Empowering Grace

Grace is a power that can help us become the productive, fruitful, and contributing people God created us to be.

1 Corinthians 15:10But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them– though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

We don’t want to live in vain, to live lives that are unproductive or void of significance. Paul believed he became what he was by grace. Grace had real effects in his life, and one was that it empowered the way he lived his life and what he did in his ministry.

Paul learned to let grace into his life. He learned to receive it, he learned to work with it, he learned to rely on it, and he learned to share it. We can learn these things, too.

Usually when we think of grace, we think of God’s free, unmerited favor, especially shown to us through Jesus on the cross. That’s a big part of what grace is. But it is also more than that. Paul says God’s grace to him was not in vain. It empowered productivity in the things of God. For Paul, God’s grace is the true subject, the real doer, of the work he did. Grace played such a big role in what he did that he could say, “It was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

His comment about working harder than all the other apostles is a little defensive and polemical. It seems Paul struggled with comparing himself to other Christian leaders. In 1-2 Corinthians he accuses other leaders of making comparisons and participating in rivalry, but he seems to have struggled with these things himself. He wanted to be the very best, and he probably was. But even if he had some mixed motives, and cared too much about being better than other leaders, we can learn from what he recognized about relying on grace for making progress in his life and ministry.

And no-one can doubt that Paul lived a productive life, starting churches and strengthening first-century churches all the way from Judea to Rome. He says in 1 Corinthians 3:10,According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation.” Grace was the power that made possible his work and his influence. Grace made him the master builder that he was, laying the church’s foundation from city to city.

We can learn about how grace worked in his life as a route to learning the same strength for our own lives, so we can say with Paul, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” And, “It was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”

It’s a principle: Grace is a power that can help us become the productive, fruitful, and contributing people God created us to be.

Interpreting a Passage of Scripture in Depth

My seminary students have appreciated this, and I hope it can be helpful to others. I wrote it with the interpretation of New Testament epistles in mind, but you may also find it helpful for other parts of the Bible.

1.  Read the passage very closely, several times, to see what’s in it. Try to read it in more than one translation. (If you’ve studied Greek, use it, but this guide doesn’t assume knowledge of Greek.) What questions come to mind in regard to the passage? As you read the passage, try to follow the train of thought. Describe the line of thought as best you can.

2. Notice the key repeated words and ideas. What role do they play in the passage? What is the main theme(s)? Describe the transitions from one theme to another. Describe what you think these verses are really about.

3. If at all possible, read the whole letter to look for insight into your passage. This will help you take advantage of the literary context. When you find connections between your passage and other parts of this book of the New Testament, describe the links and record the verse references. What can you say about the stage of the overall book where your passage occurs? Does reading the whole letter give you information about the rhetorical situation? (By rhetorical situation, I mean the circumstances of the author and audience that led the author to write as he did.) Has reading the whole letter helped to answer your questions regarding the passage? What insights into your verses have you gained in light of the whole-book context?

4. Now that you have made many observations, review your notes, think through them, and draw connections between the things you have seen. How would you summarize the focus of the passage? What conclusions can you draw regarding the role and function that your passage plays in the book as a whole? How do these verses help to shape the theology of this book of the Bible? What conclusions can you make about this passage’s teaching regarding the Christian life?

5. If you have not already done so, ask yourself: How does what you see in the text relate to your life? How do you see yourself in these verses? How do you see your church or your society in and through this passage? How is God speaking to you, and how might God wish to speak to others through the passage?

6. This is a good stage to look at a commentary, if you have access to one. Now that you know what you think about your passage, you’ll be able to tell the difference between your own thoughts and what you find in the commentary. Does it offer insights that correct your perspective or persuade you of a different point of view? Do not assume that the commentary has all of the right answers. (A commentary is just an informed conversation partner.) Does the commentary give you historical or cultural information that adds insight into your passage? Be careful at this stage to keep a clear distinction between what the commentary says and what your own observations are, and keep a clear record of page numbers if you take ideas or quotations.

7. Have key themes or questions stood out that might help you organize an essay, teaching, or sermon? Organize the information you have found as well as you can until the basic outline of your presentation develops. If you’re writing a paper for a class, now is the time to write. Then proofread and edit it. Read it aloud to make sure each paragraph and sentence says exactly what you wish to say.

Communion and Mission

Much can be said about the Lord’s Supper. I want to share about it as a way that God makes the good news of Jesus real and tangible for us, so that we can be ready to make it real and tangible for others.

