Monday, December 31, 2018

The Letter Of James, Brother Of Jesus. Day 6, Don't Show Favoritism

Yesterday James warned us about giving in to anger, about thinking we are right with God simply because we listen to the word, and about saying things Christians shouldn't say. Today he moves on into the sin of showing favoritism. He has observed (even in the church) people treating others unequally.

We concluded Sunday's study with James warning us that if we can't control what comes out of our mouths, our hearts aren't where they should be. We can fake out a lot of people by putting on our church clothes and by sitting in services with pious expressions on our faces, but sooner or later our tongues will give us away. This is why James said yesterday that if we can't control our tongues, our "religion" is worthless, because we're only going through the motions of religion without actually having a relationship with the Lord. He picks up there by telling us today that not only our words but our actions reveal who we really are, "Religion that God the Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: too look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself by being polluted by the world." (James 1:27) James says, "If your 'religion' is real, then you will love the Lord and have a relationship with Him. This will cause you to love your fellow man and have compassion on those around you. This will cause you to want to obey the Lord." The Lord Himself said something similar through the prophet Hosea, "For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings." (Hosea 6:6) Anyone can observe the rituals of religion, but these things don't justify a person if his heart isn't in them. What's in the heart eventually comes out through words and actions, so our words and actions prove whether we belong to the Lord or not.

What comes out of our mouths reveals what's in our hearts and, as James tells us today, so does the way we treat other people. "My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism." (James 2:1) We've all seen favoritism in action. We've seen people being treated better because of who they're related to or because of how much money they have or because of how well they are dressed or because of how attractive they are. This is sin in the eyes of God. The apostles Peter and Paul warn us that God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11), and if God does not do it then we shouldn't do it either.

I've always worked with the public and I've observed extra care and attention being given to clients and customers who are well off or who have a lot of influence in the community. I've also observed shabbily dressed customers being treated like their business isn't important. This is wrong. This is not how God's people should behave. Something is wrong in our hearts when we think a person of low income is less important than a person of wealth. The most important person who ever walked the earth, the Lord Jesus Christ, was from a low income family. He never owned His own home. He borrowed the only donkey He ever rode. He even had to temporarily borrow the tomb He was buried in. If we had lived in Jesus' day, and if we had judged Him by His appearance (as many did), we would have missed out on knowing the most important person who ever lived. So let's not "judge a book by its cover", as the saying goes.

James has observed people being treated differently even in church meetings, and he gives us an example of it. "Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and wearing fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, 'Here's a good seat for you,' but say to the poor man, 'You stand there,' or, 'Sit on the floor by my feet,' have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?" (James 2:2-4)

James is saying something like, "Shame on you! Christ died for the poor man just as much as He died for the rich man. The value of a person's soul is not judged by the value of a person's bank account. The soul of every person is equally important in the Lord's eyes and you should be of the same mind about this as the Lord. If you don't feel the same way about this as the Lord does, you need to let Him do a little heart surgery on you, because something in your heart isn't right."

God loves the beggar on the street corner as much as He loves the millionaire in the mansion. We should too.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

The Letter Of James, Brother Of Jesus. Day 5, Don't Be Deceived; Do What God Says

Today James warns us to be on guard against having nothing but an outward show of religion. He wants us to understand that merely hearing the word of God does not justify us; it's obeying the word that matters. James, like Paul, often commands us not to deceive ourselves, and that's because it's so easy for us to deceive ourselves. We can get caught up in the idea that attending religious services and wearing the right clothes and saying the right words and having the right expression on our faces is enough. But God looks past all of that and straight into our hearts. Do we love Him or not? If we do, then as the Lord Jesus said, "If you love Me, keep My commandments." (John 14:15) This is the proof of our love: obeying what the Lord says.

In our passage today James mentions several areas in which we need to step up our game. The first area has to do with our tempers. The Lord is not pleased when we give way to anger. He has said to us regarding the attitude we should have toward those who have wronged us, "It is Mine to avenge; I will repay." (Deuteronomy 32:35a) It's not our job to pay anyone back for the wrong they've done us; that's God's job. It's bad enough when unbelievers fight and quarrel among themselves, but it's absolutely reprehensible when believers behave this way, so James tells the church members to keep a lid on their tempers. "My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires." (James 1:19-20)

I feel like James is writing this letter to me! Everything he's had to say so far has spoken directly to situations that are going on in my life right now. I'm a quick-tempered person. I don't often act out on my anger, but on the inside my temper is at a hot rolling boil and that's just as bad. It's bad for my spiritual condition and it's bad for my physical health too. Anger, whether it's held tightly in check or whether we lose control of it, does nothing good for the body. Our blood pressure rises. Our brains send out a "fight or flight" message, causing the levels of stress hormones to rise in our bloodstreams. We get tension headaches, sore necks, sick stomachs. If we don't find better ways to deal with our anger we can actually cause disease processes to begin in our bodies.

I don't know what your particular anger triggers are, but the things that make me angriest involve situations where I'm the only person who takes charge of problems or where I'm the only person who is being responsible for getting things done. The Lord has recently made it clear to me that I've contributed to this problem (and even caused it entirely in some cases) by doing too many things for people that they could easily do for themselves. I'm working on gradually handing over these responsibilities to those who should have been handling them in the first place. They are adults and are responsible for themselves. I've actually done them a disservice by making them so dependent on me. Some of you may be in the same boat. Maybe it's time to help the people around you learn how to be responsible for the things you're exhausting yourselves doing for them. It's not healthy for us or for them, and I think remedying this situation will go a long way toward reducing our stress. Reducing our stress will naturally reduce our feelings of anger and resentment.

James feels anger is a sign of holding onto morally corrupt attitudes. "Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you." (James 1:21) Anger doesn't come from a spirit of humility. Anger comes from a spirit of pride. We think to ourselves, "How dare she speak to me that way?", or, "Who does he think he is to treat me like this?" All sorts of moral filth springs up from a root of pride in our hearts. Pride is in us when we think we know better than God what we need. Pride is at work when we decide to do something that directly contradicts God's word. So James tells us to accept the word of God and allow it to take root and grow in our hearts. As the word flourishes in us, it pushes aside the unholy things. It takes up more and more room, crowding out the wrong attitudes.

But just hearing the word isn't enough to do the job. We have to obey it. It doesn't matter how much Scripture we can quote if we aren't following it. "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it---not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it---they will be blessed in what they do." (James 1:22-25) If we just run by the mirror and glance at ourselves quickly, later in the day we may forget what we saw. I've had people compliment my blouse or my dress and I've had to look down at myself just to remember what I so hurriedly put on that morning. If we only listen to the word and don't take it to heart, we're like somebody who looked so swiftly into a mirror that we didn't really see ourselves. But when we take the word of God to heart, we see ourselves well enough to realize there are things we need to work on. The word of God holds a mirror up to our lives and reveals to us where we are falling short. This enables us, with the Lord's help, to adjust our attitudes and actions. James promises us a blessing for our obedience to the word.

Next James tells us that there is a test that will tell us whether we are doers of the word and not hearers only. What type of things come out of our mouths? If our hearts are where they should be, our words will reflect that. "Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight reign on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless." (James 1:26) If our hearts aren't in the right place with the Lord, our tongues will betray us.

I'm reminded of something that happened one time at work. I'm an insurance agent and I was working up some home and auto quotes for a married couple who had walked into the office. The husband and wife talked among themselves while I punched information into the computer. Three times the wife used the name of the Lord Jesus as a curse word, so you can imagine my shock when I handed the finished quotes to the couple and the wife said, "We can't make a decision right now. We have to go home and pray about it first." I felt my mouth dropping open. I tried to keep it from dropping open but I couldn't and there for a few seconds I couldn't think of anything to say. I think I finally said something like, "Well, thank you for stopping in."

Don't get me wrong; we've all said things we shouldn't say. We've all been hypocrites in one way or another by either saying or doing things that contradict who we are in Christ. You can see why I was puzzled about the spiritual condition of the customer in my office. You can see why those around us are puzzled about our spiritual condition when we profess to be Christians but say or do things that suggest otherwise. James is just telling it like it is: who we are on the outside and who we are on the inside should be the same. They shouldn't contradict each other. If we profess to be in Christ, and if our actions or words don't provide any evidence to back up our claim, we need to spend more time in the word of God so that it can reveal to us where we are going wrong. Then, once we have recognized and repented of our errors, the word of God is able to instruct us in doing better. Just as our bathroom mirror reveals to us a messy hairdo or smudged eyeliner, the word of God is a mirror that reveals to us bad attitudes and wrong behaviors. If we don't look into this mirror, how are we going to know what needs fixing? If we hear the word of God and obey it, as James instructs us to do, we are going to grow in our relationship with the Lord on the inside and our outside is going to reflect that more and more each day.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Letter Of James, Brother Of Jesus. Day 4, Every Good And Perfect Gift

Our study of the book of James has already been a lot of benefit to me. I hope it has been to you, too. James isn't a warm and cuddly type of apostle who is going to pat us on the back and tell us we're fine just as we are, but that's because he's writing to people who are already Christians and who should be growing and maturing in the faith every day. He's not going to coddle us. That's okay, because being coddled isn't always what's best for us. There are times when all we need is comfort in the faith and there are times when we need someone to tell us to get on with the business of being ambassadors of the Lord.

