Becoming One

I’ve been studying quite a bit on marriage lately. Much of this post I learned by going through an extensive series on marriage/divorce/remarriage delivered by the After Class Podcast. These brothers in Christ are such a great resource. I highly recommend you listen to this 8-episode series. (After Class Podcast: 4.36 – Marriage – Part 1 (libsyn.com))

Recently, I wrote a social media post inviting discussion on the differences between “legal wedlock” and wedlock in the eyes of God. This was prompted by a discussion on the guilt and stigma often associated with couples who get pregnant before they officially walk down the aisle. My belief is in these cases, assuming no adultery or porneia (more on that word later), that couple has entered into a union of one flesh that is in keeping with God’s good design. All the other things we typically think about with marriage (ceremonies, licenses, rings, etc.) are superfluous to God’s working between the man and woman. Throughout Scripture, sex is defined as the marital act. This is not at all to say that the looseness we see in society is in keeping with that. Abuse of that marital act is where the breakdown occurs (and it is rampant) but adding a ceremony and some paperwork is not the cure. We need a robust understanding of what marriage even is in the eyes of God. Tradition runs deep here, and it’s not always easy to sort out God’s ideas and man’s ideas.

I’m not against weddings or other marriage traditions. I was blessed to be a groomsman in some dear friends’ wedding several weeks ago, and I’m going to another wedding today! Jesus’ first miracle was at a wedding feast. A marriage is something to celebrate! But the events around a marriage should be to celebrate what God is doing. The ceremony doesn’t make the marriage. The preacher’s words don’t bring the two into one. The government’s paperwork isn’t filed in Heaven. To allow our government (dare I say even our religious organizations) to have the ultimate authority on what we consider “marriage” through licenses and other official documentation, are we not taking away God’s ultimate authority in the one flesh union that he has been overseeing since the Garden of Eden? This is God’s institution. We didn’t invent it. Malachi 2:15 says: “Did [God] not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union?” Jesus echoes this in Matthew 19:6: “What God has joined together, let not man separate.” It’s not what man has joined together. It’s not what our government says is joined together. It’s what God has joined together.

This is all written with the believer in mind. The world will do what the world wants to do. I don’t put much stock into what my country or state calls marriage. That ultimately has no bearing on me or God’s Kingdom. But, throughout history, the world has contaminated the hearts and minds of God’s people and led us astray. As believers, we should always pursue deeper understanding of God’s truths.

In the Beginning…

When Jesus speaks on the topic of marriage, he takes us back to the very beginning, so it’s fitting we start there too. Genesis 2:20-25 paints a beautiful picture of God creating man and woman for each other, they become “one flesh,” and therefore are made husband and wife.

I can’t read Hebrew, but I’ve grown to see how much we miss by only studying our various English translations. The story of Adam and Eve is just one of many examples of that.

I’m sure you’re familiar with the story: God saw that Adam needed a partner in the Garden, so he put him under some divine anesthesia, plucked out a rib, and formed Eve (Gen 2:18-25).

But that version misses so much. First, the name “Adam” is simply a Hebrew word for “human.” So, Adam is just “human” at the start of this story. That’s important. He’s also formed from the ground, or in Hebrew, “adamah.” Then God makes Adam a helper, which better translates to “completer” or “savior.” Also, when our English translations say God took a “rib” from Adam, there is no Hebrew word that means “rib” in that sentence. The word translated to rib is really “sela” and it typically means one of two opposite sides of a building. So, God really separated the human into two separate sides and created man (Ish)and woman (Isha). When Adam wakes up and sees Eve, he utters a beautiful poem:

      “This at last is bone of my bones

      and flesh of my flesh;

      she shall be called Woman,

      because she was taken out of Man.” – Genesis 2:23

He is now half of a whole. She’s bone of his bones, flesh of his flesh.

Doesn’t the next verse make more sense now?

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” – Genesis 2:24

Those two halves were always meant to come back together in perfect unity. And how has God divinely ordained that happen? By designing sexual intercourse—a both literal and figurative expression of that new identity.

Inauguration of a Marriage

What initiates a marriage? Is it a ceremony? Vows? Marriage was primarily handled between the families in ancient times, and religious institutions were not even involved in the process. Marriages became marriages when the two were joined together, becoming one flesh through sex. Some cultures even have third-party witnesses to make sure the marriage is consummated! Cultures all over the world have various traditions revolving around marriage. And many harmonize well within God’s design. But how often are we tempted to think that our ideas about something must also be God’s ideas because that’s what we’re comfortable with?

Biblically, how are marriages started? Through the marital act of sex. (By the way, it’s always marital. There is no pre- or extra-marital sex. More on that later…) This marital act literally brings the two halves perfectly together and it figuratively brings those two lives together until death.

Adam and Eve were married. Not by a priest. Not in a church. Not with a ceremony. They were joined together by God and made one flesh through the marital act of intercourse. Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage is also described in this way in Genesis 24:67. Also, Jacob and Leah (and Rachel, and Bilhah, and Zilpah… more on that in a bit). In Deuteronomy 21:10-14, instructions are given for how to treat females from enemy nations taken captive. In the context of taking care of them and giving them a home, they may be taken as a wife (after being allowed to mourn). The phrasing used here is: “After [the mourning period] you may go into her and be her husband she shall be your wife.” (Deut 21:13) Also in Deuteronomy (Deut 25:5-10), instructions are given for how to take care of a widow if she has no sons. Again, as strange as this may seem to us as modern readers, these laws were critical in that culture to ensure the woman was cared for and not forced into desperate situations. The brother of the man is supposed to take her as a wife and produce children for his dead brother. The phrasing? “Her husband’s brother shall go into her and take her as his wife to perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her.” (Deut 25:5)

In God’s design, the one flesh act is the ultimate symbol of unity and should provide a glimpse at the perfect unity between Christ and His church. It’s a bond that can’t be broken during this life. One man. One woman. One flesh. That is the ideal, and that’s why Jesus points to it when questioned about marriage in Matthew 19. Unfortunately, people don’t always follow the ideal path…

Inaugurated but Disrespected

In some cases, marriages are inaugurated, but not recognized. The marital act of sex is so commonly abused. The sacred joining of those two halves into one flesh is initiated with the act of sexual intercourse whether the participants understand the weight of that or not. Is this sacredness always realized? No. Respected? No. Have people throughout history always followed God’s design for this bond? No.

In fact, several laws in Torah were written specifically because of the people’s inability to maintain God’s good design the way he intended. Unfortunately, many of those laws were taken out of context by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, and even still today.

Some Pharisees come to question Jesus about his understanding of the Mosaic Law for divorce, really intending to test which Rabbinical interpretation he would side with, hoping to stir division and discredit him. This is recorded in Matthew 19:3-12. He responds simply: “Don’t you remember what was said in the beginning? God created them, male and female, and the two will become one flesh. What God has joined together let not man separate.” (Matthew 19:4-6) He reminds them (and us) that if we want to understand God’s plan for marriage, we can’t look at the laws given to govern a fallen people as a baseline (they were referencing Deuteronomy 24:1-4, albeit with poor understanding). Instead, we should go back to the beginning. God’s plan for marriage was perfectly implemented in the Garden.

It bears repeating:

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” – Genesis 2:24

But the humans didn’t get to stay in the Garden for long. This is not a perfect world, and we are certainly not a perfect people.

One prominent example of God having to work through imperfect people is Jacob. He is certainly an example where the ideal path of marriage wasn’t followed. And to be fair, not all of that was his fault. That part of the story starts in Genesis 29. Jacob is in love with Laban’s daughter, Rachel—so much so that he agrees to work for Laban for seven years to have her as his wife. When the day finally arrives, Laban pulls a fast one and swaps Leah for Rachel at the last second. Whether Jacob was drunk or if it was just dark and she had on a full burka no one knows, but Jacob didn’t realize the switch until after the one flesh act, the marital act, had already happened. Of course, in the morning, Jacob realizes that he’s with Leah and goes to confront Laban. But not once does Jacob claim that what happened between Leah and him “didn’t count.” He knew they were one flesh and there was no going back. Even though there was no ceremony for Leah, there was no party for Leah’s engagement—Jacob and Leah were husband and wife. He couldn’t give her back after they had sex. But he still loved Rachel. He agrees to work another seven years for her to have her as his wife as well. Was that God’s plan for marriage? No. Just because something is recorded in the Bible doesn’t automatically mean it’s good. I believe it was the After Class Podcast where I heard the phrase “Description does not equal prescription.” In fact, the rest of chapter 29 and into 30 records the intense conflict that came about because of this twisting of God’s good design. Later, a law comes about in Torah to specifically prohibit sisters being taken as wives of the same man (Leviticus 18:18). Even more conflict arises when Leah and Rachel give their servants, Bilhah and Zilpah, to Jacob as wives. But God redeems Jacob’s situation. He becomes the father of the 12 Tribes of Israel. God can still use imperfect people and imperfect conditions.

