44. Distinctive

Lessons in Growth Meditations: 44. Distinctive

Heb 12:14   Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.

The Relevant Church: We must be drawing near the end and as we do we need to sharpen some of the things we have said along the way. We have countered the potential accusation that the church is irrelevant in today’s scientific age, with talk of the unchanging truths about God and mankind, while at the same time pointing out that the church which is genuinely acting as the ‘body of Christ’ will be demonstrating the power and revelation of Christ in such ways that lives and circumstances will be changed.

The Distinctive Church: This, you might think, is enough to suggest that the church, seen like this, will be distinctive and will stand out in society as both a lighthouse that sheds light and shows the way, and a rescue and recovery centre for lost and damaged mankind. Yet I must suggest that its distinctiveness must be seen in its very nature or its character as suggested by our verse above – its holiness.

Holiness in God: So what is holiness? It is the very foundational character of God which, put in its most simple of terms, refers to His utter ‘differentness’. God is different in many ways: in His nature, size and scope – He is Spirit, ever present, everywhere present, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-wise. But then there is the ethical or moral element – He is utterly good, totally perfect (cannot be improved upon), beyond criticism.

Holiness in Us – Generally: Now when this is seen in human beings, and it should be seen in some measure in every Christian, this sense of being utterly different should include

  • our godliness (the presence of God with us and being the focus of all we do), and
  • our piety (the way we express our devotion to God), and
  • our spirituality (fully embracing this material world but also clearly operating in the world of the Spirit)

Holiness in Us – Specifics: But these distinctives, these things that make us stand out in the crowd in a good way, should be able to be seen in specific characteristics that the New Testament speaks about. Here are some of the key ones:

Love: Love is a foundational command (see Jn 13:34) still seen in later centuries: “See, they say, how they love one another” (Tertullian’s Apology, Chapter XXXIX). Love is seen in compassion, care, acceptance, all very ‘tangible’ visible things. It is love (total commitment come what may) that was seen in Jesus and is what binds relationships together today. The love that holds us is often expressed as ‘grace’.

Unity: “I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (Jn 17:23) The presence of God in us – revealed in the ways we have been considering in so many of these studies – working to make the unity that IS, visible. 

Truth: The word comes up about 35 times in the Old Testament but about 102 times in the New Testament. “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn 1:14) Jesus was truly God and truly man, and in both there was nothing that was unreal, nothing false, nothing of pretense, just absolutely genuine. Can that be us, with no pretense, utterly real? Can it be seen in the ways we live and deal with others, seen in honesty and integrity? Can it be seen in purity, having nothing to do with the distortions and perversions of the life of sinful mankind, so clearly and visibly demonstrated in life in the West today?

Goodness: Goodness is difficult to define but obvious when you see it. Something that is good is something that is right, appropriate, pleasant, apt, enjoyable. Goodness is the expression of that and, yes, it does have a moral dimension but goes further that just ‘doing right’, it goes beyond that with such things as mercy and grace that may be seen in generosity or hospitality.

And So? So, yes, we are to be distinctive by the spiritual power and revelation seen through our lives as we allow Jesus to work through us bringing in his kingdom rule, but it is also to be seen in the nature or character of who we are, his children and his disciples, displaying his nature: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (Gal 5:22,23) Not work or character, but both: working with his character, both revealing him, both glorifying the Father. This is what the kingdom is all about, this is what the body of Christ is all about. Can we grow in this, for this is what growth is all about?

3. United in Love

Meditations in Colossians 2: 3:  United in Love

Col 2:2,3   My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ,

In the previous meditation of the verse above we said we have made bold the three aspects of Paul’s purpose together with his end goal, and we went on to consider the first of these three aspects, that of being “encouraged in heart”. Now we move on to consider the second aspect, of being “united in love.” The problem, so often with Scripture, is that the writer was not seeking to go into great detail because, as in this case, it would make the letter incredibly long. So, when we come to this little phrase we are left to speculate on what he means.  A good approach often with Paul’s letters (because his trains of thought often go round in a circle or repeat themselves or pick out specific aspects again and again) is to look before and after the point in question to see if there are other references that might shine light on the present one.