James begins today by cautioning us not to take pride in worldly achievements, then he reminds us that we can't blame the Lord when we give in to temptation, then he speaks beautiful words about the good and perfect gifts our Father bestows on us.

"Believers in humble circumstances ought to take pride in their high position. But the rich should take pride in their humiliation---since they will pass away like a wild flower. For the sun rises with scorching heat and withers the plant; its blossom falls and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way, the rich will fade away even while they go about their business." (James 1:9-11) Well, that sounds grim, doesn't it? There is debate among scholars as to whether James is referring to rich believers or to rich unbelievers, but I tend to side with those who think he's speaking to believers. In the church we are always going to have those who are poor, those who are middle class, and those who are very well off. I think what he may be saying here is something like this, "Those of you who are poor financially are still wealthy spiritually if you are in Christ. There is no wealth that can be compared to the riches of Christ. Your low estate in this life causes you to have to bring your needs to Him, and this draws you closer to Him, and this in turn heaps even more spiritual blessings on you. Those of you who are rich are in danger of not going to the Lord often enough in prayer. You don't have financial needs that you have to lay before Him every day. So when troubles come into your lives you ought to rejoice because they will draw you closer to the Lord. Everyone needs something that pulls them to their knees before Him. This is the grace of God."

We can't trust in riches or in our own efforts or in our own accomplishments. The things of this world are going to pass away, so we have to place our trust in something eternal. This is why James compares our short lives to the lives of flowers in the field. They are here today and gone tomorrow. Seeing that life is so fleeting, the only things that matter are things of eternal significance. In other words, we have to take whatever happens to us in this life and make it count. Whether our circumstances are good or bad, James assures us there is a blessing in standing firm in the faith. "Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love Him." (James 1:12) James doesn't promise us we will never be tempted to sin; that would be a lie. He doesn't promise us we will never feel discouraged about our troubles; he knows better than that. But what he does promise is a blessing for loving our Lord enough to stand firm and resist temptation. There's no reward for giving in to temptation, but there is a reward for refusing to give in to it.

Lest anyone say, "My temptation was too difficult to bear! Nobody could have stood against it! Why did the Lord tempt me like this? He knows I can't resist it.", James sternly reminds us that we have no one to blame but ourselves. "When tempted, no one should say, 'God is tempting me.' For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone; but each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death." (James 1:13-15) James says, "Don't blame God for your sin! You gave in to it because you wanted to. Don't blame God for the consequences of your sin either, because you know sin never brings about anything good." He compares the fruit of sin to something that is stillborn. The last thing any woman in labor wants is to give birth to a stillborn child, so James uses a heartbreaking situation as a metaphor for the results of sin. It's heartbreaking when we realize we have labored at things that will never be of any benefit. When we indulge ourselves in sinful thoughts, those thoughts soon lead to sinful actions, and the next thing we know we are having to face the fact that we've spent our energy on things that have brought sorrow to us instead of blessing.

We all want lives full of blessings, and now James tells us to be thankful for our blessings. All the good and perfect things in our lives come from God. "Don't be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all He created." (James 1:16-18) We were given new birth by the word of God and we will only be fruitful if we remain in His word. He has blessed us beyond measure. He has given us good things because it pleases Him to do so. We owe Him our allegiance. We owe Him our obedience. Let's stand firm on the word of truth and serve the God who has so graciously blessed us with eternal life in Christ.

Friday, December 28, 2018

The Letter Of James, Brother Of Jesus. Day 3, Do Not Doubt

James told us in our passage yesterday that the troubles of this world produce perseverance in us when we react to them correctly. His words to us today indicate the purpose of God in our troubles and the willingness of God to provide us with the spiritual wisdom we need.

"Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything." (James 1:4) The Lord wants to thoroughly equip us for godly living. He has a purpose for everything He allows to come into our lives. He intends to do something for us through our troubles that He couldn't do for us any other way, so when we develop a rebellious and angry attitude we are cheating ourselves out of a blessing we were meant to receive.

Bad circumstances are not always a result of sin in our lives. A lot of our circumstances are inescapable. We can't help it if the company we work for goes broke and lays us off. We can't prevent every illness or injury of the body no matter how carefully we monitor our diets and no matter how often we exercise. We can be a good spouse to our marriage partner and still they may betray us or leave us. It's a natural human tendency for us to feel bitter when we know we've done our best and bad things happened anyway. It's easy for us to get angry, not just at whoever hurt us, but at God Himself. We know God could have prevented the bad thing from happening to us, so we wonder why He didn't. I can't give you the answer to that question. I haven't received an answer about some of the things that have happened in my own life. But there's one thing I can tell you: I wouldn't love the Lord the way I do if those things hadn't happened to me. I wouldn't know the things I know about Him now. I wouldn't have found His promises of grace and strength to be true if they hadn't been tested in my own life. And I certainly wouldn't be here studying God's word with you right now, because before hard times came I didn't have this kind of hunger for God's word. It's real to me now in ways it never was before. So although I don't know why God allowed some things to happen in my life, I can look back and see that He took those things and turned ashes into beauty (Isaiah 61:3) and took the things Satan intended for evil and used them for my good (Genesis 50:20)

Don't get me wrong. I've struggled against every trial that has ever come my way. I've begged God to take unpleasant things out of my life. I'm not saying we won't feel sad or discouraged or angry about our circumstances. But in order to receive a blessing we have to allow our troubles to drive us closer to God, not farther away from Him. He is our only help, our only source of comfort. If we don't draw closer to Him during hard times, how can He teach us anything? How can He bless us? How can He make us stronger and more powerful in the faith?

James says our troubles are intended to produce perseverance and that perseverance helps us to be mature and complete Christians. Troubles often make us feel confused and scatterbrained, unable to decide what to do next or whether we need to do anything at all, so James urges us to seek direction from the Lord. "If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you." (James 1:5) God isn't going to scold us for asking Him what to do. Like any loving father, God wants us to come to Him for advice. It's the best thing we could possibly do. It's a smart choice, a thing James knows from experience, because he daily needs to go to the Lord for advice about how to perform the office of the leader of the church at Jerusalem. James had an enormous amount of heavy responsibility on his shoulders and he knew he needed the Lord's help to make the right decisions.

We can take the words of James to the bank. We can go to God with the confidence that He is ready and willing to help us. "But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do." (James 1:6-8) The Lord rewards faith because faith is what pleases Him. "And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him." (Hebrews 11:6) We can do all manner of good works, we can pray lofty prayers, we can memorize Bible verses---but if we don't have faith the Lord is not pleased. So when we come to Him for help we must come to Him fully believing He is there and that He is listening and that He cares about us. We must come to Him fully believing He acts on behalf of those who love and seek Him.

I don't know what your earthly father might have been like, but when I was a little kid and would go to my father for help, I didn't cower in fear. I didn't slink into the room and ask him for help in an attitude of doubt. I knew my father loved me. I knew he was interested in my problems. I knew he would help me if he possibly could. This is how we are to approach our heavenly Father. God loves us and wants us to spend time with Him. He is interested in everything that's going on in our lives and, even though He already knows about our problems, He wants us to tell Him about them anyway. He will give us whatever we need. Granted, our idea of what we need may not always be what God knows we need, but we are guaranteed a blessing if we come to Him in the right attitude. He may completely turn our situation around in a miraculous way. I've had that happen, haven't you? Or He may intend for us to go through the situation because He's going to use it for our good. I've had that happen too, haven't you? But either way He wants to bless us by strengthening our faith and by giving us godly wisdom and by teaching us patience and perseverance. Just like our earthly fathers, our heavenly Father wants us to grow and mature into healthy adults in the faith. So don't harbor doubts when you go to Him for help. Go to Him in the confidence that He loves you and wants the best for you.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Letter Of James, Brother Of Jesus. Day 2, Consider It All Joy

James---the brother of the Lord, an apostle, and a leader of the Christian church at Jerusalem---tells us today to handle everything that comes at us with joy. Easier said than done, right? Maybe not if we change our perspective on what joy really is. We tend think of joy as feeling happy and as being pleased with our circumstances, but if our joy depends on everything in our lives falling into place exactly the way we want, we're not going to experience very much joy. So today James invites us to reevaluate what this word means and how it applies to Christian living.

He begins his letter with a humble salutation which introduces him not as the brother of the Lord or as the top leader of the church at Jerusalem, but as the Lord's servant. "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, To the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings." (James 1:1)

We can tell from his salutation that James is writing to the Jewish believers. You will recall from our study of the book of Acts that persecution broke out at Jerusalem against the early church and that the believers other than the apostles were scattered in all directions in order to preserve their lives and the lives of their families. This turned out to be a good thing for the growth of the church as a whole, for these believers took the gospel message with them into territories where it had never been heard. (Acts 8:1) James is not necessarily speaking to the twelve tribes of Israel as a whole, but to his fellow believers, for he addresses them in this letter as "brothers and sisters" in the same way the other apostles do, meaning their brothers and sisters in Christ. However, I think James would have loved for every member of his nation to read this letter and learn about Christ and come to believe on Him as he himself has done.

