Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing (Galatians 2:1-10)

Fourteen years after that first visit, Barnabas and I went up to Jerusalem and took Titus with us. I went to clarify with them what had been revealed to me. At that time I placed before them exactly what I was preaching to the non-Jews. I did this in private with the leaders, those held in esteem by the church, so that our concern would not become a controversial public issue, marred by ethnic tensions, exposing my years of work to denigration and endangering my present ministry.

Significantly, Titus, non-Jewish though he was, was not required to be circumcised. While we were in conference we were infiltrated by spies pretending to be Christians, who slipped in to find out just how free true Christians are. Their ulterior motive was to reduce us to their brand of servitude. We didn’t give them the time of day. We were determined to preserve the truth of the Message for you.

As for those who were considered important in the church, their reputation doesn’t concern me. God isn’t impressed with mere appearances, and neither am I. And of course these leaders were able to add nothing to the message I had been preaching. It was soon evident that God had entrusted me with the same message to the non-Jews as Peter had been preaching to the Jews.

Recognizing that my calling had been given by God, James, Peter, and John—the pillars of the church—shook hands with me and Barnabas, assigning us to a ministry to the non-Jews, while they continued to be responsible for reaching out to the Jews. The only additional thing they asked was that we remember the poor, and I was already eager to do that. (The Message)

The former devout Jew, Saul, had become the Christian apostle and missionary, Paul. His ministry was as radical and dramatic as his conversion to Christianity was.

The Struggle

Keep in mind that the earliest church was predominantly made up of Jewish Christians. They had to struggle with the relationship between their historic Judaism and their newfound Christianity. For many of them, Paul was doing the unthinkable; he not only purposely sought to reach Gentiles (non-Jewish people) with the message of Jesus Christ, but he also did not require them to be circumcised. For Paul, one did not have to first become Jewish before becoming Christian.

Paul doggedly sought to preserve the core essence and spirit of Christ’s message, that is, to proclaim the good news of forgiveness and new life through the person and work of Jesus – and not by means of retaining Jewish customs or laws, including circumcision.

The Main Thing

Christianity is more than set of beliefs and practices; it’s a way of life which can be summed up in three important words: faith, hope, and love. 

Both new believers in Jesus and veterans in the faith know from experience how difficult it can be to live the Christian life. One reason for this difficulty, even when we want to please the Lord, is due to the confusion that occurs between our inner feelings and our outer actions.

The Confusion

The confusion starts with the creation and fall of humanity. In the beginning, God created humans as persons with a divine/human relationship as central to daily life. (Genesis 1:26; 2:16-25) 

What’s more, God created people with the capacity to receive divine revelation through our ability to think and reason. (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10) 

Before disobedience entered the world, in the original state before humanity’s fall, all human functions were under complete control with an inner experience of unity and harmony with one another and God. (Genesis 1:31; 2:7, 16-25) 

It is imperative for us to recognize the distinction between our personal being and our personal functions. (Romans 1:21-32; 6:16-22; 1 Corinthians 9:27; Ephesians 4:21-32)

If we don’t grasp how cataclysmic the fall of humanity was, we are going to have big struggles with living the Christian life – illustrated in the way that Paul needed to fend off a bunch of professing Christians who still seemed spiritually stuck. 

The Disobedience

In Adam and Eve’s original disobedience to God, the authority for life was transferred from God to us so that our sinful bent is to call our own shots without God. The source of authority also got whacky, transferred from a holistic and synergistic approach of body, mind, emotions, and spirit to a one-dimensional approach of simply how we feel at any given moment.

If we fail to understand this dynamic, we will be continually frustrated with people because they do irrational things. For example, many church pastors are flabbergasted that parishioners do not simply take what they teach them and go and do it. Yet, if it were that simple, there would be no place for the Holy Spirit!

Unfortunately, there’s more. In humanity’s fall, we lost control of our capacity to function well. We are all now vulnerable to manipulation, too easily swayed by the surrounding culture, and, of course, Satan. (Ephesians 2:2-3; Galatians 5:16-21) 

As a result, our inner conscience has become confused. We are not always certain of right and wrong. We misunderstand what life is really supposed to be all about. 