That’s just one example of polygamy we see in the Bible. Some may be tempted to think that God supports polygamy, but again, description does not equal prescription. God had a perfect plan for a lot of things, and humans have successfully perverted them all. Lamech was the first to abuse marriage with polygamy, and he is not a guy any of us should emulate (Gen 4:19-24). In addition to the conflicts among Jacob’s wives, his grandfather Abraham’s wives also had major conflicts (Genesis 16 and Genesis 21). King David and King Solomon are no stranger to the problems brought about by polygamous lifestyles. Despite a clear law in Torah forbidding Israel’s kings from having multiple wives (Deut 17:17), David and Solomon allowed themselves to be pulled away from God’s plan. These are the most entitled people in the kingdom—if they weren’t allowed to have multiple wives, what should that say about everyone else?

God’s plan was one man, one woman, for life (Gen 2:24). The law of Moses that came later was meant to address the failings of the people in a lot of ways. Sometimes we can read that as if certain things were allowed, but many times the law is addressing how to make the best out of a bad situation when there is a failure—not to facilitate a detour a from God’s design.

But didn’t Solomon also have a bunch of concubines too (1 Kings 11:3)? They weren’t his wives, were they? Turns out a lot of characters in our Bible had concubines (Abraham, Jacob, and Saul to name a few). Concubines were an abuse of the marital act (as were multiple wives in most situations, excepting Deut 25:5-10). Concubines were exploited by the wealthy for sex without giving them the status of wife and the benefits therein. But just because they failed to recognize them as a wife doesn’t mean they were any less “one flesh.” They would be akin to a prostitute, which Paul very clearly states in 1 Corinthians 6:16 that you do in fact become one flesh with them. This sets up the context for 1 Corinthians 7 which is commonly used to talk about “pre-marital sex”…

Marital, Pre-marital, Extra-marital?

In God’s eyes, all sex is marital. There is no such thing as “pre-marital sex.” Jacob was planning on marrying Rachel, but his uncle tricked him, and he unknowingly slept with Leah. This was a marital act. Jacob was then married to Leah. He knows it and accepts it as we discussed before.

The problem is the extensive abuse of the marital act. What we have going on in our world today is “serial polygamy”—a lot of people very loose with sexuality entering into one flesh relationships with many people with no regard for what that bond truly means. Biblically speaking, polygamy is going on all over the US—not just in certain small, isolated communities in southern Utah. But it’s not new to our current time and place.

1 Corinthians 7:2 is sometimes interpreted to be a warning against so-called “pre-marital” sex. But this fails to consider the full historical context of this passage. As stated above, 1 Corinthians 6:16 talks about becoming one flesh with a prostitute. This is the immorality Paul is referring to in 1 Cor 7:2. The Corinthians were constantly confronted with temple prostitution in their culture, and many of them came from that way of life directly. The word translated as “sexual immorality” there is porneia, which typically describes something totally against God’s design (such things as in Leviticus 18 and prostitution). So, Paul is telling them it’s better that they marry so they will not be tempted to visit the temple prostitute.

Even if porneia is translated as “fornication” in some versions of our English Bible, we have to be careful not to read back into the text a modern definition of a word. Just because we can find “pre-marital sex” under the definition of fornication in our dictionary does not mean that’s how authors and readers of the Biblical texts defined those words. When we’re interpreting the Bible, we must remember that none of it was written in English. Translations are never perfect, and vocabulary is relative and contextual. This takes study. This takes research. This takes learning from experts. We must be responsible in how we interpret the text.

The woman Jesus meets at the well in John 4 is also brought up as someone who is in a sexual relationship outside of marriage—and indeed she is, but not because they didn’t walk down the aisle so to speak. This woman has clearly had some struggles in her life, but as God always does, He is looking out for those that are poor in spirit, humble in heart, and truly seeking Him. Jesus points out these struggles not to bring guilt upon her, but to show her that he sees her; that she is not lost on him. Look at John 4:16-18 specifically. Jesus says to her “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” I would previously emphasize “not” in that last part. But it makes more sense to emphasize “your.” He’s talking about her other husbands and then says “the one you have now”—so she has him as a husband, but he’s not her husband because he is supposed to be living as the husband of someone else. This was an adulterous relationship. This reading of the text then is easily aligned with all the other texts we’re discussing.

Speaking of adultery, it’s interesting that even Abimelech, king of the Philistines, knew adultery was wrong. When both Abraham and his son Isaac lied to him about their wives being their sisters (Gen 20:1-18 and Gen 26:6-11), Abimelech was appalled at the predicament he was put in. “What is this you have done to us? One of the people might easily have lain with your wife, and you would have brought guilt upon us.” (Gen 20:10) Abraham also pulled this trick on Pharoah in Gen 12:10-20 who was also sensitive to this sinful act.

So, what are the ramifications of all this? Sex is the marital act. Random hook-ups had (and still have) serious implications. Whether you want/recognize it or not, you now have a spouse. You participated in a marital act. You’ve entered into a bond that only ceases by one thing…

Only One Thing Ends a Marriage: Death

Back to our Matthew 19:3-12 passage. Jesus’s definition for marriage is plainly given here. The Pharisees seemingly want Jesus to rattle off a long list of what “indecencies” would warrant a divorce, citing a “command” of Moses in Deuteronomy 24:1-4.

But is that really the intent behind that passage of Torah?

If she finds no favor in his eyes and a man writes a certificate of divorce…”

This is not a command. It’s not even really a concession. It’s an acknowledgment that humans are broken and are going to do things that go against God’s good design. Much of Torah is all about what has to be done after men have taken matters into their own hands and messed up God’s plans for them. And the consequence for that action of divorce is simple in this passage: If you send her away, and she begins another one-flesh union, she can’t be your wife again. John Nugent refers to this as the “no take backsies” rule.

We also see in Deuteronomy 22:13-21 that a man knew divorce was not an easy option. A man that accuses his new wife of not being a virgin must prove that fact. This suggests “writing a certificate of divorce” is not as simple as it sounds, or else the man accusing his wife of this would just go that route instead of risk being whipped when the woman can prove her virginity after all.

Another passage that some try to use to support divorce as a legitimate way to end a marriage is Exodus 21:7-11. The problem with using this as a passage about divorce is that it is primarily a passage about slavery. This is not the type of slavery we tend to think about in the US—it was a consensual practice to help meet economic needs, and it was strictly regulated. Israel was not meant to be built on slave labor. Men taken as slaves had to be released on the seventh year whether their debt was repaid fully or not (Exodus 21:1-2). Since Israel was a patriarchal society, the men had family land and inheritance that they must take control of. This was not the case for the women; therefore, the rules governing the treatment of women were created to protect them as the more vulnerable of that society—quite a progressive system compared to the world around them.