We are taking our text from the NIV, but many other versions urge us to "count it all joy" when troubles come. The NIV renders it like this, "Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance." (James 1:2-3) He's not advising his readers, "Rejoice and jump up and down when you're arrested and beaten for your faith. Thank God when your unbelieving family members disown you. Shout hallelujahs when your employer discriminates against you because of your beliefs." No, he's not saying that the trials themselves are enjoyable, but that our attitude about them should be, "I'm going to look at every circumstance as an opportunity to grow in my faith. These troubles are unpleasant and worrisome, but I'm going to lean on my Lord for help. I'm going to allow these problems to teach me more about the Lord and to help me develop more spiritual muscle."

Do we build physical muscle by only doing the things that are easy, or do we gain muscle mass by pushing against obstacles? I do some fairly heavy weight training three days a week. In fact today is one of my mornings to do it. I don't especially enjoy it but after I got in my 40s it wasn't easy anymore to keep my weight where I want it and I found that weight lifting was the only thing that worked for me. Some days it's downright unpleasant and I can't wait for it to be over, but the benefits are worth it. This is what James is saying about the things that help us build spiritual muscle. Troubles and trials are unpleasant. We can't wait for them to be over. But if we never learn how to properly deal with the heavy weights that beset us in this world, we are never going to be strong in the faith. Do I walk up to the weight machine with a feeling of joy? No way! I'd rather be sitting on the couch than sweating through a workout, but when I walk away from the machine after completing the whole circuit of exercises I know I've done something good for my health. I feel a sense of satisfaction because having strong muscles and bones is going to benefit me today and as I grow older. In the same way, we aren't going to walk up on problems and think, "Yay! A problem! This is exactly what I wanted!!" But according to James we can say to the problem, "You are going to bring me closer to Jesus Christ. I'm going to learn things about Him that I would never have learned without you. I'm going to build spiritual muscle in this struggle. I'm going to emerge from this season in life a stronger person."

James says that troubles and trials help us to develop perseverance. According to the thesaurus, perseverance means the same thing as "dedication, determination, endurance, persistence, stamina, and guts". Those are positive things. We'd all like to have people say we possess these qualities, wouldn't we? Well, we can all have people say these things about us if we look on every circumstance in life with the attitude that with the help of the Lord we are going to not only get through our struggles, but get through them victoriously. James says to face our problems head on and declare to them, "I'm going to be a better Christian after dealing with you. You're going to strengthen me so that when this time of trouble is over, I'm going to come out flexing my muscles and walking tall. I'm going to have more faith in my Lord than I had before. So I thank you in advance for making me a better person tomorrow than I am today."

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Letter Of James, Brother Of Jesus. Day 1, Introduction

According to some of the very earliest church traditions, the James who wrote this epistle is none other than the James mentioned by Matthew and Mark as being a brother of the Lord Jesus. (Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3) These two gospel writers tell us that Jesus had four brothers named James, Joses, Simon, and Judas, and that He had sisters as well, but we aren't given the number or the names of the sisters. Since James is mentioned first, it is assumed he was the oldest of Jesus' male siblings, making him the second son of Mary. The brother mentioned last, Judas (who later, for obvious reasons, shortened his name to Jude), also wrote an epistle in which he mentions he is the brother of James. This lends further credence to the idea that James the brother of Jesus wrote the epistle we are about to study, for it makes a family connection evident, and it presents James as someone who is still alive at the time Jude wrote his letter, and it proves that James's name is one that everyone in the church would immediately recognize. This cannot be said of any other James in the New Testament.

He is unlikely to be James the son of Zebedee and brother of John, for James was the first of the disciples to lose his life for the faith, being put to death by Herod in about 44 AD. The letter we are about to study was written and circulated at a later date, probably somewhere around the late 50s to early 60s AD. James the son of Zebedee has never been seriously considered by most scholars as the author of this letter. The author speaks with the authority of a leader in the church, as someone with many years of experience, and James did not live but approximately eleven to fourteen years following the resurrection of Christ. He was never known to have held a position of authority in the church, unlike James the brother of Christ who was one of the top leaders of the Jerusalem church if not the top leader. (For examples of James's authority and importance in the church at Jerusalem see Acts 12:17, 15:13, 21:18, Galatians 2:9)

Another James has been put forth as a possible candidate as the author of this epistle, and he is James the son of Alphaeus. We are told this James was an apostle in Matthew 10:1-3, Mark 3:14-19, Luke 6:13-16, Acts 1:13. We know literally nothing else about him, which suggests he is unlikely to be the author of this letter. If he had held the authority in the church that the author of this letter so obviously holds, we would certainly know a great deal about him. James the son of Alphaeus may have done a lot of wonderful things in the name of the Lord. He may have undertaken missionary journeys as so many of the other apostles did. But his deeds are lost to history and I feel this makes him a poor candidate for this epistle's author.

The only other prominent James in the New Testament is the man of whom the Apostle Paul said, "Then after three years (after his conversion), I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas (Peter) and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles---save James, the Lord's brother." (Galatians 1:18-19, parenthesis mine.) Who else could have risen to such a position of authority in the church if not the Lord's brother who did not believe on Him before the resurrection (John 7:5) and with whom the Lord Jesus met privately following His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7)? We don't know what transpired in the private meeting between Jesus and James anymore than we know what happened in the private meeting between Jesus and Peter, but after that meeting James emerged as not only a believer in Christ but as a pillar of the church. Paul calls James, Peter, and John pillars of the church in Galatians 2:9 and says he and his friend Barnabas met with them. Therefore this can't be James the brother of John who was martyred about four years before Paul met with the Jerusalem council in around 48 AD.

The church at Jerusalem was made up of Jews who believed in Christ. This was not a Gentile church and it did not have Gentile leadership. Its leadership was made up of Jewish men who had had a close relationship with Jesus. The pillars of this church were probably named in order of authority by Paul in Galatians 2:9, so this means that James the brother of Jesus held the top spot. No other James that we know of could have been elected for this position. It has to be a man held in such high esteem that he outranked even the Apostle Peter and the Apostle John---two of Jesus' closest friends. Who would have been considered closer to Jesus than Peter and John if not one of the Lord's actual brothers?

Those who discount James the brother of Jesus as the author of this letter point to the fact that he does not identify himself as a brother of Jesus. (Neither does Jude, for that matter.) I doubt if James the brother of Jesus ever used their family connection to make a big deal of himself. This is because I don't believe James thought of himself as a big deal. I don't believe he felt that being a sibling of Christ made him any more special than anyone else. He had to live his life knowing that while his brother walked the earth he made fun of Him and even made suggestions that could have endangered Jesus' life. (John 7:2-5) James had to live with knowing he rejected Jesus until after the resurrection, and that at one time he thought Jesus was mentally ill (Mark 3:21), and that his rejection of Jesus as the Christ was once so thorough that he didn't even go with their mother Mary to support her at the crucifixion, leaving that role up to John who was not even a relative (John 19;26-27), and that the disgust he felt for his brother Jesus spilled over onto all who believed in Him, causing him not to take on the responsibility of caring for Mary who went instead to live with the Apostle John. So no, James doesn't say, "Hey, I'm the brother of Jesus Christ. You need to listen to me." James knows he was once as guilty of rejecting Christ as anyone else has ever been. He remembers every time he ridiculed Jesus as they grew up together. He hasn't forgotten all the ugly things he said to Jesus after Jesus began His ministry. He doesn't consider himself any better than any other person who once was lost but now is found. This is why we find him in this letter calling himself merely, "James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ."

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Our Culture's Idea Of Christmas Versus What Christmas Really Is, Christmas Break, Upcoming Bible Study

The blog will be temporarily suspended until Wednesday, December 26th, for the Christmas holiday. I know many of you are quite busy right now either preparing for Christmas at home or traveling to visit family, so I thought it best to begin our new Bible study the day after Christmas. Generally the blog doesn't get many visits right around Christmas because there is so much going on at that time.

While we're taking this short break I'm going to be studying materials and working on what we're going to be doing next which is studying the letter written by the Apostle James, the brother of the Lord. We will pick back up with the letters of the Apostle Paul afterwards, but just as we previously switched gears and looked at the letters of Peter out of order, we are going to switch gears a little bit and look at the words of James. This is the James who was the second eldest son in the household of Joseph and Mary, who didn't believe Jesus was the Christ until after the resurrection, who became a believer after meeting face to face with the resurrected Christ, who then became a leader in the Christian church, and who later lost his life for his faith.

