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Overseers and Deacons August 11, 2013

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Here are my thoughts on 1 Timothy 3.

Summary: Paul begins by making the following statement: any believer who has a godly desire to be a minister aspires to an excellent – yet difficult – office. Since the office of a minister is honorable, a minister should:

  • not be tainted with any disgrace that might detract from his authority
  • not engage in polygamy
  • exercise moderation and self-restraint
  • behave decently and honestly
  • support and encourage other church members
  • know how to apply God’s Word so that people listening will benefit
  • not drink excessively
  • not give out threats and act in a warlike way
  • not be covetous
  • bear injuries peacefully
  • avoid arguments and quarrels
  • be able to rule his own family so that his children behave modestly and respectfully
  • not be appointed to his office as soon as he professes Christ – in that case he would fall through his pride into the same condemnation as the devil
  • behave honorably and innocently among unbelievers – in that case he would not harden his heart and abandon himself to every kind of wickedness.

Paul then states that those believers who have been given the work of caring for the poor should:

  • not be double-tongued
  • embrace the wisdom that God has revealed to men through the Gospel
  • be men of experience, so that they – over a considerable period of time – would be found to be free of any notorious fault.

Paul also states that the wives of both ministers and deacons should assist their husbands in their work; thus, their behavior must be better than that of others.

Paul then states that a deacon should be content with his wife and should rule over his children and household with holy discipline. Indeed, deacons who faithfully carry out their ministry deserve to be honored, and they can serve Christ with greater boldness.

Now Paul notes that he expects to visit Timothy – and his opponents – soon, yet he is writing this letter – replete with instructions – in case he is delayed. These instructions should be heeded by pastors, who God has placed in charge of His house; indeed, His truth is spread and preserved through the ministry of His house. Paul concludes by preventing God’s truth from being demeaned through human ingratitude; His truth is the revelation of His Son, who:

  • was manifested in the flesh
  • was witnessed to be God by divine power
  • attracted angels – as they found Him to be new and excellent
  • won over to obey the faith those who apparently would never submit – the Gentiles
  • was raised up to the Father’s right hand.

Thoughts: In this passage, Paul presents a set of guidelines for elders. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verse 4:

Paul does not insist that a bishop should have no experience in ordinary life, but he says that he should be an experienced family man…In verse 5 Paul explains this by saying that a man who is unable to rule his own family is not a suitable person to govern God’s church…The person who wins the apostle’s approval here is not the one who is clever in domestic matters but the one who has learned to rule his family with positive discipline.

Now my church ostensibly has a rather liberal interpretation of Paul’s guidelines regarding elders, as one of our elders is currently single – though it should be noted that the other elders are married with grown children, and the single elder is getting married later this year. One must wonder how Calvin would react to my church’s interpretation of this passage; would he view us as a group of heretics? I am curious as to how my church arrived at its current interpretation of these guidelines for elders. Perhaps some of these guidelines are more important than others (for example, an elder can be single, but he cannot get drunk)?

In this passage, Paul also presents a set of guidelines for deacons. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verse 12:

Having mentioned wives, Paul sets out what is required of deacons, just as he had done for bishops. Each should be content with his wife, should set an example of chaste and honorable family life, and should rule over his children and household with holy discipline.

Again, my church ostensibly has a rather liberal interpretation of Paul’s guidelines regarding deacons, as one of our deacons is actually female – though it should be noted that the other deacons are married males. Again, would Calvin view us as a group of heretics based on our interpretation of this passage? I am quite certain that most, if not all, of our church members would assert that the husband is the head of the household; how do we reconcile that assertion with our interpretation of this passage? Again, perhaps some of these guidelines are more essential than others (for example, a deacon can be female, but she cannot be covetous)?

In verse 16, we see that Paul gives praise to Jesus Christ, since the preservation and proclamation of His revelation has been entrusted to the church. This burst of praise is not unique to Paul’s epistles; similar passages include Romans 11:33-36 and 2 Corinthians 9:15. Clearly Paul was so consumed by the Holy Spirit that he could not help praising God whenever the opportunity arose. Bringing glory to God was the sole aim of his life after He called him to be an apostle, and this is prominently displayed at certain points in his letters. As believers, we should pray that God would continue to work in us so that we would be compelled to praise Him at (apparently) random moments on a daily basis; we will praise Him more often as the Holy Spirit continues His work of filling us.

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The Lord’s Grace to Paul July 31, 2013

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Here are my thoughts on 1 Timothy 1:12-20.