Earlier in chapter 1 we find several references to their love: we have heard of ….. the love you have for all the saints,” (v.4) and, love that spring from the hope that is stored up for you in heaven,” (v.5) and “Epaphras…. also told us of your love in the Spirit,” (v.7,8) They know about love; it is strong in them that reveals itself in their love for all believers, and it is a love that naturally springs out of the Gospel of hope, and is a love empowered by the Holy Spirit.

This is interesting because he is saying, “My purpose is that they may be …. united in love,” but it would appear that they already have it, so why is he mentioning it now. The first answer (and these reflect what he said about his ministry having various aspects that we considered in the first of these meditations in chapter two) has got to be that working to bring about a church united in love is part of his ministry of bringing the Gospel to people and then seeing them built up in it.

When you think about it, the Gospel is about love and should always be presented in love. The end product is a new believer who is newly aware of God’s love, filled with that love, and aware that they have a life ahead of them founded on and characterized by love. They were thus newly birthed by love and live lives founded and built in love, and now they find themselves alongside lots of other believers who have experienced the same things, all of them rejoicing in love.

What more could you ask for to produce a church “united in love”?  If your local church fails to experience this love as an ongoing daily and weekly experience together, it is probable that love has not been emphasised in sharing the Gospel, and has not been majored on in building up and establishing the church, and so we fail to realise or remember the wonder of this love. If the Holy Spirit is within us (and He is!) and He is love (and He is!) and we are open to Him (are we?), then love will flow between us and we will be united in love in more than words.

Remember Jesus’ words in his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane (although they would not be written down by John for several decades yet possibly): “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (Jn 17:23) There Jesus prayed for a complete unity based on the wonder of lives loved by God and revealing that love in word and deed to the rest of the world. Paul may not have known about these words yet, but the Holy Spirit who inspired him was the same as the Spirit in Jesus and he would thus know that this was the intent of the Father’s heart and the heart of Jesus. Unity based upon love is thus a critical requirement for the Church to impact the world and glorify the Father.

But when we considered the reasons for Paul’s struggling for new believers we also said that part of the struggle was to counter the heresies and false teachings that abounded in those early centuries, used by the enemy to counter the Gospel. So perhaps another more subtle reason for Paul saying this is to do with those heresies that cause division and upset. Don’t let such divisions spoil the loving unity you have, is perhaps the message in his thinking at this point, and that is a very real and valid reason to present, not merely that such heresies are wrong, but they do damage to the love and unity of the church. One of the reasons for good, steady and consistent teaching within the Church is to avoid such heresies and thus avoid the splits and divisions that accompany heretical and wrong teaching.

Thus this little phrase is based upon what has happened to these believers, and is the Father’s heart for them, and is to be something to be guarded and protected from the wiles of the enemy. Never take this loving unity for granted, and if it is absent in reality in your local church, then work to restore and establish it. Amen? Amen!

45. Obedience & Spirit

Meditations in 1 John : 45 : Obedience and Spirit

1 John  3:24   Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them. And this is how we know that he lives in us: We know it by the Spirit he gave us

We live in an age of individuality and even married couples today seem to take pride in remaining unique individuals but the purpose of marriage as laid down by the Lord is that the two become one, and that means more that just physically, even though the word ‘flesh’ is used: For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” (Gen 2:24) Jesus added a comment: “the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one.” (Mk 10:8) The final sentence appears to take oneness beyond merely physical oneness.

We say all this because John speaks about Christians as those who “live in him, and he in them”, a oneness of spirit. There is a unity in this that transcends anything found anywhere else in the world. There is also a link between obeying Him and knowing Him: “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands,” (2:3) and there are ongoing references in John’s letter to be in Christ, for example, “This is how we know we are in him(2:5) and “See that what you have heard from the beginning remains in you. If it does, you also will remain in the Son and in the Father,” (2:24) and “his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit–just as it has taught you, remain in him.” (2:27)

He’s said it before and now he says it again: “Those who obey his commands live in him, and he in them.”  We saw the logic earlier that obedience is a prerequisite of a relationship with Christ being formed and a proof of its existence. Those who are ‘in him’, who are part of the body of Christ, have come to be there because they submitted to his will and now live a life of obedience to that will expressed in the many commands or instructions found in the New Testament. They live ‘in him’ and he lives in them by the presence of his Holy Spirit.