I pray you all have a happy and healthy Christmas. I pray for anyone who has difficulty enjoying this season of the year because the circumstances in your lives or your family situations are not what you would like them to be. Some of my own circumstances right now are not what I'd like them to be, but over the past few days the Lord keeps reminding me that Christmas is not what popular culture says it is. Of course we'd all love being part of a big happy family and having a juicy turkey or ham on the table and plenty of money to buy gifts for our loved ones. But that's what our culture says Christmas is; it's not what the Lord says Christmas is. Of course we'd all enjoy having a picture-perfect Christmas just like in a Hallmark movie. But that's not everyone's reality and that's why we can sometimes feel very depressed and discouraged at this time of year.

The Lord never said Christmas was about sitting around a table loaded down with food or that Christmas meant a ton of presents under the tree or that Christmas was supposed to be a perfect coming together of our relatives. Christmas celebrates the day that the word of God became flesh and began to dwell among us. Christmas is about God loving us so much that He couldn't bear the thought of being without us, so He made a way for sinners like us to be reconciled to Him. Christmas is about the willingness of God the Son to be born in poverty, to live in a human body with all its weaknesses, to be ridiculed and rejected, to be laughed at and spit on, to be beaten and to suffer the tortures of the cross, to be dead and buried, and then to rise again so that we who deserve no redemption could have it anyway. Christmas is about love alright, but not the kind of love we see in the Hallmark movies. Christmas is about a sacrificial and unending love. Christmas is about being part of a family that will stick together forever, about being the sons and daughters of the living God and the brothers and sisters of Christ. So whether or not you are celebrating Christmas this year with an earthly family, you can still celebrate it with your heavenly family. Christ will sit at the table with you. If you've never invited Him into your life, He dearly wants you to, so why not make this Christmas season the year you give your heart and life to Him? You will never have to feel alone again.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

The Apostle Paul's Letter To The Ephesians. Day 17, Conclusion

This morning we are concluding the book of Ephesians with Paul giving us instructions on prayer.

"And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests." (Ephesians 6:18a) Paul says it's always the right time for prayer. Yesterday he spoke on the subject of being attired in our battle armor at all times, and today's advice is closely related to that, because if there ever is a right time to pray it's before going into battle...and we are always in battle because our enemy the devil is at war with the human race. It's always the right time to pray, and it's a good thing, because sometimes we don't know anything to do about our situations except pray about them.

Sometimes we wonder if certain subjects or situations are okay to pray about. Paul assures us we can pray about anything and everything in our lives. We don't have to sort our problems into categories of "big enough to bring to God" and "too small to bring to God". Nothing is too big or too small to bring to God! Lift up the names of your sick or spiritually lost loved ones in prayer, but also pray over your workday. Pray about troubled relationships and pray about lost car keys. Pray about financial needs and pray over your sick pets. As an animal lover I am often surprised and dismayed when a few people in the church laugh at the idea of praying for animals. I don't doubt that David prayed for the safety of the sheep he shepherded, and King Solomon said, "A righteous man regards the life of his animal." (Proverbs 12:10) So go ahead and pray about everything in your life, whether big or small, whether people laugh at you or not, because our loving Father cares about the things we care about. Those of you who are parents are interested in everything about your children, right? God is the same way!

Since we are to pray about all things, Paul says, "With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord's people." (Ephesians 6:18b) The Apostle Peter said a similar thing about being on the alert because we have an enemy who wants to drag us into sin and do us harm. (1 Peter5:8) Though we aren't meant to live in fear, if we don't stay "prayed up", we may not be able to stand against sudden and unexpected temptations or troubles. We are to pray not only for our own strength to stand, but also for our fellow believers.

Some of us grew up with the idea that our prayers should always be on behalf of others and never for ourselves, but Paul's next words prove this isn't so. "Pray also for me, that whenever I speak words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should." (Ephesians 6:19-20) There's nothing wrong with praying for ourselves or requesting prayer for ourselves. Even the Lord Jesus prayed for Himself on the night before the crucifixion, and I think He probably prayed for Himself every time He retreated to spend time with the Father. In my opinion, being God didn't make the trials and temptations of Jesus easier to bear; I think being God made them more difficult to bear because He had to restrain His power. When troubles come into our lives, we'd do anything to make them go away. We'd turn our circumstances around in an instant if we had the power to do it. Jesus had the power to make His troubles go away but He had to refrain from doing so. When we take the humanity away from Christ we take away a great deal of the glory that is due Him, because He too needed time alone in prayer to ask for physical strength and to obtain emotional and spiritual comfort from the Father. If Christ needed to pray for Himself, you don't ever have to feel guilty about praying for yourself.

Now Paul goes into his concluding remarks. "Tychicus, the dear brother and faithful servant in the Lord, will tell you everything, so that you also may know how I am and what I am doing. I am sending him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are, and that he may encourage you." (Ephesians 6:21-22) Paul is in prison in Rome awaiting his trial before Emperor Nero. He is not free to visit any of the churches he founded, so he's sending Tychicus to the Ephesians with his letter and with news about everything happening in Rome. Tychicus will visit with the Ephesians for a while and then bring news back to Paul about how everyone is doing at Ephesus. It took a lot of time for letters and news to travel back and forth in those days. Imagine what men like the Apostle Paul could have done with the technology we have today! He could have reached thousands of people at a time with the gospel message. He could have sent an email to the pastors of churches he'd founded and would have had swift replies about how things were going. We have no excuse in our day to not be at work getting the gospel out to others. We have methods of outreach available to us that the apostles never dreamed of.

"Peace to the brothers and sisters, and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace to all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with an undying love." (Ephesians 6:23-24) I'm going to use Paul's example and conclude our study of the book of Ephesians like this: Peace to all of you, my brothers and sisters in Christ. May your hearts overflow with the Father's love and with the love of our Savior and Redeemer. May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ bless your lives in every way. Amen!

Friday, December 21, 2018

The Apostle Paul's Letter To The Ephesians. Day 16, The Armor Of God

Paul saved the best for last in his letter to the Ephesians. As we begin the second half of the final chapter of this letter, we arrive at my favorite portion of it. This is where we learn how to protect ourselves by wearing the armor our God has provided for us. We need armor because as long as we live in this world we are on a spiritual battleground, and because our battle is spiritual we must arm ourselves with spiritual weapons.

"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power." (Ephesians 6:10) We can't win the battles of this world in our own strength; we win by depending on the Lord's power. We are on very shaky ground when we start thinking we can fight the devil on our own. That's when we're most likely to stumble and fall headlong into sin.

"Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Ephesians 6:11-12) The evil things done in this world are perpetrated by human beings, but their wicked deeds were instigated by the spiritual forces of darkness. This doesn't mean each person isn't responsible for choosing to sin. But it does mean that the temptation to sin and the opportunity to carry out the sin was provided by Satan and the angels who followed him in his rebellion against God.

Because we never know where the next dart of the enemy is going to come from, we have to be attired in God's armor from head to toe. "Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand." (Ephesians 6:13) We can't leave off a single piece of armor. If we wear everything but the helmet, Satan is going to aim his attacks at our minds. If we wear everything but the breastplate, Satan will aim his attacks at our hearts. It's very important that we stop here a minute to take note that we are supposed to already be dressed in the armor before temptation comes, for Paul says that in wearing it we will be ready to stand firm "when the day of evil comes". Imagine you are a soldier going into battle. Do you wait until the fighting gets hot and heavy before you put your armor on? Of course not, not unless you want to be seriously maimed or even killed. You aren't going to stand very long in battle if you go into it without any armor. You put your armor on before the battle starts. 

"Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace." (Ephesians 6:14-15) In ancient times when everyone wore long robes, a man would "gird his loins" when about to perform manual labor, or when he needed to run swiftly, or when he was about to engage in a fight. This involved lifting the hemline of his robes to about knee length, pulling all the material tightly to the front of his body, passing the material between his legs to the rear of his body, then taking half the material in each hand and drawing it back around the waist to the front of the body where he would either tuck the ends of the material into his belt or tie the material in a knot around his belt. If we leave off the belt of truth, how are we going to keep from tripping and falling as we do our work in this world or as we engage the enemy in battle?

After telling us to put on the belt of truth, Paul tells us we must put on the breastplate of righteousness. This is the righteousness that has been imputed to us for our faith in Christ. We aren't righteous, but He is. So since we belong to Him, we have been given His righteousness, and we wear it over the center of our bodies to protect our vital organs. Soldiers are taught to shoot to kill, and that means aiming for the center of the body. You can be certain Satan is shooting to kill, for the Lord said that Satan's only desire is "steal and kill and destroy". (John 10:10) We are going to be destroyed if we try to fight Satan without the righteousness of Christ. The only way to win the battle is to belong to Christ, so our defeat is certain if we engage the enemy without Christ on our side.

Roman soldiers wore shoes into battle that were similar to cleats that professional athletes of our day wear on the field. They had spikes driven through the soles so that their feet could dig into the ground....or so they could "stand firm" as Paul puts it. If we don't hold firm to the gospel we aren't going to stand firm on the battlefield; in fact, we won't stand long at all. Our enemy will push us over and pin us onto our backs where he can deliver the killing blow, or he will shove us off a cliff to our doom, or he will hurl us into a pit so deep that we may never be able to climb out of it. This is why Paul says our feet are to be shod with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. If we are standing firm on the gospel of Christ we will be mighty soldiers ready to charge into battle, climb over a wall, storm the gates, or leap over obstacles.