We lose sight of the main thing. And, in that state, there’s no way we can keep the main thing the main thing.

Instead, we become obsessed with feeling comfortable and secure; so, we pursue false gods – leaving usdisappointed and with a lack of fulfillment in life.

The Good News

However, the good news is that through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, new life emerges; the bondage of sin is broken in our lives, and we are legally reinstated in a relationship with God in which the Lord is central in our daily life and the final authority. 

In this new relationship we can again receive truth through the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures. We regain control of our functions. 

Yet, unless we learn the Scriptures and growin a daily walk with Jesus, the practical experience of this relationship with all its freedom, joy, assurance,  power, and fruitfulness may be greatly limited. (Romans 7:14-25; 1 Corinthians 3:1-4)

Even though we have redemption and faith, it is still possible to regress and give in to our old ways of functioning. This is a big reason why Christians can experience conflict, doubt, fear, anxiety, frustration, disappointment, and confusion.

To live keeping the main thing the main thing means to grow in the experience and application Christ’s centrality and authority in our lives. 

The Awareness

We must, therefore, make daily decisions of faith, hope, and love based in who we are in Christ and recognize his authority in our lives. The following seven recognitions and awareness may be helpful for you in experiencing Christian freedom and unity:

  1. You are a person with the ability to function in faith, hope, and love as God’s beloved child in Christ (2 Corinthians 7:1; Romans 8:14-17)
  2. There is a difference between who you are and what you do (or don’t do).  Evil thoughts and emotions do not make you evil, anymore than fantasizing about being a unicorn makes you a unicorn.
  3. You can take charge of your actions and your life (Galatians 5:22-23)
  4. The key is the use of your will through living in harmony with revealed biblical truth. In other words, you really can make choices of faith, hope, and love, no matter the situation. (Romans 4:17-21; Psalm 56:3; Psalm 43:5-11)  
  5. Reject whatever is contrary to Scripture, reason, and conscience. Listen to your whole self. Unhealthy patterns of acting and speaking must be broken in Jesus’ name. (Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:5-9; Titus 2:11-12)
  6. Choose to obey the Holy Spirit and the Holy Scriptures. Learn to think and act on the basis of truth. (Acts 27:25)
  7. Practicing the truth results in freedom, a re-patterning of thinking and functions, as well as the fruit of the Spirit. (John 8:32; Titus 2:11-14; Philippians 2:12-16)

The church is intended to be a supportive community of fellow redeemed people who worship and love Jesus together. 

Without sharing our collective learning of the Scriptures and daily struggles of faith, hope, and love, believers will inevitably be spiritually immature over the long haul. Instead, talk about your shared experiences of worship, Scripture reading, and Christian living. 

In doing so, God is glorified, the church is strengthened, and the cranky circumcisers are seen as the legalistic lunkheads they really are.

The Effects of the Fall (Genesis 6:11-22)

The Flood of Noah by Majd Ramadan, 2014

In God’s sight, the earth had become corrupt and was filled with violence. God saw that the earth was corrupt because all creatures behaved corruptly on the earth.

God said to Noah, “The end has come for all creatures, since they have filled the earth with violence. I am now about to destroy them along with the earth, so make a wooden ark. Make the ark with nesting places and cover it inside and out with tar. This is how you should make it: four hundred fifty feet long, seventy-five feet wide, and forty-five feet high. Make a roof for the ark and complete it one foot from the top. Put a door in its side. In the hold below, make the second and third decks.

“I am now bringing the floodwaters over the earth to destroy everything under the sky that breathes. Everything on earth is about to take its last breath. But I will set up my covenant with you. You will go into the ark together with your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives. From all living things—from all creatures—you are to bring a pair, male and female, into the ark with you to keep them alive. From each kind of bird, from each kind of livestock, and from each kind of everything that crawls on the ground—a pair from each will go in with you to stay alive. Take some from every kind of food and stow it as food for you and for the animals.”

