Harvesting the Fruit of God’s Word (Three Part Series): The Nature of the Climb—Why Does the Bible Need to Be Studied?

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The 17th century clergyman Dr. Thomas Fuller once remarked, “He that would have the fruit must climb the tree.” The point? Rewards and hard work are inseparable. If we want to reap the rewards of a venture, we must first put in the sweat it takes to reach them. As believers, we all have in our hands a powerful book, but to really gain all the rewards this book has to offer, we must put forth some effort. We must climb the tree of Scripture in order to gather the fruit on its branches.

But what is this climbing activity? Well, of course, most obviously we need to open the book up and start reading it, right? But there is more needed than that. The Bible is a book of depth and complexity. Thus it not only begs for readers, it begs for students. It begs for those with not only faith but diligence to seek all the richness it has to offer. But what is it about the nature of this book that requires a little mind labor?

There are many reasons we can put forth for why the Bible, as God’s sacred communication to us, needs to be studied. Let me set forth just three:

1. The Bible needs to be studied because it is an ancient text. There is a reason that not many of us grab an original edition of Homer’s Iliad and curl up in front of the fireplace for a juicy nighttime read. Why? Because it is not easy reading. And part of the reason that it is not easy reading is because it is an ancient text. It is difficult to study such a book without at least some knowledge of that Greek world long ago in which it was written. Ancient texts contain ancient wording, ancient concepts, and detail ancient events about ancient people and ancient places! Thus, ancient texts require study for a thorough understanding and for transferring timeless principle into our present context. The same goes for Scripture. Yes, some of the Bible is easier to read than other parts. Some parts of the Bible carry a plainer sense than others, easily understood by a quick reading. But many parts of the Bible do not. This is why we need to dig out tools to be able to understand the Bible in its own historical context.
2. The Bible needs to be studied because of its unity in diversity. With over 40 authors writing a total of 66 books over a span of at least 1500 years, there is much diversity in author, genre, and culture. This diversity is one reason we need to apply our minds to the Scriptures and to understand how each author in each culture was communicating God’s truths for all time. However, the Bible has another author who supercedes the human authors: a divine author who is behind every word. Thus, the Bible needs to be studied not only in its diversity, but also in its unity, for the Bible is not made up of just human words but God’s words to us. How do the words of Ezekiel connect to the words of Matthew? How does what Paul is saying in his letters correspond to what Peter said in his? How are different themes like forgiveness or grace reflected in each book and genre? Most importantly, how does the divine pen of God tie all these together? These connections require observation and analysis…aka study.
3. The Bible needs to be studied because it is God’s only written word to us. As God’s written word to us, we have a responsibility to know and understand it thoroughly. As God’s written word to us, we should slow down and give it our full attention. As God’s written word to us, we need to make sure we get what he is saying to us right. This is important! It is our life map for everything we do and who we are. Thus, we must apply the best of ourselves to it, and this includes our minds. For some of us, this will come easier than others. And not everyone will study God’s Word at the same level or with the same intensity. But we are all called to engage our minds to some level and in some way in the riches of Scripture.

Thus, the Bible as a book, because of its unique character as God’s unified yet diverse written word to us deserves not simply our reading, but also our diligent study. When we apply ourselves in this way to God’s written word to us, we will find the fruit is well worth the effort.

(In Part Two and Three of this series, we will look at how to study the Word, with practical tips and tools for study. For a great time of studying the Word, join us Nov. 2-3 at the 2012 Word Conference:  Jesus, Faith in the Facts in Denver, Colorado.)

Escape to Reality – Reflections on 1 Corinthians 15

Posted by Susan Rieske - in Biblical Studies, Christian Living, Destiny/Purpose/Calling, Heaven, Susan Rieske - Comments Off

Crystal blue water, white sandy shores, palm trees swaying in the warm tropical breeze, ice cold lemonade in your hands…aaahh…feeling it, aren’t you? If a tropical paradise escape seems just the thing for you, then you are probably experiencing what every human being at one point or another has experienced…that insatiable desire to escape.

Well, sorry, I don’t have a free Bahamas vacation to offer you today (you have to go to another website for that). But I can give you a glimpse into another kind of paradise you will one day be able to escape to. This paradise is talked about at many places in Scripture, one at the end of the book of 1 Corinthians. After spending the last year writing online reflections on 1 Corinthians for my church, (which I’ve also posted here), I am not surprised that Paul would top off his book with a concept related to our eternal homes. After all, it was eternity which motivated so much of Paul’s actions. His zeal for the world which lay beyond this one compelled him to give his life for the Kingdom…fully and with no reserve.

One of the main things Paul focuses on in relation to the heavenly paradise that awaits us is the concept of “bodily resurrection,” the truth that at some point on the other side of this life, we will be given new eternal bodies. Now, I know what you are thinking: ”Great! Can I have a taller, thinner, or more muscular one?!” Well, I’m not so sure about that. But we will get a body that is certainly not prone to weakness like the one we have now. Our current body is a body subject to decay. A body that tires. A body that ages. A body that can be overtaken by disease. In fact, Paul has a word for our bodies that captures the essence of all of these problems. He calls our current bodies “perishable” (vs. 50, 53, 54). When our lives are wrapped up, no matter how long they are, our bodies will be like a styrofoam plate at the end of a party…having served its purpose and ready to be disposed of.

You see, in heaven, this kind of body simply won’t do. In eternity, we will need a new body. We will need an imperishable one. As Paul says, “…flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable” (vs. 50). How this happens is still a mystery and will certainly be in the arena of the miraculous. It seems that it will be an instantaneous transformation that will happen at the end of time. “Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (vs. 51-52). A trumpet in Scripture represented a gathering call. When the trumpet sounded in battle, people would gather. Here, it appears that at some time after Jesus returns, all the followers of Christ will be gathered, those who have “slept” (died) and those who have not. At this time, everyone will be given new imperishable bodies. Although we do not know for sure how this will happen, one thing that we can count on is that at some point, in some way, it will happen. Then we will spend the rest of eternity in our new and improved outer shells.

This is a significant concept for several reasons, not the least of which is that it points to our very purposeful existence in heaven. Many times we picture heaven as some kind of angelic existence where we will be standing around (when we are not flying) and singing all the time. But this is, at the very least, a flawed understanding. Contrary to many misunderstandings spread through our culture, we will not be angels in heaven. We will be who God created us to be: humans with a very purposeful and active existence as humans in heaven. While it is a challenge to determine what are physical realities and what are symbolic spiritual realities in Scripture, the Bible speaks of us walking, serving God, working as rulers , and eating from the tree of life and at a wedding banquet, where we will eat the “finest” of food and drink (Rev. 19, 22; Isa. 25). Essentially, we will be doing human things with our human bodies. It will be a unique existence, but a real human existence all the same. And it will last a long, long, long, long time.

This reality of eternity is part of what compelled Paul to close out this chapter with an exhortation on how we should live in the here and now: “Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (vs. 58). Paul’s point is that since we know that we will live with God in heaven for all eternity, we should live in light of that reality. My good friend and mentor, Tim Loyola, speaks about focusing our thoughts on the things of God in terms of “escaping to reality.” God and the things of him, including our eternal home, are the true reality of this world. They are what truly matter. They are what really last. And when we focus on this reality, we escape from the burdens of this life into a life of joy and happiness. A place where God will be with us forever in a way we have never experienced before. In Revelation, we are told that in this place, God is making everything new, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:3-4). Sounds like a place that it would be great to escape to, doesn’t it? It certainly will be better than any paradise you could find pictured in a travel brochure.