“Oh, come on,” cries the skeptical unbeliever, “how do you know he lives in you as you claim?” It is quite simple: by the Spirit. “But what does that mean?”  It means that since he came into my life I have had an awareness of an inner joy, I have had an awareness of inner guidance, and I have had an awareness of an inner power that is beyond me; it is something that just wasn’t there before I became a Christian and it cannot be explained in any other way than it seems there is an inner power that now lives in me that urges me, guides me, informs me, strengthens me, and when I read the New Testament, I find that it says that this is God’s own Holy Spirit, part of Him Himself.

There is therefore, a twofold aspect of living out the Christian life. On one side there is me making acts of choice, acts of obedience to God, using my intellect and my will to submit myself to Him and His will. God doesn’t take my free will away from me when I become a Christian, I still have to go through life making decisions, choices to obey Him. That is where the struggle comes because sometimes everything in me fears or is uncertain and I have to come to a place where I make a decision to trust him and obey.

The other aspect of this life is that He, by His Holy Spirit, lives within me and thus communicates with me and helps, guides and teaches me, and when I go to step out in faith, He strengthens me and gives me power to achieve what He’s asked me to do. It is a human-divine partnership being lived out here.

Another way of putting it, is that I do what I alone can do – and that is make the choices to obey, and then He is there to help, guide, assist, and empower me to work it out practically. Yes, the Lord may be there working in circumstances and people around me, but we have been thinking about how He works within and through me. It is the relationship, this partnership, where he allows me sovereignty of will, but is there to prompt, help, guide and empower as I choose to obey. And it works, and this is why we know, as John says, it is “by the Spirit he gave us.” Hallelujah!

32. Establishing Scriptures

Meditations in 2 Peter : 32:  Establishing Scriptures

2 Pet  3: 15,16    Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.

The marvel of the Bible – and something I suspect that we take for granted – is that it comprises 66 books with a lot of writers. Sometimes we don’t know who those writers are but that makes even more amazing the unity that is found in Scripture. Critics focus on unclear passages of Scripture or where harmony takes a while to find, but the truth is that there is staggering unity in the Bible. The Old Testament flows like a history book and if you knew nothing of its origins you might think it was written by one person, even though they vary the style from time to time. Yes there is an historical gap of some four hundred years between Old and New Testaments, but the flow is still about a little country in what we call the Middle East, and the amazing things that went on in it. The more you read the Bible you more you come to see this unity. God is NOT portrayed in a variety of ways; He is there in the background the whole time and again and again He reiterates His love for His world.

As Peter draws near the end of this letter and particularly his argument to persuade believers to live holy lives, he appeals to the writing of the apostle Paul. In many ways Peter and Paul stand as the two human giants in the New Testament. They were both Jews but they had very different backgrounds. They both responded to Jesus’ call but Peter was largely called to the Jews while Paul was largely called to the Gentiles.

Peter’s finishing point to his own argument is Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation.”  That was the conclusion to what he had been saying: be patient, be faithful, hold to the truth and live holy lives and realise, as we have now noted a number of times, that every day the Lord delays in coming back means a further opportunity for people to be saved. Then he adds, presumably as a means of adding authority to what he has been saying, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you.” Do you see that – “just as” – i.e. in the same way as Paul has been teaching.