So, in that Exodus passage, a man may have certain debts that he can only repay by accepting an early dowry for his young daughter. She is essentially taken in under an agreement of betrothal to this family. The person taking the girl in also benefits by being able to ensure that the girl “fits in” with their family and the dowry is less expensive. Now, if she doesn’t fit in, the family would have a lot of incentive to treat her poorly. This law helps prevent that potential abuse. If the man ends up wanting to take her as his wife down the road, that’s great—she’s in the family and cared for. Once she’s a wife, she’s not a slave anymore though (this would be how concubines were treated). If he decides not to take her as his wife, her family can buy her back (she can be redeemed). She can’t be sold off to a foreign people for a profit. If she is to marry the man’s son, she cannot be treated like a slave anymore, but as a daughter. And if the man takes another wife instead of her and she is still living with them (not redeemed), he still must provide for her basic needs, or she is free to go. The Hebrew word that is commonly translated “marital rights” there is “onah,” but this word can also mean oil or shelter. It’s unclear because this is the only time it appears in the Bible. But, if this passage is referring to the man taking an additional wife, it’s a command that she should still be treated equally as a wife (and not receive a “demotion” to slave). Since the man has already departed from God’s design for marriage, if he does begin to treat her as a slave instead of a wife, God steps in to let the woman go free (back to her home) where she can be treated fairly even if she is in a bad position for remarriage. Either way, this law addresses sex slavery and human trafficking. This is meant to protect the weak and the vulnerable—something that God is always doing. This protects women that may find themselves in a situation like Hagar, for instance.

But Jesus does not go down these roads to support the practice of divorce. Jesus paints an extremely high view of marriage and the marital act of sex. He points these Pharisees beyond Moses and takes them back to the very beginning—one man, one woman, for life. The laws came because of men’s hard hearts, but God’s plan was good and perfect right out of the gate. Remember that had it not been for man’s fall, God’s plan was for them to never die in the first place, and they would live with Him forever in perfect peace and unity. That was the ideal—one flesh forever.

But alas, death did enter the world. And that is what separates the God-instituted one-flesh bonds. Paul makes this clear in Romans 7:2-3 and 1 Corinthians 7:39-40. He also has a record of encouraging singleness in these situations as well, perhaps to magnify the sanctity of marriage and the one flesh bond even more. The other interesting thing here is that if a believer is going to pursue a new marriage after the death of their spouse, it should be limited to someone who is also in the Lord.

We as believers should be concerned about displaying the sanctity and purity of marriage. Our marriages are critical to our overall witness for God’s Kingdom to the world around us. Similarly, the Levitical Priests were to be a display of the ideal picture of God’s perfect plan for marriage—knowing that the rest of the nation and world would be distorting that picture to varying degrees. The Priests were only to marry a virgin, and it was a once for life situation. Even though it was acceptable for a widow (or widower) to remarry in the general population, the Priests were explicitly barred from marrying a widow, a divorced woman, or a prostitute (Lev 21:10-15). Are we not all considered priests today (1 Peter 2:9-10)? Perhaps that should further shape how we view marriage…

So, ultimately, Jesus says that divorce is not an option to end a marriage. Jesus’s view of marriage is also recorded in Matthew 5:31-32, Mark 10:2-12, and Luke 16:18. The Mark and Luke passages are quite blunt. A divorce and remarriage equals adultery. End of story. Death is the only thing that ends a marriage. A legal document of divorce does not remove your one flesh bond. And neither, as we’ll discuss below, does an act of adultery.

Didn’t Jesus Give an Exception?

Interestingly, both Matthew passages (Matt 5:31-32, 19:3-12) seem to include an “exception clause.” Both passages have the phrase “except on the ground of sexual immorality.” Was Jesus condoning divorce here? Why did Mark and Luke record it differently? The Greek word in this “exception clause” is porneia. In some English translations, it may read as sexual immorality, marital unfaithfulness, or unchastity. However, just before this part in Matthew 5, Matthew records Jesus’s teaching on adultery (Matt 5:27-28). The Greek word translated to adultery there is moicheia. Matthew is familiar with that word, but he switches to porneia for this so-called “exception clause.” Why does Matthew change terms? Why do some English translations assume he means an act of adultery? What does porneia mean here? What was Jesus really saying? Why do Mark and Luke not include this clause? Seems like it might be an important detail to leave out if it’s the only “way out” of a marriage… Why does Matthew (Matt 15:19) and Mark (Mark 7:21) use porneia and moicheia side by side if they are interchangeable? This takes much consideration, and we should dig deeper than our English translations and modern dictionaries. As is always the case with Scripture, we need to let the context help us understand…

The Jerusalem Council is recorded in Acts 15. The Gentiles were coming to Christ, and the believers of Jewish background were trying to discern exactly how to handle this. Should they all be circumcised? What part of Torah, the law of Moses, should be imposed on them? After much deliberation and with the Holy Spirit’s guidance, a decision was reached. The Gentile believers would have these requirements: abstain from idols, blood, food that had been strangled, and sexual immortality (porneia). These four things came straight from the law of Moses, as Acts 15:21 says: “For from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” Abstaining from idols is easy to understand—no one can profess to follow Christ while deliberately worshipping idols. Also, the blood guilt laws were still in effect. The life was in the blood. Food laws were no longer binding (i.e., no “kosher” requirement) except that the animals must be drained of the blood (again back to the blood laws).

What about porneia? If these four requirements came from Moses, where did Moses talk about the term? This is where the Jewish people would have derived their understanding for the word.

The Torah discusses porneia in Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20 and it covers all sorts of cases of incest, same-sex eroticism, bestiality, and yes, even situations of adultery. Prostitution is later included in this term (1 Cor 6:12-20), and child molestation is easily understood to fall into the spirit of porneia as well.

Maybe the traditional understanding of the “exception clause” is correct, but just not broad enough? However, another important principle of interpreting Scripture is to always use the more clear passages to help discern the less clear passages.

We do have clear passages on this. Luke 16:18 says: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” Mark 10:11-12 says: “And he said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 says: “To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.”

Let’s dig into Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians a bit more. He specifically says this word is from the Lord. This is supposed to directly reflect Jesus’s teaching, but where is that “exception clause”? It’s plain. Neither the wife nor husband should divorce. Period. The “if she does…” statement also should not be understood as Paul giving his readers a way to work around Jesus’s teaching. The English translation makes it sound like we can disagree with Jesus and have a detour to follow. The Greek there suggests this is someone who is already in that situation. Paul is saying that if that’s the situation you find yourself in, leave the door open for reconciliation. Don’t pursue another one flesh relationship if your spouse is still alive. Isn’t that why we all became disciples in the first place? We should be people that are all about the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-20).

Porneia can be used more narrowly in some cases and more broadly in others (hence Matthew and Mark using porneia and moicheia side by side). Based on Matthew’s use of the word and the other cross references to this passage/topic, it becomes increasingly clear that this “exception clause” isn’t so much of an exception clause at all. Marriage is for life. Jesus seems to be saying that the only thing that should dissolve a marriage is if it’s a union that was a total aberration to God’s design in the first place. This would call for repentance. This is not Jesus delivering a new exception to the law of Moses—it’s actually keeping the law of Moses. As an (extreme) example, if a 30-year-old man is “married” to a 10-year-old girl and he comes to Christ, it should be obvious that this relationship is something that must end. He is not causing her to commit adultery if she grows up and gets married someday. Mark, Luke, and Paul may suggest that of course ending a “marriage” in that case goes without saying—that was an horrible aberration to God’s design.

Some translations of this so-called “exception clause” muddy the waters further, allowing for even broader interpretation. Versions that read “except for marital unfaithfulness” (like the MEV), could be stretched to mean any sort of unfaithful behavior—not helping around the house, not giving enough attention, not providing sufficiently, etc. Are those things problems? Absolutely! But this is not what Jesus is talking about. There is a way to address those things that all too often goes underutilized, and it’s talked about in Matthew 18:15-20. We as a body of believers should be holding each other accountable.

Important Clarifications

There may also be severe cases where there is violence or other forms of abuse within a marriage. There is nothing that suggests a wife should stay in the house with an abusive husband, or vice versa. The church should also be implementing Matthew 18:15-20 in these cases, as well as bringing in the civil authorities when needed. The discipline of the offending spouse discussed in Matthew 18 must be carried out all the way. If they repent, that is wonderful—that’s the job we all signed up for as disciples. If they don’t, they are then considered an unbeliever. Paul gave very specific instructions on how that situation can be handled in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16. (Jesus never had to talk about this because there were no cases where a believer was married to an unbeliever at the time of his ministry.) The victim of abuse does not have to stay under the same roof as their spouse, but they are still one flesh. Physical separation doesn’t change that. The church should take on the difficult role of helping provide for the victim of this scenario. One day, the offending spouse may opt to end the marriage. Paul says that the believing spouse has no responsibility to keep the unbelieving spouse from pursuing that option and are at that point freed from the marriage. One question that isn’t answered is whether the believing spouse is then free to remarry. We can’t be sure, but it’s possible Paul assumes that the overall teaching is clear enough to suggest that person should remain single (until the death of the spouse breaks that bond). It’s a sacrifice to hold up the sanctity of marriage in such a difficult situation. But we should never encourage someone to remain in the house under threat of violence or abuse. We as the body must step in to help in those situations.