It is in this escape to reality by focusing on heaven that we will gain a fresh perspective that compels us to live in the here and now differently…very differently. We will not only invest for this life, but we will be certain to invest in the next. We will not only prepare our children for their short years of life here on earth, but we will prepare them for their more than trillions of years in the afterlife. We will not live for ourselves or even just for others, but our focus will be on living for the One who we will be with for all eternity.

While I still long for blue sea vacations in the here and now, I know there is an eternal paradise in my future…with a new body, freedom from problems, indescribable joy, and everlasting fulfillment. One day, I will make my escape to this very real reality of heaven and will be in the presence of a very real God in a very real paradise…a paradise that is worth living for.

The Power of Power – Reflections on 1 Corinthians 14

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I had no idea I was holding onto an electric fence. After all, who would have felt the need to set up an electric fence for that handful of docile cows in the corner? They didn’t look as if they could get up the gumption to walk, let alone try to break through a fence. After all, they couldn’t even get their tails moving fast enough to keep the flies off. But, I can guarantee you it certainly was an electric fence. For after I yelled at my brother to stop kicking me, he screamed my name and yanked me away from the fence as quick as lightning. Yes, jolts of electricity flowing from the fence into my hands and pulsing through my entire body. It is certainly not an event I ever want to experience again. But it did give me a taste of the incredible power of power. Power that can flow from one object to another. Power that can produce an incredible impact, for good and for bad. Power is powerful.

This is certainly not only the case for electrical power, but is also true of supernatural power—power given by God. Power that comes from Him, and can flow into our lives. It too can have an incredible impact for good and for bad.

In the fourteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, we certainly see the power that power can have. Although here, of course, it is not the power of electricity, but that supernatural power—the power that come from God through the spiritual gifts He has poured out in his church. There are two main gifts highlighted in this passage: the gift of “tongues” and the gift of “prophecy”. First of all, what exactly is this gift of “tongues?” This is certainly a gift that seems a bit weird, doesn’t it? It doesn’t help that throughout the ages, the word “tongues” has stuck to it, which quite honestly, does not translate well into our culture. Unless, of course, you are looking for a vivid image for an alien film. Perhaps we should argue instead for new terminology: the gift of spontaneous languages. This actually communicates much better, doesn’t it? It is a supernatural ability, given by God, to speak in a foreign language that one has not previously learned. (And for those of us who have suffered through the learning of languages, we can appreciate the beauty of this gift!)

While I prefer to call this the gift of languages because I think it communicates better (and is certainly allowable based on the word in the original language), what you call it does not change the mystery of it. The mystery surrounding this gift, no matter what we call it, is certainly still there. This gift appears to have begun at Pentecost which we see described in Acts 2: 4-11:

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues (languages) as the Spirit enabled them. Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in his own native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs– we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”

Check out that list of ethnicities! Clearly, this gift did amazing things at this point in history: it allowed for the spread of the gospel to happen much more rapidly and to a much broader range of people. And it did this because the people hearing it understood the meaning. It was intelligible. Therefore, it was powerful.

And, yes, this gift was indeed a miracle and went against what we normally experience in the natural order of the world. In fact, here at Pentecost, the believers were accused of “being drunk” (Acts 2:13). People looked at it and deemed it strange. Weird. Eccentric. Odd. Hmmm…I know someone else who was deemed weird and eccentric when He walked the earth. It was certainly strange for a man to touch a sick person and for him to be healed. It was certainly weird for a man to pass around a few loaves and a couple of fish and end up feeding thousands. It was certainly odd for a man to die and then three days later, be walking around more alive than you and me. To normal folks, Jesus was weird, eccentric, odd. God in human flesh will tend to be a bit different. And a faith which follows Him may look a bit different too.

But really, Paul’s intention here is not to focus on this gift of languages, it is instead to get their focus elsewhere. The real focus in this passage is on prophecy. Not another easy gift to understand, however. There is much discussed about prophecy in Scripture, and of various kinds, but essentially, here in 1 Corinthians, it was speech inspired directly by God and given to someone for the strengthening and encouragement of others.

It is amazing, really, how community oriented the church really is to be, isn’t it? That God would design the body in such a way that He would speak through one person into the life of another believer is truly amazing! Sometimes we all too often visualize our relationship with God as if we are wearing headphones, blocking out the outside world, with God speaking to us directly through our own personal wires. And while sometimes, it is important to connect with God in quiet and solitude, it is just as important to be connected with others so we can hear what God has to say to us through them. I can testify to the fact that in the many years that I have been a Christian, that there have been numerous times when God has spoken to me in profound ways through others. In fact, some of them have been down right crazy-supernatural. I have experienced people telling me specific things that have confirmed where God was leading me, even though they had no prior knowledge of the circumstances. God really can and does communicate to us through others, and He communicates to others through us. That is, if we are willing to let him.

God’s power is certainly at work in His body, through the spiritual gifts and in other ways. And as power often does, it can flow through one person into the lives of others. This is why we should seek to be instruments of His power in the lives of others through words they can understand. Not because it’s mystical and cool. But because by it, others are built up and strengthened. For by doing so, we can have a profound impact in the lives of others and for His Kingdom. And those who come to know God will indeed make the exclamation we see in 1 Cor. 14: 25, “God is really among you!” For as we well know, He certainly is.

Essential, Extraordinary, Eternal Love – Reflections on 1 Corinthians 13 in the Church

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Love. What exactly is love? It is somewhat hard to define, isn’t it? Just to get a taste of this, go to dictionary.com. It lists out fourteen definitions for love as a noun, eight definitions for love as a verb, and six idioms for love. The definitions range from “a passionate affection” to “a score of zero in tennis.” (What affection has to do with losing in tennis, I have no idea.) Love can certainly be one of those abstract principles that is somewhat hard to nail down. Nevertheless, as followers of Jesus, we need to try, for love is one of the key concepts that permeates the Christian life and experience.

If you were to ask any Christian where in the Bible they would go to learn about love, almost anyone who has been in the faith for any length of time would certainly send you to 1 Corinthians 13, often called “the love chapter.” A pretty good name for it, it seems, as the word love is mentioned nine times in 13 verses. Must be important, right? Part of the reason we are so familiar with this chapter is that not many a Christian wedding goes by without it being read. No matter how quickly it seems to be forgotten in the heat of newlywed arguments, a wedding just does not seem to be a wedding without the love chapter. It is certainly a classic. And as with all classics, there is a deeper appreciation to be gained when one comes to understand more about them. Although 1 Corinthians 13 can stand alone as a powerful treatise on love, it’s impact becomes even stronger when one realizes that it is nestled within a book about God’s people, the church. Even more specifically, it is smack dab in the middle of a discussion on God’s presence in the church through the spiritual gifts.