In 1 Thessalonians Paul had spoken of Jesus’ return (1 Thess 4:13-) Moving into chapter 5 he had written, “Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” (1 Thess 5:1,2) and then a bit later “So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled…. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” ( Thess 5:6,8)

So there we find exactly the same teaching that Peter has been bringing – Jesus will return, so be prepared and remain faithful and true.  Peter upholds Paul’s writing in a remarkable way. He confirms it is in line with his own teaching, but he also adds that he recognizes that Paul’s writing came with the wisdom that God gave him.”  But even more than that, he puts Paul’s writings alongside the other Scriptures.”  Peter recognizes that hand of God on Paul’s writings which declare it revelation equivalent to that of the Old Testament. That is quite a remarkable attestation.

But Peter is an honest pastor: His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”   Look, he seems to be saying, he’s a bit of an intellect and so sometimes the things he writes need some thinking about; they are not always that easy to take in – BUT that doesn’t make them any the less the wisdom and inspiration of God!

There is a simple challenge here that comes out of this: if Scripture isn’t always clear and easy to understand, that doesn’t mean it’s not from God. You just have to take more time thinking and praying over it to see what God would say to you through it. If you haven’t seen the unity we’ve referred to, then read and read and read the Bible and you soon will. If you stumble over passages, pause up and ask the Lord to help you understand it. In fact, the wise always pray before they read the Bible because it is a spiritual book and needs help of the Holy Spirit sometimes to understand. Ask Him for that help!

47. Family Harmony

Ephesians Meditations No.47

Eph  6:1-4 Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honour your father and mother”–which is the first commandment with a promise– “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth. “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

The context you may remember is of submission creating unity in the church, the body of Christ. Paul developed that concept through the picture of marriage and now extends it into the whole family. It is a subject – and through these verses especially – that often raises a number of questions. Paul starts off, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” He is looking at the parent-child relationship and so starts with the child who is the one who is most likely to have difficulty with the submission concept. This especially comes so in teenage years when the young person is seeking to find their own identity, and part of that process involves temporarily drawing away from the parent. It is also difficult when the child is a Christian and the parent is not and the parent makes demands that conflict with the faith of the young person. It may also be difficult when the parent is a Christian and the young person has not made a decision for Christ themselves.

In the call to children there are two things that deserve particular attention. The first is the word obey’. The role of the parent in God’s design is to be there to provide for and protect the child and, if we follow Old Testament teaching, to train up the child (Prov 22:6). Part of those things will be to issue instructions which may vary from the mundane (e.g. please will you pick up that toy off the floor), to the more serious, (e.g. I really don’t want you mixing with those teenagers who are taking drugs). If we ever had a question of the reality of sin (rebellion), observe any child! The wilful refusal to do that which is asked (or required) leads us into discipline issues, which are beyond what we have space for here.

The second thing to consider is Paul’s use of the words, ‘in the Lord’. Now he obviously includes these for a reason and that, we suggest, is similar to our thinking when it comes to the requirements of the State. The Law, or the instructions of the parent, should never go contrary to God’s laws, instructions etc. Thus a non-Christian (although tragically this doesn’t exclude some Christian men), who brings instruction to a child that involves them submitting to abuse, is wrong and should not be heeded. Wisdom suggests that as the child gets older instructions give way to discussion, i.e. bald commands give way to explanation. It is always wise to put in some form of explanation with every instruction (e.g. …otherwise your toy might get broken if you leave it there) but in teenage years talking and discussing (in a family forum?) are much better and are an acceptance and recognition of the child’s growing responsibility.

Then Paul gives a reason for ‘obeying’ parents, and it is because it goes with the original Old Testament instruction as the fifth of the Ten Commandments: “Honour your father and mother”–which is the first commandment with a promise– “that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.” Honouring is slightly different from ‘obeying’ in that obeying can be an expression of honouring. Honouring is more about having an attitude of respect, a recognition of the role that God has given to this older person. It isn’t about how well they have performed it! So important did God consider this that He made it a condition of blessing, originally in the Promised Land, but now in life generally. I wonder how many young people DON’T realise this (or older ‘children’ too!) that God’s blessing on their life can be curtailed because of a bad attitude towards their parent?  Even when the parent has not been good, godly ‘honouring’ should produce a concern for (and prayer for?) that parent.

