Paul’s Heavenly Perspective

Heavenly Perspective in Paul’s writings.

Bible scholars enjoy investigating and dissecting the writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul’s epistles are rich in theology and at times quite complex in thought, so they provide a simulating challenge for the enquiring mind.

However scholarship can amuse itself with analysis for analysis sake. Knowledge can feed the notion that the student holds some special place or privilege since “knowledge puffs up”. Human analysis of spiritual truth can weave its own intricate pretence of insight, while missing the very heartbeat of what Paul is saying.

This is not to say that scholarship and analysis are of no value, but they need to be subservient to the spirit and intent of the spiritual transaction which Paul intended, rather than to push us into the place of bystanders who can testify in a witness box of what we have seen, but who are observers rather than participants of the truth on offer.

Now that I have that off my chest let me direct your attention to some interesting considerations that Paul’s life deserves.

Paul stands in a unique place as a contributor to the New Testament. Specifically I refer to the fact that all of his encounters with Christ were with the risen, glorified Christ of all eternity, not with the human personality the disciples dealt with.

The human Jesus, fully God and fully man, had laid aside His glory, holding the place of a servant. So those who met Christ in that capacity were denied the immediate and compelling impact of the eternal Son of God, eternal Lamb of God, eternal Creator God, that Christ is.

Paul, on the other hand, met Christ as the glorious resurrected Lord of Glory speaking from heaven itself.
Paul went on to meet with Christ in heaven and to receive revelation directly from the glorified Christ (1Cor 11:23, 2Cor 12:3,4).

Paul’s conception of spiritual truth, then, was first and foremost from the heavenly perspective. He knew things too wonderful to be allowed to put in words (2Cor 12:3,4) and so impressive were his spiritual experiences that a messenger from satan was assigned the special task of keeping Paul humble (2Cor 12:7).

Paul writes from that rich context of spiritual insight.

The great Apostle Peter held Paul’s writings in great respect but admitted that Paul’s insights were hard to understand and were misinterpreted by unlearned and unstable people (2Peter 3:15,16).

Paul’s ministry was to the minds and hearts of men and women who did not hold the depth of revelation he enjoyed. He therefore had to input into them spiritual truths that they were at times resistant to, as babes unable to handle the stronger revelation of God’s Word but needing to be grounded in the first principles. He also had to deal with their tendency to be distracted by baser, fleshly urges that competed with their spiritual health, such as being drawn into factions, being impressed by charlatans intent on exploiting them, and so on.

Paul spent a year and a half in Corinth, able to function in full-time ministry for at least part of that time, thanks to the support from outside Corinth.

After Paul left Corinth he settled into a longer stint of ministry is Ephesus and it is believed that from there he wrote at least his first epistle back to the church at Corinth.

PAUL in 2 Corinthians and his focus on suffering, death and resurrection.

It is suggested that Paul had a strong focus on the resurrection of Christ and that focus prompted his frequent references to death and resurrection in his second letter to the Corinthians.

I disagree. Paul’s focus is not on Christ’s death and resurrection specifically, nor in comparing his own or other’s experiences with those of Christ, but simply to argue for a posture of abandonment on God, disregarding personal hardship in order to serve Christ.

Christ exemplifies this posture of abandonment in enduring the cross to save sinners.

Paul anticipates and lives a life of constant tribulation, but that is of no concern since he also lives in constant consolation.

There is a dichotomy of constant tribulation made irrelevant by constant consolation. This is Paul’s reality and it is the one he repeatedly confronts the Corinthian believers with.

2Corinthians 1:3-5 “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; Who comforts us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God. For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds by Christ.”

Paul’s picture of Christian life is of a life of blessing and comfort compensating for a life of tribulation.

Consider Paul’s repeated advice to Timothy that Christians will suffer persecution.
2Timothy 3:12 “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.”

(See also Peter’s reference to “fiery trial” in 1Peter 4:12, and
Christ’s predictions that His followers would be persecuted, Matt 24:9, John 15:20)

Paul clearly identified himself and his peers as targets for tribulation.
1Thessalonians 3:4 “For verily, when we were with you, we told you before that we should suffer tribulation; even as it came to pass, and ye know.”

This is particularly poignant for Paul since his very calling from Christ identified him as set aside to suffer persecution.
Acts 9:16 “For I will show him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.”