Summary: Paul begins by giving Christ thanks that He enabled him – through His grace – to hold the office of an apostle; moreover, He validated his faithfulness by calling him to this office. Now he had blasphemed against God and had persecuted the church, venting his anger on it – yet He forgave him because he did not deliberately attack Christ; he sinned out of weakness. Indeed, God has wiped away his past offenses and forgotten them; moreover, He has transformed him into a new person.

Paul then asserts that the lost can find their salvation through Christ. In particular, he has found salvation through Christ even though God viewed him as a great sinner. This obviously shows God’s grace in him – and so he has neatly turned the tables on his opponents, who had falsely attacked his ministry by highlighting his past life as a great sinner. This causes him to praise God as the King of the ages who never changes; moreover, He lives in inaccessible light.

Now Paul shows his affection for Timothy and reminds him of his charge regarding the law; he encourages him by reminding him that God – through various prophecies commending him to the church – approves of his ministry. Thus, Timothy can have renewed courage as God’s standard bearer in Christ’s army. In particular, Timothy should stick to sound doctrine and minister with a clear conscience; in contrast, some have not served God in a pure and honest way, and so their faith has disappeared. Paul concludes by noting that those whose faith has disappeared include Hymenaeus and Alexander, who he has excommunicated in order to overcome their fierceness.

Thoughts: In this passage, we see that Paul is extremely grateful to God for choosing him as an apostle – perhaps because of his past sinfulness. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point in his commentary on verse 13:

God forgave Paul his blasphemy because he acted in ignorance, but people who deliberately blaspheme can expect no such forgiveness…While Paul had an evil disposition to a certain extent, his mindless zeal took hold of him so that he was convinced that his actions were right. So Paul was not deliberately attacking Christ, but did so out of ignorance. But most Pharisees, in their false accusations against Christ, did so with a bad conscience…They were in total rebellion against God and they opposed Christ in a deliberate and calculated way.

Now this implies that in some sense, God made a distinction between the sins of Paul and those of the Pharisees – He evaluated their motives for sinning. Calvin then offers some other thoughts in his commentary on verse 15:

But the question arises about why Paul should say he is the worst sinner, since he acted in ignorance and the rest of his life seemed blameless to other people. This underlines how gravely God looks on the sin of unbelief, especially when it goes hand in hand with violence…God, however, judges unbelief, deliberately persisted in, very seriously, as he holds the obedience of faith so highly.

Now this implies that God considered the sins of Paul to be quite serious. Should we then infer that although God made a distinction between the sins of Paul and those of the Pharisees, He still lumped all of their sins into the category of “serious sins”? In that case, would each of the Pharisees be viewed by God as “the worst sinner,” since He did not forgive them? It is also difficult to accept Calvin’s assertion that “Paul was not deliberately attacking Christ.” We know from Acts 22:3 that Paul had a thorough knowledge of the Old Testament; none of the Pharisees surpassed him in that regard. In that case, how could Calvin infer that Paul was not opposing “Christ in a deliberate and calculated way?” Based on these difficulties, I am now looking forward to another stroll through 1 Timothy – sometime in the future – using a different commentary so that I can get another perspective on this passage.

In verse 20, Paul notes that he has excommunicated Hymenaeus and Alexander from the Ephesian church due to their false teachings. Calvin offers some thoughts on this point:

Paul talks to Timothy about Hymenaeus and Alexander as two men who Timothy would know well. I think that Alexander is mentioned by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles as the person who tried unsuccessfully to quell the riot at Ephesus…Alexander lived at Ephesus, and we have already noted that this letter was mainly written for the benefit of the Ephesians…We now see Alexander’s end, and we learn from this to hold on to our faith with a good conscience so we can be kept safe to the end.

Hopefully I will have the opportunity to meet Hymenaeus and Alexander in the next life (in that case I would want to know how God brought them to repentance, perhaps via Paul’s excommunicating them from the church at Ephesus). What caused Hymenaeus and Alexander to fall away from their faith? Did Gnosticism play a role in their blasphemy? Did another false teacher come to Ephesus and convince them that the foundation that Paul had laid there was incomplete? How did they view Paul and Timothy? Did they have a chance to read Paul’s earlier letter to Ephesus, and if so, how did they respond to it?

Doing Good to All March 27, 2013

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Here are my thoughts on Galatians 6:1-10.

Summary: Paul begins by exhorting the Galatians to comfort any fellow believer, who has been tricked by the devil, with a loving and meek spirit; indeed, they should remember that they can fall more dangerously and shamefully than their deceived brethren. He also exhorts them to bear the faults of others – thereby obeying the law of love. Now the authors of sects do not understand Christ and His law. The Galatians, though, should ensure that their work is sincere and sound; they must not seek their own glory or rely on the praise of others, but they must please God. Indeed, believers will only be able to rely on the witness of their own conscience at the Final Judgment.