There is another side to this submitting which might be simply summarised as ‘don’t make it difficult to be submitted to’: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.” Why does Paul say this to fathers? First, because fathers, as the ones who have the responsibility before the Lord for the family, should be the ones taking the ultimate action to bring about the training in righteousness of the child and, second, fathers tend to be more heavy handed in these things than the mother. It is thus something that, for both reasons above, the father needs to give particular thought to.

A final comment: in all of these things pertaining to family relationships, legalistic demanding of them does no good. Whatever else is required of such parental leading, the primary thing is love and acceptance. Let those two things temper all you do with your child, and increasingly as they grow older. If there is a genuine loving relationship, there is more likely to be obedience that flows out in response to that love. You will also need to cry to the Lord for wisdom on more than a few occasions! May it be so!

37. Changed Lives (1)

Ephesians Meditations No.37

Eph  4:25-28 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body. “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold. He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.

So here we start with a very obvious ‘link word’ – “Therefore”, i.e. as a consequence of what I’ve just said, do this. So, let’s make sure we follow the flow of Paul’s thinking. In this chapter, in verses 1 to 6 he spoke about unity, then in verses 7 to 16 the body that has been blessed with ministries to bring us to maturity and stability. In verses 17 to 19 he reminded us of the way of unbelievers and then in verses 20 to 24 he spoke about the new approach to life that we now had by having a change of mind, of attitude, of outlook. The Thereforethat we now start with, thus says, “Because you are united with Christ and have a new life, here then are practical ways you should live out those new lives. He gives us a list of very practical ways of living.

He starts off, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body.” The reference to ‘neighbour’ here is clearly a reference to Christian brothers or sisters, because of the reference to the body, the church. Lying in whatever form has no place in the Christian community. Truth is the currency of our lives. Truth comes up a lot in the New Testament. For example, “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” (1 Cor 13:6). Being a community of love means we will also be a community of truth, especially when it comes to speech. This was well and truly ingrained in Paul: “For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.” (2 Cor 13:8). Earlier here in Ephesians he said, “speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (v.15). John knew the same thing: “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (1 Jn 3:18). Many of the New Testament references are to the truth of the Gospel, but many are about us living truthful lives. May we heed them!

But he continues, “In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, and do not give the devil a foothold.” Truth is about mind and intellect, anger is about emotions. Note that he doesn’t say, don’t get angry, for he recognises that they will be things that upset us but, he says, don’t let that anger go on, don’t go to bed without resolving it. If you allow anger to fester, he says, you will give the enemy a chance to come in and make use of it to upset you and the body, we suggest. If you have an unresolved conflict which cause you to be stirred up every time you think about it, you need to resolve it with the Lord because it a) makes you vulnerable to enemy attack and b) stops you enjoying the peace and joy that should be yours in Christ. Anger is often a form of defensiveness when we feel slighted. Put down your pride and give it over to the Lord and ask Him for His grace to enable you to let it go. If someone has upset you, pray for them and bless them (Mt 5:44). Do it quickly before the enemy takes the opportunity.

Then he continues with a third practical application of living out the Christian life: “He who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with his own hands, that he may have something to share with those in need.” So, we’ve moved from the mind (truth), to emotions (anger) and now to a very practical issue of rightly observing others rights to their own possessions. You ‘own’ something if you have made it, bought it, or been given it. It is yours for you to do with as you will (staying within the bounds of the law). The other side of that coin is that you may not take that which belongs to someone else, whether they are the government, a business or an individual. If something belongs to them, you have no right to take what belongs to them, whatever the situation. We very often think of ‘stealing’ as the activity of a burglar or a major criminal, and yet many people quietly help themselves to their employer’s property, small though it may be, often justifying it by, “well they can afford it.” That is not the point; it is still stealing. Videos increasingly have warnings that copying videos is a crime. Likewise the music industry reminds people that downloading music from the Internet is often illegal. Each of these things attest to the truth that we live in a society where the eighth commandment, “You shall not steal”, is being ignored. If you are a Christian you should respect other people’s property rights.