Jesus said, “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). And the apostle Paul said, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).

In the Lord’s Supper, we remember the story of Jesus’ death, and what we do proclaims the Lord’s death for us in a picture. But we don’t just remember it as a historical event. We remember that the event of Jesus’ death happened for us. As Jesus said, “This is my body, which is given for you” (Luke 19).

The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic memorial, but it’s also the case that something happens when we take the supper. Communion happens between Christ and us. Paul says, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a communion (sharing/participation) in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a communion (sharing/participation) in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor 10:16 ).

The Lord’s Supper is more than a retelling of what happened, and it’s more than a picture. It’s a means that God uses to work the good news of his grace into our lives. It’s true that this can happen through our daily life as we commune with Christ through prayer and as we live in his presence and obey him. But it also happens in an ongoing, special way through taking communion. Communion is a means for God to work his grace and love into the fabric of our lives. God wants the good news of Jesus to become part of who we are. Communion helps us to become, in a deep and tangible way, people of the gospel.

Jesus gave us a symbolic picture through the bread and cup (his body, his blood). We take that picture into our hands. And, audacious as it is, we eat and drink the picture. We consume the pictures and symbols, and they literally become part of who we are. It’s as though we take the raw elements of the good news into our bodies. The Lord’s Supper works the good news into us. It’s something God uses to make the gospel part of who we are. In a deep and tangible way, the treasure of the gospel lives in the earthen vessels or clay jars of our bodies (see 2 Cor 4:7).

Why does God do this? God does all of this because he loves us. He wants his love and forgiveness to be real, tangible, something we can get our hands on, trust, and believe in.

Yet there’s also another reason God does this: Communion makes the gospel real and tangible to us that we might receive what we need to go make it real and tangible to others. God wants to prepare us to embody the good news for the world around us. Communion is something Christ has given us that helps us to be his body in the world.

I appreciate how 2 Corinthians describes our role of embodying the gospel for the world. 2 Cor 2:14 says that God manifests through us the aroma of the knowledge of him. 2 Cor 3:3 says that we show that we are a letter from Christ. 2 Cor 4:6 says that God has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of his glory that’s found in the face of Christ. In 4:7, we carry around a treasure (Christ and the gospel) in clay jars, the earthen vessels of our bodies. In 4:10, 11, the life of Jesus is revealed through us as we walk through difficulties. 2 Cor 5:18 says that God has put inside us the message of reconciliation. Two verses later, we read that we are ambassadors for Christ. In 5:21, we learn that God made the one who knew no sin, Christ, to become sin so that we might become the righteousness of God. We become a sign on the earth of God’s righteousness. (God’s righteousness is his power to save – Rom 1:16, 17.)

Christ became like us, and died, that we might become like him, and live. And so we’re able manifest the good news to the world through our lives. When we take communion, it helps to make all of this possible.

Looking to Get Married?

Recent conversations here in Zambia brought to mind this message I spoke to young single men who were seminary students in Egypt. I wrote it in English but spoke it in Arabic at a chapel service of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo (April 22, 2009). It was written for the Egyptian context, which is unique, but some things carry over to other cultures.

I’ve noticed there’s a topic that we haven’t focused on in chapel, even though it’s one I hear about in many conversations here at our seminary. The topic that I hear about is finding a suitable young woman and marrying her. I’m not going to talk exactly about that, though, but about something closely related. I notice that students tend to give a big effort to find someone to marry. And of course that challenge deserves focus and effort—it’s extremely important! But the truth is that that is only part of the challenge. There’s another part that also deserves focus and a big effort.

The first verse we will read is Colossians 3:19a: “Husbands, love your wives …”

And the second is from Ephesians 5:25, 28: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”. Verse 28 says something similar “In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.”

It’s very easy before one marries to think that the big challenge is finding a suitable girl who will agree to marry him. The truth is that we need to place beside this another goal and challenge. And it is this: that we give the same effort to become ready for our roles as husbands. It won’t do to assume that we are already ready for this role, and that the one thing left to do is to find a wife. I believe the command that we love our wives is present in the Bible because it is not something that we naturally do without thinking about it. And so the Bible reminds us to concentrate on it.

One reason we need to focus on it is that your role as a husband will be a very big role that you will play in your life. And another reason is that our marriage has a big effect on our ministry. I’m convinced that we minister not only with skills and gifts but also by the kind of life we live. And how we live our life in our marriage is a big part of the kind of life we live. Our marriage can make God’s love become tangible and real to the people around us.