In this passage, Paul becomes a poet, speaking truths to the Corinthians about love in creative verse that is as beautiful as it is powerful. There is much to be gleaned from this passage—many details about love as well as a few overarching principles. The passage actually breaks down quite conveniently into three main truths on love. As we come to understand these truths in the depths of our minds, and most importantly, our hearts, they will transform the way we live our lives. Let’s take a look…

The first thing we see about love here is that it is essential. Love is fundamental, basic, elemental. It is as vital as the air we breathe, as oxygen is to life. Without love, life would mean little. Something without love becomes nothing. No love, and our actions are futile. Through a chain of “if” phrases, Paul writes that if a person has certain things but does not have love, that having those other things matters little. The things he speaks of correspond to the spiritual gifts. But perhaps what is more powerful is what follows those “if” phrases. The first speaks of a “resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Gordon Fee points out that this is a reference to the instruments used in their pagan religions, which we saw previously was characterized by the mute, lifeless idols. This phrase is symbolic of emptiness. A hollow noise. This signifies that using our gifts in ministry without love offers nothing of value. Paul’s point is certainly clear throughout these first three verses: If I exercise gifts without love, I give nothing (vs. 1). If I exercise gifts without love, I am nothing (vs. 2). If I exercise gifts without love, I gain nothing (vs. 3). I give nothing…I am nothing…I gain nothing. See how essential love is? If someone uses their spiritual gifts without love, they might as well not bother. It is like baking a cake without flour or running a touchdown without a football. It is futile.

Why? Well, for one, it is an issue of motives. Our gifts are intended to be used for the building up of the body. Our gifts are not given for ourselves, they are given for others. This is an important shift in perspective. We serve because we love the ones we are serving. We shepherd out of love for the people we are shepherding. We teach since we love those we are teaching. Using our gifts should flow out of a love for God and for others, not because it makes us feel good or gives us a feeling of satisfaction, meaning, or significance. Yes, perhaps these latter things will be byproducts for using our gifts, but they should not be the motivations. The motivating force behind the use of our gifts should be love.

Secondly, love is not only a motivation, but it is a power that flows through our gifts into the lives of others. People should feel God’s love more deeply because we have used our gifts out of love for them. As we use our gifts in the church, love is able to permeate the church. It is life-giving oxygen for the body. And if we are doing works in the church for other reasons, they are empty of the true power of God, because they are empty of love.

So, we see that love is essential. But not only is it essential, it is also extraordinary. Love is an amazing thing. And while it is not easy, when love in its pure form is exercised to the extreme capacity, it can be extraordinary. Take a look at this extraordinary love…

Love is patient.
Love is kind.
Love does not envy.
Love is not proud.
Love is not rude.
Love is not self-seeking.
Love is not easily angered.
Love does not delight in evil.
Love rejoices with the truth.
Love always protects.
Love always trusts.
Love always hopes.
Love always perseveres.
Love never fails.

Now do you see why love is so extraordinary? And the pinnacle of love is certainly God’s love, put on display through the person and work of Jesus. It was in him that the world got a glimpse of the heart of love…the selfless giving up of oneself for another. That is the gospel in all its richness. That is love.

One thing that strikes me when I read through this list is the idea of selflessness in love. It is certainly at the core. For if you flip these things around and look at their opposite, you get a great picture of selfishness. Love is patient. Impatience is rooted in selfishness. Love is kind. Being unkind is usually spurred on by selfish desires. Thus, the opposite of love is looking out for self…defending self…exalting self. True love is quite the opposite. True love is selfless.

Many times when my kids get into fights (and I actually have the gumption to deal with them in a good way), I will often ask them, “Who are you supposed to be putting first?” Even though they might be tempted, I have never once had them answer “myself.” They certainly know in their heads, at least, that it is others they are to put first. But knowing this is one thing. Doing it is another, isn’t it? Knowing this is easy. Doing this is hard. Knowing about love is easy. Doing love is hard.

Perhaps one thing that can motivate us to do the hard work of love is the final truth we see here in this passage. For in addition to love being essential and extraordinary, it is also eternal. Love will not cease like prophecies. Love will not be stilled like tongues. Love will not pass away like knowledge (vs. 8). For one day, when we are in heaven, the spiritual gifts will no longer be necessary. Why? Because the spiritual gifts are the ways God’s Spirit manifests Himself in the church, His body. And when we are in heaven, we will no longer need God to manifest Himself in these ways. At that time, we will be, in a very real and physical sense, present with God in a way we have never been before. We shall see Him “face to face” (vs. 12). As Revelation 21:3 says, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”

Love is eternal. Unlike the spiritual gifts, it will never end. It lives here in the present, alongside the essential virtues of faith and hope. But out of those three, love is the only one that will endure forever. So, in all things, love should reign supreme. It should be valued more than any gift. It should be exalted more than any ministry. It should be held in the highest esteem. It should be practiced. Love should pour forth through everything we do. It should flow through our gifts to permeate the body with its life-giving power.

Certainly, there is no doubt that spiritual gifts are of great value. We know that faith is vital. And hope is indeed important. But then there is love. Love is the greatest.

Colorful – Reflections on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31

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Gotta love new crayons. Ever notice how excited a child is when they get a new box of crayons, even though they may have 500 old ones piled in a shoebox? I have to admit, I even get a little stoked by new crayons. I am much more tempted to sit down and color with my kids when there is a new box to break in. It is amazing to me how there can be a complete resurgence of coloring pandemonium in our house brought on just by a new 24 pack of Crayolas.

So what is it about a new box of crayons that creates such excitement? Well, first of all, every crayon is nice and sharp, perfect for staying in the lines. Second, all the colors are there. It is a complete and total set. So no matter what you decide to create, from a butterfly to a peacock to a rainbow, every color is there for the choosing. No crayon is missing.

This missing color thing can certainly be a problem. There are a considerable amount of tears shed in our house when a certain colored crayon goes AWOL. (And yes, even if it is just the superfluous white one.) Missing colors can be a catastrophe that can wreck a child’s art project. Actually, missing colors can wreck a lot of things. In fact, missing colors would change the world. If yellow were missing, would we have the sun? If green were not there, what color would the grass be? Would there be ladybugs without red and black? It would certainly be a different world without every color. Each one plays a role. Every color has a purpose. After all, that’s the way God designed the world—with color.

In fact, everything God touches overflows with a medley of colors. This even includes His church. In fact, in many ways, God has designed the church to be like a new box of crayons: one of every color, sharpened for use in the hands of the artist. Masterpieces are created…a spectrum of colors etched on white. Blank paper becomes art.

What exactly am I talking about, you ask? Variety. Distinctiveness. Diversity. Each one of us being different…yet put together in the same box so that the artwork of God can be created. This is the wonder of the church which is called His body. God has placed each person in it with uniqueness of personality, strengths, talents, and gifts. Take a look at Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12: “Now God has placed the members , each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body” (vs. 18-19). Many members, one body. Many colors, one box.

As each of us has a distinct color, each of us has an important contribution to make in God’s Kingdom. Certainly, a big part of how we make this contribution is through our spiritual gifts—the unique ways in which God manifests Himself through us to minister to each other and to the world. These gifts combine with our natural talents, strengths, and abilities to create our one of a kind contribution to His church and to His Kingdom. However, we certainly don’t all contribute in exactly the same way. We each have our own individual contribution…our own color. Every single one of us has been placed in his body, “just as he desires” (vs. 18). It was a divine act of God. The moment you came into the family of God, you became irrevocably part of this body. Paul illustrates this truth about the church body with, appropriately enough, the metaphor of a human body: “If the foot says, ‘Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body” (vs. 15). It doesn’t matter whether one feels like they are a part of the body or not, whether others treat them as if they are part of the body, or whether they themselves think they are important to the body. Every single one of us is part of the body of Christ. If you are a believer, you are in the box. So, if even one goes missing, the set is incomplete. And the picture that God is trying to create will be missing an important color. No one is unimportant. No one is expendable.