Another way that the sexual act is abused is through situations of rape. There’s an important passage about this in Exodus 22:16-17. Even though it wasn’t a consensual act, it was still an abuse of the marital act. This passage makes clear that because of that, the perpetrator must pay the bride price. And if she is betrothed, the consequences would be even more severe (discussed below). And it’s important to note: The girl has a choice in this situation. Maybe this was just two people who took things too far, but the woman does love the man. She can opt to live as his wife. Her father acts as her representative, and if she doesn’t want to be with this man, she is not bound to him because of this violent act.

Rape is not a true one flesh union. One party is not giving themselves to the other. The perpetrator is effectively using the victim to masturbate. The victim did not inaugurate or initiate any one flesh bond with the attacker. But the attacker took something from the victim. She is now defiled. In the culture of ancient Israel, it will be very economically challenging for her from that point on. Therefore, the attacker, who instigated this marital bond, must pay the dowry, but the woman is free to decide if she wants to be with this person or not.

Ancient Israel and other nations with strong honor-shame cultures also had other ways of dealing with these situations. Just look at how Jacob’s sons dealt with the rape of their sister Dinah in Genesis 34.

In Deuteronomy 22:25-29, more instruction is given for how to deal with those that violate the marital act. If both parties were guilty, capital punishment was invoked. If the rape happened in the country where the betrothed woman could not have summoned help, the man was punished by death. And if a virgin was raped, he had to pay the bride price and assume responsibility for her because of what he took. This sounds unfair to the woman, but it was primarily meant to ensure she was cared for. Also, the Exodus passage later clarifies that her father could step in on her behalf.

Let Not Man Separate

Jesus’s view of marriage is so high that his disciples say (basically) in Matthew 19:10: “Whew, if that’s the level of commitment it takes, it’s better not to marry at all!” The Pharisees are approaching him wondering how many ways someone can get out of a marriage, but Jesus says what God puts together man can’t separate. (Why is it I’ve heard that at every wedding ceremony I’ve ever been to, but am just now realizing the true gravity of that statement? And sadly, how many weddings have that passage recited, but the marriage still ends with the people separating anyway?)

In response to his disciples’ amazement, Jesus affirms that indeed some people have a special gifting to serve God’s Kingdom as singles, but not all. Paul talks about this special gift too in 1 Corinthians 7:6-7,40. But God has a role for the married and the single. In fact, it’s clear in Genesis 2:18 that God gave us marriage for our benefit. He made us, man and woman, as two halves that are meant to come together as a perfect whole.

God’s Grace is Greater

What I’ve written here may be difficult to swallow. You may disagree with some or many of my conclusions. I write this not to bring guilt upon anyone, but to try to help us achieve a greater understanding of God’s good design. That way, even if an individual has not followed through with that design, they can still be a champion of it. We don’t have to “baptize” our past mistakes. God’s capacity for forgiveness is inexhaustible. Let’s accept where we’ve fallen short and pursue God from wherever we find ourselves today.

A legal divorce granted through our government systems does not remove the one flesh bond that couple shares. But, praise God that adultery and divorce are not unforgivable sins. God can redeem imperfect scenarios—he did it repeatedly throughout Scripture. A perfect example of this is the story of Hosea and Gomer. Gomer was a prostitute, but God told Hosea to take her as his wife and love her despite her past. She represented Israel and their adultery with other gods. But God was always ready to redeem them.

We can’t un-ring a bell and we can’t go back in time. If you’ve already entered into a marriage after a divorce, you are now one flesh with the current spouse. The second marriage is as real as the first. Let God redeem that. Honor God through it. Commit to him that this is a bond that is “until death do you part.”

And if you had wild days in college or high school—yes, you abused the marital act. No, you don’t have go back and take them all as your spouse. Recognizing a past fault does not always require that we “fix it.” Many times, there’s nothing we can do. But we move from ignorance in an area to enlightenment, and we grow along the way.

God’s grace is truly amazing. His forgiveness is complete. Our walk with him is all about recognizing our brokenness and submitting to him. We have to come to him as we are and commit to moving forward (1 Cor 7:17-24). Remember the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11)? This was an offense punishable by death under Torah. Jesus flips the script. Even a capital offense didn’t garner capital punishment. That grace is offered to you today as well.

Thoughts?

This isn’t how many of us have been taught to think about marriage, and it leads to lots of questions. A blog article is hardly adequate to tackle all of this, and especially a blog article written by me, but I do hope this starts a discussion and leads to further study and growth for all of us. Don’t take my word for it. Engage in honest study for yourself. Check out that podcast series or other scholars’ work. Pray for wisdom and understanding.

Grace and Peace.

Who’s In?

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him. And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Matthew 9:9-13

Why were the Pharisees so bothered by Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners? Because they had a very rigid picture of “who belonged” in the family of God, who fits the mold, and what hurdles someone would have to jump to be included. If Jesus is truly from God, how could he interact with such filth?

This is the picture in their mind:

There’s a very clear picture of who’s in and who’s out. A set list of character traits, traditions and rules to follow. “I’m a believer because I don’t do x, y, and z.” The border to enter this exclusive club gets thicker and higher and more difficult to cross. The Pharisees were experts at maintaining this boundary, but Jesus later reveals that they weren’t even in this so-called circle themselves (Matthew 23:13)!

Jesus refers them to Hosea 6:6 – “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” They would have known the Scriptures like the back of their hand, but it turns out they don’t really *know* them. How much else do they think they know that they really don’t? How much do *I* think I know but really don’t… In Matthew 12:6-7, it’s apparent they still haven’t figured this out.

If Jesus didn’t think like this, then clearly we shouldn’t either. What’s the alternative?

Instead of thinking in terms of who’s in and who’s out, let’s simply consider movement to the center, the very clear center being Jesus Christ.

We could be within those walls we’ve pictured before, but not be moving toward Jesus at all. We could be born into those traditions, following the right rules, and avoiding all the temptations that come our way, but if we’re not pursuing Jesus, moving closer and closer to him, we’re no better than the Pharisees in Matthew 23:13. Would we be any better than Judas…someone in the very inner circle that quite obviously wasn’t moving toward the center.

Who was Matthew? A tax collector. A traitor to his people. He represents the presence of an oppressive military empire. Romans bought out Jewish people to be rulers and tax collectors over their own people as puppets. Jesus calling Matthew goes well beyond religious implications. There are political, social, and and cultural implications here.

Even though Matthew and his friends were far away from Jesus, Jesus’ love and mercy were so compelling that he decided to follow. He drew them in. He invited them.

The Pharisees create an environment where the outsiders aren’t welcome unless they first change. They are making the willpower of people to be the center. It’s about your ability to meet the criteria so you’re in, or a failure to so you’re out. They could claim they are merciful “any time Matthew wants to repent we’ll welcome him with open arms” but the hurdles are so huge, the culture so foreign.

Jesus creates an environment where he moves toward you to compel you to follow. Your identity is in Christ, not your willpower. His grace and mercy reshapes what it means to be a community.

Matthew isn’t going to jump the bounded set boundary. But he follows Jesus.

They know that Jesus doesn’t agree with their life choices, but they are still compelled by him and want to be around him.

Just after this, even John’s disciples come to Jesus asking about why Jesus doesn’t follow the religious traditions of fasting (Matthew 9:14-17). They seem to be thinking “This Jesus is just too lax with all these dinner parties. Shouldn’t he be fasting like the rest of us?” The Pharisees after all did consider Jesus a glutton and a drunkard (Matthew 11:19). If he’s truly devout, if he’s truly the one, why does he behave like this? Even Paul talks about this kind of thinking in his letter to the Colossians about the idea of basically needing to be monks to be true disciples (Col 2:20-23).

