Make every effort and see to it!

marathon

14 Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15 See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16 See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. (Hebrews 12:14-16)

In this passage the writer of Hebrews admonishes God’s people to live together centered on life in God instead of turning aside.  Two decisive verbs capture our attention in this section.

The first of those is “make every effort.” The believers are to make every effort to live in peace together and also to be holy or to be sanctified. As we discussed last week, there is a call to Christian unity in the peace of the Lord that requires effort and hard work. We have to help one another and stand together in the long endurance race of faith. It is not easy because we will grow weary and sometimes are wounded, but that is why we are called to make every effort. This is not contrary to the grace of God but our strength for the effort comes as an overflow of God’s grace.

This unity is fueled and sustained by holiness, without which no one will see the Lord. Holiness is essential to unity and we cannot sacrifice holiness on the path to unity. Otherwise, we are not talking about Christian unity but something else. Holiness means that we are increasingly reflecting the presence and character of God in our lives. To become holy means that we are turning away from sin and being increasingly re-formed to look more and more like Jesus. This is a work of God in us by the power of the Holy Spirit that will continue until the day that we are with the Lord face to face.

Holiness requires us to “make every effort”; not that we make ourselves holy, but we make the effort of putting ourselves steadily into the place where God can have His way in us. It is firstly a decision of the will, and secondly action within our lives. This is not opposed to God’s grace, but it is both our response to God’s grace and preparatory to God’s grace having its way in us.

The second of the decisive verbs in this section is “see to it.” “See to what?”, we might ask.

First, see to it that no one in the community falls short of God’s grace. Help one another. Walk together. Encourage one another. Correct one another. This is what it means to be the body of Christ. We are not in this for our own growth alone, but for serving one another as the body of Christ. This is why Paul the Apostle writes to the Philippians:

“if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” (Philippians 2:1-4)

Just as the Apostle Paul finds joy as he sees the believers live in such tangible unity and care for one another, so, too, the writer of Hebrews calls them to see to it that God’s grace makes its way into each and every one of their lives together.

Secondly, they are to see to it that no one gets off course through sexual immorality or godlessness. Esau is given as an example of someone who just loses their way through godless living, eventually losing the birthright and blessing of God – something that he could not get back.

Brothers and sisters, if we see someone losing their way in sin, we need to gently, but decisively, address it. The writer calls out sexual sin because it was pervasive in the culture of the day but also because it is one of the clearest and most basic manifestations of a life that is at odds with God’s way. This does not mean that sexual sin is weighted as worse in the grand sense, but it is a sign that the same sort of godlessness decried in Esau is happening in us. We should not approach one another with condescending judgmentalism but with humility and grace. The goal of addressing such sin is not condemnation but encouragement and the strengthening of God’s grace in our lives matched by growth in holiness throughout the community.

At its heart these verses call us not to walk away from the essential faith in Jesus Christ. Verse 15 say see “that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many,” which is a reference not to bitterness but to idolatry – a turning away from God – that gripped God’s people during the Exodus. The warning in these verses calls us to stay on course with God and not to lose our way through sin. Make every effort…see to it!

[This is excerpted from my message, “Make Every Effort,” on Hebrews 12:14-29.]

A Letter from Prison (Philippians, pt 4)

This post continues a series of posts with thoughts from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. These posts are personal reflections taken from devotional reading of the book.

Paul mentions Timothy and Epaphroditus to the Philippians when writing to them. From Paul’s laudatory words, we see that both of these men are examples to the believers then and us today.

Paul describes Timothy as:

  • “I have no one else like him, who will show genuine concern for your welfare” (2:20)
  • “Timothy has proved himself” by serving with Paul “as a son with his father” in the work of the gospel; apparently being one who looks out for the interests of Christ Jesus, not just himself (2:21-22)
  • he will faithfully report back to Paul (2:19)

Paul describes Epaphroditus as:

  • “my brother, co-worker and fellow soldier” (2:25)
  • “your messenger” sent to take care of Paul’s needs (2:25)
  • became sick while with Paul, almost died, but is now well (2:26-27) by God’s mercy
  • “risked his life” for the gospel work by caring for Paul (2:30)

These two believers were examples that Paul could hold up for the church in Phillipi. We all need examples of faithfulness to God toward whom we look in our daily lives. Those examples help us as we try to continue to pursue God and work for Him in this world.

How have examples of faith been an encouragement to you in your faith?

[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.”]

A Letter from Prison (Philippians, pt 3)

This is the third in a series of posts with thoughts from Paul’s letter to the PhilippiansA Letter from Prison (Philippians, pt 1). These posts are personal reflections taken from devotional reading of the book.

I have always been captured by Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:12-13:

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill His good pleasure.

These two short verses provide what I see as the best description of the mysterious tension that exists in our lives between God’s power and our effort. Paul is challenging his readers to obey God – and his teaching about God – even though he is geographically apart from them and in prison. He offers a kind, yet challenging, word to the believers to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

In essence, Paul is telling us that we need to put in hard work to work this all out. It will not just ‘happen’ without energy expended and effort given to the work. I cannot help but think of Paul’s encouragement to his young pastoral trainee, Timothy, to “train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7). His comparison in that passage to physical training seems to echo through the current words to the Philippian believers. ‘Get to it! Don’t stop working at it!’ Paul says.