Note also in 2Corinthians that Paul speaks of vicarious suffering, such that his own sufferings result in blessing to those he cares for. (2Cor 1:6,7, 4:12)

Paul shares with the Corinthians how terribly he was persecuted, to the point of despairing of life, but the consolation, deliverance and protection he always relies on came through. The key issue for Paul is not that of death and resurrection but of constancy of faith, being confident that even in his extremity God will remain faithful, as he proved to be.

Note the focus on where Paul’s ‘trust’ was placed in 2Corinthians 1:9,10, “But we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God which raises the dead: Who delivered us from so great a death, and doth deliver: in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us:”

I repeat, Paul’s focus is not in Christ as a model of death and resurrection, but on the Christian’s challenge to trust God in the reality of a Christian life where tribulation is the turf, but consolation is guaranteed to triumph over it.

Paul’s ‘affliction list’ in 2Corinthians 4:7-12 is Paul’s assertion that tribulation fails to be a problem, thanks to God’s constant care. Rather than Paul providing a litany of evils he makes a declaration of triumph, rejoicing in ‘the excellency of the power’, being ‘not distressed’, ‘not in despair’, ‘not forsaken’, ‘not destroyed’, ‘that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body’.

This is a wonderful take on suffering and dispels the fleshly, self-preservation, narcissism of natural man, pointing to a life of victorious service to our Lord, immersed in opposition and trial, so it can be constantly triumphant over all trials right down to death itself.

The Corinthian church had been taught this perspective but quickly distracted themselves with their own carnality, dropping their moral standards, engaging in factions, celebrating their own indulgence without regard for fellow believers.

Paul not only contended with them about their fleshly distractions, but he pressed upon them the model he doubtless taught them in their presence, that Christian life is not about self, but about yielding to Christ, entering into the most dangerous and oppressive challenges, and living in triumph and effectiveness in that most undesirable context, as living proof of the gospel.

Hedonism says:
It’s My Life;
I Do What I Want;
My Comfort is Paramount;
If I suffer it must be for my good (eg: pain for health, budgeting to buy better things).

Compare this with Paul’s concept of his calling by Christ:
My life is no longer mine, but Christ’s;
I do not do what I want;
My comfort is irrelevant, and I enter a life of suffering;
I do not suffer for myself but for the benefit of others.

Paul drives home this radical view of a life of trial as a high calling with great reward, pointing the Corinthians away from appearances and to eternal riches.
2Corinthians 4:16-18 “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, works for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.”

PAUL IN 2 CORINTHIANS

The claim is made that Paul in 2Corinthians is defending his apostleship.

I challenge that perspective as distracting the student from the bigger picture of what Paul is saying in that letter.

Paul clearly has undisputed authority in the Corinthian church and has expressed that in previous demands made and in his demands related to his planned visit. There is no reason to believe Paul’s apostleship and his role as primary authority in the Corinthian church is in jeopardy.

So the suggestion that 2 Corinthians is written in defence of Paul’s apostleship necessarily detracts from the apostolic message Paul conveys.

Primary in Paul’s apostolic message is challenge of the carnality and sinfulness of the Corinthians, which Paul challenged in several ways in 1 Corinthians (babes 1Cor 3:1, carnality 1Cor 3:3,4, drunkeness and self-indulgence 1Cor 11:21) and which he bluntly confronted at the end of 2 Corinthians (2Cor 12:20,21, 2Cor 13:5).

Another resounding message of 2 Corinthians is Paul’s description of a spiritual life, compared with a selfish fleshly life focus, of willingly and happily enduring suffering so that the promise and proof of the gospel triumphing over those trials can be lived out, as it is by Paul and his companions.

Paul embarrasses the Corinthians by pointing out that they, in their flesh, have fawned over men who exploit them (2Cor 11:20) and who were nothing more than “false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ” (2Cor 11:13), while Paul is as worthy a hero as anyone else (2Cor 12:11). This addiction to people who impress them reflects the factional spirit at Corinth that Paul challenged in 1Corinthians 3.

Finally, Paul calls them on their inherent sinfulness and challenges them to be sure they are actually saved (2Cor 13:5).

All of this is relegated to subsidiary status if the reader has been beguiled by the widely promoted idea that Paul is principally writing to defend his apostleship.

Further, the idea that Paul has to prove anything is demeaning of this man of immense spiritual stature and unique spiritual privilege (see 2Cor 12:1-7).

