When Peace Like a River

When peace like a river attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
“It is well, it is well with my soul.”

In November of 1873, American lawyer and professor Horatio Spafford planned to take his wife and daughters on a journey to Europe. Business pressure caused him to delay his departure but he sent his family on ahead. Their ship collided with another at sea and sank in a mere 12 minutes. Spafford’s wife was saved, his daughters lost.

Spafford left immediately for Wales, where his wife had been taken. En route, the captain of his ship told him when they were near the site of the tragedy. The words of this hymn came to Spafford while still at sea. They reveal a deep faith in the Lord and in his sovereignty. Clearly he was a man of God.

Back in the US, his painful losses continued to add up. He had already lost nearly everything in the great Chicago fire of 1856 and later lost his son. His church beheld the litany of suffering that had befallen him and, like Job’s friends, concluded he must be terrible sinner. In large part due to the feeling of being judged and excluded by his Christian brothers and sisters, Spafford and his family moved to Jerusalem, from which they never returned.

The spirit of judgment that too often characterizes our Christian fellowships is a terrible and inexcusable affront to the grace of God. How like the Pharisees – and unlike the Lord – is our tendency to condemn and exclude people in pain.

For my part, though my sin is probably greater than Spafford’s and my suffering (Stage Four cancer) is certainly less, I find myself valuing his hymn because it gives me personal encouragement. It complements beautifully Paul’s word to the Romans: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

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Christian Manipulation

I had great hopes about doing the most careful study of I John I’ve ever done. I’ve dwelt in the book many times but for some reason have never  given it the comprehensive study it deserves. Now I find I just don’t have the strength to think it through very deeply. So, for awhile at least, I’ll just drop it.

What I can do is keep putting into writing some of the ideas I’ve explored over the 55 years since I gave my life to the Lord. I don’t have to think so intensively about them.

One that has come to mind recently has to do with manipulative personalities. Naturally, Trump makes it impossible not to be highly alert to his petty mechanisms as a manipulator: He likes intimidation and flattery. He hates giving people enough information for them to understand what’s going on. Over the years I’ve dealt with several people with personalities twisted just like Trump’s.

But Christians have a manipulative tool not available to others. We can say, “The Lord told me to do this or say that.” Sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it? But such a way of speaking very commonly and frequently slips into an extremely serious manipulation.

First, it means the speaker is disavowing personal responsibility. We have no right to do that. We are responsible for ourselves and our decisions. Responsible means answerable. To whom are we answerable? Directly to the Lord. We are responsible for ourselves to our Lord.

Second, it puts the listener in the impossible position of feeling as if disagreement means resisting the Lord. If the decision was the Lord’s we cannot very well disagree, even if in every way it seems suspiciously unlike Jesus.

One young woman, who had earned the nickname “Buzzsaw” in another church before coming to the one where I was pastor, had a habit of beginning many of her comments with something like, “I’ve spent hours searching the Scriptures and praying about this and the Lord has shown me what you’re doing wrong.” That’s not helpful counsel, just plain manipulation.

Does this mean we cannot speak what we believe the Lord has taught us? Or that we must always refuse to listen when someone speaks that way to us? Not at all.

Want to pass on a word you believe you’ve heard from the Lord? Do so but do it without the manipulation. If the word truly is of the Lord, it will not need your emphasis or your help to reach the heart of the other person.

Want to know how much attention you should pay to one who speaks to you in that way? Two words come quickly to mind: character and maturity. If the person is mature in the Lord and of high character, we have good reason to take them seriously. There have been certain people in my life whom I trust so deeply that, were they to speak in that manner (none ever has), I would pay careful attention. I would still be responsible for any decisions I might make in response but the decision itself would, at the very least, come close to matching what they were saying.

People of Christlike character do not manipulate others because manipulation is demonic. Simple enough, right?

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I John 2:3-6

If you’ve been dwelling in the writings of Paul for awhile (such as reading my blog studies of Colossians), adjusting to John may take a bit of time. Remember, the Lord chose to write his word through the minds, the personalities, and the particularities of a wide variety of people over many centuries. We cannot read the various books of the Bible as if they were all the same flavor of vanilla.

[While I’m at it, let me comment, too, that studying whole books at a time, rather than a passage here or there, is of immense value. Again, it was the Lord’s choice to have the Bible written as a series of books. If that is God’s choice, it must be our choice to study book-by-book. To fail to do so is like saying to the Lord, “You didn’t do a very good job of designing and inspiring the Bible, so we’ll ust read it in the way that suits us.” Personally, I’m a bit afraid of telling the Lord he didn’t do well at something.]

So, in contrast to Paul, John rambles a great deal. We cannot know where the next verse is coming from or where it is headed. Yet he is very sharp – ideas we think he forgot to finish suddenly pop up again and, if we’ve been paying attention, we realize he has known all along just what he is doing.