Thus we find ourselves with three very practical and understandable issues here, issues about the right way to live out the Christian life, the way to be righteous. If you offend in any one of these three things you are being unrighteous. The basic truth to be observed here is that being a Christian has very specific outworkings. The Christian life is to be a righteous life and there is clear content to that statement. Paul gives us good examples for everyday living. If we have not observed these things, we would do well to face up to them. Seeking forgiveness may need to be the first step.

31. Captives & Gifts

Ephesians Meditations No.31

Eph  4:7-10 But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.”  (What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)

We have another link word to note – “but” which ties us in with what Paul had been saying earlier. See – Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (Eph 3:20-4:1) Now back there at the end of the 3rd chapter Paul was speaking about the power God used to bring change within us, and then went on to challenge us to live accordingly, with that power. In verse 2 he called us to a life of humility, then in verse 3 to a life of unity and in verses 4 to 6 grounds why we should live in unity. So, now when we come to verse 7 he picks up again the idea of the work of Christ in us but now he refers to it as ‘grace’, which is the enabling of God by the power of His Spirit in us.

Note what he says about this grace: to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it”. This grace has been given to every one of us who is now a Christian, and we have it because Christ in his role as ruler at the Father’s right hand has apportioned or handed it out to us. This is the same picture that Paul used when writing to the Romans: “think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you…We have different gifts, according to the grace given us.” (Rom 12:3,6). The gifts, Paul will go on to describe here, are the ministries he gives to us by supernatural enabling. Grace is supernatural enabling, enabling by the Spirit.

At that point Paul picks up on Old Testament scriptures to justify or explain why that is. In Psa 68 we find the following: “Why gaze in envy, O rugged mountains, at the mountain where God chooses to reign, where the LORD himself will dwell forever? ….. the Lord has come from Sinai into his sanctuary. When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train; you received gifts from men, even from the rebellious– that you, O LORD God, might dwell there.” (Psa 68:16-18).

The ‘mountain where God chooses to reign’ was clearly in that day Jerusalem, or more specifically the Temple in Jerusalem, “his sanctuary.” Now in that prophetic picture David, the psalmist, uses the language of a conquering king coming home from battle bringing captives to show off. That conquering king received gifts or tribute from those he conquered, those who had rebelled against him but who he had now conquered. Now Paul might have applied that specifically to us, seeing us as those who have surrendered to God after having been in rebellion against Him. That would have been a legitimate picture of what has in fact happened, and the gifts we brought would be our submission, our bowing down, our honouring Him, but that’s not what Paul says when he writes it.

Paul took certain rabbinic interpretations of his day and changed the word after ‘gifts’, so instead of ‘from’ it became ‘for‘ which apparently in some places it was legitimate to do. So instead of receiving from us, our God who is a giver, gives to us. We surrender to him and become his captives (or prisoners as Paul has been saying) but what does He do? He doesn’t put us in chains but in fact does exactly the opposite; He frees us and gives to us. He gifts us with His grace so that, we will see later, we find we have supernatural spiritual gifts that enable us to operate in particular roles of His choosing.

Before we finish we need to deal with Paul’s aside, within the brackets: “What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?” This is Paul referring back to the Psa 68 quote, When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train;” The ‘ascended on high’ back then referred to God coming to Jerusalem and filling the Temple with His glory, ‘ascended’ over the ark. Paul is now applying that quote to Jesus and he contrasts ‘ascended’ and ‘descended’. Now at first sight the descended might appear to refer to Jesus coming down from heaven to earth, which is what some commentators say. But there is a problem with that. It is that the language of ‘lower earthly regions’ is more the Jewish language of the underworld rather than the earth itself. The ascended would probably refer to a) Jesus rising from the dead and then b) subsequently ascending back to heaven to rule at his Father’s right hand. The ‘descended’ may possibly refer to Jesus coming to earth, but my own preference is that he descended to hell, first because ‘hell’ and the ‘lower earthly regions’ were similar in Jewish thought of that day and second, if hell is the ultimate punishment for sin, then if Jesus totally took our punishment for sin, then it would have to have included going down into hell.