Noah did everything exactly as God commanded him. (Common English Bible)

The entire world is profoundly broken. 

Everywhere, people are messed-up. In one breath they can tell you they’re sorry for another’s abuse or violence against you, then turn right around and say some irrational nonsense and terribly insensitive things to you.

It doesn’t matter where you go – whether school, work, home and even church, there is institutional brokenness. Individual persons, and the human structures and systems they put in place, all contain elements of bondage instead of freedom. It doesn’t take a religious person to observe that there’s such a thing as sin.

Holy Scripture’s description of this sad reality goes all the way back to a story about the fall of humanity into sin and rebellion. Satan, the devil, led the original persons, Adam and Eve, into disobedience of God. Satan tempted Eve to doubt whether God really had her best interests at mind; to question the truthfulness of God’s Word; and, to wonder about the wisdom of listening to God (Genesis 3:1-5). Adam just flat out chose to disobey God, and, so, the entire world changed (Genesis 3:16-17). 

Immediately, everything was different in the world and with people. The choice to disobey God brought feelings of fear and shame; a loss of fellowship with God; hiding from God; a bent to pervert the truth; the propensity for the genders to try and dominate each other; expulsion from the garden; and physical death (Genesis 3:7-24). 

And the unholy tools people used against one another were violent and corrupt. People thought nothing of oppressing each other, abusing one another, attacking others – both verbally and physically. Rape, assault, theft, and murder became daily experiences. That’s some downright icky stuff. 

No wonder the world is messed up.

God saw that human evil was out of control. People thought evil, imagined evil—evil, evil, evil from morning to night. God was sorry that he had made the human race in the first place; it broke his heart. God said, “I’ll get rid of my ruined creation, make a clean sweep: people, animals, snakes and bugs, birds—the works. I’m sorry I made them.” (Genesis 6:5-7, MSG)

Noah was the only guy on the face of the earth for whom the Lord saw any good. And it was enough good worth saving. Yet, people are still in the nasty habit of turning on each other, like a bunch of sharks with blood in the water.

Unfortunately, the fall of humanity still affects us all. It has brought not only physical death, but spiritual death. That means we are alienated from God, in rebellion, and enslaved to our own passions and desires (Isaiah 1:2-6; Romans 2:14-15; Ephesians 2:1-3). 

We are also alienated from one another by having continual bents toward discord, suspicion, and jealousy instead of love and trust (Romans 1:29-31; James 3:14-16). 

We are even alienated and totally out of touch with ourselves by either loving ourselves as gods or hating ourselves with an inordinate emotional masochism (Philippians 2:21; 2 Timothy 3:2-4). In short, we are selfish people who experience separation from God, others, and self.

If this is the true reality of humanity, then it is awfully depressing, discouraging, and damaging. And we know it’s true because we’ve all been both victims and victimizers. So, who then, will rescue us from this horrific death? 

Thanks be to God who has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 7:24-25; 1 Corinthians 15:57). 

The good news is that, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, the curse has been reversed. Christ has restored us to our original place of fellowship with God. He is the way, the truth, and the life. In Christ, there is hope for humanity (John 14:6). 

To live in freedom, therefore, involves knowledge, honesty, and sincere decisions of faith and love whereby truth is applied to life.

Just as the world needed a thorough purging of evil through a cleansing worldwide flood, so we need a bath of grace, to be completely awash with the love of God in Christ, to have all the crud of evil scrubbed from our soul. And this is precisely what Christian baptism symbolizes.

Jesus offered himself for us so that we might live without violence and no longer be separated from God, others, and self. He has brought us reconciliation. In him we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing (2 Corinthians 5:16-19; Ephesians 1:3; 2 Peter 1:3).

In Christianity, the purpose of ministry is to come alongside people trapped in their awful cycles of brokenness and communicate good news of grace and forgiveness with both words and actions.

Although the world is terribly askew, God has demonstrated his love for us in that, while we were still violent and corrupt sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). 

We needed a Savior. God provided One. 