John has just said that Jesus is the “atoning sacrifice,” the “propitiation” for our sins. Here he tells us how to be sure we know him. Is there any connection between those two thoughts? Yes, a very strong one. The implication is clear: Jesus is the Savior of those who know him. That is, in fact, just one part of a much larger idea: The promises of God are for the people of God. Somehow during the 20th century the church let the world slip into the idea that anyone can pray and expect God to deliver. I’ve met far too many non-believers who were angry at God (the very one they claimed not to believe exists) for not having answered some prayer in the past. They have thought that the relationship was supposed to be one-way, us asking and God giving. No, the promises of God are for the people of God.

Therefore, it is of extreme importance that we know that we know him, that we are each indeed numbered among the people of God. So, how do we know? The decisive evidence is simple: If we know him we obey him. John is not subtle here. Those who claim to know God but do not hold themselves to God’s standards (and, in my opinion, that includes a very large number of so-called evangelicals in our politicized day) are simply liars. The truth is simply not in such a person.

In those who do seek to live up to God’s expectations, who give themselves over to the Lord, become the very personification of God’s love.

The love of God has been or is being perfected in such a person. The word translated perfection is one of my favorites NT words. Unfortunately, I know of no English translation which takes it with the seriousness it deserves. The root form of the word is teleos, which means “in fulfillment of purpose or intention.” We are perfect when we live the way our Creator has intended. “You must be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Sometimes translators choose the word “mature.” “ It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ (Colossians 1:28).

The love of God reaches the fulfillment of God’s intentions when we are in harmony with all that he is asking of us. We are to “walk just as he [Jesus] walked.” That is, we are what God in his great love has intended when we walk in step with our Lord Jesus Christ.

It’s that simple. Right?

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I John 2:1-2

This brief passage reveals at another reason John writes. Obviously, he is not concerned with logical tidiness. Instead, he is thinking in the normal human way of dealing with several levels of meaning simultaneously. We do this all the time without quite realizing it. Here, John is revealing the “word of life,” calling us to fellowship and to honesty about ourselves, and writing so that we will refrain from sin.

But he rushes to affirm for us that, even if he fails (which he is bound to do) and we still sin, we have a paraclete with the father. That’s in interesting Greek word. Literally it means “one called to stand beside another.” It speaks, therefore, of support and encouragement.

Quickly, however, it seems to have expanded its meaning to include the work of a lawyer, one who stands beside and speaks for another. Here in John both senses are implied. Jesus is certainly an encourager who will not leave our side but he also speaks on our behalf. More specifically, he speaks to the Father on our behalf. When we stand before the judgment seat, we can make no defense for our lives. Jesus does that for us. He clearly does not claim “my client is innocent because he has done nothing wrong.” Rather, he says “My client is innocent because I have already been found guilty and have been executed on his behalf. There are no charges left against him.”

There aren’t empty religious words. They are spoken by Jesus Christ the righteous, who is himself the atoning sacrifice for our sins. “Atoning sacrifice” translates the not-common word “hilasmos.” It is found five times in the Septuagint (the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) and only twice in the New Testament. If you expand your search to include all forms of the word, you’ll find it 36 times in the OT and six times in the NT.

Scholars determine the meaning of a word by examining its uses in various contexts. Oddly enough, in this case, they know it has one of two meanings or maybe some blending of the two. On the one hand it means “expiation” or place of expiation. That means taking away one’s sin. I think of it as a good word for washing the dishes. We expiate the dried gravy from the plates.

On the other hand, it seems also to mean “propitiation.” If I volunteer to wash the dishes to make up for forgetting to make the bed this morning, I am propitiating for my sin. I am atoning for it.

There are many times when Scripture seems to present to us two alternatives. I frequently find myself thinking we must not choose one over the other but find a way to blend then into one insight. And that’s what I think we must do here. Jesus atones for our sin but also cleanses us. He pays the price and he removes our guilt. We are forgiven and we are made clean.

Some years ago, when I was a very young Christian, a lady stood up in a Sunday evening service and said that the blood of Jesus was just like the slipcovers she had put on two of her chairs that week. He blood covers our sin so that when God looks at us he cannot see the sin.

That immediately struck me as being out of harmony with Scripture. So, like a good Berean, I was driven to examine the matter again in the light of the Bible. It was a great exercise for me. My conclusion was that the heart of the idea of atonement is not what Jesus does for us but what he does with us. He does not go to the Cross in our place but with us. We are crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:19). And we are raised from the dead with him (Romans 6:1-11). The old doctrine of substitutionary atonement just doesn’t match the biblical testimony.

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I John 1:5-10

With his exciting talk about the very word of life being a “fingertip reality” (a phrase I’ve borrowed from my friend Ray Anderson), John has set us up to hear the words of fellowship and joy. But few of us could ever have guessed where he goes immediately after this.

“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you. . .” Yes, John, you’ve already told us that the message is that Jesus is the word of life. We’ve got the picture. . .or so we think. John goes on to surprise us. The message is that “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.”

