Romans 16:17-20 – Remove the Negative Influence

Snidely Whiplash, villain from the TV show Dudley Do-Right (1959-1964)

I urge you, brothers, and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. For such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery, they deceive the minds of naive people. Everyone has heard about your obedience, so I rejoice because of you; but I want you to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.

The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you. (NIV)

The Apostle Paul’s original writing of these verses was packed with an exceptionally large punch.  Almost every word he used was in the strongest possible language. For example:

“Urge” has the force of “beg,” as in the blind man crying out and begging Jesus to heal him. (Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43) 

“Watch out” has the meaning of marking someone as if to keep constant eyes on them.

“Divisions” are human created arbitrary lines, and acts of the sinful nature. (Galatians 5:19-20) 

“Obstacles” comes from a word in which we get our English word “scandal,” which is caused by judging another person. (Romans 14:13) 

“Keep away” is not a passive avoidance, but literally means to fling yourself away from a danger, like Joseph running out of Potiphar’s house and away from his wife. (Genesis 39:11-12)

Paul was begging his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to identify people who contrive human divisions between others and create offensive scandals and get as far away from them as you can.

If this were a professional wrestling match, the Apostle Paul would be in a cage match against the Jewish Christian Bruiser who has been talking trash for months about the Gentile Christians. In the church at Rome, there were three primary groups of people: 

  1. Gentile Christians who had come to faith in Christ from their pagan backgrounds and were delighting in their newfound change of life.
  2. Jewish Christians who had come to faith in Christ and liked their old religious traditions yet were willing to change to accommodate new believers.
  3. Jewish Christians who had made professions of faith in Christ, and not only wanted to keep their centuries old traditions but were unwilling to change and sought to make Jews of the Gentiles, using every ounce of influence, power, manipulation, and negativity to do it.
Professional wrestling star Dick the Bruiser (career 1954-1986)

Paul, as a Jewish Christian himself, clearly understood what they wanted and what was at stake. Paul’s insistence throughout his letter to the Romans was to argue for the priority of the good news that sinners find forgiveness based in grace alone through faith alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ, apart from circumcision, Sabbath observance, liturgical traditions, feast days, and ritual observances. Paul had no problem with the practices themselves; what he had an issue with is making them mandatory alongside the gospel. 

The Jewish Christian Bruisers felt justified in doing whatever they could to stand against a change in their traditions. They tried to negatively influence everyone they could. And if they could not get anywhere with Paul, they would go underground and be as subversive against him as they could. Yet, Paul remained consistent in all the churches about the reality of God’s grace in Christ.

Paul understood that negative people only create more negative people – which is why he said to Titus, after having talked to him about the priority of being justified by grace: 

After a first and second warning, have nothing more to do with a person who causes conflict, because you know that someone like this is twisted and sinful—so they condemn themselves. (Titus 3:10-11, CEB).

Whenever a passion for power and tradition prevails over a desire to see people come to faith in Jesus Christ, then we have an issue of character. Stirring up antagonism against biblically-oriented, Spirit-directed change is demonic – and the real test of it is a constant stream of negativism which is secretive, remains in the shadows, relies on gossip and slander for its fuel, and hates being in the light.

Jesus said to be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves because there are wolves among the sheep (Matthew 10:16). You will know them by their fruit. We are called not to participate in negative influences!  Thus, individuals must be called-out for their chronic negative spirits. So, how do we do it?  How do we shut-out the negativity?

Refuse it.

Name it. Call it what it is: fighting against the Holy Spirit and attributing evil to the work of God (Matthew 12:30-32). When someone comes to you and wants to dish up a little sumthin’-sumthin’ on someone or something, refuse to take the bait. Reject the deprecation like the big man in the middle of the defense in basketball, rejecting the shot, with announcer Marv Albert shouting, “Ree-jected!”

Keeping a group of friends who are positive, encouraging, helpful, and steering clear of antagonistic attitudes is extremely beneficial to both physical and spiritual health.  In a recent study at Stanford University, a pair of researchers reviewed over 200 studies on group therapy and concluded that group members “develop close bonds with the other members and are deeply influenced by their positive acceptance and feedback.”  In other words, negative thinking keeps people in bondage, whereas the positive encouragement of others brings freedom and life.

Rebuke it.

Someone might be speaking to you, start talking around some issue slowly, but eventually comes around to carving up another person like a Thanksgiving turkey. What do you do?  Rebuke it. We can say something like, “When you continue to speak with such negativity about ______ I feel upset because I need to be in a place which helps me to spiritually grow. Will you please stop being so negative?”

I once had a person come to me not knowing how to deal with a negative person. I walked him through some biblical ways about confronting the negativity when it comes. He simply hung his head and said he could not do that. He was miserable, which is why he came and talked to me. And he walked away with that same misery because he was not willing to call out a person on their destructive negativity.