His final words in this aside in verse 10 are: “He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.” Paul thus contrasts the wonder of Christ going down to the incredible wonder of him now ruling far about all else, which Paul referred to in chapter one when he spoke of God and “his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come, (1:20,21) an even more powerful description of Christ’s triumph and position now! Wow!

29. A Worthy Life

Ephesians Meditations No.29

Eph  4:1-3 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Paul now goes on to make an appeal for a certain sort of life to be lived out. He makes his appeal on the basis of who he is: As a prisoner for the Lord, then.” Previously when he spoke of being a prisoner he said, “Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Now whether this present  ‘for‘ means a literal prisoner in jail, or whether he means a prisoner for the purposes of Jesus Christ, is unclear. Either is possible, but the key point is that he is coming as one who considers himself a prisoner of Jesus and for Jesus and therefore he comes from a position of integrity that can be followed. The word thenemphasizes this.

So now he makes his appeal: I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” He is going to go on and urge unity based on the truths that he has been expounding previously but immediately in these verses he is going to speak about the sort of attitude that is required for unity. This appeal is one that Paul uses a number of times: “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (Phil 1:27) and “that you may live a life worthy of the Lord.” (Col 1:10) and “urging you to live lives worthy of God.” (1 Thess 2:12) and “as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God.” (2 Thess 1:5) and “we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling.” (2 Thess 1:11)

When we speak of someone ‘being worthy’ in this context we mean that they live up to the standard of, or matching the person or thing to which they are related. For example, we expect a person to live up to the standards of the high office that they exercise. We expect a member of the royal family or other national leadership to be an example, to be worthy of the role of leading a people. Thus here, Paul is saying, ‘I want you to live up to the calling that you have, of one called by God to be a light to the world. That is the basis for his appeal to a certain standard of behaviour. Do we check ourselves and think of the standard to which we should measure ourselves – God, His calling, the Gospel, the kingdom of God? As Christians we are not able to just live as we think; our standard is not what we think is right, it is the Lord Himself and His calling on our lives to be citizens of His kingdom, indeed His children.

It is with this standard in mind, and all that he has spoken about previously in this letter, that he makes a specific appeal: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Now this is a call to a way of thinking, an attitude and an outworking behaviour. The way of thinking is to “be completely humble and gentle.” Humility is about knowing who we are, really who we are – those who are sinners prone to getting it wrong and needing Christ’s salvation to change us. When we truly realise that that is who we are, then we will be humble, rightly esteeming ourselves, and because we do that we will be gentle with others because we know that we are frail, inadequate and prone to making mistakes, just like they do.

Indeed when we do recognise that, left to ourselves, we are no better than anyone else, then we can be patient, bearing with one another.” We know that we are just like them and therefore we, and they, need time to work things through, needing patience. Knowing what we are truly like, we will want others to treat us gently, putting up with us, coping with us as we struggle to work out our salvation or, as Paul puts it, we want others to ‘bear with’ us. And what is his final objective? It is that they “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” It actually requires effort to over come the negatives that we find rising up within us about other people. Oh how easy it is to criticise other people when they don’t match up to our standards, or when they don’t do something as well as you know you can do. At such times it is so easy for criticism to rise up and, of course, at the heart of it, we are forgetting what we are like ourselves.

So do you see the sequence that we have been considering? Paul starts out by saying in effect, Look I’m sold out for Christ, I’m his prisoner, so I think I have some grounds to speak as I do. Look, he goes on, I want you to aim to live up to the standards of your high calling, called by God to be lights to the world, examples of the Gospel in action. You are Christ’s body and the world needs to see that we are all one, so make sure you cultivate an attitude that enables that unity to operate, knowing who you are, being one with others, not looking down on others, but realising that you have the same weaknesses and tendencies for getting it wrong that your brothers and sisters in Christ have. Don’t let any wrong attitude therefore divide you. Be one. Can we take on board this teaching – really take it on board and live it out so it has visible effect in our locality? May it be so!