John’s disciples are asking the same question as the Pharisees and Jesus’s response is again related to Hosea 6:6. Jesus said there will be a time for fasting, but not now. The Kingdom has come. It’s time to celebrate!

The old way of establishing God’s family is no longer compatible with the Jesus’ bringing the Kingdom. The wineskin and patch are a picture of this new community paradigm. Jesus is redefining the family of God around himself. Identity is not self-centered anymore, it is Christ-centered.

He loves the lost sheep, and he wants them to respond to the invitation to follow him. In this new community, we can celebrate the fact that despite our flaws and our failures, Jesus doesn’t remain distant from us, he moves to the sick, sinners, and those that know they need to be shown forgiveness and mercy. Jesus forms those into a community to celebrate life, joy, forgiveness, the fact that we’re not trapped by old identity.

This Jesus community definition is messy. Think about who else Jesus calls to be in his inner circle (Matthew 10:2-4). Simon the Zealot–the group that dedicated their lives to killing Roman authorities and those who sided with Rome. I’m sure he and Matthew got along just splendidly. Jesus was at the center–moving toward him meant moving closer together themselves. They had to learn to look beyond each other’s individual flaws, perceived qualifications, and their past. Then of course there’s Judas too. He was with Jesus, closer than most, and yet he was moving away from Him the whole time.

Uniformity is not the picture of God’s community of faith. The key is that we’re UNIFIED in the Center, Jesus Christ. May disagree on various things, but are we becoming more generous, loving, merciful, forgiving, and humble? Are we becoming more like Jesus? Are we all moving toward him relative to our individual starting points and are we helping each other make that movement? To think we have to be uniform from the start is to think like the Pharisees. To think like Jesus, we see that we are all in a growth process to look more and more like our Lord as we move toward him.

Now what? Are we resting on the “safe side” of some arbitrary wall of religion or are we truly moving toward the center? Maybe we use the right words, go to all the events, avoid the “big” sins. But are we growing closer to our Lord? Refocus your sights, turn your feet, and let’s really follow Him.

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.” – Colossians 3:1-4

(Adapted from Tim Mackie’s “A Jesus-Centered Community” – https://youtu.be/k6VXvVWdX5o)

A Life Made New

For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. – 2 Corinthians 5:14-20

This weekend, the minds of Christians are drawn back to an extraordinary time in world history about 2,000 years ago. For a few days, pain beyond imagination was felt–by Jesus and his closest companions. But on that Sunday, all they knew was true joy and hope. The same joy and hope and that we cling to not just today, but everyday.

Does the love of Christ compel you to live for him because he lived, died, and rose for you?

Are you living in the new creation? We are made new in Christ. The old has passed away, the new has come. Don’t cling to your past. It’s dead and it’s gone. Hold on to the newness of life that comes from Christ and his resurrection.

God is not a dictator barking out orders to his creation. He’s a loving Father who sends out ambassadors to deliver this message of reconciliation. He showed his love by sending us the ultimate ambassador in Jesus. But now, he’s sending you and me. We have the honor of being his ambassador. His representatives. He qualifies us for that. What an awesome job opportunity and the best retirement plan imaginable. Be resurrected into that life.

Maybe you don’t feel renewed today. If you have never been renewed, Christ’s invitation is open. He died for all and he rose for all. Paul continues in 2 Corinthians 5:20-21: “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

In him, we become the righteousness of God. Praise God for that.

God, We thank you for the gift of Jesus–for his life on earth walking among us, his sacrifice to pay the debt of sin for all of us, and his resurrection into new life that you offer to us as well. Lots of people are thinking about the sacrifice and resurrection this weekend, and we thank you for that and we pray that you are moving hearts toward you through that. But may we be people that proclaim the resurrection in just the way we live our normal everyday lives. May we be a walking, talking proclamation of your love and grace when we go to school or work or even just the grocery store. Your love compels us. Lord we want that final resurrection, the fullness of your Kingdom to come right now. We’re ready to be home with you. But until that day, use us. Fill us. Mold us and shape us. May our life be your life. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.

Knit Together in Love

Colossians is such a powerful letter filled with so many rich truths that we would do well to let sink deeply into our hearts.

One theme that is easily found in this letter is the believers’ new identity in Christ and how that has transformed them from their worldly/fleshly lives into new creation and life in Spirit. The 3rd chapter opens with a powerful statement: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” (Col 3:1) That’s right now–if Jesus is your Lord, you are raised with him RIGHT NOW. If you’re rooted in Christ, you are alive in Him and no longer alive to your former self. Paul is helping the church in Colossae see that truth so they quit grasping at things of the world.

Then comes the oft-quoted verse about husbands and wives, continuing with other instructions based on relationships (children, parents, bondservants, and masters). (Col 3:18-4:1) Is Paul just shifting gears to discuss what a “Christian household” should look like? That’s what the headings in many of our Bible translations lead us to believe…

This new life isn’t something we turn on and off based on where we are or who we’re around. It must be lived out all the time in every situation. 24/7, 365. That must include the way we treat our spouses and our children, and anyone else in our lives.

“Submit” language has caused much angst when interpreting this verse. Commonly, interpretations go awry when context is not fully considered.

Back to the Garden of Eden: Adam and Eve began in perfect harmony–with both God and each other. Adam even says of Eve in Gen 2:23 – “[She is] bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” This perfect unity is stated very plainly in the following verse (Gen 2:24): “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Doesn’t get much more unified than that.

But then sin entered the world. And because of that, consequences were enacted that disrupted that perfect harmony. The woman’s consequences are made plain in Gen 3:16: “To the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.’” The NLT version puts it like this: “And you will desire to control your husband, but he will rule over you.’”

In the fallen world, there will be a natural power struggle. The harmony and unity is gone, and the focus is on who gets to control the other.

Paul is not saying that in a Christ-centered home, the husband rules the wife. Rather, he’s arguing against the fallen world order because we are no longer under that curse if we are in Christ. He’s pleading for the wife to quit acting like Eve and “desiring to control” her husband. But he’s just as much pleading for the husband to not play his part in that curse and “rule over” (ie, domineer) his wife. He’s pleading for a return to the perfect unity of “one flesh.” That unity is also displayed in how we make up the body of Christ (“Is Christ divided?” 1 Cor 1:13).

Let us been knit together in love, bound in perfect harmony, in both our marriages and our spiritual family (Col 3:14).

Delivered and Transferred

“[God] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” – Colossians 1:13-14

The domain of darkness—the rule, authority, dominion of darkness. This is the same dominion that came to arrest Jesus in the garden and later crucify him (Luke 22:52-53). The same darkness that is so easy for us to love and be trapped in, without even knowing it’s a trap. In darkness, we feel our selfish desires and deeds are safely hidden away (John 3:19-21). Satan provides that false sense of security there—he wants us to feel comfortable in the dark. But Satan’s power pales in comparison to God’s. When our eyes are opened, how can we help but turn to the light (Acts 26:16-18)?

Praise be to God that he has delivered us from that dominion. We don’t belong there anymore. He has set us free. He has transferred our citizenship to the kingdom of light, where his Son reigns as our King. We will still wrestle with this darkness. We live in a world where darkness surrounds us. But God is sovereign over it all. He gives us strength, he gives us wisdom, he gives us faith and endurance. He gave us his Spirit to dwell within us. No matter what the darkness throws at us, we can rest in the true peace and security of our glorious kingdom and King. Ephesians 6:10-20 paints that picture well.

Jesus put this short statement in Colossians 1:13-14 on full display as recorded in John chapter 9. A man blind from birth, who literally knows only darkness, is met by Jesus and some of his disciples in Jerusalem. As was common in that day, it was assumed that his condition (as any type of suffering) was brought about by sin in his or his family’s life. But no, Jesus says that the blind man is here so that the works of God might be displayed in him. Jesus has already proclaimed that a new Kingdom, God’s Kingdom, has come (Mark 1:14-15). He said HE is the light of the world (John 9:5), and he was about to display the deliverance from the kingdom of darkness and transference to the Kingdom of Light through this blind man.