You and I are in control of our own happiness. If another person causes us anger; if some politician drives us nuts; if a television program or radio show is upsetting me; then, it is our responsibility to keep away. If we have a chronic negative person in our life, and have tried to deal with that person, and they refuse to listen, we can say something like this when they start their rant: “I don’t want to hear it. And if you keep bringing it up and being negative, I will walk out of the room.”  The principle here is that we control our own behavior, not somebody else’s.

Redirect it.

Satan is the author of negative antagonism. He talked trash about God in the garden to Adam and Eve. So, avoid getting caught up in trying to dialogue with a negative person. Redirect the negativity by calling the person to change their ways, because truth be told, the negativity is really rebellion against God. It is not uncivil to put the focus on the life-giving positive effects of God’s gospel of grace in Jesus Christ and insist on repentance.

If you are wondering, “I could never do that” then you likely have been telling yourself a lot of negative thoughts. God calls us to stamp-out the negativity before it can get started, even within our own brains. In some cases, we need to re-train our minds to focus on the positive, and not the negative.

It takes two to tango. Negativity cannot survive if there is no one to listen to it. We are to stop being negative and stop listening to negative people because it creates divisions and scandals. If there are people who chronically have negative speech and can never seem to say anything good about someone or something, Paul said to stay away from them. Have nothing to do with them. Do not participate in the divisive speech. Refuse it.  Rebuke it. Redirect it. God wants us righteous and robust, holy, and happy – not walking around like a grump who was baptized in pickle juice.

We can choose to fill our minds with the gospel of Jesus; pray positively about everything; and find the good in all things. We can continually choose to cultivate unity, purity, peace, and love. In doing so, we enjoy life together.

May it be so, to the glory of God.

Hebrews 13:20-21 – Conflict and Peace

Pretty Place Chapel Blue Ridge Mountains
Pretty Place Chapel in the Blue Ridge Mountains

May the God of peace,
who brought back the great shepherd of the sheep,
our Lord Jesus,
from the dead by the blood of the eternal covenant,

        equip you with every good thing to do his will,
by developing in us what pleases him through Jesus Christ.
To him be the glory forever and always. Amen. (CEB)

These verses are the benediction, that is, the blessing given at the end of a long letter to a group of struggling Jewish Christians. In fact, things were so difficult for these believers that they were giving serious consideration to reneging on their commitment to Christ. So, the author of Hebrews sent them an exhortation and an encouragement to remain true and steadfast to the faith.

What is needed is not a shrinking back from faith but instead an enduring faith which is sustainable for the long haul of a person’s life.

The believers had both inner and outer conflict. They were experiencing hardship and persecution in the form of confiscation of their property and public insults. The Christians had started out well, facing such trouble with confidence through standing side-by-side with others who were suffering as well as holding on to their vibrant faith.

Yet, over time, their resolve began to break down. A slow drift occurred. Eventually, they started to retreat from the helping of others. They emotionally and spiritually inched their way to becoming despondent to the point of questioning whether all this Christianity stuff was worth it. The outer conflict worked its way inside their souls and damaged their spirits. By the time the writer of Hebrews comes along, a group of Christians are stuck in discouragement.

It’s one thing to deal with trouble and hardship on one day, even two. It’s quite another thing when that difficulty does not let up – when days turn into weeks, weeks into months, even months into years.

There are times when peace seems to have about as much chance of being realized as winning the lottery.

Yet, God is the God of peace, real lasting harmonious spiritually restful peace. It was achieved through the life and death of Jesus. The peace Jesus has brought is so much more than the absence of conflict. God’s peace is freedom from fear and anxiety. It is a settled confidence deep down inside that God will ultimately make good on all his promises and that things will not always be this way.

Until that day comes, God is not sitting in some divine Lazy-Boy recliner watching old reruns of the Angels playing baseball. Rather, God is active through carefully, deliberately, and, to our occasional consternation, slowly equipping us and developing us into spiritually fortified people who do the will of God and please Jesus in everything they do and say. Jesus is the Great Shepherd of the sheep who will not lead us astray but will settle us in green pastures.

The word translated “equip” is a rich word (Greek καταρτίσαι, pronounced “cot-ar-tids-ay”) which means to set something straight. Picture a bone which has been broken and needs to be reset and have time to heal. That is what God is doing in his people – repairing broken spirits. This divine healing is equipping believers for a lifetime of handling adversity with faith, confidence, and endurance. The process, frankly, hurts and requires patience before healing and health come.

If God can raise the dead, he can most certainly handle any earthly trouble we are going through.

God is in the transformation business. Extreme makeovers are his specialty. He uses hard circumstances, troubles, and torments of our lives and bends them into divine tools to form and shape his people to both survive and thrive in the world.

