Spiritual Freedom and Religious Captivity: thoughts from Galatians 5

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It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery….You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. (Galatians 5:1, 13)

Here we find a core lie the Galatians had bought into: that we can earn our way to God through religious activity or add something to God’s grace by doing the right actions.

Paul knows that this is a dead end. In fact, he dramatically says this in Galatians 5:4, “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ” (5:4). This has been a theme of the letter, and Paul is telling them that this lie will lead them off track. You cannot earn your way to God and you cannot add to the sufficiency of Christ. So, Paul writes at the beginning of this section of the letter: “Do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (5:1).

On August 23, 1973, Jan Erik Olsson, attempted to hold up a bank in Stockholm, Sweden. When the police showed up, Olsson took four people as hostages and a stand-off with police followed, lasting six days. At one point during the standoff, Olsson called Sweden’s Prime Minister to say that he would kill the hostages. He put one of the hostages on the phone and she said to the prime minister, “I am very disappointed in you…I think you are sitting here playing with lives.” Despite Olsson’s threats, many of the hostages decided they felt safer with the bad guy than with the police. Some hostages actually resisted rescue attempts and later refused to testify against their captor. Now, whenever you hear news of a hostage who identifies more with their captors than their rescuers that condition is referred to as the Stockholm Syndrome. Many years afterwards, one of the hostages said, “It’s some kind of a context you get into when all your values, the morals you have, change in some way.”

Sometimes this happens to us as we consider life in Jesus Christ. We get so confused about what is freedom and what is captivity that we live in a lie. We begin to think, “It cannot be so simple that God takes upon Himself all the cost. I must do something to earn His grace. I must add something to the work of Christ.” But this is just a spiritual version of the Stockholm syndrome.

We have been set free at great cost, and we do not need to return to captivity to find life. Instead, we must face into this core lie if we are going to live the free life that God intends through Jesus Christ.

From Worry to Prayer: a reflection on Philippians 4

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In one of the most well-known passages from Paul on prayer, Philippians 4:6-7, we read these words:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Every time I read the first part of verse 6 – “Do not be anxious about anything” – I confess that I feel a tingle of guilt over my tendency to become anxious about things. However, if there’s one thing I have discovered, it’s that feeling unnecessarily guilty about the things of God often kills the growth that God wants to bring. I pointedly say “unnecessarily” there because there are certainly things we should feel guilty about, such as willful sin, disobedience to God’s express commands, or lack of love toward others. Guilt should lead us to repentance and the kindness of God’s grace.

However, when we start to feel false guilt over feeling anxious based on this verse, it doesn’t help us do what Paul is really after here in his words to the Philippians. He is most concerned with calling the believers to prayer. Perhaps the rendering of the old King James Version will help us here because it sounds so foreign:

Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.

The word (μεριμνᾶτε) literally means to be anxious or troubled by many cares. Paul is encouraging the believers not to be weighed down with their worries (or even guilt about having those worries), but to turn toward the presence of God in prayer to present to God those sources of care and worry, thankfully trusting that God will answer.

To put it in practical terms, when cares and worries are overtaking us we should immediately reach out to God in prayer. That is the sort of mental and spiritual activity that is most beneficial; much more than agonizing over the sources of worry, let alone being guilty about worrying. When the stresses of life – relationships, work, school, the future – reach out to grab us and hold us within their grubby hands, we should turn immediately and run into the arms of our good God. With Him we find open arms to receive us, hands capable of holding our troubles and worries, and divine peace that inexplicably enables us to find gratitude even in the midst of our stormy lives. The Apostle Peter echoes these words of Paul when he writes:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

What anxieties or worries do you need to release into the hands of God today?

What would it look like now to turn to God in prayer to experience His provision, peace, and care?

 

Power in Prayer: Learning to Pray with St. Paul

This coming weekend at Eastbrook Church we begin a teaching series entitled “Power in  Prayer: Learning to Pray with St. Paul.” This series is the first of a three-part series related to our 40th anniversary as a church. Since the earliest days of Eastbrook, prayer has been profoundly important and vital to our life as a church. It was often said that we wanted to be a church that could only be explained by the power of God.

As we move forward we want that to continue to be true. We believe that prayer is the heart of what it means to live with God, live as the church, and live on mission in the world. In this series, we will explore three basic aspects of the life of prayer so that we might be rooted in life with God and bearing fruit for His kingdom.

August 17/18 – “Prayer as Living within God’s Love” (Ephesians 3:14-21)

August 24/25 – “Prayer as Life-Shaping by God” (Colossians 1:9-17)

August 31/September 1 – “Prayer as Power for Mission with God” (Romans 15:23-33)

Bibliography for Ephesians series

 

Here is the resource bibliography to accompany the recent preaching series, “Ephesians: A Crash Course in Basic Christianity.” Although I utilized many books or resources for specific messages within this series, I did not include all of those in this bibliography. Instead, I limited it to books our preaching team utilized throughout the series. The books I found particularly helpful are marked with an asterisk.

Bibliography on the book of Ephesians:

* C. E. Arnold. “Ephesians, Letter to the.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid, 238-249. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993.

F. F. Bruce. The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984.

John Chrysostom. “Homilies on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Ephesians.” In Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff, vol. 13, 49-172. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2004.

LaMoine F. DeVries. Cities of the Biblical World. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997.

*Harold W. Hoehner. Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002.

William W. Klein. “Ephesians.” In Expositor’s Bible Commentary, rev., vol. 12, 19-173. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

Eugene Peterson.  Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.

* Andrew T. Lincoln. Ephesians. WBC. Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1990.

Handley C. G. Moule. Ephesian Studies. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1900.

Klyne Snodgrass. Ephesians. NIVAC. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.

John R. W. Stott. The Message of Ephesians: God’s New Society. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1979.

A Letter from Prison (Philippians, pt 6)

This is my final post in a series on Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

As he concludes his letter to the Philippians, Paul offers some final ‘secrets’ to living well for God.

The first is to “rejoice in the Lord always” (4:4). This echoes Paul’s theme of thankfulness from chapter one, that there is a grateful joy we can have in life. The secret behind such rejoicing is to turn our anxiety in to prayer, presenting God with our requests and living in His peace (4:6-7).

The second ‘secret’ to living well is to fill our minds with the right sort of things. Paul knows the power that inner thoughts have to shape the life of a person. Because of this, he encourages the Philippian believers to think on “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy” (4:8).  What we think about impacts our lives through our attitude, words, and desires. Thoughts have power.

A third ‘secret’ Paul mentions from his own life is contentment. He writes: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or want” (4:12). Obviously, we know from Paul’s life that he has been in a variety of situations. Even now, he is writing from prison. In it all, however, Paul is content. The secret to Paul’s contentment is knowing God’s strength living in him: “I can do all this through Him who gives me  strength” (4:13). Paul points these words toward the Philippians’ situation later: “my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of His glory in Christ Jesus” (4:19).

As he begins, Paul concludes by rejoicing in God’s good gifts, thinking on excellent things that God does, and content because of all God provides.

How are you doing at living into these spiritual ‘secrets’ Paul outlines at the end of his letter to the Philippians?

[If you want to explore Philippians further, consider viewing the 2018 preaching series, “Unshackled: Joy Beyond Circumstances,” beginning with the message, “The Joy of Faith.”]