Let us free 2Corinthians from the shackles of misdirection and enjoy the rich spiritual food of a great man of God, completely secure in his place of authority within the Corinthian church, who did nothing less than escort them further on their struggling spiritual journey, with truth that we each need to imbibe as we make our own spiritual journey.

Note Paul’s focus on the sinfulness of the Corinthians.

“For I fear, lest, when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and that I shall be found unto you such as ye would not:lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, backbitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults: And lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and that I shall bewail many which have sinned already, and have not repented of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they have committed.” 2Cor 12:20,21

2Cor 13:2 “I write to them which heretofore have sinned, and to all other, that, if I come again, I will not spare”.

2Cor 13:5 “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not your own selves, how that Jesus Christ is in you, except ye be reprobates?”

Corinth and Laodicea Compared

The Corinthian church, as reflected by the correction Paul has to give them in his epistles, resembles the condition of the Laodicean church of John’s Revelation (Revelation 3:14-22).
That church failed to comprehend that it was “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked” but rather thought itself to be “rich, and increased with goods, and (to) have need of nothing” (Rev 3:17).
While the Corinthian church may not be in a severe a state at the Laodiceans its members display a vain concept of themselves as able to indulge their passions, tolerate immorality and identify with competing factions, all to their detriment.
Something in the culture of Corinth entangled the local church in issues that needed Paul’s continued pastoral correction, as the Laodiceans needed Christ’s pastoral correction.
Local culture was recognised by Paul as deleterious to spiritual progress, as seen in his acceptance of the cultural stereotype applied to the residents of Crete (Titus 1:12,13).
Paul also recognised that external spiritual influences can subvert the faith of a whole congregation, as seen in Galatia (Galatians 3:1).
Rather than give up on such people Paul persisted in contending with them to have the truth established in their hearts.
Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth display his faithful and persistent care for the souls of the members, contending with them and even challenging them bluntly, in order to dispel from their minds ideas and practices that have a negative effect on their faith.

Enough said. Check it out for yourself and enjoy the glorious vision of Christian life that carried this great apostle through the toughest of treatment to the most glorious of achievements for Christ’s Kingdom.

The Importance of Timing

There is a time for everything. So says Solomon in his supreme wisdom. Yet timing is a lost art for most people, especially in our opportunistic culture today. So, do you understand “times”? There’s a lot in the subject of time and timing. So this is just an introduction to the topic. You will remember that end time prophecies refer to such things as “time, times and half a time” (Daniel 12:7, Revelation 12:14).

Jesus knew the times and said of himself, “my time has not yet come” (John 7:6,8).

Members of one of the twelve tribes of Israel, Issachar, were noted for their ability to understand the times, thus knowing what Israel should do in various situations (1Chronicles 12:32). Knowing the significance of times and seasons enables people to make the right choice at the right time.

King Solomon gave us a poetic celebration of the reality of times and seasons.

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.” Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

The most sobering reflection on ‘time’ comes out of the life of Elisha, the powerful prophet of Israel, approx 850 years before Christ. After this man of God healed the Syrian leper, Naaman, he declined to accept the lavish and valuable gifts offered him by the grateful military captain. Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, however, had no qualms about getting a share of the goods and so he secretly went to Naaman and asked for some of the booty, which Naaman happily gave him. When Gehazi returned to his post Elisha challenged him, since the prophet knew by divine revelation what Gehazi had done.

Significant in Elisha’s challenge to Gehazi is the issue of ‘timing’.

“And Elisha said to him, Didn’t my heart go with you when the man (Naaman) turned from his chariot to meet you? Is it a time to receive money, and to receive garments, and olive-yards, and vineyards, and sheep, and oxen, and menservants, and maidservants?” 2Kings 5:26

Elisha knew something about timing that Gehazi did not know. It was not the right time to get wealth. Gehazi’s problem was not greed, nor deception, but ignorance of the time in which he was living.

Now, considering how vital timing is in such a case, how well are we acquainted with timing and seasons in our lives? I suspect that most of us think opportunity is all that is required. If there is an opportunity to get something then the opportunity speaks for itself. Many people end up in some kind of curse, just as Gehazi did, when they act without regard for the times and seasons.

I suggest we all need to be much more prayerful and sensitive to times and seasons. We need to seek God for insight and revelation about how times and seasons impact our lives. Let’s do that and stay in step with what God is doing in us and our community, and the world at large.