That is just one truth we see illustrated in this passage. But Paul brings forth another truth as well: every one of us needs one another in the body. Paul says, “And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you;’ or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you’” (vs. 19-21). This must have been a tough pill to swallow for the Corinthian church, many of whom seemed to enjoy thinking they were better than the rest. The Jews needed the Greeks. The men needed the women. The upper class needed the slaves. The rich needed the poor. And certainly, vice versa. They were all deeply interconnected and interdependent. So, they were to behave as such. No one was to be treated as a second class believer. Each one needed the other.

Another powerful truth in this passage is that not only do we need one another, but since we make up one body, we should be deeply connected in each other’s lives. God’s heart shines through in Paul’s words when he says that he desires “that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” (vs. 25-26). Although we are different, we are united. And being united into one family comes with certain responsibilities: the responsibility to connect with each other in both joys and sorrows. We are to feel another’s pain and reach out to them in that pain. We are to feel another’s joy and rejoice with them in that joy. Unfortunately, however, we often have just the opposite response. How many of us have avoided those who are in pain because we were uncomfortable with it? Or didn’t reach out to someone when they were hurting because we were just too involved with our own life? Yes, most of us are uncomfortable with pain. Most of us feel like we don’t know what to say. Most of us do not want to think about bad things. None of us like hospitals. None of us like funerals. But we are one family, and as such, we are a part of each other’s lives, like it or not. We need to walk with others through their pain.

This also goes for rejoicing. When someone gets good news, do we rejoice with that person? Or does the little green demon of envy rise up in our hearts and create jealousy and cynicism? Do we also go out of our way to celebrate with another? Or once again, are we too absorbed with our own lives to take the time…to send the card, or buy the gift, or make the phone call? This is our calling, friends! As members of one body, we are to be a part of each other’s lives in a significant way. It is our responsibility as members of this family. But, it is also our privilege, for in doing so, we are using our colors to make God’s family beautiful.

The church is certainly a special work of art, created by God to be a family of very different and unique individuals…individuals, nonetheless, who are united as one. When we use our unique gifts and abilities in the body, God will shine through our lives into the lives of each other. As each of us rests in the hands of our great artist, he will use our unique colors to create His masterpiece…His body, the church. And it is this masterpiece, with its beautiful colors and hues, that will display the beauty of our God to the world.

Longing for Resurrection

Posted by Susan Rieske - in Christian Living, Gospels, Holidays, Jesus, Susan Rieske - Comments Off

I never liked that crucifix. It hung suspended over the altar at the front of the church I grew up in. I cannot tell you how many times as a little girl I sat in the pew and stared at that crucifix. Every time I looked at it, I wanted to scream, “Get down, Jesus! Get off of that cross!!!” Sometimes I thought I was very near to breaking through my shyness and the thick silence of the big gothic sanctuary and belting those words out. I even envisioned myself getting a ladder and taking care of it myself. It just didn’t seem like He should still be up there, after all of this time. As a Catholic, I had certainly become accustomed to this image. It was plastered on the walls of my school, in the pictures of my religion books, and, of course, in our crucifixes at home. It was a familiar image. But even though it was familiar to me, it was never a welcome image. Death, staring me in the face in all of its ugliness, in all of its defeat. I still remember when the metal body of Jesus came off of one of our crucifixes at home. Apparently, even the glue that held His body to the cross knew better. Even though I felt a little guilty about this, I remember feeling secretly relieved. I liked Jesus off the cross. I liked the cross empty. It felt right.

After all, I was thoroughly sick of death. Death had characterized my life. You see, my father died when I was five. So there was not one single time I talked about my parents that I didn’t have to mention death. After awhile, I just got sick of talking about death. I got sick of it being part of who I was. Maybe that’s why I didn’t like that crucifix. I hated death. I wanted it gone…forever. I wanted life. I wanted to meditate on life, breathe it in as oxygen for my soul. I was tired of death. I longed for life. I longed for resurrection.

At some level, I think all of us long for resurrection. We want life to last as long as possible. What we really long for is for it to last forever. We hate everything about death…its ugliness…its permanence…its ability to tear us away from those we love…its ability to cause the heart wrenching grief that never goes away. I know, “hate” is a strong word. But I think it fits. Yes, overall, we as Christians are called to love, not hate. In fact, I’ve always hated the word “hate” (pun intended). As parents, we have always taught our kids not to use this ugly word. It’s a strong word to be reserved for only a few things in life. Yes, there are some things for which we have given them permission to use “hate.” Evil, for instance, is allowed to be hated in our family. Sin? Yep, hate away. And while we haven’t yet discussed this one, I think it is fair game to allow the kids to use the word “hate” with death. Why? Because I think this is how God feels about death. In fact, God calls death his “enemy.” It is something He set out to destroy and to abolish. God, too, wants death to be gone. He too longs for resurrection.

Resurrection is certainly a strange concept. Too often, this word is used on Easter Sunday then packed up with the plastic eggs and cellophane grass and stored on the shelf until the following Easter. But I think that we as Christians are missing something here. The resurrection of Christ is too vital an event to be talked about only once a year. And not only do we as believers tend to minimize the importance of the resurrection, it can also be a tough pill to swallow for those who wrestle with the idea of miracles. You probably are fully aware of this if you spend any time in the newspapers around Easter. In fact, there are many today who want to explain away all the miracles in the Bible. Creation? Certainly not. It must have been some random mutation that brought life into existence. The flood? Nope, nothing more than a fun little myth. A virgin birth? Impossible! Just a silly story and a regular old baby. A man rising from the dead? No way. Must have been a scam. Yes, in many segments of our culture, the spiritual has been boiled to the top and scraped out into the trash bin. And those who are absorbed in this worldview have a hard time with these things. After all, if they believed in miracles, they would have to believe in God. And the idea of God makes them uncomfortable on a number of levels. For example, God can certainly be a pretty inconvenient person to have around when you want to run your own life.

But, for us who call Jesus “Lord,” the resurrection is of utmost importance. It is part and parcel of the gospel. If someone says they believe in Jesus but not the resurrection, what they are believing in is not the gospel at all. In 1 Corinthians 15:3, Paul says, “For what I received I passed on to you of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures….” This is the gospel, friends. The death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of Christ is as important to our faith as His death is. In fact, as the Bible declares, we would have no Christian faith if it wasn’t for the resurrection.

Perhaps what was ringing in my heart and soul even as a young child was this reality that the death of Jesus is inseparable from the resurrection of Jesus. And not just as a ray of sunshine after the storm of death, but as a core part of what He did for us. The resurrection was critical in the work of salvation, and more than simply the fact that it pointed to Jesus being something more than a regular man. This God in the flesh risen from the dead made our salvation complete. We could not have been saved through an un-resurrected Messiah. His resurrection was just as important as His death in saving us and bringing us into the family of God.

For not only did Jesus die for our sins, He also rose for our sins. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” In another place, Paul says Jesus was “delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.” (Rom. 4:25). It may take a little brain power to grasp the theology behind this concept, but it is a theology worth understanding. By the Father raising Christ from the dead, He was essentially saying that Christ’s work was done. The penalty was paid, sin had been atoned for, and His death for our sins was completed. The resurrection signified this completion of the atoning work of Jesus, and told the world that a new age had dawned. God’s Kingdom had come.

Furthermore, the final enemy, death, was defeated. Christ reigns victorious over death. If Christ had not been raised from the dead, death would not have been defeated. If death had not been defeated, then there would be no hope for eternal life, for death would reign victorious over our lives as well. Christ conquered death through His resurrection so that it would not conquer us. Take a look in 1 Corinthians 15:25-26: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Death did not conquer Jesus. To the contrary, Jesus conquered death. By His resurrection, He defeated death…forever.