Are you in touch with the ways you are separated from God, others, and self? 

Are you aware of the ways in which your church or faith community has an unhealthy separation from the world? 

In what ways can you apply the love of God to broken people and systems in your community? What will it take to reach them?

Sin, guilt, shame, rebellion, disobedience, and violence need not define us. We can do better.

Almighty God, we have sinned against you, through our own fault, in thought, and word, and deed, and in what we have left undone. For the sake of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, forgive us all our offenses; and grant that we may serve you in newness of life, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

A Parable On Being Right with God (Luke 18:9-14)

The Tax Collector and the Pharisee by Peter Gallen

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (New International Version)

There’s a lot to observe in Christ’s parable for today. Notice six observations of the story….

1. We Cannot Make Ourselves Right with God

I’m convinced that most Gentile Christians, standing two millennia apart from Christ’s telling of this parable, are much too hard on the Jewish Pharisees: “Well, I’m certainly glad that I am not like the Pharisee in this story!” so many tell themselves. It seems to me the Pharisees get a bad rap because of our own predilection to justify ourselves.

After all, we can only really criticize something we are already familiar with.

A temptation which every individual and community faces is the seduction toward self-justification, instead of being justified by God.

Way back in the day, when I made treadmill belts for a living, I was in charge of quality control. It was my job to make sure that the quality department provided the shipping department with a finished product, free of defects, and could stand the test of continual use. I justified the belt as being a treadmill belt of integrity; the belt did not, nor could not, justify itself, hide or fix its flaws, or make itself right.

To think that a treadmill belt could justify itself is in the same sort of crazy that believes we can make ourselves right. No, it is God alone who justifies the sinner.

The paradox of Christ’s parable is that the real sinners are those who claim to be righteous, while the truly righteous are those who recognize they cannot justify themselves and need God to make them right.

2. We Need to Be Honest about the Right Thing

In order to hear the good news about God’s ability to justify and make right, we must also hear the bad news about why we need justification to begin with. An honest look into the mirror reveals that we have been hiding behind a cosmetic façade of self-justification.

Our illusions and delusions need to be confronted and shattered. Because only then can we receive grace and realize the peace and harmony of God’s justification.

Since God justifies, I don’t have to!

I don’t need to defend myself, make myself look better than I am, nor fool myself into believing that the false façade is the true self.

The parable of Jesus is a contrast between the Pharisee who justifies himself, and the tax collector who looks to God alone for his justification.

3. The Put-Together Guy Wants to Make Himself Right

Jesus uses a Pharisee as a character in the parable because the guy represented someone who everyone else looks up to as the model of a spiritual and religious person. Christ is inviting his hearers to look beyond the façade of what we see with our physical eyes.           

We need to use our spiritual eyes to notice below the surface. Look at the attitude. The smug self-justifying disposition is flat-out sin. What’s more, self-justification is a root of all sorts of sins.

Judging ourselves to be right means that others are wrong. That attitude creates division, separates people into bad and good, fosters disharmony, and is an affront to God. 

To try and obtain what is already provided by grace is plain old-fashioned sin.

4. We’re Obsessed with the Right Lines

Adam and Eve were told by God that they could eat from any tree in the garden but were given strict instructions not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:15-17) So, why avoid that particular tree?

Because it was a tree which spiritually and socially blinds people. Adam and Eve ate from it and their eyes were “opened” to a different reality – which was actually a “closed” view of reality that changed the way humanity deals with one another. From that point forward, people began drawing lines down the middle and placing themselves on the “good” side while vilifying those on the other side, the “bad” side.

“Apple Picking,” the fall of Adam and Eve, by Vittorio Canta

Adam and Eve immediately began justifying their actions, their attitudes, and their behavior. (Genesis 3:8-13) Adam drew a line: “That woman, Eve, gave me the fruit; she’s on the other side; it’s her fault!” Eve drew a line: “The serpent made me do it; that wasn’t really me, I’m basically good….” And ever since, the quest of making ourselves right has never stopped….