God, our commanding general, has given us shields for extra protection. "In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one." (Ephesians 6:16) Roman soldiers carried large oblong shields that were capable of protecting their whole bodies. When under attack, the soldiers could stand together and join their shields to form an impenetrable wall. Paul's words demonstrate to us not only that we are to carry our own shield of faith, but that there is safety in numbers when we band together with other believers. This shield of faith is an invaluable piece of equipment. There is no way to fend off the fiery arrows of doubt that Satan sends our way if we don't hold the shield of faith. Paul isn't the only man who understood the importance of faith in the heat of battle, for King Solomon and the prophet Isaiah said things like this,:"If you faint in the day of adversity, your faith is small," (Proverbs 24:10, and, "If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all." (Isaiah 7:9)

We also have a protective covering for our head and a sword to wield. "Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God." (Ephesians 6:17) If Satan can't deliver the kill shot to our hearts he will aim for our minds. We have to remain focused in our minds on the fact that we are saved to the uttermost by the blood of Christ our Lord. We have to always remember that our identity and our worth is proven by the fact that our Lord died for us. Keeping these encouraging and faith-building thoughts in our heads will help to deflect doubt and discouragement.

The sword we fight with is the word of God. This is the same sword Jesus fought with during His forty days of temptation in the wilderness. He successfully fought Satan with the word of God, causing Satan to leave Him until "an opportune time". (Luke 4:13) With Jesus fending off every arrow Satan shot at Him, the devil had to slink away to rethink his strategy. We need to use Jesus as an example for how to fight the enemy, because if we don't know the word of God we are standing on the battlefield without a weapon. That leaves us with no option than to run away from the battle, probably with our enemy pursuing us. But if we have committed the word of God to heart, we can be like Jesus and send the devil running instead. The Lord's brother James learned from Jesus' own life and from his own experiences that it's possible to send the devil running, for he assures us, "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you." (James 4:7)

Satan declared war on the human race when he enticed Adam and Eve to fall from grace. We've been at war ever since. We can never forget this even for a second, because our enemy is waiting for "an opportune time" to attack. But our faithful God has equipped us to win every battle. Let's make full use of all the armor and shields and weapons He has supplied us with and we will be victorious.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

The Apostle Paul's Letter To The Ephesians. Day 15, The Parent/Child Relationship And The Employer/Employee Relationship

Paul gives us more practical advice today about how to deal with each other in a godly way. Yesterday he spoke of the marriage relationship. Today he speaks of the relationship between parents and children and of the relationship between employers and employees.

"Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right." (Ephesians 6:1) Paul says, "It's the Lord's will for you to obey your parents. When you do this, you are doing something that is right in the Lord's eyes." I have to say, it seems like our society has gotten this principle backwards over the past several decades. We quite often see the parents obeying the children instead of the other way around. This is actually very unfair to the children because they need authority figures and strong role models in their lives. I think this is why so many young adults have trouble in their first year of college or in their first job, because at home they were taught that everyone caters to them and that the world revolves around them. It's a very rude shock when they learn this isn't the case. In society we all have to obey those in authority over us, and the first place we need to learn this is in the home. Paul is going to address that very subject as soon as he finishes his instructions to the children.

Honoring our fathers and mothers is one of the ten commandments. Parents have a duty to teach their children to follow it and children have a duty to obey it. A blessing for obeying this commandment is promised by the Lord, so if parents want their children to have a long and happy life they need to teach their children to obey and respect them. If the children want to live a long and happy life they need to take heed to the commandment and the promise attached to it. "'Honor your father and mother'---which is the first commandment with a promise---'so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.'" (Ephesians 6:2-3) (Deuteronomy 5:16)

Next Paul addresses himself to the fathers of the children. This is because, as we learned yesterday, the man of the house is the one to whom God has given the responsibility of setting a spiritual example for the family. We can apply these instructions to mothers as well, since in our day mothers and fathers usually share the responsibility for instruction and discipline, and also because there are many homes where only a mother figure is present. "Fathers, do not exasperate your children; bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord." (Ephesians 6:4) Some translations of this verse say, "Do not provoke your children to wrath." Parents aren't to be strict and inconsiderate disciplinarians. They aren't to treat the children as if their opinions and feelings don't matter. They aren't to be so hard to please that their children feel like they never do anything right. I know people who've grown up in that type of environment and it has left a lasting impression on them. They find it difficult to think of God as a loving father. Their idea of God as a father was shaped in childhood by a father (or sometimes a mother) who treated them as if they never did anything right. They don't know how to relate to a parental figure in a healthy way and this causes them to have trouble relating to God in a healthy way.

Now we move on to the relationship between employers and employees. Because of the times he was living in, Paul refers to them as slave and master. Slavery was widespread in the Roman Empire, and in many cases it wasn't the type of slavery we once had in the United States. Rome allowed slaves to own their own property and to earn their own money when they weren't on the job. This is how they were sometimes able to buy their freedom, by saving up money they earned on their own time. So in a lot of cases the slave/master relationship was similar to the employee/employer relationship. "Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ." (Ephesians 6:5) Do all of us have employers who are Christians? No, but in order to honor Christ we are to show our employers the respect due to the position of authority they hold.

We are to have integrity about our work, not just doing a good job while our boss is watching us, but doing a good job all the time. "Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether slave or free." (Ephesians 6:6-8) Our real Master is Christ. He knows whether we are honest and hardworking even when no one else is watching and He will reward us accordingly.

The employers are to treat their employees with respect and dignity. "And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that He who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with Him." (Ephesians 6:9) Even if our boss isn't a Christian, the principle of treating employees fairly still stands because it is right in the Lord's eyes. A boss who isn't a Christian may not be concerned with what the Lord thinks, but Paul says, "You can be sure that the Master in heaven sees how you treat those under your authority. He isn't going to give you a pass on bad behavior just because you're the boss. That means nothing to Him. He's going to judge your behavior by the same standards He judges anyone else's."

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Apostle Paul's Letter To The Ephesians. Day 14, How Christian Husbands And Wives Should Behave In The Home

We've been studying how Christians should relate to others when out in society. Today we study how Christians should relate to each other in the home. One thing we must keep in mind as we read this passage is that it is intended for Christian households. That doesn't mean we shouldn't follow these principles if our spouse isn't a Christian, but we have to remember that we can't force an unbelieving spouse to follow these principles. Performing our own role faithfully will not necessarily cause our unbelieving spouse to perform their role faithfully. Having said that, I think there's a better chance of leading our spouse to the Lord if we do obey the instructions we're about to read.

Paul begins by reminding us that we are all commanded to honor and respect each other, not seeking only our own wellbeing but also being concerned for the wellbeing of others. "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." (Ephesians 5:21) Paul will makes this same statement in his letter to the Philippians when he urges them not to just look out for their own interests but to also look out for the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3) Christ said the same thing when He commanded us to love each other in the same way He has loved us. (John 13:34, John 15:12) So we see that the main objective in our relationships with others is to love them in a Christlike way.

Paul addresses himself first to the wives. "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, His body, of which He is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything." (Ephesians 5:22-24) You can see why it's so important that we recognize that Paul is writing this letter to believers. He's not talking to women in abusive relationships. He's not talking to men who think women are useless except in the kitchen or the bedroom. When the word "submission" comes up these are the things a lot of people think it means. The idea of godly submission has been twisted into something it was never meant to be. Many women think of it as putting themselves in a position where they are inferior and powerless. Many men think of it as an order for their wives to obey their every whim like servants. We don't see Paul telling women to submit to disrespect and abuse; in a Christian household we should never find such things. We don't see Paul advising men to treat their wives as second-class citizens; in the Christian household we should never find this attitude. What he's saying is something like this, "The Lord has given the husband the role of leadership in the home. The husband's job is to love his family and to provide for and protect his wife and children. In obedience to the Lord, respect the position your husband holds in the household. Allowing your husband to have the final word does not make you inferior to him. Christ submitted Himself to God and allowed God to have the final word, but this does not make Christ inferior to God."

Next Paul moves on to the husbands, and I want you to notice that he has far more instructions for the husbands than for the wives. This is because the Lord holds the husband more accountable than the wife for the wellbeing of the family. In putting the man in the role of leader, God gave the man the huge responsibility of setting the spiritual example for his family. The husband isn't fulfilling the requirements of his office if he only provides materially for his family. "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to Himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless." (Ephesians 5:25-27) God is going to hold Christian husbands accountable for the spiritual conditions of their wives. I don't know about you, but I personally don't want to be accountable for someone else's spiritual condition. That is an enormous and frightening responsibility! But after Paul tells the husband to fulfill the wife's need for emotional intimacy by saying, "Love her in the way Christ loves the church, putting her needs before yours", he then says, "Study and know the word of God so you can instruct your wife in godly living. Be the person she comes to when she needs guidance. Be the first person she thinks of when she wants someone to pray with her."