But the other half of the equation is the reality that “it is God who works in you.” This working out of our salvation is not something based in human effort alone. Our own efforts find strength and their source in the truth that God is at work within us. This should encourage us, but also give us that “fear and trembling” Paul references here. Right now and right here in our lives, the Living God is at work. He will do His work in our lives. That’s why Paul said that God will “fulfill His good purpose” in us or, as he wrote earlier in this same letter, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion” (Philippians 1:6).

So, we find ourselves resting in this mysterious tension that we are to work out our salvation, while knowing that anything that comes worth talking about is fully from God’s gracious work in us. We cannot wait for God to do something without putting some effort into it. Yet, we cannot believe our efforts will do a thing apart from the powerful working of God in our lives.

[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.”]

A Letter from Prison (Philippians, pt 2)

This is the second in a series of posts in which I reflect on Paul’s letter to the Philippians. These posts are personal reflections taken from devotional reading of the book.

Paul looks at the motivations behind how we live. He wants his readers, and us, to live worthy of the gospel, be like-minded, and have a Christlike attitude with each other:

  • “Whatever happens, as citizens of heaven live in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ” (1:27)
  • “Not only to believe in Him, but to suffer for Him” (1:29)
  • “being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind” (2:2)
  • “in your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had” (2:5)

It seems like our motivation for doing this should come from understanding our heavenly citizenship and from Christ’s example. At times, we may be motivated by the presence of a godly leader or mentor, like Paul, but that should not be our primary motivation.

Instead, Paul tells the Philippians, we should derive our primary motivation in life from a firm focus upon Christ’s example and our eternal destiny. When we face struggles in our life, just as Paul was enduring imprisonment when writing this letter, these larger realities will keep us going in life.

What motivates you to keep going in life? How has Christ’s example or focus on your eternal destiny helped you to keep going?

[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.”]

30-Days of No Complaining Challenge

grumblingNicole Pajer, a freelance columnist for Rolling Stone and The New York Times, discovered something interesting about complaining. After deciding to participate in what she called a “30-days of No Complaining Challenge,” her entire perspective on her circumstances changed. She realized much of what she complained about were “what-if” situations that had not happened yet. She also found that she was able to be more present generally in life and specifically with others, more grateful for what she did have, and overall she experienced more joy in her life.

As I mentioned this past weekend in my message “Shared Joy,” I’d like to take Pajer’s concept of the “30-days of no complaining” and connect it to spiritual growth in light of Philippians 2:14-15, which says:

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’

Following on his discussion of living as citizens of a new kingdom in a manner worthy of the gospel (Philippians 1:27), and after highlighting Jesus as the example of selfless love and humility, Paul the Apostle calls the Philippian believers to “work out their salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you” (2:12-13). Unexpectedly, Paul’s chief application of this is toward our words and speech. Specifically, he calls believers to let go of grumbling and arguing so that joyful witness to Christ might rise up. This is a veiled reference to the failure of Israel to live as a blessing to the nations, instead to devolving into grumbling after their deliverance in the Exodus and the parting of the Red Sea.

For those of us who follow Jesus, this exhortation from Paul is both challenging and helpful. Paul is basically saying to us: do not let anything in or from your mouths hinder your witness. He is saying to the early church, and through them to us: learn from Israel’s failure and respond to God’s grace from your hearts, in your lives, and with your mouths. Yet how challenging that is!

Now, there is a difference between complaining and pointing out something that is wrong. There is a right and good place to say hard things in a way that contributes to the good in ourselves and others. One example is that famous proverb, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17).  Grumbling and complaining, however, is rooted in a disposition of discontent that leads to murmuring or muttering in every direction. In a sense, grumbling and complaining are expressions of how much we feel out of control in life or our circumstances. Likewise, arguing, at least in the sense that Paul is addressing here in Philippians 2:14, is an attempt to assert control when we feel out of control. Grumbling, complaining, and arguing are contagious in the worst ways possible.

Yet, a basic truth of life that we all must realize is that we are truly out of control in life. Although we do have domains of responsibility, all of our spheres of control are ultimately contingent or delegated to us. As those who know God through Christ, the freeing truth is that we are out of control yet we are held by the only One who is ultimately in control. This realization can move us from complaining to rejoicing, from grumbling to gratitude.

So, I want to invite you to join me in a “30-Days of No Complaining Challenge.” Think of it as a form of fasting within your speech. Maybe you want to choose with me to take the next thirty days to:

  • turn away from ourselves and our grumbling, complaining and arguing
  • turn toward God in prayer, rejoicing, and gratitude
  • learn from our failures in our words about our tendencies to grumbling and complaining
  • surrender to God in new ways, particularly in our speech, in order to reflect Him more truly

Jesus said, “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45). Grumbling and arguing arise from a disordered heart. Join me in allowing God to do a new thing in our lives that begins in our hearts and minds and overflows into our lives and mouths, so that we might “shine like the stars” in our witness to Him and He might get the most glory out of us.