Putting on the Character of Christ in Divided Days

“As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” (Ephesians 4:1)

In Ephesians 4:1, Paul urges the Ephesians—and us, through them—to live a life worthy of the calling we have received. The unity of the church in divided times is tied into putting on the character of Christ. The verb here is “to walk.” We need to walk worthy. We’re to walk it out. Live it out daily. What does that look like? Well, Paul tells us in verses 2-3.

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:2-3)

We are to put on the character of Christ. What is that character? Well, let’s just walk through it slowly with some application to our current moment.

“Be completely humble”

Paul urges the believers toward complete humility and this is a very challenging word. Who has arrived at that? None of us. The sense of the phrase is that believers are to have a wholly humble opinion of themselves. And when we think about the way we live together in the church, we must remember that if we are quick toward a high opinion of ourselves and lack humility, unity will be destroyed.

“and gentle”

Gentleness is a strange word to us today. Who has ever heard a political leader or a CEO start their campaign or new job by saying their agenda would be gentleness? It would not usually be well received. Now there is a related word to gentleness, which we encounter in the Beatitudes, and that is “meekness.” Jesus said, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Our experience tells us that is not true, but Jesus shows a different way. In fact, this first phrase of Paul in Ephesians 4:2, “Be completely humble and gentle,” may remind us of Jesus’ own description of Himself when He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart…” (Matthew 11:28-29) If we forsake gentleness and meekness, we do not look like Jesus. If we forsake gentleness, the unity of Christ’s people will be destroyed.

“Be patient”

If the first two words didn’t get you, this one will. Patience means long-suffering. One additional shade of meaning on this word is that such a person is slow to take vengeance. This is good because the Lord has said that vengeance is His, not ours. But if you didn’t notice, we live in a vengeful culture. Be careful of what you say or what you do. It may come back to haunt you. In fact, you may be crucified by those who accuse you. But don’t worry, the accusers usually become the accused in a culture cycling through vengeance. But the body of Christ is to exhibit a different way. We are to be patient. If we forsake patience, if we are quick to anger and swift to revenge, then unity will be destroyed.

“Bearing with one another in love”

The image here is to hold something up as one stands erect, sustaining something or, here, sustaining one another. Believers are, in a sense, to stand shoulder to shoulder, upholding one another. How do we uphold one another? In love. I really appreciate how the New Living Translation renders this: “making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love.” Have you ever seen another person’s faults in the church? Have you ever seen your own? Make space…bear with one another. When we do, unity is sustained and upheld.

“Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3)

And to cap it all off, Paul says that we have to exert ourselves to keep unity. Here is an important idea: unity does not happen by accident. The natural tendency of human existence is toward disunity and disorder. Just look at your apartment or house over the course of a week. It does not become cleaner on its own, but it does become dirtier. In like manner, the gravitational pull in human relationships is toward disunity and disorder. Unity happens only through focused exertion toward that end. But also notice how Paul emphasizes the exertion is partnered with the Holy Spirit. This is not merely a human work; it is a spiritual work of God within humanity. If we do not work at it, relying upon the Holy Spirit, unity will be destroyed

These days have been hard for everyone. Churches are feeling the tension during these days. But the church is supposed to be a diverse community, with young and old, local and international, rich and poor, many professions, many ethnicities, and many opinions. We must make space for one another around Jesus and the Cross, but also choose to put on the character of Christ in our relationships.

Please pause and consider some personal reflection questions about this in the midst of the divided days:

  • how does our character match up with Paul’s exhortation here?
  • how is our humility, gentleness, patience?
  • how well are we bearing with one another in love?
  • are we exerting ourselves toward unity…or are we hoping someone else will sustain it if we speak or act impatiently, live with pride, open our mouths in gossip, and generally lean into our flesh?

May God help us to walk with Christ and in Christ as one.

The Surprising Reality of Disunity: insights from Philippians

In Philippians we see Paul do something rarely seen in any other letter. Near the end Paul specifically names two individuals, exhorting them toward unity. He writes in Philippians 4:2-3:

“I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.”

Here is the challenge: we are one in Christ, but we often don’t live like it. And that challenge grips the church in Philippi.

We do not know exactly who these two women, Euodia and Syntyche, were, but they were evidently pillars in the Philippian church. Because of how Paul earlier addresses the various pressures believers in Philippi faced, it is most likely these two Christian leaders were in disagreement about how to live out the gospel in the face of external pressures or even persecution.

This situation also highlights something else about conflict and unity in the church: disunity is not just a problem for those who are young or immature in the faith, but also for those who are mature in the faith.

These two women were leaders within the church—even deemed co-workers with Paul—as it says in verse 3: “they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel.” They were friends and co-workers called by name by Paul who knows them and cares for them, as well as the entire church in Philippi.

Friends, this is not that different from our own day. Because of the pressures on us during this incredibly divisive time, as Christians we are struggling to figure out what it looks like to live out the gospel in our day and time. We wrestle with what that means and sometimes we disagree with one another about that. This is not necessarily a maturity issue…but it is a real unity issue.

We are one in Christ, but we often do not live as one. The situation in Philippi, a church which Paul joyfully thanked God for daily, should not be surprising to us. Challenges to unity are normal… …but we must actively uphold unity with love.

[This post was drawn from my message, “Becoming One: the developing unity of the church as the community of Christ.”]

What Does It Mean to Live in the Kingdom of God?