Because Christ loves the church (His bride) so much He'd do anything to protect and care for her, husbands are to follow His example. "In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church---for we are members of His body." (Ephesians 5:28-30) We have a built-in instinct for self-preservation, and it's a good thing we do or else we wouldn't survive very long. Paul tells husbands to feel as protective about the needs of their wives as they feel about the needs of their own bodies. This includes every type of need the wife may have, whether it's material or physical or emotional or spiritual.

Why is caring for his wife the same as caring for his own body? Because the nature of marriage is explained by God in this way: "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." (Ephesians 5:31) This quote comes from Genesis 2:24 when God explained that the husband and wife are now one unit. They are no longer two separate people, so they have to always think about what's best for them as a unit and not what is best for them as two individuals.

Christ and His bride the church are one unit now, and this is a subject too big for even the Apostle Paul to understand or explain. "This is a profound mystery---but I am talking about Christ and the church." (Ephesians 5:32) The relationship between Christ and the church, and the love Christ feels for the church, is something none of us can fully understand with our human minds. Why did the holy Son of God love us so much that He was willing to die for us? Why did He want us in His life so much that He was willing to do anything it took to win us over?

But not being able to completely comprehend the love of Christ for the church should not hinder us from using His relationship with the church as our example for marriage, so Paul concludes by saying, "However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband." (Ephesians 5:33) He says, "Husbands must love their wives as Christ loves the church. Wives must respect their husbands as the church respects Christ."

You can see why this only works well in a marriage where both partners are Christians. However, if a Christian woman is married to an unbeliever, and if he is not an abusive man (no one is telling a woman to submit to abuse), showing him the respect due a husband has the potential to win him over to Christ. If a Christian man is married to an unbeliever, and if he loves and cares for his wife as the Bible says he should, he may well win her over to Christ. We should not, of course, marry someone who is an unbeliever, but there are cases where after marriage one partner became a believer and the other did not, so in today's passage we find instructions for how to behave so that the unbelieving spouse can admire our obedience to the Lord. In admiring our behavior, this person may come to admire Christ and may give his or her heart to Christ.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Apostle Paul's Letter To The Ephesians. Day 13, Make The Most Of Every Opportunity

Every day we are faced with opportunities to do good and with opportunities to do evil. Paul instructs us to be focused on the Lord's will for our lives and to make the most of every opportunity to guide others to Him. We live in a dark and fallen world; our job is to be the light.

"For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord." (Ephesians 5:8-10) In yesterday's passage Paul warned us not to have close fellowship with those who claim to be believers but whose manner of living proves they are not. He doesn't want us to get pulled back into our old ways by hanging out with the wrong crowd, so he says today, "You used to live in that kind of darkness, but that's not who you are now. You are the children of the light. You can't live in the dark anymore. Study the words of the Lord and learn what pleases Him---and do it!"

In Paul's day prisons were often in underground dungeons or in the basement areas underneath the homes of government officials. It was dark and gloomy there. A person could eventually go mad if he were kept chained in the darkness long enough. Before we knew Christ we were like prisoners chained in the dark dungeon of sin. Now that we've been set free and brought out into the light, why would we ever willingly go back? What would a pardoned prisoner do? He'd run out the prison door the minute he was set free. He'd turn his face up to the warm sun and breathe in the fresh air. He'd vow to make the most of every day of the rest of his life. Nothing on earth could entice him to willingly go back into the dark dungeon and chain himself to the wall again, but this is what we are doing when we allow ourselves to become enslaved to sin again after we have been set free. Paul isn't promising us that if we try hard enough we will never make a mistake; he's telling us not to fall back into a sinful lifestyle. He's saying, "Don't you dare go back into that dungeon! Christ shed His blood to earn your pardon. He gave everything He had so you can walk in the light of day and enjoy the sunshine and fresh air of the new life you have in Him. Use this freedom to honor the One who set you free. Use this freedom to guide others out of the dark."

"Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful to even mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible---and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said: 'Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.'" (Ephesians 5:11-14) The light of Christ exposes the works of darkness. It shines into every corner of the human heart. Until He shined His light into our hearts we ourselves were darkness, as Paul has said, and now that we are in Christ we are called to be the light of the world. If we are like Him, then those around us are going to experience some light shining into their own hearts. They are not going to be able to help comparing their lifestyles with ours. They are going to notice the joy and peace we have now that we have been made right with our God. They are not going to be able to deny the change Christ has made in us. We can't force them to give their hearts to Christ, but we can certainly make this choice look very attractive to them.

Because we are called to be the light of the world (Matthew 5:14a), we are in a position to bring others into the light, so it matters how we live. Everything we do, everything we say, and every attitude we display is being watched by those who are not yet in Christ. "Be very careful, then, how you live---not as unwise but as wise. making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil." (Ephesians 5:15-16) I love the way the KJV renders this verse, for it instructs us to "redeem the time". Now that we've been saved by Christ, we aren't just marking days off the calendar until we leave this life to be with Him. We should be actively working to build His kingdom, and that work consists of leading souls out of the dungeon of sin into the light of Christ. The word translated as "redeem" is the Greek "exagorazo" which means "to buy up, to ransom, to rescue from loss". Paul is telling us, "Use your remaining days on earth in meaningful ways that will have eternal significance. Your lives are not your own. You were bought with a price: the precious blood of Christ. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) You don't belong to yourselves, but to Him. Your time doesn't belong to you, but to Him. Use your time to help others out of darkness. Use your time to rescue souls from loss. Be the light of Christ to others so they can see their way out of the dark prison of sin." This is the Lord's will for us, so Paul commands us not to live as if we don't know the Lord's will. "Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord's will is." (Ephesians 5:17)

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul told his readers that one of the fruits of the Spirit is self-control. (Galatians 5:23) Therefore he says to the Ephesians that no one who is in Christ should indulge in things that weaken self-control. "Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery." (Ephesians 5:18a) It's quite difficult to be filled with the fruit of the Spirit and the fruit of the vine at the same time. Indulging in things that weaken our self-control will not help us to be a light to unbelievers.
"Instead be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ." (Ephesians 5:18b-20) Paul instructs us, "Don't sing the song of the drunkards! Be sober and sing songs of praise to the Lord!"

What is it about drinking that makes some people want to break into song? I've often said this must be the reason Karaoke parties in restaurants and bars are held after 10pm, because it takes that long for the attendees to become intoxicated enough to think they have talent. Paul wants us to think about how this type of behavior looks to those around us. Would we be offended if we walked into a restaurant and saw our pastor drunkenly singing into a microphone? Of course we would! But we sometimes fail to consider that people would be offended if they saw us engaging in the same behavior. As the old saying goes, we are the only Bible some people read. Unbelievers expect Christians to set an example for godly living. They may not be interested in being Christians themselves, but they expect to be able to examine our lives and find enough evidence to conclude that we are sincere about our faith. We are never going to be able to light their way out of darkness if they conclude we are hypocrites.

Today is a new day and opportunities are going to come our way to redeem the time we are spending here on earth. Paul's words challenge us to step up our game. We have kingdom work to do. Souls are at stake. Let's go out and be the light.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Apostle Paul's Letter To The Ephesians. Day 12, Avoid Those Who Claim To Be Christians But Whose Deeds Are Disobedient

Paul spoke yesterday about the importance of purity of speech and purity of body. Today he picks up from there but moves on into reminding us that we are no longer in the dark and that we shouldn't live like people who don't know the truth. Because we know the truth, we ought to be able to recognize false teachers. He instructs us to have nothing to do with them.

"For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person---such a person is an idolater---has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God." (Ephesians 5:5) Paul isn't saying we are doomed if we have ever committed these sins. If that were true then he would be doomed himself, for he told us in Romans 7:7-12 that he was once a very covetous man. Covetousness is a form of greed, and greed is a form of idolatry according to his words in verse 5. I think what he's saying here is that the person who comfortably lives an immoral, impure, and greedy life has not been made a new creature in Christ. The person who is not troubled by his sin has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ because he doesn't belong to Christ. The person who lives a life ruled by sin is not serving the Lord but idols. This person would probably never dream of bowing on his knees before a graven image, but he's bowing his knees to sexual immorality or to dishonest gain or to other things that serve the carnal flesh instead of the living God. When we don't allow God to be the Lord of our lives, we are going to put someone else (usually ourselves) in His place or we will put other things in His place. This turns us into idolaters.

"Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them." (Ephesians 5:6-7) We've seen in previous letters by Paul that teachers of false doctrine were working hard to lead the Gentile believers astray. He hasn't really had anything to say on this subject up to now in his letter to the Ephesians, but we can be certain that Satan was just as interested in corrupting the believers of Ephesus as he was in corrupting the believers of other cities. The trick to getting people to believe false doctrine is in not teaching a gospel that is vastly and obviously different than the gospel the people have already heard. A lie like that would stick out like a sore thumb. False doctrine consists of subtle changes in what God has actually said. An example of this would we what Satan asked Eve in the Garden of Eden: "Did God really say that you must not eat from any tree in the garden?"