Paul then exhorts the hearers of the Gospel to look after their teachers. He also reminds those who hate God’s ministers that God will punish them; thus, ministers should be supported and cared for. Those who give nothing to God’s ministers while only supporting themselves will reap eternal corruption, but those who cherish God’s ministers will gain eternal life. Moreover, believers should – in general – do good, even if their efforts are met with ingratitude, as they will receive abundant fruit at harvest time (the Final Judgment). Paul concludes by exhorting the Galatians to support all needy believers.

Thoughts: In verse 1, Paul exhorts believers to act lovingly toward a fellow believer who has been deceived by the devil. Luther offers an interesting perspective on this point:

It is especially good for us who are in the ministry of the Word to know these things, lest while we are trying to touch everything to the quick, we forget the fatherly and motherly affection that Paul here requires of those who have charge of souls…Pastors and ministers must indeed sharply rebuke those who have fallen; but when they see that those persons are sorrowful for their offenses, they should begin to raise them up again, to comfort them, and to mitigate their faults as much as they can – yet through mercy only, which they must set against sin, lest those who have fallen are swallowed up with depression.

As I noted in a previous post, this commentary is based on a set of lectures that Luther delivered at Wittenberg University in 1531. As Luther presented this material to future pastors, one must wonder if his students took his words to heart. During their ministerial careers, did they have the requisite strength to “sharply rebuke those who have fallen,” even at the risk of losing members of their congregation? If any of the believers who they rebuked were “sorrowful for their offenses,” did they overcome their natural desire to belittle them and “raise them up again?” Clearly pastors are held to a high standard, and those who are contemplating a career in ministry should be mindful of Luther’s comments on this verse. Readers of this blog who happen to be ministers should feel free to chime in.

In verse 4, Paul exhorts believers to focus on their Christian walk without comparing themselves to others. Luther offers some pointed thoughts on this:

Therefore, anyone who truly and faithfully does his work will not care what the world says about him. He does not care whether the world praises him or criticizes him, for his conscience tells him that he has taught the Word purely, ministered the sacraments rightly, and done everything well, and this cannot be taken from him.

Clearly the struggle with vainglory and pride is a lifelong battle for believers. Now if it were possible for a believer to serve God faithfully and avoid receiving any feedback from others regarding their ministry, perhaps it would be somewhat easier for that believer to avoid feeling prideful. Yet this scenario is fraught with problems; if a believer does not receive any feedback from others regarding their ministry, how will they gauge the efficacy of their service? What if they are making errors in their ministry that need to be addressed? Even if they could serve without receiving any feedback from others, would their sinful nature incite prideful feelings in them? From my own experience, dealing with vainglory and pride is an unpleasant process; I constantly struggle with these sins. I long for the time when my prideful feelings will vanish.

On Divisions in the Church July 1, 2011

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Here are my thoughts on 1 Corinthians 3.

Summary: Paul begins by telling the Corinthian believers that they are not outwardly spiritual – they outwardly follow the ways of the world, and they lack Christian knowledge and experience. This caused him to give them a rather simplistic presentation of the Gospel – he did not present it in its fullness. Indeed, they are still influenced by their sinful natures; the fact that quarrels and feelings of jealousy arise between them proves that they act wickedly and follow the ways of the world. For example, Paul draws their attention to the religious factions that have arisen in their midst, where one group claims to “follow Paul” while another claims to “follow Apollos.” To address this issue, Paul makes the following points:

  • he and Apollos are actually mere attendants upon God, and God worked through them to bring the Corinthians to a saving faith in Him – note that this results from the work that God has appointed for each of His ministers to perform
  • ministers have diverse roles in the kingdom of God, yet they totally depend on Him to work through them in fulfilling these responsibilities
  • ministers are inherently worthless, and all of their success is due to God
  • all ministers have the same relationship to God and to His body, and God will reward each minister according to his faithfulness and self-denial
  • all ministers labor with God in advancing His kingdom, and they all work on increasing the fruitfulness of His church and building it up.