In Col 3:18 and in Eph 5:25, 28 the Bible says, three times, that we’re to love our wives, and the Greek verbs are in the present tense. The idea is that this is something we do continually, day after day. Our main role in our marriage is to love our wives. That’s the foundational part of our role. So we need to become able to love our wives.

We tend to assume that the big challenge and goal is finding a girl who is suitable and agrees to marriage. Because of this, a guy tends to think there is progress or no progress in this matter according to whether or not he sees a potential wife on the horizon. And if there’s no one in view, he feels that there is no encouraging news. And there can be a lot of frustration as he waits on God to provide the young woman. He feels there’s little he can do except wait. But I want to clarify that this perspective is mistaken.

It’s not correct because the second goal and the second challenge are as important, or more important, as the first one. There are many things that the guy can do toward the second goal and challenge. I mean this: You don’t have to focus only on finding a suitable wife. You can focus on becoming suitable. That is, focus on becoming someone who is able to love another person.

The question, “Are you suitable for marriage?” is as important as the question, “Have you found the one that you’ll marry?”

Are you ready for marriage? I mean: Are you doing things to grow so can became a husband who really loves his wife? What will happen if you find the girl but she sees that you aren’t mature and don’t have the ability to think beyond yourself and love another person? If she thinks that you will love her and show care to her day after day, that will make a big difference and help her to choose you. And after you marry her, if you become successful in your role, you will also increase her ability to be successful in her role as a wife. She will love you better if you are able to love her well.

Let’s change our main focus from looking for spouses to becoming people who will be successful in our roles as husbands. Focus on becoming men who can love another person continually day after day, in good times and in difficult times. The Bible speaks somewhat rarely about our role as spouses, so why not concentrate on becoming quite good at what it does mention, even now, before you marry.

But how can you get yourself ready now, even before finding your wife? By focusing on loving others now, especially in your close relationships. Take for example your family or your friends at the seminary and the guy you share a room with. Of course, there are differences between these relationships and marriage! But there are also important similarities.

When you marry, you will live out your life very, very closely with another person, closer to one another probably than in any other relationship. Your marriage will be a place of Christian fellowship. Your marriage will be a piece of the body of Christ. And this is not very different from your life here at the seminary. What you can learn through your experience in fellowship here you can apply in many ways to marriage. This seminary and your marriage—both—are places of growth as disciples. The life you live here can prepare you for marriage. You can do things now and here to make your marriage happier in the future, if you focus on becoming a person who is able to love someone else.

For example, if you have a problem between you and a friend, you can learn to talk about a problem with him and solve it with gentleness, from start to finish. And if you learn how to handle your anger and sadness in ways that don’t hurt a friend, this also will help your marriage. You can also practice giving practical help and support to your friends. And you can learn to be polite, honest, and unselfish in your relationships. If you learn how to do these things, you will have a better marriage.

So, whether you can see your future wife on the horizon or not, there are important things you can do right now that will help your marriage. If you do them, you will grow, and in the future you will give a beautiful gift to your wife. You will be a husband who can love his wife day after day. She will thank God for you.

The challenge is this: Shift perspective, from finding a wife to becoming ready to be a husband who loves his wife.

Forming a Christian Family (despite not having all the explicit directions from the Bible that we might like to have)

Our faculty and student small groups used this piece for discussion. We had good conversations, and I hope it can be helpful beyond our campus.

The New Testament does not offer as much direct guidance for family life as we might like. Passages that teach about the life of the church, and how believers are to live in unity with one another, may have as much to tell us about our life as Christian families as those few passages that deal directly and explicitly with family life.

When the New Testament was being written, those who wrote it were preoccupied with the meaning of the gospel, the nature of discipleship, and the welfare of new congregations of believers. The New Testament was written so early in Christian history that the biblical writers may have barely begun to give thought to what it means to have a Christian home and to live as Christian families. That may be why it’s hard to find many passages that deal explicitly and directly with our life as Christian families. The New Testament does confirm certain teachings from the Old Testament, such as reserving sexual relations for marriage. And we find specific guidance now and then, as when Ephesians tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5:25). However, as a whole, family life was not at the forefront of thought for those who wrote our New Testament. Because of this reality, when we turn our attention to Scripture for the formation of our families as Christian families, we have to exercise extra thoughtfulness.