Complaining spirits, blaming and shaming others, and impatience borne of unrealistic expectations are the evidence of damaged emotions, wounded souls, and weak faith. This is the antithesis of God. He’s not overlooking humanity with a divine *sigh* in exasperation. That’s because he is the God of peace who is bringing all things to a conclusion in Christ. Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead. The Holy Spirit is now and very presently active to heal damaged emotions, repair wounded souls, and strengthen faith.

In those times when God seems absent and prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling are the times that God is establishing peace and expanding our capacity for faith and patience.

Benediction, blessing, and doxology come through the dark night of the soul and not by avoiding it.

Soli Deo Gloria. To God be the Glory.

Almighty God,
all thoughts of truth and peace
proceed from you.
Kindle in the hearts of all people
the true love of peace.
Guide with your pure and peaceable wisdom
those who take counsel
for the nations of the earth;
that in tranquility your kingdom
may go forward,
till the earth is filled
with the knowledge of your love;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

–From the Book of Common Order of the Church of Scotland, St. Andrew Press.

Click It Is Well with My Soul by TenTwoSix Music and arranged by David Wise.

Acts 15:36-41 – Intense Argument

Some time later, Paul said to Barnabas, “Let’s go back and visit all the brothers and sisters in every city where we preached the Lord’s word. Let’s see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John Mark with them.  Paul insisted that they shouldn’t take him along, since he had deserted them in Pamphylia and hadn’t continued with them in their work. Their argument became so intense that they went their separate ways. Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus. Paul chose Silas and left, entrusted by the brothers and sisters to the Lord’s grace. He traveled through Syria and Cilicia, strengthening the churches. (Common English Bible)
 
            Having continual consensus, complete harmony, and perpetual peaceful relationships are ideals, not reality.  Oh, it’s not that we ought not to strive for such things – it’s just that they aren’t going to be fully realized this side of heaven.
            Imagine if Paul and Barnabas, along with their entire coterie of people who traveled with them, decided that they wouldn’t go anywhere until there was 100% consensus on every decision to be made. It could be that they would never get anything done at all.  It’s sad when people can’t come together and be of one mind, but it happens now and will happen in the future.  Sometimes you just need to go do what you think is the best and right thing to do and step out and do it, whether others agree with you or not.
            I’m a bit adverse to taking sides on most things, but I admit to having a bent toward going with Barnabas.  His name means “Son of Encouragement.” He understands taking someone under his wing and giving them a second chance when they screw up.  Barnabas had a soft spot for John Mark.  Barnabas seems like the kind of guy who knows about grace.  This is a guy I could hang out with.
            Paul, on the other hand, has much more of a Type A personality.  He doesn’t have time for whiners or cry-babies.  There are things to do, goals to reach, areas to conquer.  Paul didn’t need someone in the group slowing them down with fear or lack of courage.  For all that I appreciate about Paul in the New Testament, sometimes he strikes me as being too driven and difficult to work with.
            Yet, in the end, taking sides isn’t really the issue.  It’s about God working his sovereign and good will through stubborn and stupid people like me, and maybe like you, who sometimes get lost in winning an argument.  Nothing is going to thwart God’s providential plans and purposes in this world.  So, rather than taking sides, I think I’ll rely solely on God’s grace and mercy in my life to work through me, despite my too often short-sightedness.

 

Holy God, you work your good purposes in and through your people, no matter what.  I want my life and work to be a joy to you and with others, and not a burden.  Create in me a clean heart.  See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting; through Jesus Christ, my Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Nehemiah 5:1-13

            Nehemiah was a faithful follower of God who had been taken into exile to Babylon.  But, through his initiative, Nehemiah laid plans to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the broken down wall which surrounded the city.  Once Nehemiah arrived and arranged for work teams to busy themselves on the wall, he discovered there was much more to rebuild than just a physical wall.  A wall of separation existed between fellow Jews based on economics.  The poor were being taken advantage of as their fellow Jews were exacting usury from them.
 
            Nehemiah’s response is instructive for us.  He did not ignore the situation and only focus on the wall.  He firmly and squarely addressed the problem, and was downright angry about the circumstance of Jewish families essentially living in a state of slavery.  Nehemiah was clear, concise, and direct about the nature of the problem.  He threw himself into being part of the solution instead of only complaining about what was happening.  Nehemiah did not over-involve others in the process of handling the conflict, but handled the issue by taking counsel with himself.  Finally, he attacked the problem without alienating others, and held people accountable for their actions and their promises.
 
            Packed into these few paragraphs of Scripture is a sort of case study of how to engage significant problems and conflict.  This is a section of the Bible not to quickly read over, but to ponder, examine, and absorb Nehemiah’s dealing with the situation.  We all need some guidance and direction when it comes to confronting the problems that surround us.  Let this story serve us well in addressing the issues in our lives.
 

 

            Holy God, you have a special concern for those who are poor and needy.  Enable me to live and speak wisely into the crucial needs which exist around me, so that Christ might be exalted through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.