Near the end of his magnificent letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul calls early believers to live fixed on the most important things, not superficial things such as what we eat or don’t eat, what we drink or don’t drink, but true life in the kingdom. This is how Paul describes the Christian life there: 

“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17)

What does it mean to live in the kingdom? According to Paul the Apostle it means at least four things.

Righteousness
As one of the central themes of Romans, righteousness is tied in with the work of Christ that justifies us before God by faith. But in the context of Romans 13 righteousness also has to do with living rightly in relationships within the Christian community. Kingdom living is about righteousness.

Peace
Living in God’s kingdom is living at peace with God through Christ and at peace with others. This is not merely the absence of conflict but the fullness of biblical shalom where all things are right in God’s world as they should be. This is the sort of good life that all human beings truly desire.

Joy
When righteousness and peace are present in our lives we will almost inevitably live with irrepressible joy in our lives. This is a joy that exists regardless of our circumstances, as Paul testifies in his great “epistle of joy,” Philippians, which was written from prison. Kingdom living is joyful living.

In the Holy Spirit
All of these attributes, and kingdom life itself, comes through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit enters our life through faith in Christ as both the powerful presence of God and the One who makes the realities of the kingdom real to us personally.

To be made right with God the Father, to live in the peace of Christ, and to walk in the joy of the Holy Spirit—this is what the kingdom life looks like. Doesn’t that sound good?

When we hear Jesus proclaim that “the kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15), He is letting us know that this sort of life is now accessible to us. We can enter it now—not just later when we die—and live in it by learning from Jesus and walking by the power of the Holy Spirit. Dallas Willard describes it this way:

By relying on Jesus’ word and presence we are enabled to reintegrate the little realm that makes up our life into the infinite rule of God. And that is the eternal kind of life. Caught up in his active rule, our deeds become an element in God’s eternal history.[1] 

So we must say, ‘yes,’ to Jesus and daily yield to the Holy Spirit. Have you done that? Have you surrendered the little realm of you life to the realm of His life? Have you given your ‘kingdom’ to God for His kingdom?


[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco, CA: Harper Collins, 1998), 27.

How Important is the Gospel to Us?

Rembrandt Paul

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible….I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:19, 22b-23)

How important is the gospel to us? Does it save us only or does it shape every aspect of our lives. The Apostle Paul is motivated to sacrifice his freedom and autonomy for the sake of his gospel ministry. His goal is that more might be saved by all means available.

We do not see in Paul a half-hearted love for God and the gospel, but a wholehearted dedication. He surrenders all he is and has to God that God might use all of Paul for His purposes. Every aspect of Paul’s life is surrendered to God for His purposes: His freedom, his cultural frameworks, his preferences, his will, his strength, his comfort—everything.

What about us? Are we the sort of people who are completely surrendered to God for His purposes? Have we given every aspect of our lives into the hands of God or is there something that we have held back? Our response to these questions may reveal how important the gospel really is to us. May God give us strength to surrender everything to Him.

Three Ways God Uses Suffering in Our Lives

perseverance

We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

The sufferings we endure are not meaningless within the hands of God. This is true regardless of whether we have brought the suffering upon ourselves or whether it has come upon us through the hands of others or our environment. When we put ourselves in the hands of God by faith, our sufferings are invested with another purpose. As the Apostle Paul outlines here in Romans 5, God takes us in the midst of our sufferings and shapes something valuable into our lives.

First, Paul writes, God shapes perseverance into our lives. This is the capacity to keep going, even in the midst of adverse circumstances. Perseverance does not just magically appear in our lives. It is something that we must develop, like a runner suffering through training until she can run a full marathon. While none of us desire suffering, when we submit our suffering to God we free Him to develop perseverance into our lives. Without perseverance, nothing else will come because we will continually push against our circumstances and against God. But as we grow in perseverance, God can have His way in developing us for His glorious purposes.

Along with perseverance, Paul tells us, God uses our sufferings to shape character into our lives. Character is not an abstract gift from God—just an idea about virtue—but is something tangibly confirmed in our lives through the furnace of our trials. If you want character without suffering, you are looking for something else; perhaps a good reputation. If you want character without perseverance, you really want something else; perhaps informational knowledge of what character is. But if we really want character, there is no other way than through the furnace of suffering. Character is developed through trying and testing, like a precious metal refined in the fire as the dross is burned away to reveal its highest quality. Our character is developed and revealed through the fires of suffering combined with our willingness to persevere.

Third, Paul tells us that hope follows character and perseverance when our suffering is given into the hands of God. Hope arises as we persevere amidst the fires of suffering in which character is shaped. Without hope we give up in life, as we know from those who lose a will to live in dire health circumstances or imprisonment. But with hope, we can find meaning in life and keep going. It is by clinging to God by faith amidst suffering that we begin to see that God is indeed doing something else as we bear up in the challenges of life. Contrary to what we perceive with our eyes, God is at work, and this revelation that God is at work brings hope into our lives. We walk by faith and not by sight, as Paul writes elsewhere (2 Corinthians 5:7), but it is hope that keeps us walking. When we yield our sufferings to God, letting Him shape Christlike character in us, hope simultaneously springs up as we realize God has not left us alone and is working in our lives.

All of this meaningful work of God amidst suffering is sustained not by sheer human willpower (although the will is significant), but by the Holy Spirit who is the bond of love tying us into the presence of God through Christ. God is at work, completing what He begins in us (Philippians 1:6). God is working within us with the same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead (Ephesians 1:19-20). And so, even as Christ’s suffering was powerful significant, so, too, when we yield our sufferings to God they bring forth a harvest of righteousness for His glory.