follow God.

    In addition to Jesus’ teaching, we have the Old Testament record. The Israelites went through multiple cycles of being obedient to God, becoming affluent, rebelling against Him, losing their abundance as a result of His judgment, and returning to obedience. In ancient Greece and Rome, prosperity led to abandoning the values that gave them their strength in favor of pleasure and corruption, which triggered the collapse of their cultures. Money also tends to become concentrated in the hands of the few, who neglect or oppress the majority as their greed and pride blind their eyes to other people’s needs. In the end, great riches produce suffering, not utopia.

    Why don’t we as Westerners recognize this fact? Somewhere back in our history, we bought into the ideas that humans are smart enough to solve all the problems in the world and that material abundance is the highest goal, providing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. We dove wholeheartedly into the project of creating paradise on earth.

    Science was our biggest hope. New discoveries and inventions would cure all our diseases and provide all the physical goods every human being could ever need. I think it was C. S. Lewis who observed that one of the obstacles to preaching the gospel in the early twentieth century was the belief that modern medicine would soon conquer death. Why worry about the next life if this one was going to last forever?

    Even today, most Americans think that more money means a happier, more fulfilling life. Never mind the endless stories of those who have it all and yet feel empty. The alcoholism, the drug addiction, the suicides among the wealthiest. The lack of long-term, meaningful relationships.

     In Proverbs 30:8, Agur prays, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.” Americans recognize the obvious—poverty leads to suffering. But we’ve missed the boat in thinking that riches will solve all our problems. Both lead to worse conditions than we experience when we have just enough.

    Making things more complicated, following God faithfully often leads to greater affluence. Under the Old Covenant, this link was made explicit, as many of the promises in that agreement involved material blessings (for example, Deuteronomy 28:2-13). God clearly said, “Obey Me, and I will give you a good life on this earth.”

    He also set up the world so that those who submit to His values will be more likely to succeed. Lying and cheating and stealing might have their temporary advantages, but people who frequently resort to these tactics earn a reputation for not being trustworthy. When others don’t trust you, it’s harder to get ahead.

    Some young people would point out that many actors and musicians succeed because they flaunt God’s standards for sexual purity and sobriety in their lives and their roles and their lyrics. They think anyone can follow this same path and get the same results. But these celebrities are an extremely small percentage of the overall population, who happen to be incredibly talented. They’re the rare exceptions, not the rule.

    In addition, a biblical lifestyle contributes to better physical and emotional health, increasing earnings and reducing expenses. Those who are committed to loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength (Mark 12:30) will avoid drunkenness, addictive drugs, smoking, overeating, sexual immorality, and taking foolish risks just for the thrill of it. They will build strong, loving relationships with each other and support each other through the tough times. They’ll learn to trust God more and more, instead of stressing out over the cares of this world.

    Western wealth is a direct result of our Christian heritage. But self-centered materialism is a result of that wealth. And meaningless lives are a result of that materialism. Just as Israel’s initial faithfulness to God ultimately led to their abandoning Him.

    The decline may be inevitable, but maybe we’re being too critical and too negative. Maybe the behavior of previous leaders and previous generations delayed the process in ways that we don’t recognize. One example: My generation assumed that marijuana would be legalized in this country by the end of the 1970s. Forty years later, it’s just beginning to happen, state by state. Was the unavoidable postponed by the behind-the-scenes prayers and actions of Christians? Can my prayers and actions today have a greater impact than those pessimistic pundits seem to expect?