World Youth Day 2008

My Filipino Catholic friend Bobby shared an interesting insight last week – prompted to him by the World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia. That occasion proved to be a significant meeting of Catholic and Protestant youth. He watched the broadcast of the Pope’s mass at Randwick Racecourse, where huge crowds gathered on Sunday July 20.

What he came out with surprised me and tied in with a revelation I had back in 1978.

He noted that Protestants place the emphasis for salvation on faith alone. Catholics, he pointed out, believe that faith must be accompanied by works, as is indicated in several places in the Bible.

But, he added, the Bible suggests that neither the Protestants nor the Catholics are right.

Hmmmm ?

He took me to the teaching of Jesus at the end of His Sermon on the Mount.

“Not every one that says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name? and in your name have cast out devils? and in your name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess to them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.” Matthew 7:21-23

The faith profession of calling Jesus “Lord” is what many Protestants consider to be all that is needed to be saved. They are sure that no works are needed, only faith.

The Catholic position involves both faith, expressed by these people who say “Lord, Lord”, and works. Jesus points out that these people who come to Him have both! They have faith (Lord, Lord) and works (done many wonderful works).

Yet what would suit both the Protestant and the Catholic positions proves to be less than Jesus is looking for. “I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.”

Wow!

Bobby saw in this text the fact that God looks on the heart. What God is looking for is not a faith confession, nor appropriate works to affirm the faith. But God is looking at our hearts and looking to see that we have a right heart toward Him.

Way back in 1978 I was standing in the foyer of a small church, during the opening songs, desperate for God to give me a message to preach. I was on a travelling ministry tour, as a Bible College student in New Zealand. The Apostolic church which I was about to preach to included many learned and experienced people. I wanted to bring them a message which would be more than just a rehash of my college lectures.

As I prayed, desperately, for a message, three quick images flicked in my mind. One was of the huge brass laver used in the Tabernacle. That spoke to me of my evangelical roots and the emphasis of being washed clean of our sins. The second image was of the golden lampstand from the Tabernacle. This spoke to me of the filling of the Holy Spirit and all that goes with the Pentecostal experience. To my way of thinking at that time, Pentecost built on all that evangelicalism gave us, thus giving greater power to the gospel and Biblical faith I already had.

The third image, however, completely challenged my respect for both the Evangelical gospel and the blessing of the Holy Spirit. I saw a beautiful young bride, dressed in white, ready for her beloved’s embrace.

The impact of that quick sequence of images, which became the basis of my message that night, was that Christianity is all about ‘Relationship’. The end of our life is not a celebration of our faithfulness to the old time gospel, or our exploits in the power of the Holy Spirit. The culmination is a wedding, not a show and tell session. It’s all about Relationship.

When Bobby shared his insights I saw in Jesus’ words the subtext of relationship again. “I never knew you”.

Christianity is not about fulfilling the religious expectations of our brand of Christendom, but it is all about being in wonderful intimate relationship with God and Jesus Christ, through our faith in the finished work of the Cross and through God’s salvation in our lives.

George Fox Stirred By God

This is the day that … George Fox was born, in 1624.

Converted at the age of 19 – through the reading of the Scriptures – George Fox took off on an itinerant preaching ministry.

His spiritual journey involved two revelation experiences; one on his conversion where, he recounts, “I heard a voice which said, “There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition,” and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy. Later he felt led to climb a great mountain, Pendle Hill in Northern England. There he experienced a vision of “a great people to be gathered.”

He became an itinerant preacher and came upon some independent congregations which received him. He formed those groups into the Publishers of Truth, later renamed as the Religious Society of Friends, nicknamed the ‘Quakers’ by their enemies.

Fox’s own experiences of inspiration led to a strong focus on spontaneous inspired moments for his followers.

In 1649 he was gaoled for interrupting a preacher (“Dost thou call this place a church? Or callest thou this mixed multitude (the congregation) a church?) – and so dead was the state church of his day that his question might not have been without some justification.

Again, in 1650 he was gaoled for alleged blasphemy.

“He was beaten with dog whips, knocked down with fists and stones, brutally struck with pike staves, threatened by mobs, imprisoned eight times in filthy prisons and dungeons … yet he went straight forward with his mission.”

Fox preached an evangelical message, although his over-reaction against ritualism caused him to do away with the ordinances (as did the Salvation Army).

George Fox died at the age of 67.