Satan knew God had said Adam and Eve could eat from every tree in the garden but one. But his question was intended to pull Eve into conversation with him by causing her to try to correct what she thinks is a misunderstanding on the serpent's part. In pulling her into conversation with him, Satan is able to cast doubt on the goodness of God by making her wonder, "Why would God give us access to every tree but one? What is He keeping from us? Why is He holding things back from us? God must be selfish if He doesn't want us to know good and evil. He's afraid we will eat the fruit and know as much as He does and not have to depend on Him anymore."

We can see why Paul warns his readers not to "be partners" with those who are speaking the empty words of false doctrine. There's never a good reason to get into conversation with the devil, and that is what we are doing when we allow teachers of falsehood to draw us into a debate about what God has or has not said. Have you ever known anyone who asked you questions about your faith just so they could argue with you? They aren't interested in hearing your viewpoint; they are just waiting for their turn to speak so they can put forth their own viewpoint. Paul says not to waste our time with this, or as the Lord Jesus said, "Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces." (Matthew 7:6) Jesus reveals to us the true motives of the false teachers: their intention is to destroy us. The Apostle Peter also compared false teachers to dogs and swine in 2 Peter 2:22. Dogs and swine were unclean animals according to Jewish law and this meant that having contact with them made a person ceremonially unclean for a time. In the same way, having contact with teachers of unholiness is more likely to make us unclean than to convert the false teachers.

We often feel compelled to get into conversation with people like this because we think we are going to change them by better explaining the truth to them. But they aren't interested in listening to us anymore than Satan was interested in listening to Eve. It's not impossible for people like this to be converted, but it's probably going to take some type of major intervention of the Lord in their lives, just as it took a major intervention of the Lord in the life of Saul of Tarsus to turn him into the Apostle Paul. In the meantime, we aren't to have close fellowship with those who stir up debate about the holy word of God. Instead of us being a good influence on them they may become a bad influence on us.

Paul isn't saying not to have contact with unbelievers. We couldn't share the gospel if we never had anything to do with unbelievers. What he's saying is not to hang out with those who claim to be believers but whose behavior says otherwise. This is the same thing he said in 1 Corinthians 5:11, "You must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people." To eat with a person is to treat them as an equal and to view them as someone who has a lot in common with us. But since light has nothing in common with darkness, we who are true believers have nothing in common with those who claim to be believers but aren't. Paul knows these false teachers aren't riding into town proclaiming a different gospel; they are slipping in with an altered gospel. They are saying that since people have been saved by Christ, it's okay to live however they want. They are assuring people, "The Lord knows your mortal bodies are tempted by sin. He isn't going to discipline you for it. Go ahead and live a little! After all, did God specifically say that the particular thing you're considering doing is wrong? Did He actually say you could never have any fun? If you can't enjoy some carnal and illicit pleasures now and then, how are you going to have any fun?"

The Christian life is fun. There's nothing more exciting than realizing God knew and loved us long before we were ever born, and that He made wonderful plans for us, and that He intends to do exciting things in our lives, and that He is allowing us to take part in the building of His kingdom, and that He wants to have a personal relationship with us. It's a lie that the Christian life is a life of deprivation, but Satan has been telling this lie since the beginning and he is still convincing some of those who allow themselves to be drawn into conversation with him. There's no point in debating anyone who claims to be a believer but who is teaching false doctrine. The best thing we can do is remove ourselves from that situation and pray for the person's heart to be changed by Christ. We aren't being unloving toward them because we can still love those who claim to be Christians but who are living in error. We can and should pray for them. But engaging in debate over the holy word of God with them is at best going to prove fruitless. At worst, instead of making them more like us it's probably going to make us more like them.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

The Apostle Paul's Letter To The Ephesians. Day 11, Purity In Speech And In Body

For the past several days we've been studying the proper behavior of the Christian. Paul has told us to put off the old man and put on the new man. We have been made into new creatures on the inside, so what's on the outside should reflect our new identity in Christ. Today we tackle the subjects of the type of language the Christian should not use and the ways in which the Christian should not satisfy physical desires.

"Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." (Ephesians 4:29) Unwholesome talk includes things like cursing and telling dirty jokes. Paul says the test of what comes out of our mouths should be this, "Is what I'm about to day going to benefit anyone?" Or, as the Lord's brother James puts it, "Out of the same mouth comes praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be." (James 3:10) I'm reminded of a T-shirt I saw not long ago. It said, "I love Jesus, but I cuss a little." Paul and James tell us this shouldn't be the case. We may sincerely love Jesus, but unbelievers around us are going to doubt it if our speech sounds just like theirs. As Paul has been telling us, becoming a Christian means we have to clean up our act, and cleaning up our act means cleaning up our mouths. Do we sometimes say a bad word when we shut our finger up in a drawer? Do we sometimes repeat an off-color joke to a friend? Paul says these forms of speech fail the test, for they don't build up or benefit the listener.

Paul says that unwholesome speech is not only unseemly for the Christian but that it also grieves the Holy Spirit. "And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you." (Ephesians 4:30-32) Before we became Christians we might have handled our conflicts with others by yelling at them, holding grudges against them, and slandering their names. But God, even though we don't deserve forgiveness, has forgiven us because of our faith in Christ. Therefore we ought to forgive others. Do they deserve it? That's not the issue, because we didn't deserve forgiveness either. Are they sorry for what they did to us? If they are living in the will of God they will be. But even if they aren't sorry, we are called to let go of bitterness and leave the situation up to God. Hanging onto unforgiveness is harmful to us, so God tells us to to forgive the person so we can go on with our lives with peace in our hearts. If any vengeance needs to be taken on our behalf, God will handle it. We don't need to concern ourselves with that, for He has said, "Vengeance is Mine. I will repay." (Deuteronomy 32:35) Since we have been forgiven by God, Paul says we are to be like God in our attitude toward those who have wronged us, "Follow God's example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (Ephesians 5:1-2)

As new creatures it's important to keep not just our lips pure but our bodies pure as well. "But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, because these are improper for God's holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving." (Ephesians 5:3-4) Before we became Christians we may have satisfied our physical desires in immoral ways. I was twenty-two years old when I became a Christian and I'd been in the habit of dealing with physical desires by sleeping with the young men I dated. So obviously my act needed a lot of cleaning up after I came to Christ. I met the man who is now my husband three weeks after giving my heart to Christ and I had to learn how to be in a romantic relationship with a man without also being in a physical relationship with him. Was it worth it? Yes, because it taught me how to develop a mental and spiritual relationship with a man. When we got married we knew our attraction to each other was based on something that had a chance of standing the test of time. We knew we had more than just a physical connection. Has our marriage always been easy? Oh no, we've thought seriously about giving up quite a few times. And I think we would have given up long ago if our connection had been based only on something as shallow as physical attraction. That's something that changes and fades as time goes on, so you can't base a solid marriage on it.

When Paul speaks of physical immorality he again brings up the subject of unwholesome speech, and I think that's because these things can go hand in hand. We are on shaky ground when we engage in this type of speech with others. For example, maybe you are a woman and an attractive male co-worker tells you an off-color joke at work today. You laugh at it so he feels emboldened to start being flirtatious with you from time to time. This can lead to one or the other of you making a physical move. The next thing you know, you may be involved in a physical relationship with a person to whom you are not married. One or the other of you (or both) may already be married to someone else, and suddenly you find yourselves engaged in adultery. The things we say can lead us to places we never thought we'd end up, so Paul reminds us again to watch our mouths.

Paul is asking us, "Did Christ save you so you could go on living in immorality? Did He not save you so that you could be new creatures with a new purpose in life? He paid a huge price to buy you out of slavery to sin. You owe it to Him to honor Him with purity of living."

Saturday, December 15, 2018

The Apostle Paul's Letter To The Ephesians. Day 10, Dealing With Anger Without Sinning

Paul has been talking about the proper "clothing" (behavior) that the Christian ought to wear. Today he mentions several specific behaviors the Christian is to avoid, and he pays particular attention to the subject of anger.

First he begins by reminding us that we are not to deceive each other. Is there anything that makes us angrier than knowing someone is lying to us or realizing they have cheated us somehow? Is there any quicker way to make someone angry at us than having them find out we lied to them? It's easy to see why Paul starts off with commanding us to be honest in our dealings with one another. "Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body." (Ephesians 4:25) When we hurt a member of the body of Christ we are hurting ourselves at the same time. Thinking we can hurt a brother or sister in Christ without hurting ourselves in the process is as illogical as saying, "It's ok if I stub my big toe really hard. My toe is just a small part of my body. It won't bother me." Our whole body feels it when we stub a toe. A message goes straight from the nerve endings in our toe to our brain and then we experience a sensation of intense pain. Knowing this, who would ever want to stub their toe on purpose? Probably no one! We try our best to protect every part of our bodies so that we won't cause ourselves pain. In this same way we should try our best to avoid causing pain to a member of the church, because that member is a part of us, and when we hurt a member of the church we are doing harm to ourselves. We are harming our reputations, our testimonies, and our relationships.