But not only is Jesus’ resurrection important in the work of our salvation, it is also important in assuring us of our own future resurrection. As Paul states in verses 20-23 of 1 Corinthians 15, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.” Adam sinned and caused death to enter the world. But Christ defeated death through his resurrection, and His resurrection serves as a model for ours. As Christ was brought to life after death, we will be brought to life after death. As Christ received a new resurrected body, we will receive a new resurrected body. We know a little about what life will be like on the other side of death because of Jesus’ resurrection. But more than that, we have confidence that we will have this eternal life, for Jesus’ resurrection not only provides a model for ours, but it also provides the hope. We can know that Jesus’ words about our future resurrection are true, because He proved his power over death and the reality of our future in eternity through His own resurrection.

Not only is Jesus’ resurrection important for our future, but it is also important for the way we live our life here in the present. In fact, it was a key motivating factor in Paul’s life as this rich truth compelled him to live for God. We see his heart concerning this in verses 29-34. He says, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (vs. 32). Eat, drink and be merry, in other words. Live it up in this life, because it’s the only one you have. As Paul makes clear, if there is no resurrection of the dead, there is no point in living for the world beyond this one. If there is no resurrection, there is also no point in sacrificing and suffering for the sake of the gospel. If there is no resurrection, there is no point in doing anything for that future world beyond this one. If there is no resurrection, there is no point in living for eternity, for there is no life beyond this one to live for. In all honesty, if there is no resurrection, there is really no point to anything at all.

Jesus’ resurrection is indeed a powerful concept…a concept that should soak into our minds and hearts as we contemplate the richness of what Christ did for us. It is a truth that should permeate our life with its power and undoubtedly, change the way we live it.

Perhaps, as a girl, I missed the power to be had by staring at the crucifix. Perhaps I didn’t appreciate the power of that image in communicating the reality of what Christ did when He suffered and died for our sins. But on the other hand, perhaps equally powerful in our lives would be to have an image cemented in our minds of the empty tomb…the stone rolled away. An image of the miraculous…of life…of resurrection. After all, it wasn’t death that characterized Jesus. To the contrary, it was life. He even called Himself, “The Life.” In fact, He called Himself, “The Resurrection.”

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 11:25-16)

A Human Calculation

Posted by Susan Rieske - in Biblical Studies, Christian Living, Christian Ministry, Susan Rieske - Comments Off

The unifying power of sports is undeniable. If you are tempted to disagree, head to the video store and pick up a copy of the movie, Invictus, for you will see this powerful truth in action. The movie shines a spotlight on a significant time in the history of South Africa, after the awful practice of apartheid had ended and Nelson Mandela stepped in to lead the nation to reconciliation. His job certainly wasn’t a walk in the park: uniting a torn country by reconciling the white supremacists who had ruled South Africa for almost two hundred years with the blacks whom they had oppressed. Mandela, himself having suffered from apartheid, saw a chance to create this unity through South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks. However, this was certainly no easy task, as the Springboks had become a symbol of white oppression and were therefore hated by the blacks. However, where others saw impossibility, Mandela saw a golden opportunity. Instead of getting rid of the Springboks, as some had suggested, he set out to win the hearts of the black people to the Springboks. And he did. Both the blacks and whites in South Africa became passionately united to this team, and as a result became united to each other. At one point, Mandela’s aide called this idea about rugby uniting the country being a “political calculation.” But Mandela disagreed, saying, “It is a HUMAN calculation!” He understood human nature. He knew the challenges of unifying people, but he also knew the power of sports to be able to accomplish this seemingly impossible goal. I won’t give away the ending, because if you haven’t watched it, you must. But what I will say is that Mandela was right in his calculations, and the Springboks served powerfully to unite a deeply divided country.

What is it about sports that unites us? I have always been amazed by the instant camaraderie my husband can build with a total stranger when he wears his OSU paraphernalia (except, of course, if the stranger happens to be a Michigan fan). After a couple brief seconds, he and the fellow Buckeye are giving each other high fives, speaking a new language unto themselves, and seem to have become instant friends. This is all sparked by the fact that they are both wearing red hats with the same three letters and a picture of a nut. I continue to be amazed every time. But there is, indeed, something about sports that is a powerful force for unity. It is in our nature as human beings to form bonds with each other when we rally around one person, one team, one goal, one ideology. The most different people on the planet can instantaneously become one.

Paul, the apostle, understood this well and sets out to communicate this truth throughout his letter to the Corinthians. After all, he had to, because division seemed to plague the Corinthian church. They developed factions over who ministered to them, took their fellow brothers to court, formed cliques at church gatherings, criticized their leaders, and tried to separate themselves from their own spouses. They were masters with the sword of division. One of the places where they were wielding this sword was in the arena of ministry. With this new religion of Christianity came the advent of interesting new supernatural abilities, “spiritual gifts.” Fascinating things for sure. I can understand why they were so enraptured with them.

However, the problems came when believers found themselves with certain spiritual gifts that were noticeably different than those around them. Comparison set in, and many believers erred on one of two sides. Some considered their gift “better” than others’ gifts, especially if they had one of the more “cool” gifts such as the ability to speak in a foreign language they have never learned. Yeah, crazy isn’t it? Others, however, felt that they somehow were cheated because their gift was not as “flashy.” With the Corinthians’ natural abilities for not getting along, the church was plunged into division. Instead of unity and love, they exhibited pride and jealousy. With this dilemma in view, Paul sets out in chapter 12 of his letter to correct some of the misunderstanding that led to these attitudes.

Paul starts out reminding the Corinthians of their former life as pagans, soaking in the spiritual spa of idol worship. He reminds them, once again, of the one power that is at work in all of these religions: that of Satan. He says, even though the idols were “mute” (in other words, lifeless statues), they were still “led astray” to them and from the one true God. When Paul talks about being led astray, it is always in reference to the powers that work against God and His Kingdom. In fact, he brings up a line that was most likely quoted in those religions: “Jesus is accursed,” saying certainly it is not the Spirit of God that is working through the person saying this. To the contrary, it is the other spiritual power.

And just as there is one spiritual power at work in the idol worshipping religions, there is also one spiritual power at work in the Christian community: the power of God Himself. It is God who is working in the midst of the Corinthian church, and although he works through each and every person differently, it is still the same God at work in and through all of them. From the moment someone confesses “Jesus is Lord” by placing their faith in him (vs. 3), the Spirit comes to reside in that person—the same Spirit that resides in every believer. And this Spirit, present and working in the lives of all believers, as different as we are, unites us together as one body. It is not an accident that in his challenge, Paul presents this piece of poetic verse:

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same SPIRIT.
And there are varieties of ministries, but the same LORD.
And there are varieties of effects, but the same GOD…(vs. 4-6).

Spirit…Lord (Jesus)…God (the word that often refers to the Father)…the Trinity! You see, just as God is one in essence, three in person…we too as the body of Christ, although different in our giftings, are united as one. Unity and diversity can coexist. We can be different while still being the same.

You can’t miss this truth as you continue on in this chapter, and many things jump out from the paper and ink of Scripture. One is how often “Spirit” is mentioned and how he is described… “through the Spirit” (vs. 8), “the same Spirit” (vs. 8), “the same Spirit” (vs. 9), “the one Spirit” (vs. 9), “one and the same Spirit” (vs. 11), “by one Spirit” (vs. 13), “drink of one Spirit (vs. 13). Hmm…seems as if Paul is trying to get something across, doesn’t it? Every gift within the body comes from Him, flows through Him, and is empowered by Him. And the same God working through you is working through me.