Did he completely change the subject or is this just a subtle rephrasing? To understand, we are forced to read on. (We’ll discover as we go through I John that this is part of his writing style: forcing us to ask a question and then read ahead to find the answer.) What we quickly learn here is that John has just switched on a powerful spotlight and aimed it directly at us. If we claim to walk with God while actually walking in darkness, we’re simply liars.

If, on the other hand, we walk in the light as the Lord himself does, we have fellowship . . .Hmm, how would you finish that sentence? It seems obvious that the next words have to be, “. . .we have fellowship with him.” But that’s not at all what John says. “ . . .we have fellowship with one another. . .” What??? God is light and if we walk in the light of God’s character, we are in fellowship with one another. Does he mean we and God have fellowship with one another or that we light-walkers all have fellowship with each other? Remembering verse 3, we should make the tentative conclusion that John means both. We are united both with God and with one another.

That shouldn’t seem strange to us, coming as it does from a disciple of the One who taught us to love God with all our hearts and one another as ourselves. This is one love, not two

But the sentence is not yet completed. If we walk in the light . . .”the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” One side of the coin is fellowship and the other is the forgiveness made possible by the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. There can be no fellowship without forgiveness and spiritual cleansing, both from God and from one another.

We still don’t know what the image of “light” is meant to convey here. John is about to take care of that. If we claim to have no sin (no, I’m not going to mention our president), we make God a liar because he has already declared us to be sinners in need of justification and salvation. But if confess our sins, we are forgiven and cleansed.

The light must be honesty about who we are. If we’re honest about that, we’ll confess our sin and receive from the grace of God all his forgiveness. If we’re phony, God will not deal with us and we’ll live from one broken relationship to another.

Now, if all that is perfectly clear after just one reading, you’re a genius. John doesn’t write with the Greco-Roman logic that marks much of Paul’s writing. Instead, he writes in spirals, seeming to wander away but soon returning to each subject he raises. There is no shortcut to reading I John. You simply have to dwell in the text attentively until you recognize the connections.

i promise you it’s worth every ounce of effort.

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I John 1:1-4

Shall we begin our study of the First Epistle of John? It is a fascinating, sometimes rambling but amazingly insightful book. I remember my introduction to it (not counting the times I had read it for myself as I moved toward becoming a Christian]. An older layman was speaking to a small group of us about I John and said he liked the book because it seemed to be written by an old man who thought just the way he, the speaker, did.

Got your Bible at your side, open and ready to go?

If you’ve followed my blog entries on Colossians and Philemon, you may have gained some sense of Paul’s style of writing. Now we turn to I John and discover John’s mind works very differently than does Paul’s. His theology is expressed in very different ways, so put aside your Paul-spectacles and get ready for a very unique adventure.

Verse 1 says that this letter of John’s will be about a fingertip reality. We have seen the very word of life itself, John tells us, seen it, heard it, touched it. John was one of the original twelve, that small band of chosen men who walked with Jesus, talked with Jesus, watched Jesus in a hundred different situations. Certainly this verse could well have been the opening of John’s Gospel because it would fit so well as the beginning of the story of Jesus.

But John has already written his Gospel and has something very different in mind here. Jesus is not merely an historical figure and is clearly no mere theological doctrine to John. Rather, he is a beloved friend and teacher. Yet we dare not miss the first thing John has mentioned: that Jesus “was from the beginning.” And we must see the last words of the verse: “concerning the word of life.” Jesus was the very word of creation (Genesis 1 and John 1). And Jesus is the life-giving word, the difference between life and death.

Verse 2 assures us that the life found in Jesus has been revealed. It is not the “discovery” – and certainly not the invention – of the disciples. Again he emphasizes that the essence of life was something the disciples saw in Jesus and now they are declaring and testifying to the eternal life that is found in communion with the Father. It was revealed by the Father in Jesus Christ.

Verse 3 tells us again that John (and the other disciples) are declaring what they have seen and heard. They are passing on what has been revealed to them. How emphatic does he have to be? Do we get the message? This is not theology but memory, not abstract ideas but the clear recollection of seeing and listening to and touching Jesus Christ. And of having the Father reveal the meaning of the person of Jesus Christ.

Only now does John give us a clue about his purpose. He is writing so that we, his readers, may have fellowship with the first followers of Jesus. That is, we are being invited into the fellowship, the koinonia which the twelve had with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ. And, another way of stating his purpose, he is writing so that our joy – his, yours, mine – may be complete, may be all God has intended it to be from the beginning.

Communion and joy — this is what we are to be seeking in this epistle. (Remember Jesus’ prayer in John 17 as he asks God to blend us all together as one with him and his Father?)

I trust you’re now hungry for the rest of John’s letter, right?

 

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Ready to Study I John?

I’m currently working on blog entries on I John, which will begin in a few days.

Know of anyone else who might be interested in the kind of study we’ve just shared in Colossians? Why not invite them to join the the I John study?

Thanks!

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