Jesus mixes up some mud and rubs it in this guy’s eyes. What would you think if someone did this to you? You’re born blind, and some random guy says “hey, let me rub this in your eyes.” Sounds crazy. But this guy literally had blind faith. Jesus told him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. He could have just snapped his fingers (or less) and the guy would be able to see. But Jesus wanted him to respond in faith. I believe this was a precursor to being washed in baptism. His faith in Christ, before he even knew who Jesus was, healed him (Ephesians 2:8).

Now, the dominion of darkness does not like to lose parishioners. The deliverance of the blind man stirs up the agents of darkness all around. The striking thing here is who is playing that role of the agents of darkness—the Pharisees, supposed men of God whose whole mission in life is supposed to be to hold up God and His laws as supreme. There are, of course, many examples of just how far this group as a whole had fallen from that. But this should highlight for us that even with the best intentions at the outset, we must be on guard that we don’t end up serving the wrong kingdom.

The Pharisees are clearly threatened by the great miracle that has occurred. They try to discredit Jesus since this work was done on the Sabbath and claimed that he couldn’t be from God. Some Pharisees didn’t buy that argument, knowing that a sign like this could only come from God. They summon the formerly-blind man’s parents, who didn’t even want to get involved because they were so afraid of the power of the Pharisees.

Calling him back for another interrogation, he gives this wonderfully simple testimony—“One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25). How awesome. Someone should write a song with that in it…

He goes on to expose the shallowness of this group of religious leaders. They should have superior knowledge and understanding, and yet they have no idea who the miracle worker is. The blind man’s eyes were opened, and he already has deeper spiritual insight than these learned, pious men. How much we can learn from this—from both the angle of being confident in our faith, knowing that we don’t have to have complete understanding to proclaim the truth within us, and also that we dare not become prideful in our understanding as if we have it all figured out. We see because He opened our eyes, not because we opened them ourselves.

“For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” – 2 Corinthians 4:6

The formerly-blind man was kicked out of the synagogue. The truth of his story would distract the people from blindly following their blind guides. Let this be a lesson to all of us in the Kingdom of Light: we will be hated by many who refuse to believe. Jesus said in John 15:18-20 that we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the world hates us. The world hated him first and they will hate us because we follow him. If we find that the world loves us, we need to check where our allegiance lies…

That persecution is part of the suffering we will endure during this life on earth. But what an awesome prize we have to gain when Christ’s glory is fully revealed! (1 Peter 4:12-14) What an awesome day it will be when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, is King over all. (Philippians 2:10-11)

Much like this blind guy, we were born into darkness in this world. If it weren’t for God and his Son, we would only know darkness. Praise be to God that he opens the eyes of the blind (Psalm 146:8).

When Christ opens our eyes, we see that he is worthy of our worship just like the blind man did (John 9:38). We see that he is worthy of our very lives. Paul says in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Because the “gospel,” the good news, isn’t just that we have forgiveness in Christ through his sacrifice so that we can “go to Heaven” one day. The good news is that God’s Kingdom has come! The King has come! And that King is offering us citizenship in his eternal dominion. We get to take part in that citizenship right now. Right where we are. He has already delivered and transferred us. Our eternal life has already started. What kingdom are you living for?

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. – 1 Peter 2:9

Christmas with The Chosen

This Christmas episode focuses on “the messengers” of God. The prophets that foretold of the coming Messiah were messengers. The Angels that visited Mary and Joseph were messengers. Jesus himself was God’s perfect messenger. His apostles and disciples were messengers. The authors of the gospels and New Testament letters were messengers. His Holy Spirit is a messenger. And even now, WE are messengers.

Who are you inviting to come and see the King of Kings and Lord of Lords? Born as a humble man, crucified as a criminal, but raised to reveal his glory–a name that is above every name–Jesus Christ, Immanuel.

Day 1
Psalm 63:1-8
(O God, You Are My God) – YouTube
Day 2 – The Birth of Jesus Foretold
Isaiah 7:14 – Immanuel (God with us)
Luke 1:26-38
Day 3 – The Magnificat
Luke 1:39-56
Magnificat – The Zoe Group – YouTube
Day 4 – The Birth of Jesus
Luke 2:1-40
John 1:1-18
Day 5 – Messengers of a King and Kingdom that is Everlasting!
Luke 1:32-33
Isaiah 9:6-7
Revelation 11:15
Day 6 – WE are God’s Messengers Now
2 Corinthians 5:20-21
1 Peter 4:10
Matthew 28:19-20
Acts 1:8
Isaiah 6:8
Day 7 – Other references made during the episode
Numbers 6:24-26 – The Lord Bless You and Keep You – YouTube
John 15:26-16:11 (Persecution coming)
Acts 20:4, Ephesians 6:21-22, Colossians 4:7-8 (Tychicus)
Acts 12:1-5 (James martyred, Peter imprisoned)

Lose Your Life to Find The Life

Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” – Matthew 3:13-17

The baptism of Jesus—the start of something beautiful; something incredible; something the world had never seen. Jesus’ ministry on Earth had begun. Shortly after Jesus’ baptism, Mark records this (Mark 1:14-15): Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God and saying “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Soon after, Jesus began selecting his first disciples. Despite the doubts from those around them, they knew that they wanted to follow this man, though they had to wonder why Jesus picked them—a seemingly random assortment of folks that would never have banded together if it weren’t for Jesus putting them together. And what a journey they were on. They see amazing things that could hardly be described. They see love and mercy and grace poured out on so many, along with so many miraculous signs. What could possibly keep anyone and everyone from latching on to him and following him? What’s more, how could anyone dislike or hate this guy?

At some point during His ministry, Jesus asks His disciples who people say that he is. Luke 9:18-20 reads:Now it happened that as he was praying alone, the disciples were with him. And he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” And they answered, “John the Baptist. But others say, Elijah, and others, that one of the prophets of old has risen.” Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.”

What faith of Peter and the disciples! Matthew records Peter as saying “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matthew 16:16).

They are confessing Him as their Messiah. Their Lord. Their Savior. All their eggs are going in this basket. In a world where Rome rules, any allegiance to another king besides Cesar likely ends very badly. A bold stance indeed. To Jesus’ disciples, He was the only King they needed.

Maybe it came as a bit of surprise when Jesus responded like this (recorded in Luke 9:21-22): “And he strictly charged and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”

You’re the King of Kings. Why suffer? Why would anyone even want to kill the Son of God? How could anyone kill the Son of God? How can people who should recognize you be so blind? And wait, “be raised”? What does that mean? Like it often is with us as we examine the Scriptures, it would take the disciples some time to be able to digest much of this.

Continuing in Luke 9:23-26–And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”

That’s what it takes to follow Jesus. The desire to surrender your life now for eternal life in Him. We can see how Jesus’ words about taking up the cross tie into what would eventually be his own fate. Not knowing what lies ahead, what would the disciples have thought at that moment?  “Deny myself and carry a cross—a known torture device? What have I gotten myself into?”

No, they kept trusting and they kept following. It would mean struggle, persecution, pain… but it also meant joy, peace, love, a spring of living water, access to the bread of life… Despite questions, they were in. Just follow. He’ll fill in the details along the way.

So, they did just that. Others joined along the way, some joined and left, some ignored, some violently opposed him. And eventually those words that Jesus spoke about being rejected and killed became all too real…

The same thing was prophesied hundreds of years earlier.

“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” –Isaiah 53:3-7

He was betrayed by one of his own disciples—even just after he, the King of kings and Lord of lords, washed that traitor’s feet.  He was bound and arrested, the rest of his disciples helpless. Filled with fear, Peter, the first disciple to profess that Jesus was the Son of God, actually denies that he even knows who Jesus is… 3 different times…

His accusers, the very ones Jesus had told his disciples it would be, would use whatever excuse they could to have Rome get rid of their “problem.”

Pilate still found no guilt. He offered to release Him as was the custom once a year—they requested a violent criminal in place of Jesus. The Son of God put up no fight and offered no excuse. An innocent lamb.