A second thing that jumps out here is the truth that “each one” (vs. 7, 11) is given at least one spiritual gift. Every one of us is enabled by God to do a special task in his Kingdom work. This passage lists some, including wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, distinguishing of spirits, speaking in tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, but this list is not exhaustive. Our job is to determine what spiritual gifts God has given us and be good stewards of them for His Kingdom work. I would encourage you if you don’t know what gifts you’ve been given, or you aren’t using them, to connect with a spiritual leader in your life to do that. You can know based on Scripture that if you have the Spirit inside you, then you have at least one gift, and maybe even more.

Another thing that jumps out here is how passive we as believers are in the process of obtaining our gifts. It says in verse seven, “to each one IS GIVEN….” We don’t pick out our gift, we are given our gift. And these are gifts given by the Spirit to each believer, “just as He wills” (vs 11). None of us get to choose our gift, like it or not. It is given to us by God, our Creator and Savior who knows us best.

Lastly, we must not leave this passage without seeing why the gifts are given: “for the common good.” (vs. 7). Each gift is to bring benefit to others, it is to benefit the body. Each one of our gifts, no matter how different, are given by the same God for the same goal: to benefit and build up the church.

It is clear that throughout this passage, Paul’s primary emphasis is that while the believers have each been given a specific spiritual gift, there is one thing that draws them together into unity: the presence of the same Spirit…there is one Spirit who brings them into salvation, one Spirit who gives them each their gifts, one Spirit who works in the midst of the gifts, and one Spirit who unites them together in fellowship. That there is diversity in the midst of the gifts is clear, but this takes a back seat in this passage to the continuity that runs through the gifts: mainly, the one thing they all have in common, the God who is at work in all of them.

Paul’s message to the Corinthians on a practical level is also clear. There is no room for divisions if one Spirit unites the believers. There is no room for jealousy, if one Spirit works through all the gifts. There is no room for pride, if each gift is indeed, a gift given by the one Spirit. There is no room for despising one’s gift, as it is a gracious intentional blessing from the one Spirit who chose the specific recipient of that gift. There is also no room for neglecting one’s gift, for then God’s very purpose in bringing benefits to all is diminished. Paul’s words throughout ring as loudly today as they did to those first century believers in Corinth: all those who call on Jesus as Lord are intimately connected to God and thus to each other through the Holy Spirit who unites us and works through our spiritual gifts.

If Invictus was about the Christian life, God would be the Springboks team and we would be the people of different colors. He unites us all. And as we focus, not on our differences, but instead on what we share together, we will experience the unity that God has already made real in our midst.

Left Out – Reflections on 1 Corinthians 11:17-34

Posted by Susan Rieske - in Biblical Studies, Christian Living, Susan Rieske - Comments Off

It was one of those moments that can cause a mother’s heart to break in two. My daughter found out one of her dearest friends was having a sleepover and she wasn’t invited. The little girl could only invite a few of her friends and unfortunately, my daughter was not one of the musketeers. I had the sad privilege of being there when she found out, and the look on her face when her friend told her this broke my heart into pieces. Funny enough, my dramatic girl didn’t even cry, but with a look of deep resigned sadness on her face, she simply replied, “Well, that settles it then.” Sigh. Not only was I heartbroken for her, but I realized at that moment that the emotion that spilled from her face echoed in my own heart, for I had felt the same feeling many times: the feeling of being left out. The feeling of the third wheel. The feeling of being shut out of the inner circle. The feeling of being excluded.

That old familiar feeling of being left out. Most of us at one time or another have experienced it, either as children or as adults. That time you were last on the line to get picked for a game of kickball on the playground. The party you heard about, but didn’t get invited to. The plans people made together that didn’t include you. Some of this is just a natural part of living life. And we learn to deal. But perhaps the hardest times of all for being left out are those that happen within the walls of the church…the place where love is supposed to be one of the ruling values. Yes, even in the church, cliques can form that can be very hurtful to others. In fact, sometimes things in church can get so bad, we feel like we’ve taken a time machine back to high school.

Unfortunately, this problem goes back to the earliest days of the church, for we see it addressed by Paul in his book to the Corinthians. 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 brings up this issue of division in the church, although this is certainly not the first time Paul has addressed this issue in his letter. Here in chapter 11, Paul says, “I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you…” (vs. 18). In this case, the divisions seem to be between the rich and the poor, and are certainly being ignited by the rich, who were exhibiting some snobbish tendencies. Even worse, the prominent place these cliques are coming to the surface is at one of the most special gatherings of the church: the Lord’s Supper.

While there are questions about how exactly the Lord’s Supper took place (a.k.a. the Lord’s Table, communion, etc), many think it was almost always accompanied by the eating of a fellowship meal. Here in Corinth what seemed to be happening was that the rich were bringing their food together and eating separately from the poor, either in a different area or at a different time (eating earlier before the poor arrived). The poor, who obviously didn’t have the provisions of the rich, were getting practically nothing to eat while the rich were gorging themselves. This is most likely what Paul means when he says “One remains hungry, another gets drunk” (vs. 21). This may not seem that serious to us, but to God, this was a serious matter. Paul says that by doing this, they are “despising” the church of God (vs.22). What made this even worse was that they were doing this at the Lord’s Supper, which was a time of worship and remembrance for the church that was to be held in special honor. In fact, Paul says their behavior resulted in their taking the Lord’s Supper in an “unworthy manner” (vs. 27).

The Lord’s Supper is a very special time for the church, a time for us as believers to remember Christ’s death on our behalf and a time for us to express gratitude to God for this sacrifice. At this traditional event, bread is broken and eaten to signify the broken body of Christ. And wine or juice is drunk to signify the blood of Christ shed for us. When we take part in this church tradition, we are called to meditate on the reality of Jesus’ death for our sins…His life spilled out for us. But another component of this time is the fact that we do it as a church together, to commemorate the oneness we have as Jesus’ body, the church. Thus, while we break bread in remembrance of Jesus’ broken body, we do it together in celebration of us as His unified body.

But unfortunately, the church body at Corinth was not united at this special time, but broken. They were divided between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have nots. The rich were eating in plenty and the poor were lacking and leaving hungry. I guess it was a classic example of the age old dilemma of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. And not only was it “humiliating” those who were poor, but it was wrecking the unity of the church family.

Relationships can be a complicated thing within the church. After all, is it really that bad to have a group of friends who do a lot together? Is it wrong to be a part of a group that connects in a special way? Well, I would say “no.” But there are times for those groupings and times for NO groupings. And there are times when we should exercise caution in how we might be offending and hurting and humiliating our other brothers and sisters in Christ. Certainly, the special events in the church, including but not limited to fellowship meals and the Lord’s Supper, are those times when we should make a special effort towards being inclusive of others, so we have unity as the one family we are all a part of. We want to make sure that we don’t fall into the trap of the Corinthians, whose meetings were doing “more harm than good” (vs. 17).

So how are you doing? Are you being a force for unity in your church, or are you contributing to the divisions and cliques? Are you trying to be inclusive of others, especially at those special gatherings of the church? Are you watching out for those who might be feeling left out? Each one of us should be catalysts for unity in our church. Each one of us should strive to dissolve cliques, be welcoming to everyone, and show sensitivity toward others who might be feeling the sadness and rejection of being left out. After all, we are all one family brought together to be one body, the body of Jesus. And while Jesus’ body was broken for us at the cross, His new body is not meant to be broken.