This post is based on the work of my late friend Donald Prout whose love for books and Christian history led him to collate a daily Christian calendar. I continue to work with Don’s wife, Barbara, to share his life work with the world. I have updated some of these historical posts and will hopefully draw from Don’s huge files of clippings to continue this series beyond Don’s original work. More of Don’s work can be found at www.donaldprout.com.

Revelation of God

If you were raised in the fear of some idolatrous and despotic deity how would that affect your understanding of the true and Living God? If you only knew of gods as demanding, enslaving, capricious and cruel would you readily understand the God who is “love”?

I was recently blessed by the testimony of Meng, a lovely woman of God who helped me focus these thoughts. I asked her for her notes so I could share her thoughts with you and spring into some of my own observations as well.

She shared something of her testimony recently and drew attention to Jesus asking His disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” (See Matthew 16:13-19). The significance for her is that her own vision of God has had to be expanded, progressively over the years, to open her heart and understanding to the wonder of the God who is her Father. We all have a head knowledge of who God is and can recite some of His numerous titles. In response to the question of who Jesus is, we could all say, “Messiah”, “King of Kings”, “Saviour” and so on. Yet we could easily say those things out of head knowledge, like facts learned for a school exam, rather than truths that burn deep into us.

Peter had a revelation of who Jesus is. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. And Jesus commended Peter for receiving ‘revelation’, since such knowledge of Christ came from God, not from Peter’s own analysis or his discussions with others.

Now, in Meng’s case, having come from an Asian religious background, her understanding of God was tainted by her existing concepts of what a deity is. She described her situation quite poetically, in the allegory of serving the gods of Egypt in her former life of slavery to sin. I let you read it as she put it.

“Before I came into the Kingdom of God, I served under the gods of this world. I was in bondage in Egypt and I served under the god, Pharaoh. As his slave I had to work long and hard to please my master and when I didn’t work hard enough, Pharaoh, my taskmaster, would punish me. I was made to feel guilty and I was compared to others who outperformed me. My god was my taskmaster. I had to work for acceptance – and although I worked very hard for it I still didn’t get it. No matter how hard I worked, it was never enough – my only reward was to work harder. That was all I knew about god and gods.

When I was set free from Egypt, I brought the same concept of God out with me. I left the slavery of Egypt but I still have traces of Egypt in the way I live in the promise land.”

Meng testified to how she has lived under a performance syndrome, having to push herself to do her best, in the vain quest for acceptance. As a Christian she continued with the impetus to please God, as if He too demanded excessive striving before He would accept her.

What set Meng free from that former concept of God were the truth of God’s Word and an ever deepening revelation of God. Isaiah 55:1 blessed her as it reveals how God’s wonderful graces and abundant benefits don’t come because we can earn them. Christ in us makes us acceptable to God, not our own vain efforts.

The anointing of the Holy Spirit and the showering of God’s love in her heart (Romans 5:5) have been rich healing streams, releasing her to embrace the revelation of God as her ‘papa’ who she can snuggle close to, just as a child would to her daddy. Relationship is replacing performance. Being a child of God and a ‘friend’ of God (as Moses was) are transforming revelations. Being the bride to our heavenly bridegroom, Jesus, is also a strong relationship revelation. And in it all Meng is enjoying an ever deepening hunger to know God, to enjoy a powerful revelation of who He is and to go into richer and sweeter relationship with Him.

So, who do you say that Jesus is?

Notice that Peter’s heightened revelation of Christ resulted in him being given new destiny. Jesus blessed Peter and prophesied great authority for him. That’s what comes from an increasing revelation of God. We are transformed by every new insight we have into who God is.

The surest way for you to become like Christ and to be transformed from the inside out is to get a clearer and deeper revelation of God. Those old religious ideas may have become a strong-hold in your heart and mind. I have met people who can only think of God as a fearsome God of judgement. They cannot accept the truth of God’s love and grace.

Your past concepts of who and what God is may well be robbing you of your spiritual growth. And your ideas of what a father is, based on your childhood experiences, may also be blocking your acceptance of God as a loving Heavenly Father. The false teachings of various groups may have infected your thinking.

I recommend that you read the Bible with eyes to see the rich depth of God’s reality and the awesome grace and love which He possesses, along with His holiness, authority and power. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom and relationship with God is the outcome of His salvation. I pray that you, like Meng, have an ever increasing longing for intimacy with the God of all eternity.