Yet the truth is that the New Testament does give us plenty of guidance for forming Christian families, if we consider that the Christian home is a place of Christian fellowship and that a Christian family is a small piece of the body of Christ. In a Christian home we carry out our life of discipleship in a very close and personal way with other believers. When we realize these things, we can realize also that passages of Scripture that teach believers to live out the Christian life in fellowship with one another implicitly have much to say about life as a Christian family. Passages that teach believers to grow together as disciples fill the pages of Scripture. While the passages of Scripture that deal explicitly with family life may be limited, passages which teach Christians how to live in unity and grow together in Christ are plentiful.

So, today we are going to look at the passage that may be the poetic height of the apostle Paul’s writing on relationships between believers. It is safe to say that Paul was not thinking about family life or marriage when he wrote 1 Corinthians 13. He was thinking of helping the body of Christ in Corinth to get along with one another, and not harm each other, as they learned to use their spiritual gifts to build up their congregation. However, since Christian families are also small pieces of the body of Christ, what Paul said about love between believers in the body of Christ also speaks depths of wisdom about creating a Christian home.

Questions for Study and Discussion of 1 Corinthians 13

Let’s read 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 for the purpose of what these verses might speak to us regarding Christian family life.

1. In verses 1-3, love is a standard to measure the value and contribution that we add to the church. What would it look like to use these verses as a standard to measure what we as parents, spouses, brothers, sisters, and children offer to our families?

(1 Corinthians 13:1-3 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.)

2. Why might Paul have said in verse 13 that “the greatest of these is love”? Why would he elevate love over hope and faith?

(1 Corinthians 13:13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.)

3. How do verses 4-8a describe love? Can you summarize?

(1 Corinthians 13:4-8  Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends.)

4. What do these qualities look like when they’re expressed concretely in family life? And what would be the result if these qualities were present and increasing?

5. Are there parts of Paul’s description of love that were very present as you grew up in your own family as a child? Were there parts that seemed to be lacking?

6. What parts of the description of love are difficult or most challenging for your family now?

7. What habits or practices have you found to be helpful for cultivating love in your family? What ideas can you share that might help other families?

8. How can we pray for one another’s families today?

Refreshment for the Weary

When I noticed everyone was looking exhausted, I used this Bible study with the small group I lead for our first-year students.

Isaiah 40:25-31   25 “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.  26 Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.  27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God”?  28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.  29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.  30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

1.    What does this passage in Isaiah affirm to be true about God?
2.    What do these verses promise for the weary?
3.    What do you tend to put your hope in? What does it mean to put one’s hope in the Lord?

Matthew 11:28-30  28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

1.    In this passage from Matthew, do the people Jesus invites to himself have special qualifications?
2.    What does Jesus promise?
3.    What does Jesus tell us to do?
4.    How might being yoked with Jesus bring rest?
5.    What ideas do you have for how one can come to Jesus, take on his yoke, and learn from him?

Remember: A good night of sleep is not something to feel guilty about. Psalm 127:2b “For he grants sleep to those he loves.”

The Christian Leader’s Life and Ministry

Our theological college’s faculty and staff had a good discussion using this Bible study. Feel free to adapt it to your particular situation.

1 Thessalonians 2:1-12
JMTUC Staff Bible Study

As people who are involved in the training of pastors and leaders for the church, it’s important that we turn to Scripture for perspective on our work. Let’s study 1 Thess. 2:1-12 for insight into being a pastor and Christian leader. In  these verses, the apostle Paul recalls the time in which he was in Thessalonica doing ministry. He speaks of what his ministry required of him. He speaks of his aim, motivation, and practices. Let’s study the passage to see what we can learn from Paul’s example.

Let’s use these questions to open up the passage of Scripture and guide our discussion:

1. In verses 1-2, what does Paul say that his ministry required of him? What experiences did it make him pass through? (For background, see Acts 16:19-24 and Phil 1:29-30.) What character trait did it take?

2. In verses 3-8, what does Paul say were his aims and motivation? What does he say was not his aim or motivation? Why might Paul have emphasized whom he sought to please?

3. Does ministry today require the same character traits, aim, and motivation as did Paul’s ministry, or does it require something different? What tends to happen when these traits and aims are present, and what tends to happen when they are absent? Why does one’s motivation for ministry matter?

4. What does Paul say were and weren’t his practices and techniques in ministry? What similes (symbolic language) does Paul use to describe his manner of ministry, and what can we learn from these? Which of these practices might help us as people who train pastors?

5. Finally, in light of today’s passage and discussion, how can we pray for one another, for our students, and the church in Africa? 

NOTE: If you want to go into much deeper detail in the study of 1 Thessalonians, I recommend the writings of Abraham Malherbe.