Love and Honor – Reflections on 1 Corinthians 11

Posted by Susan Rieske - in Biblical Studies, Christian Living, Susan Rieske - Comments Off

“Love always involves responsibility, and love always involves sacrifice.” These wise words were spoken many years ago by the Scottish minister William Barclay. And whether it is our love for God or for others, these words certainly ring true. Responsibility and sacrifice are essential qualities of real love.

This is a principle one can certainly find on the pages Scripture, as the Bible has much to say about the sacrifices and responsibilities of love, including that between husbands and wives. One of the places where we see a call to responsibility and sacrifice in the context of marital love is in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16. The chapter as a whole is about proper behavior in the church, conducting oneself with respect and love towards others. However, to understand the important principles here, we have to wade through some specific cultural issues and evaluate the differences between our culture of today and the culture of first century Christianity in Corinth. “Wading” being the operative term, and unfortunately, the waters can get a bit murky. In embarking on this voyage of understanding, the first thing we need to realize is that all Scripture was communicated to a specific audience at a specific time and in a specific cultural environment. Thus, we must ask, “What is the timeless principle in Scripture that should be carried out in every place, in every time, in every culture?” We must also ask the corresponding question, “What are the commands that were just for that particular place, time, and culture?” Unfortunately, however, there are no hard and fast rules for determining the answers to these questions.

This issue is one of the things that makes this passage notoriously difficult to understand. The main idea concerns head coverings and/or hairstyles for women in the worship service. But it is full of unanswered questions. Perhaps here of all places, one principle of Bible interpretation should be applied: Where the Bible speaks clearly, you can speak clearly. When the meaning isn’t as clear, you should be cautious about what you conclude and assert. This passage certainly isn’t one from which one should form major doctrine as its meaning is very difficult to discern. Many commentators point out at least four difficulties with this passage: the argument is hard to follow, there are many unanswered questions about the cultural practices at the time, we don’t know what the specific situation was in Corinth that was being addressed, and there are terms and metaphors here with unclear meanings. As I said, it is notoriously difficult.

So what do we know about this passage? What can we say confidently? Well, what we know is that it has to do with men and women, it speaks about tangible things on a person’s head while praying or prophesying (either hair or cloth), and the actions that are taken in this area can bring honor or dishonor to someone else.

Paul launches into his discussion with a metaphor of a physical body, specifically discussing the head/body relationship. This is not the only time Paul uses the head/body metaphor, for we find it in other places in relation to Christ and the church and wives and husbands (see Col. 1:15-18; 2:18-19; Eph. 1:19-23; 4:15-16; 5:21-33). With metaphors, we can attempt to get a general sense of why the metaphor was used, but the details of metaphors should not be pressed too far. All metaphors break down at some point. In Paul’s metaphor here, he states that the head of every man is Christ, the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. Thus, he uses head/body metaphors for three sets of people. There are two main views of the essential sense of this metaphor, based on the word for “head” in the original language. One is that it means “source” in reference to life: man was created through Christ in the beginning of creation; woman came from man as Eve came forth from Adam’s rib; and Christ was sent forth from God in the incarnation. The other view is that it means “authority figure” and the sense is Christ is the ruler or authority figure of man, the husband is the authority figure of the wife, and the Father is in authority over the Son. I tend to lean toward the former meaning for several reasons, including the fact that the contexts surrounding Paul’s use of this metaphor are replete with themes of origination, life-giving, and growth. However, the heart of this passage can be discerned whichever perspective one has on this particular metaphor. And the one thing that cannot be denied is that if the husband is the head and the wife is the body, they are a complete and total unity. In fact, this unity idea cannot be overlooked. The actions of one have a powerful impact on the other.

As for the situation here in Corinth, there are also a couple different views on what was happening. One view is that the women were wearing their hair down and loose, as was typical of the prostitutes of the time. Thus, the “head covering” Paul is referring to was their own hair and he was saying that their hairstyle was bringing disgrace on their husband. This is certainly understandable, as we can easily comprehend how a wife looking like a prostitute might embarrass her husband! The other idea is that the women of that time and culture wore a cloth on their heads either to distinguish themselves as a woman, to show submission to their husbands in the midst of a very patriarchal culture, or for modesty. Thus, most think that the women of Corinth were wondering whether they should wear this covering in the worship service (or may have been refusing to do so). This throwing off of cultural practices in reference to marriage would have disgraced their husbands.

While the details of what was happening can be difficult to understand, the practical importance for us is finding the timeless principle in the midst that we can apply to our lives. I think that we can pretty safely say that it is NOT that women should wear a hat or covering on her head at church. First of all, there is nowhere else in Scripture in which such a command is issued, as one would expect if it was indeed an important directive for the church for all times. Second, it is not even clear here in this passage that it is a cloth, as strong arguments can be made that it was a hairstyle. Third, there are too many things that are unclear in this passage for one to assert a strong conviction that women of all times and places should wear head coverings in church. Fourth, head coverings mean nothing in many cultures, including our current American culture. Fifth, wearing head covings in church would actually be a stumbling block for many to come to church in our culture and thus would be a stumbling block to the gospel. This latter issue is one that Paul is very clear on in his letters: one should not put unnecessary stumbling blocks on anyone’s path to the gospel.

But what can we say then? What is the timeless principle that can be carried forth to all places, times, and cultures? Well, one, of course is the way that we dress. Especially for women, but also for men, we should dress in such a way that does not dishonor the opposite sex, including but not limited to, our spouses. We see the theme of disgracing or dishonoring come forth very clear in this passage: “every man who prays or prophesies with his head covered dishonors his head (used metaphorically for Christ) (v.4), “…every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head (used metaphorically here for her husband)” (v.5). Furthermore, the word “glory” is used here several times, most likely with the idea of “reflecting something onto someone.” In fact, glory in verses 14-15 is contrasted with “disgrace.” For example, if I am at a party and my kids pick up the ladle from the punch bowl and begin drinking out of it, that would disgrace me. It would not bring me glory, but shame. My children’s actions reflect upon me and communicate what kind of parent I am to others. Thus, part of the reason (however selfish and prideful it may be) that I want my kids to be well-behaved in public is that it reflects back on me. They have the ability to disgrace me or bring me honor and glory.

This is true not only for our children, but also our spouses. Who of us hasn’t at one point or another kicked our spouse under the table (or been kicked) when one did something that embarrassed the other? This goes both ways for spouses in our culture. However, in a patriarchal culture, it is much easier for a woman to disgrace her husband. In the patriarchal cultures in which the Bible was written, women, unfortunately, were considered the “property” of their husbands. Thus, they had a much greater ability to bring disgrace on their husbands than husbands could upon their wives. God never condoned this “wives as property” societal view, and certainly made strong statements against this kind of thinking: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). In fact, even here, Paul seems to send a message against the superiority of men by saying, “In the Lord, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman….” (vs. 11-12). However, the writers of Scripture, while making redemptive statements concerning social equalities, tread lightly in regard to overturning societal norms, customs, and politics. Their most important goal was not to change a culture; it was to infuse a culture with the life transforming message of the gospel. The gospel was the most important thing, and it needed to be infused graciously and gracefully into a culture that was damaged by sin and thus not operating according to God’s perfect ideals. Thus, Scripture does not directly command slave owners to free their slaves, it does not command dictators to give freedoms to their citizens, and it does not command a society to end gender inequalities. However, within Scripture, the principles are there that if a society chose to abide by them, the society would more greatly reflect the Kingdom where love, selflessness, respect, and dignity reign. No human would be the property of another. No human would be considered inferior. No human would be donned a second class citizen.