The apostle now quotes the words of David from Psalm 4:4, "'In your anger do not sin.'" (Ephesians 4:26a) Even after we become Christians, there are things that are going to make us angry. Some things ought to make us feel righteously indignant, such as injustice and abuse. We see things on the news sometimes that we wish we could unsee. This fallen world is a world in which the weak and the innocent and the naive often suffer at the hands of the unscrupulous and cruel. Such things ought to make us feel upset because they are wrong, but even in those cases we have to learn to handle our emotions in ways that aren't sinful. A way to deal constructively with these emotions is to "overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21) by doing works that relieve some of the injustices that we're aware of. Have we heard a story about animal abuse? Then maybe we can do our part to help animals by adopting or fostering, or by donating time or money to animal charities. Has an elderly widow in our neighborhood been swindled out of most of her savings? We could take her a load of groceries or pay her overdue light bill. Are there children in our church who have horrible home lives where they don't receive approval or kindness? We can show them the love of Christ by taking an interest in them and by helping them to build a healthy self-esteem. These are just a few examples of how we can channel our anger into things that are helpful instead of sinful.

But I think primarily Paul is not talking about the things that moral people naturally feel indignant about. I think he's talking about personal conflicts between church members and I think he's talking about the things that happen to us out in society that really push our buttons. He's warning us not to sin when we become angry over trespasses that are made against us. I often think of verse 26 when I'm going through one of the many four-way stops in my community. At a four-way stop each car is supposed to pull out in the order in which it arrived at the stop sign. But pretty much every day someone will sail on through in front of all the rest of us even though they arrived at the stop sign last. This is not only rude and aggravating but dangerous as well. This is one of the situations where I am most likely to be angry and to sin! Their behavior startles and scares me, plus it makes me feel trespassed upon, and I sometimes find myself wishing I could just tell that person off. (No, I don't make any rude gestures at them, but I have been known to say out loud to myself exactly what I think about people who have no consideration for the feelings or safety of others.) In fact, things that happen on the road are the things most likely to push my buttons. Rudeness of any kind has the tendency to make me feel very angry inside, and although I don't often act out, the feelings in my heart are sinful at those times.

I'm just being honest here, so while I'm at it I'll go ahead and tell you I have problems obeying the second half of verse 26 too. "Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry." (Ephesians 4:26b) I've heard several people in long-term marriages proclaim, "In the fifty years we've been together, we've never once gone to bed angry at each other!" I'm always tempted to ask, somewhat jokingly, "Did you stay up a lot of nights?" My husband and I have been married twenty-four years and I don't know exactly how many nights we've gone to bed angry at each other. If someone paid us a dollar for every time it's happened I would say we would at least have enough to eat a very nice dinner out. Maybe enough for two dinners! But in a lot of those cases what we were doing was calling a temporary cease fire; we were still angry but we were tired and we were going to stop arguing and go to sleep. After all, a lot of things look better in the morning. Many times by morning we were over whatever had made us angry. I think there's a difference between calling a cease fire and in tossing and turning all night while we fume with anger. (We've spent some night like that too.) But in my marriage there have been way more cease fires than nights spent tossing and turning in anger. So I believe Paul is saying, "When evening comes, lay your differences aside. Don't allow them to fester overnight. Don't lie awake in bed turning the problem over and over in your mind, thinking about all the mean things you wish you'd said, planning what angry things you intend to say in the morning. Think of it this way: When you allow a physical wound to fester it becomes worse instead of better. It can even turn into an deadly infection that affects the whole body. The same thing happens in relationships. If you allow anger to fester it will begin to infect the whole relationship. It might even kill the relationship."

Sinning in our anger does nothing to help the situation. It hurts our own character and testimony. It hurts the other person or persons involved. It displeases the Lord. And, if those things aren't enough to make us stop and think before we act out in anger, we need to take into account what Paul says next, "And do not give the devil a foothold." (Ephesians 4:27) Allowing our anger to cause us to sin actually gives Satan an advantage over us. First of all, it shows him what pushes our buttons. You can bet he will try to put those things in our path as often as possible now that he knows how they affect us. This is like opening the door just enough for him to stick his toe into our business. Second, giving way to our anger hardens our hearts against feelings of guilt over the things we do when we're angry. The first time we lash out we might feel quite bad afterwards. The second time we may not feel as bad. The third time we are even less bothered by it. Eventually we are going to feel justified about any behavior we produce when we're angry. This opens the door even further and allows Satan to get his whole foot inside. Third, when we start giving in to one particular sin we become more likely to give in to other sins. The Holy Spirit will still be shouting out warnings to us, but our consciences will have become dull of hearing. It's at that point we are in serious danger, because we can open up the door so wide to sin that Satan gets a stronghold in our lives. He will be all the way inside the door where he can more effectively persuade us to go down a dark road with him to places we never imagined ourselves going. We can end up putting ourselves in circumstances where we lose the respect of our fellow Christians, where our testimony of faith means nothing to anyone around us, and where relationships we hold dear have been badly damaged or even severed forever.

Anger seems like a little thing at first. Giving in to it now and then seems fairly harmless to us. But it's a thing that festers and grows. It's a thing that can lead to other forms of sin. Today's passage is one I know I really need to take to heart, and maybe some of you do too. Let's shut the door firmly on Satan by getting control over our anger issues with the help of the Lord. The Lord wouldn't tell us not to sin while we're angry if He wasn't willing to help us to gain control over anger. He's not going to command us to do something without giving us the power to obey Him.

Friday, December 14, 2018

The Apostle Paul's Letter To The Ephesians. Day 9, Put Off Your Old Self

The apostle tells us that now that we are in Christ we must put off (in the sense of taking off an old garment) our old selves. He gives us instructions about how to live as the new creatures we are.

"So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed." (Ephesians 4:17-19) Paul tells his Gentile readers not to live as the Gentiles do. This is because, now that they belong to Christ, they are new creatures simply known as "Christians." Their identity is not as Gentiles anymore but as Christians. It doesn't matter what anyone's background was before they came to Christ, for, "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)

We are to live with the knowledge that the most important part of our identity is that we are Christians. Our Christianity is more important than our genealogy or race or sex. We are to live as Christians should live; we are not to cling to our former sins or to whatever form of morality (or immorality) our culture teaches. Paul knows the Gentile believers live in an immoral society and that they may find it difficult to ignore or avoid the temptations their culture throws at them, so he reminds them who they really are in Christ. If they keep this in the forefront of their minds, they will be far less likely to fall back into their old ways.

"That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in Him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus." (Ephesians 4:20-21) Here in Ephesians 4 we find Paul saying something like, "When you heard the gospel and learned about the teachings of Christ, you realized that His truth was not in line with the 'truth' you formerly lived by. You used to serve idols, if you served any gods at all. Some of you had rejected even the false gods of the pagans and refused to submit to any authority. In times past you renounced the moral code of a holy God and chose to live according to your own desires. You likely did some of this in ignorance, since this was the culture you were born into, but you can claim ignorance no longer. You know the character of Christ. You know you must live in a way that brings honor to the name of the One who saved you by His own blood."

When the Gentiles came to Christ they needed instruction in Christian living. Their culture allowed all sorts of immorality and wickedness, such as adultery and fornication, witchcraft and other occult practices, greed and deceit in business practices, perversion of justice in exchange for bribery, and so on and so on. They had never been taught to love their neighbors as themselves but instead they lived by the code of the carnal man which says, "It's every man for himself." When people do not serve a holy God, holy living does not come naturally. The Gentiles served gods of their own making, gods who were much like humans, gods who possessed the same faults as humans like anger and jealousy and greed. But now they serve the living God, the one and only God, and He says, "Be holy because I am holy." (Leviticus 11:44-45, Leviticus 19:2, Leviticus 20:7)

In giving instruction in Christian living, Paul taught the Ephesians to put off the old self and put on the new self. "You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness." (Ephesians 4:22-23) In the original Greek Paul is telling us to change clothes, to throw aside the old dirty set of clothes and to put on the new clean set of clothes. Would it be appropriate for Christians to accept Christ but still keep behaving in the same old ways? No, because we are not who we used to be. If a king rode by in his chariot and saw us lying drunk and homeless and hopeless in the gutter, and if he invited us home with him to be part of his family, would we still keep wearing our filthy stinky clothes in his household? Or would we put on the clothing appropriate for children of the king? This is what Paul is saying to the Ephesians and to all believers everywhere, "It doesn't matter who you used to be. That's not who you are now. So put off the behaviors of the old man and put on the behaviors of the new man. You've been made new in your hearts, now be made new in your minds by learning about Christ and growing in your relationship with Him. Don't keep wearing the nasty stained clothes of the past. That's not who you are now! Put on the royal robes of the sons and daughters of the King."