In an attempt to satisfy the mob, Pilate had Jesus viciously flogged. Skin and muscle violently torn from his back. Mockingly, the soldiers even twisted together a crown of thorns that sank deep into Jesus’ head. They placed a purple robe around him and said “Hail, King of the Jews!” If they’d only known…

The mob wasn’t satisfied. They cried “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Even Pilate could see how heinous this was. He gave the crowd once last chance “Shall I crucify you King?” Their reply should send shivers down our spine: “We have no king but Cesar…”

They led Jesus out to a hill called “The Place of the Skull”, forcing him to carry his own cross—crushing Jesus’ already torn body, pressing the thorns ever deeper into his scalp, ripping more and more flesh from his back. The people spit at him, the guards continued to mock him, all the while Jesus kept walking to his own execution—for you, for me, and even for them.

They drove nails into both of his wrists and through his feet. They hoisted that cross into the air. A sign had been placed on the cross saying “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”.  Each breath brings agonizing pain. The mocking continued. A few disciples were there, still helpless. Spectators like wolves just watching an innocent lamb be slaughtered.

After hours and hours of torture, Jesus cries “It is finished.” He is taken from the cross and buried in a nearby tomb. His disciples are crushed. He was their King. He was their Lord. All their eggs were in that basket. Now what? How could they follow Him? Who were they now?

In that time of intense grief, you can see how they might forget Jesus’ very words that now bring us such hope and joy. Yes, Jesus would die, but death could not conquer him. He would be raised on the third day, just like he said! That resurrection was promised for Himself just as it was promised for all of those who follow Him. Praise God!

Praise God that as Romans 5:6-8says: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Praise God for a perfect Savior, a perfect once-and-for-all sacrifice that cleanses us from our unrighteousness.

Recently, my church, my family, were blessed to witness God moving. We witnessed four people be buried with Christ—signifying death to this fleshly body and the sin that it carries—and join with him in a glorious resurrection into new life! Being raised into new life isn’t something we can do for ourselves. This is the powerful working of God (Colossians 2:12), by his grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9), as we surrender to Him for our salvation.

Whoever loses their life for Jesus’s sake will find it. As new creations filled with new life, the Holy Spirit molds and transforms and guides us as we follow our one and only King and proclaim His Kingdom. A precious new identity that we will have forever and forever!

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” –Romans 6:1-5

Just like the day we just experienced with our brothers and sisters here, there’s another particularly awesome day recorded in Acts chapter 2. Jesus’ disciples were soon filled with the Holy Spirit in a very powerful way after his death, burial, resurrection, and ascension, and they started spreading the good news of their Savior. They delivered the truth to the very people who were part of the mob that killed Jesus. Here’s part of what Peter said:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it…This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing…Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”” – Acts 2:22-24,32-33,36

If they’d only realized what they were doing at the time… What could they ever do now? How could they repay such a betrayal of their God? They plead with Peter and the disciples, as it’s recorded in the next verse:

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” – Acts 2:37

Jesus died for them even as they hung him on the cross. Jesus died for us even as our sins have all taken turns driving in the nails. Thankfully, no one is without hope.

Peter tells them: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” – Acts 2:38

Deny yourself, turn from those ways, and follow Him.

Later it says that “those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). 3000 people that realized they were worshipping the wrong King. 3000 people with a brand-new life.

Galatians 3:27 says “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” What more could any of us want than to be clothed in Christ? Covered by our precious Savior, Redeemer, and King.

Whoever loses their life for Jesus’s sake will find it. Are you looking for life? There’s only one source. Will you follow Him?

“Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…” –John 14:6

The Starting Five

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” – Ephesians 4:11-16

Paul brings out a group of five special folks in this passage to the church in Ephesus. What is so often missed here is the roles all the people mentioned are expected to play. This leadership isn’t meant to do all the heavy lifting. Rather, their job is to prepare and equip the church body to do the work of ministry. Based on Paul’s teaching here, if the whole body of saints doesn’t do their part, the church will not grow. They will not look more and more like Christ. They will not be a functioning body. They will fall apart.

In a way, those five could be looked at as the “starting five,” but they work with the whole team in a way to bring everyone else up with them.

One way (emphasis on one) the body practices this growth and unity is through regular worship gatherings. It’s in that typical Sunday setting that you may be familiar with another form of the “starting five.”

In a big church setting, in my previous experience, here are the starters: the opening prayer guy, the worship leader, the Scripture reader, the preacher, and the closing prayer guy. (Not sure if the announcements guy makes the cut?)

What does that make everyone else? At best, they’re on the bench, but they’re ready to go if a starter goes down. The team won’t miss a beat because all are equipped. At worst, they’re the spectators. Sure, they may sing with the worship leader, they listen to the preaching, and they participate in the prayers—but is that really more involvement than fans/spectators at a basketball game? In reality, it probably falls somewhere in the middle. And I know, there’s more going on behind the scenes, and the nature of a larger body means that not everyone gets a chance in every gathering to share. We see those kinds of necessary limitations in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church in 1 Corinthians 14:26-32. I think it still raises some critical questions: Does each one that’s gathered have something they want to share (1 Cor 14:26)? Does each one want the opportunity to contribute? Is each one equally encouraged to contribute? Is everyone being equipped for the work of ministry?

That’s why I believe it is better to be part of a smaller church community, so that each member of the church can be directly involved in equipping others, as well as being continually equipped themselves. However, this means we can’t afford for anyone to ride the bench all season. But to stretch the sports analogy a bit, who really wants to be a bench warmer anyway? No, if we’re on a team, we want to be involved. We want a role to play. We want to contribute. And for the church, the body needs all the parts to function properly (Ephesians 4:16). Be ready! Be engaged! Hustle back on defense, take those open three pointers, make the assists to your teammates. If you don’t play your part, we don’t have a backup supply. We don’t even have an audience we can coax a reluctant volunteer from. We are forced to play one man/woman down. Our team is then at a significant disadvantage. A family is only a strong as its weakest member, and we want to be in a position where we can strengthen each other and edify each other. That can’t happen if we’re not all committed to bringing our gifts fully to the table.

My encouragement to you: Whatever setting you find yourself in, get involved! There are situations where the starters sit on the bench to let others take the lead, which is actually a sign of a good and healthy team! But be an active contributor. Be available. Be willing. Be ready to go. And remember, it’s not you—it’s the Holy Spirit inside of you. Your adequacy is not in yourself. God makes you adequate (2 Corinthians 3:5-6). The rest of the team needs your gifts that the Spirit gave only to you.

This isn’t a legalistic mandate like “you must have perfect attendance at all church gatherings.” This isn’t about doing something that you’re “supposed to do.” This is an encouragement to live out the truth of who you are. Believe that you are special part of the body, a part that God himself arranged exactly as He saw fit (1 Corinthians 12:18) and start functioning! And as I hinted at earlier, the church is supposed to function every day, not just on Sunday gatherings. Are you playing your role throughout the week?

“…For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” Luke 6:45

What’s in your heart is revealed by how you live. Fill your heart with Jesus and you can’t help but follow Him (Acts 1:8).

What is Love?

It’s Valentine’s Day. “Love” gets thrown around a lot, in Christian and non-Christian circles alike. But what does it actually mean?

What did God mean by saying he loved Jacob and hated Esau (Malachi 1:2-3)? How could God, who is love (1 John 4:8), hate anyone? The use of love and hate here isn’t meant to conjure up the emotions we typically associate with those words. It’s simple—God chose Jacob. There was a preference. A priority. He chose Jacob to carry on the ancestral line of His people that would one day bring His son into the world as a man. He still blessed Esau’s people greatly, they just weren’t chosen (see Genesis 36). Why did Jesus say “unless you hate your mother and father (and even your own life) you cannot be my disciple”? (Luke 14:26) Again, this is in no way meaning you should abhor, detest, or despise your parents. Rather, you have to make a clear choice who you are going to follow. Who are you going to make the lord of your life? If that choice isn’t Jesus, if you don’t commit to bearing your cross daily, if you don’t consider the cost and pay it—you can’t be His disciple. A clear preference, a clear priority (the *only* priority).

So then, love involves making a choice, showing a preference. I choose Jesus, what about you?