Now since the Holy Spirit has given Paul all of the gifts and abilities that he needs to carry out his assigned tasks, he has begun the work of God in Corinth as a skilled architect; others are now carrying on his work, yet they should consider the “materials” that they are using in this regard. In particular, note that these ministers cannot change the facts that 1) Christ is the foundation of His church and 2) Paul has already laid this foundation in Corinth. If any of these ministers builds on this foundation using truth or error, the true nature of their work will be revealed on the day of the Lord; their work will be tested in such a way that nothing of which God disapproves will survive. They will be rewarded if their work passes this test; otherwise, they will not be rewarded, and with great difficulty they will retain their salvation. To drive home the seriousness of a minister’s work in building up the church, Paul asks the Corinthians if they know that God’s glory – in the form of the Holy Spirit – dwells in them, making them God’s temple. Paul then reminds them that if any minister brings God’s temple into a worse state, God will bring that minister into a worse state, as God’s temple is holy and cannot be defiled with impunity. The Corinthians should not doubt what Paul has just said concerning the distinction between the world’s wisdom and God’s wisdom; if they believe that they are wise by the world’s standards, they need to renounce this wisdom and receive God’s wisdom instead. Indeed, God knows that the world’s wisdom is useless, and He has communicated this fact in the Old Testament. Given the entire preceding discussion, the Corinthians should not place their trust in ministers; indeed, trusting in their ministers causes them to miss the fundamental reality that all things are directed by God for their ultimate redemption. Indeed, the ministry, the entire cosmos, the lives and deaths of all people, and all past/present/future events, are meant for the ultimate redemption of the church. Paul concludes by inferring that the church can only be subject to Christ (and Christ can only be subject to God the father).

Thoughts: In verse 2 we see that Paul draws a distinction between “milk” and “solid food” in terms of what he taught the Corinthians concerning the Gospel message. Hodge offers some insightful thoughts on these phrases:

The true nature of the distinction is to be learned partly from the meaning of the imagery and partly from parallel passages. The meaning of the image leads to the conclusion that the difference is in the teaching method rather than in the things taught…The important truth is that there are not two sets of doctrine, a higher and a lower form of faith, one for the learned and the other for the unlearned; there is no part of the Gospel that we are authorized to keep back from the people.

I thought about what it means for a mature believer to take in “solid food.” Based on what Hodge notes above, my thought is that all believers can take in “milk” in that we can all learn the basics of Jesus’ life and ministry. It seems that eating “solid food” entails taking these basic facts and understanding them at a deeper level with an eye toward practical application; one might wonder, “how can I overcome this particular challenge given my knowledge of Jesus’ person and work?” For example, the basic Gospel message leads to the inference that Christ is actually superior to both Moses and to angels, implying that converts from Judaism should remain faithful and not return to their former religion – this is precisely the message of the book of Hebrews. Also, the Gospels show us that Jesus calls His followers to a life of self-denial; this fundamental truth is then analyzed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic The Cost of Discipleship, where he shows that to truly follow Jesus, we need to live lives in light of “costly grace” as opposed to “cheap grace.” This notion of “costly grace” spurred Bonhoeffer to serve the Lord faithfully in resisting the oppression of Nazi Germany.

Verses 10-17 indicate that if any minister builds on the basic Gospel message with doctrines that arise from human wisdom, he will not be rewarded for his efforts. Hodge offers some interesting thoughts in his commentary on verse 15:

He will just escape with his life, as a person is rescued from a burning building. His salvation will not only be effected with difficulty, but it will be attended with great loss. He will occupy a lower place in the kingdom of heaven than he would have done.

This is an intriguing interpretation of this passage; unfortunately, I still have difficulty comprehending it, as I cannot understand the concept of a “ranking” in the kingdom of heaven. Is it truly possible for glorified believers to occupy “greater” and “lesser” roles in heaven? Will the believers who occupy “lesser” roles be truly satisfied with their assigned tasks? Will the believers who occupy “greater” roles be able to avoid feelings of arrogance? My understanding is that both of these questions are to be answered in the affirmative, yet I am curious to see how this plays out…

In verses 21-22, we see that Paul instructs the Corinthians to cease their party-based quarrels, since “all things are yours.” Hodge explains this phrase as follows:

1. It means that all things are designed to promote the interests of the church. The consummation of the work of redemption is the great end to which all things are directed and to which they are to be made subservient.
2. The church is the “heir of the world” (Romans 4:13). All things are given to Christ as the head of the church and to the church in him. His people are to reign with him (Romans 8:17), and the glory that the Father gave him, he gives to them (John 17:22).

I thought about this fundamental reality; frankly, it still amazes me. Before the beginning of time God was able to maximize the interests of the church; consider this as a optimization problem with an enormous number of variables. Billions of people have lived throughout human history, and countless additional plant and animal species have carved out their existence on this planet. To solve this optimization problem, God also needed to account for natural processes including fires, plate tectonics, and hurricanes. To make matters yet more interesting, all of these variables are not independent; they interact with each other, sometimes chaotically. God took this rather involved optimization problem – one that we cannot even begin to model, let alone solve given our current computational limitations – and solved it, which is completely mind-boggling.