But, here in Corinth, we are not there. We are in a patriarchal first century city, where a wife had tremendous power to bring great dishonor to her husband. And the principle Paul seems to be stressing is this: women are not to act in such a way that brings disgrace to their husbands. Even if this involves following cultural practices that may seem unfair or hard to understand. Their love and respect for their husband should trump their freedoms.

So the timeless principles for our culture? Appropriate dress seems to be one principle, dressing in line with our gender, modestly, and in a way that does not disgrace our husbands or wives. By extension, our dress should also not dishonor the men and women around us. This is especially important when in the midst of the church gathering, where the focus should be on bringing honor and glory to God. Secondly, we can extend this principle to all of our behavior. Are we conducting ourselves in ways that bring honor to our husbands and wives? Or do our actions and behaviors embarrass and dishonor them?

As followers of the One who loved with the greatest sacrifice of all, the words of Barclay should be on display clearly in our lives. We should love with responsibility and sacrifice…responsible to honor the ones we love and willing to sacrifice our own personal freedoms and rights to put them first. That is the true essence of Biblical love.

Playing With Fire

Posted by Susan Rieske - in Angels & Demons, Biblical Studies, Christian Living, Susan Rieske - Comments Off

All families seem to have stories that are brought up from time to time…stories that we tell at family gatherings to take us back to childhood and give us a good laugh. One of the stories that goes around quite often in my family is a story about when my brother decided to play with fire. We grew up out in the country, with our house on a couple of acres, surrounded by woods and fields. One day, during the midst of a very long dry spell of weather, my brother was over in the field next to our house experimenting with something we were always told never to touch: fire. The experiment was to set some dry grass on fire and see how big he could get it before stamping it out with his feet. You can probably guess at this point where this is heading. After a couple of successful sparking and stamping out episodes, he got to a point where the fire got a little out of control. Running back to the house for a bucket of water, my brother came back to the field and realized that bucket wasn’t going to do a thing. He had set the field on fire. Thankfully the fire department came and put the fire out and my brother was not hurt. But he learned a valuable lesson that day: there was a very good reason our parents told us not to play with fire.

How many of us have heard this warning from our parents multiple times in our life? “Don’t play with fire!” And yet, how many of us when we were kids, did not listen and played with fire anyway? Why did we do this? Because fire is fascinating. Fire is exciting. Fire is cool. We love fire. But as we all know, fire can be destructive. Fire can get out of control quickly. In a matter of minutes, fire can destroy a home, a building, or an entire city block. Fire can take away the lives of people we love. Fire is dangerous. Fire is deadly.

When it comes to our spiritual lives, there are things that can be just as dangerous to play with as fire is in our physical lives. Paul brings one of these things up in 1 Corinthians. It is the issue of idolatry. So, what exactly is idolatry? Essentially, according to the Bible, it is taking part in the worship of a god other than the one true God of the Bible. It is summed up in the first two commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” (Exodus 20:3-5). Essentially, the crux of the matter is that we are to worship NOTHING and NO ONE other than God.

In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul is coming back to an issue he discussed previously in the book: eating at the meals taking place at the temples devoted to worshipping the many false gods. Worshipping these gods was a common part of the religion of the Greek and Roman cultures. Here he says explicitly that Christians have no business taking part in these meals, because taking part in these meals is giving honor to the false gods and thus is, at its very core, idolatry. He also brings up situations in the past in Israel’s history where the people of Israel took part in idolatry, among other sins, and were punished for it by not being allowed to enter the promised land (vs. 1-11). He gives a warning to the Corinthian church that if they worship other gods, then they too will not receive the reward of the promised land, which for us in this age, is eternal life.

In the past in Western Christianity, warnings against idolatry from the Bible have been a hard thing to apply. Most of the time, we have toned it down by saying that anything we give greater honor to than God is idolatry. For example, money can be an idol to us if we are too focused on it, and thus we are warned not to “worship” it. While I am not denying the validity of these applications, I wonder sometimes if in doing so, we downplay how horrendous idolatry really is. It is not just a matter of misplaced priorities. Idolatry is serious. It is destructive. It is deadly. In fact, Paul says that it is, in its very nature, an association with demons, the evil spiritual beings who are very real in the spiritual realm and are responsible for the worst evils of the world. Paul says, “The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons” (vs. 20).

There, I said it: demon. A dreaded, scary term that is limited in our culture to the jargon of horror films. In fact, I almost didn’t want to even write it. Yuck. But we have to talk about it. Because, evil is real and deeply connected to idolatry. And, unfortunately, our Western culture is changing so rapidly that we no longer have to come up with more toned down applications for the issue of idolatry. For the worship of false gods is rapidly becoming a core part of our American culture. Sadly enough, it is even thought of as “cool.” Hollywood applauds it through their movies, talk show hosts applaud it through their shows, and writers applaud it through their books. Jesus is considered out of style…outdated…boring. Buddha is in.

And according to Scripture, these other religions are NOT just another form of Christianity. Each god in these religions is not just the God of Christianity with a different name. They have very different characteristics. Furthermore, the religions themselves have very different practices and laws, many of which go directly against God’s laws and Jesus’ teachings. And the Bible makes a profound statement about these religions: the worship of these gods is associated with demonic activities. It is dangerous. It is deadly.

As the worship of false gods becomes more and more prevalent in our culture, we have to continue to examine and re-examine our association with these religions. How much do we keep ourselves separate from them? Do we watch movies in which the worship of other gods is shown in a positive light? Do we read books by those who practice other religions? Do we allow our kids to read books and watch movies in which the people in them are worshipping other gods? Do we take part in that yoga class everyone is raving about at the local health club? Where is the line?

Funny enough, the Corinthians were struggling with this very same thing! Maybe they weren’t dealing with Hollywood and yoga, but they were struggling to determine the line between what is okay and what is getting too close to idolatry. Paul says to them that it’s not okay to take part in cultic meals at the temple, nor to eat something that someone gives you and says specifically that it was offered in sacrifice (vs. 20, 28). But as for eating meat from the meat market, where some of it probably was taken from the meat offered in sacrifice, well, that’s not forbidden (vs. 25-26). It is a matter of personal conviction, and whatever the choice, we should display sensitivity to others. If eaten, it should be done with sensitivity to those who have convictions against it. If not eaten, it should be done with sensitivity to those who don’t know Christ, so that it will not create a stumbling block to the gospel in their lives (vs. 23-24, 29-33).

The principles underlying all that Paul says on this sticky issue are valid principles for us to apply on similar issues in our culture. And I think the key verse in this chapter that we can use as a filter for our decisions is this: “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (vs. 31). God is not glorified by the worship of other gods. God is not glorified when we join hands with evil. But God is also not glorified when Christians are always characterized by their complaining about being offended. God is also not glorified when we cut ourselves off from those who don’t know Him so that we no longer have the ability to build bridges for them to Jesus.

Where things fall along these lines is a sticky subject. You will have to make the specific decisions for you and your family, using principles from the Bible along with the wise counsel from the spiritual leaders in your life. When faced with a questionable issue, you will need to decide: “Is this okay or am I playing with fire?”

Fire is fascinating and cool, but remember, every fire, no matter how big or destructive or deadly, started with just one tiny spark. And while my brother was lucky, usually people who play with fire are not so lucky. Because most of the time, as the old saying goes, when someone plays with fire, they usually don’t get away without getting burned.

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