If I choose Jesus, what does that mean? Jesus says this (recorded in John 14:15): “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”

Hmm… That seems pretty broad. What about those commandments? We might be tempted to think like the Pharisee who asked him “just what is the most important commandment?” The Pharisee was trying to trick Jesus into saying parts of the God’s law weren’t valid, but Jesus’ response (as always) was perfect: And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

Love God. Love others. Choose God. Choose others? If we choose everyone, how can we give everyone priority over everyone else? If I can’t actually walk that out, that “love” really amounts to nothing. This gets a little tricky, and I anticipate some pushback on some of this, but I hope you’ll at least give this some real thought. I do not claim to have a full understanding on anything, much less this, and always appreciate thoughts and comments.

Don’t misunderstand any of what follows here—I do not dispute at all that we should be a people that has love for all mankind. After all, the phrase “love your neighbor as yourself” from Matthew 22 is also recorded way back in the Old Testament (at least twice—Leviticus 19:18 and Leviticus 19:34). One of those (19:34) is explicitly talking about showing love towards a stranger sojourning through your land. However, it is true that the vast majority of the commands we have in the New Testament about love is in the context of loving within the body of Christ. I heard someone describe that fact as the best kept secret in New Testament studies. While all mankind is created by God, we are not all adopted as His children until we become born again into new life in Christ (John 1:12-13). There’s just something different when it comes to love among those in the family of believers.

This may be where you would expect a breakdown between the different Greek words for love. Many of us have heard sermons on that very topic I’m sure. I contend that those distinctions do very little for us in furthering our understanding of love. In fact, there’s a mountain of evidence that John himself used “agape” and “phileo” interchangeably throughout his gospel. These are separate articles (here and here) that I found very helpful on this topic, but I don’t want to derail from the pertinent train of thought now.

I think the better way to think about love is to see what is presented as the interaction among people as recorded in the Scriptures. How did the people in the church interact with each other? How did the people in the church interact with those outside the church?

I will make no attempt here to cover all the passages about love in the Bible. I hope that as you read this, other passages that I don’t mention will come to mind and you will share it with all of us. We grow by working together! That being said, a key passage of Scripture we should focus on here is John 13:34-35. It reads: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.””

ONE ANOTHER. Not the whole world. Your brothers and sisters in the faith. And it’s by that that “all people” will know who we are.

I also like how Peter lays out these priorities in 1 Peter 2:17: “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.”

Who gets your honor? Everyone. (Notably, the “emperor” gets nothing more than the rest of the world…)

Who do you fear? No one but God. Not death. Not even that scary political party you oppose (Matthew 10:28).

Who do you love? Your brothers and sisters in the faith.

Does this sound strange? I think God’s wisdom often does the first time we see it. But we must remember that we shouldn’t try to advance God’s Kingdom using the world’s ideas.

Let’s get down to the bare bones. I choose Jesus, I want to follow His commandments, and I want to love God and love others. Now what? We already referenced Luke chapter 14. Jesus is telling His disciples that they must weigh the cost to follow Him. I once had a friend respond to the old saying of “there’s no such thing as a free lunch” with a sincere rebuttal that “there is one thing that is free—your salvation.” I appreciate what he meant, but I took the opportunity to point him to this section of Luke. Our salvation isn’t free—it cost Jesus His life, and it should cost us ours! Fact: love is expensive. It takes effort, energy, resources. It takes action.

John 21:15-19 is one of those passages commonly used to discuss the different Greek words for love (and is the basis for the articles linked above). I agree with those authors that this could divert us from the true meaning of this passage (not to mention, the context more than suggests the two Greek words for love there are used interchangeably). The main ideas in this passage revolve around Peter having a chance to move on from his denial of Jesus before the crucifixion (John 18:15-18,25-27) and the fact that loving Jesus will mean action (feeding/tending the flock) and sacrifice (the foreshadowing of the martyr’s death Peter would face for his faith). Jesus is teaching Peter what his love will mean and what it will look like to live that out.

We referenced John 14:15 earlier. Let’s look at a few more passages that show us that real love is active (also take note of the direct reference to the body in some of these):

Matthew 25:37-40 – “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

James 1:22 – “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.”

James 2:14-18 – “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works.”

1 John 3:18 – “Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth.”

With all of that in mind, let’s walk out the idea of “love everyone” as we talked about earlier. What would it look like? For instance, if showing love means sharing resources, I could give a penny to as many people as I could until I completely ran out of money. It wouldn’t take long and it wouldn’t go far. Who would benefit? Who would actually feel loved?

Unfortunately, we have limited resources. Churches all across America undoubtedly have difficult decisions about what can be supported in their budgets and what (or who) has to be cut out. How should we make those decisions? How might those that don’t make the cut interpret our “love”?

Let’s look at Israel. God’s sovereign plan was to have a chosen nation of people for a time in history. God’s Son would come into the world in the flesh through that nation, and He would usher in the good news of the coming of God’s Kingdom—a Kingdom that transcends any national/geographic/ethnic boundary. Israel had a special role in this plan. The mission of Israel was to be a set apart people. They weren’t even supposed to marry outside of their own people. They were supposed to be a light on the hill. A beacon of light that shone in the darkness of the rest of the world. While they were certainly supposed to provide for the exiles and sojourners that passed through their land (Leviticus 19:34), that display of love was an overflow of their love for each other. They cared for each other well enough that they could afford to care for others that passed through. Their efforts were to be focused on displaying the great love and righteousness of the Father to the rest of the world’s nations (Deuteronomy 4:5-8)—but not by expending all of their efforts outward, but rather living as the people of God in perfect unity and love.  

Likewise, now we in the church are a set apart people. We are sojourners and exiles in this world (1 Peter 2:9-12). Like Israel was in the past, we are now supposed to be the light that outsiders see. What’s the best way we shine that light? Again, John 13:34-35 is key here. If we display the love for one another that we are called to, the light of God’s Kingdom shines outward. Those outside looking in can see the kind of love that exists in Christ—a true and sacrificial love. Those outside get a picture of what the Kingdom is about. It’s with that information that they can decide if being a citizen of God’s Kingdom is something they want (or not). If we expend all of our energy outward and leave nothing for the body, we leave nothing for each other and leave nothing for an outsider to look at. By doing that, we try to “create” God’s kingdom on the outside while simultaneously neglecting the actual Kingdom inside. No, God’s wisdom is that if we love each other in the body well, that love will overflow and shine out. If we love each other in the body well, we give those outside an accurate picture of what it means to be God’s children.

Jesus says (recorded in Matthew 5:14-16): “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”

Peter records a similar teaching in 1 Peter 2:12: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”

People on the outside will be looking at us. What picture are we giving them? Do they see that we love each other so much that we consider other brothers and sisters more important than ourselves (Philippians 2:3-4)? Do they see nonsensical (by the world’s standards) acts of sharing (Acts 4:32)? Do they see an inexplicable bond between people who otherwise would have nothing to do with each other (such as the Jews and Greeks in the first century, 1 Corinthians 12:12-13)?

1 Corinthians 13 is known by many even outside the church as the “love chapter.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 is the most commonly quoted passage. Contrary to popular usage, this passage wasn’t written to be read at weddings. (I get it, the definitions of love carry over to marriage, but let’s not forget about the actual context!) Rather, the description of love that Paul lays out is a beautiful picture of love that unites the family of God. The kind of love that overshadows all the former differences we may have had in the flesh that are no longer relevant in the Spirit (2 Corinthians 5:16-17). The kind of love that covers over a multitude of sin (1 Peter 4:8). This is the kind of love that we should have for each other as members of the body of Christ. It’s a special love for the most special family.

I certainly believe that as we have opportunity, we should do good deeds, showing love, to outsiders; BUT the preference, the priority, should be the church (Galatians 6:10, 1 Thessalonians 5:15, Acts 11:27-30, 1 Timothy 5:8).

Again, please don’t misunderstand my thoughts here—we must have a loving attitude toward the outsider! But don’t forget your greater mission as a citizen of God’s Kingdom. The most effective show of love for the outsider is letting them see the love they could experience as an insider. Work in your own circles of influence to be a good neighbor, and seek opportunities to introduce those neighbors to your Kingdom community. As described so well by John Nugent in his book “Endangered Gospel,” let’s quit trying to make the world a better place, and let’s focus on BEING the better place in this fallen world. The church is special, so let’s live and love like we actually believe that.