Today, we draw all sorts of lines. A popular religious line is this: “We’re good; they’re bad. Our theology is right, everybody else’s is wrong. The Bible says….” (insert a kooky interpretation of Scripture, based in self-justification and separation of people into good and bad groups)

People draw class lines, race lines, gender lines, ethnic lines, economic lines. We want clean lines, vertical lines, horizontal lines, perpendicular lines, thick lines, thin lines, any kind of line; just give me a line! Let’s go line dancing. Maybe take an airline. There are offensive lines and defensive lines. By the way, what’s the line on the Packers? We even judge the lines themselves: Long lines, short lines, front lines, back lines, and DMV lines are clearly evil, right!?

Why are we so obsessed with drawing lines? So that we can take self-justifying sides. Violence, war, and most every other sin of the world comes from the original sin project of trying to make ourselves right: “I’m okay; you’re not.”

The Pharisee (really a representative of us all) drew a very clear line between himself and the despised sinful tax collector. Notice that self-justification always compares itself with others. Those who obsessively draw lines are compulsively concerned about other people; they believe they have a right to know what’s going on with them. They remain vigilant to keep the lines drawn and distinguish themselves from those on the other side.

5. God Is On the Other Side of the Right Line

The Pharisee found that every time he drew a line, God was on the other side with the “sinners.” That makes perfect biblical sense. If God alone justifies sinners and makes them right; and if Jesus identifies with them in his life, death, and resurrection; then God is to be found on the other side of our line-drawing.  

A self-justified person sees no need for God’s justification. Therefore, God is not on their side; God is on the other side, justifying sinners by making them right.

6. The Unraveled Guy Wants To Be Made Right

“O God, Be Merciful To Me, A Sinner,” by Ronald Raab

The tax collector’s only concern was for God to show him mercy because he is a sinner. In contrast to the proud attitude of the Pharisee, the tax collector, a sinner by anyone’s definition, humbled himself and sought justification from God alone.

  • Justification by God makes us right and:
  • Lifts the curse upon humanity and reverts everything back to its original design. (Revelation 22:1-5)
  • Erases the lines. (Romans 4:7-8)
  • Restores our souls are and strengthens our faith. (Acts 16:5; Romans 4:20)
  • Enables us to rest in Christ’s finished work. (John 19:28-30)
  • Does not condemn us. (Romans 8:1-2)
  • Eliminates comparisons because Christ is sufficient for us. (Colossians 2:13-14)
  • Replaces the anxiety and fear about how we look to others with the contentment and satisfaction of God’s love in Christ. (1 John 4:16-18)

Conclusion

Self-justification separates us from people and creates distance and division. But God’s justification connects people in love and crosses the arbitrary lines created by others.

The bad news: Many religious folk, when confronted with their self-justifying attitudes, do not change. Instead, they label the person as bad and place the offending person on the other side of their line so that they can maintain their façade of righteousness.

The good news: Jesus can be found on the other side of the line because justification is a gift. Yet, until we go to him, outside our little camp, we will continue in vain to make ourselves look good and be on the right side of everything while making others look bad.

The good and the right is to humbly – and with much flavor – cry out to God for mercy because only the Lord can save us from our plight.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner, and grant me your peace.

Just and right God, by your mercy we were created, and by your mercy you redeemed us through your Son, the Lord Jesus. Your mercy is the light by which all people – both sinner and saint – return to you. Your divine justice and your divine mercy exist together so that you refuse to punish us as we deserve.

Lord Jesus, it was not enough for you to take on our humanity; you died for us as well. So, we humbly and gratefully receive your gracious deliverance from sin, death, and hell. Amen.

Exodus 40:16-38 – No Matter Where We Go, God Is with Us

Israel Encamped Roundabout the Tabernacle in the Wilderness of Sinai
John W. Kelchner (1866-1942)

Moses followed the Lord’s instructions. And on the first day of the first month of the second year, the sacred tent was set up. The posts, stands, and framework were put in place, then the two layers of coverings were hung over them. The stones with the Ten Commandments written on them were stored in the sacred chest, the place of mercy was put on top of it, and the carrying poles were attached. The chest was brought into the tent and set behind the curtain in the most holy place. These things were done exactly as the Lord had commanded Moses.

The table for the sacred bread was put along the north wall of the holy place, after which the bread was set on the table. The lampstand was put along the south wall,then the lamps were attached to it there in the presence of the Lord. The gold incense altar was set up in front of the curtain, and sweet-smelling incense was burned on it. These things were done exactly as the Lord had commanded Moses.

The curtain was hung at the entrance to the sacred tent. Then the altar for offering sacrifices was put in front of the tent, and animal sacrifices and gifts of grain were offered there. The large bronze bowl was placed between the altar and the entrance to the tent. It was filled with water, then Moses and Aaron, together with Aaron’s sons, washed their hands and feet. In fact, they washed each time before entering the tent or offering sacrifices at the altar. These things were done exactly as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Finally, Moses had the curtains hung around the courtyard and at the entrance.

Suddenly the sacred tent was covered by a thick cloud and filled with the glory of the Lord. And so, Moses could not enter the tent. Whenever the cloud moved from the tent, the people would break camp and follow; then they would set up camp and stay there, until it moved again. No matter where the people traveled, the Lord was with them. Each day his cloud was over the tent, and each night a fire could be seen in the cloud. (Contemporary English Version)

There is no place we can go where God is not.

The presence of God is an overarching theme, not only of the book of Exodus, but of the entire Bible.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and formed man and woman as the apex of divine creative work. Humans alone bear the stamp of God’s image and likeness. People were created to be with God. 

Sadly, however, humanity took their own path, apart from God, and fell into the suffering of guilt, shame, and misplaced love. 

“No one can hide so that I can’t see him,” declares the Lord.
“I fill heaven and earth!” declares the Lord.

Jeremiah 23:24, GW

Ever since the fall of humanity from their majestic position with the Lord, God has been on a determined, yet patient, mission to restore, reconcile, and reclaim lost humanity so that they can be together again. The Lord longs for people to find their way back to the peace and rest of the garden.

God chose Abraham and set apart his descendants, the Hebrews, to be a people and a kingdom of priests, to reverse the curse. 

The Lord chose Moses to free the people from bondage, giving them laws and commandments to communicate that the divine presence is among them. For the ancient Hebrews, God was like a pillar of cloud, a sentinel watching over them. 

Eventually, in the fullness of time, when it was ripe for the promised Savior to come, God sent the Son, the Lord Jesus, the “Immanuel,” meaning “God with us.”

Jesus lived a holy life, died a cruel death on our behalf to atone for all guilt and shame. Christ rose from death so that people might experience new life and once again connect with God and enjoy the divine presence forever. The Lord Jesus ascended to heaven, and now watches over us, interceding on our behalf. 

And that’s not all; until Christ comes again to this earth, to judge the living and the dead, God’s Holy Spirit has been sent to be the continuing presence of Jesus for this present time. The Spirit is with God’s people, always.

There is no place you can go where the Spirit of God is not already there.

It just doesn’t matter where we are located geographically; it doesn’t matter if we screw up; and doesn’t matter what kind of situation we find ourselves in. The truth of the matter is this: God is with us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ. 

God’s eyes are on human ways,
   and he sees all their steps.

Job 34:21, CEB

There are no guarantees in this life that things will turn out well, or that everything will go our way, just because we are believers. In fact, we are promised the opposite – that there will be suffering and hardship. Yet, what makes all the difference for the believer, is that we have the abiding presence of God with us.

The Lord has gone to the greatest lengths possible to make relational connection happen. And it is the persistent and pervasive presence of God that enables God’s people to face and endure all things with faith and confidence.

No matter where we travel, God is with us.

Ever-present God, your grace and mercy overwhelm the universe. Thank you for your constant and abiding love, even in the midst of hate and violence. Enable me to always live in awareness of this reality so that my life might confidently follow you anytime and anywhere; through Jesus Christ, my Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.