Between the last election and these midterms, I’ve noticed an increase in certain memes being posted on social media asserting God is on a specific side.
For example, one meme has asked, “If Jesus were on Earth today, would he be at a Trump rally or in a migrant caravan?”
I understand and can appreciate that the purpose of such questions and posts and hypotheticals are meant to elicit or provoke a contemplated response, however leveraged it might be. The underlying framework of such assertions, however, concerns me.
Such assertions are presumptuous. Regardless of agenda, they put demands upon Jesus. They insist that Jesus think like we do or that we know what is best for Jesus to do.
Politics were tense in Jesus’ day, also. Responses in the region varied. Some groups decided to retreat to the wilderness to avoid what the world had become and wait for God’s Messiah to appear and set things right. Other groups believed it was important to remain amongst the world, but only while following the Law and a labyrinth of added clauses in order to maintain purity against the world’s influence. There were other groups who believed violent revolution against the Roman occupation was the best course of action, while others believed reaching political agreements with the Romans was the best option for peace, and power.
When rumors began to swirl that Jesus was God’s long-awaited Messiah, each of these groups believed they knew what Jesus should be doing. They would test Jesus with questions he would always turn around and use as teaching moments. They would invite him into their homes which he would again use to demonstrate God’s will. When messengers would be sent to ask Jesus if he was really the Messiah, he instructed them to compare his work to Isaiah’s imagery of the Messiah’s work and decide for themselves. On one occasion, when he realized a crowd wanted to make him king, Jesus walked away.
Jesus was not willing to let himself be manipulated or made a puppet dancing on someone’s strings. Jesus would not allow himself to be used for someone’s agenda because Jesus had his own agenda.
If you look at some of the disciples Jesus chose, there was a revolutionary and a tax collector. There were some who were with John the baptizer in the wilderness and there was a man who believed money made him powerful. And there were common men who tended to their trades, families, and local synagogues. Each brought with them their own sense of what was right. Rather than catering to any of their sides, however, Jesus’ instruction was “Follow me”. Jesus knew this divisiveness they were accustomed to was characteristic of the Fall’s disharmony, and that following him would cut through the chaos’ tangled web and move into a Way that is Truth and Life.
We cannot follow Jesus while insisting he follow us. We cannot conform to the image of Christ while insisting he conform to ours. We cannot worship a King we demand should be worshipping us.
It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about the things that we do. It’s that Jesus has already established the way God is going about dealing with all things.
The question for us is whether we will continue upon the way of fragmentation or follow Jesus upon the way which, through his cross, is already making all things new.
Once Paul has established and clarified that the gifts are various Spirit-shaped, Grace-expressive enablings by which the Church community equips one another with Christ-like maturity, in 1 Corinthians 12:29-30, he states a conundrum—not every believer has the same gift. Not every follower has the same function. It’s a conundrum that can create some concern within one’s soul. Do I have a spiritual gift? How can I discover it? How might I develop it?
Paul’s solution is to cut through the confusion with a simple, but excellent way forward. It’s called Love.
“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. 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. 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.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3)
In these sledge-hammering comments, Paul clarifies that if the giftings are not expressed in and through Love, the gifts will not facilitate the common good the Spirit meant to manifest. If our gifts are not channeled by Love, the Spirit will be unable to use His graces-in-us to shape a Christlike community. With the efficiency of the giftings appearing to depend on whether Love is present, it would then seem that Love is both the way of discovering our giftings and the means of disciplining ourselves for their use.
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-8)
A careful look at Paul’s famous Love passage here suggests at least two aspects of Love that relates to the discovery and development of our spiritual gifts.
One, this Love is interactive. “Patient…kind…not boastful…” are things that require interacting with others in order to be properly practiced. Since spiritual gifts are interactive by nature, Love gets us to where we need to be, both spatially and maturely, to use the gift. People won’t be blessed by the Spirit’s gifts in us if we’re not willing to interact with them, and we won’t interact with them if we aren’t willing to Love them. Love shapes in us the willingness to interact with one another so the Spirit can shape through us His Grace in that other.
Second, this Love is holy. This Love does not bend to whatever wind it’s blowing in; this Love remains rooted in the deliberately distinct and disciplined nature that brought it forth. Holiness seeks to use interactions as transformative encounters that yield “the common good” the Spirit desires to manifest. One might have the gift of godly knowledge, but if they don’t teach with patience and kindness, they cannot affect the “the common good”. If Christlikeness is the destiny, holiness is the fuel that makes Love go.
How might this all be generally applied? Look around your congregation. What people, situations, services, or needs are opportunities to practice this list of Love? Start small and simple; experiment and go from there. Over time, pay attention to how your maturation and ministering efforts overlap with the encouragement and growth of others; within that overlap may very well be an enabling by God’s Spirit to express His Grace.
In 1 Corinthians 12:7, Paul states “To each [brother and sister] is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good”. When you look at how Paul frames this verse, he begins with individuality, moves towards an encounter with the working of God’s Spirit presence, and ends up with anticipating a community characterized by God’s goodness. Paul’s framework here and throughout the chapter emphasizes the spiritual gifts are for the benefit of the body of Christ.
In Ephesians 4, another significant passage on giftings, Paul employs this same corporate language; in that passage, however, he frames it within the broader framework of Christ’s kingdom rule and how the Church exists within that royal reality; one we must be familiar with if we are to understand why the giftings exist.
Paul’s goal throughout his Ephesian letter is to animate his audience with the exultant reality to which Christ has been resurrected, elevated and enthroned to reign over. The conclusions and implications he draws out for the Church all stem from the fact that Christ reigns with glory and power. In Ephesians 4, Paul begins his discussion of the gifts by first briefly ruminating on the bookends of Jesus’ life in a motif that is rich with royal politics.
“But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it is said, “When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.”(When it says, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.)
“Descended” encompasses Jesus’ incarnation into a world gone wild, his kingdom-establishing ministry amidst that world, and the accomplishing of a restorative righteousness by his crucifixion. “He ascended” refers to the Father’s recognition of Jesus’ righteousness by the resurrection and exalted elevation to the heavenly throne. This gospel motif is the imagery of a crown prince who, having demonstrated and received recognition for his worth, is deservedly and triumphantly coronated as King over the Kingdom. It is a celebratory moment of elation and rejoicing for a good and wise King is once again in charge. The restorative righteousness the King accomplished must now be implemented across the breadth of the wild world. How? Those loyal to the King shall live strewn about the wide wild world as colonists whose lives are lived together as colonies reflective of the King’s righteousness and character. In order to fuel and energize their restorative efforts, the King regularly distributes and supplies his colonies with gifts of provisions.
The provisions of this motif, I suggest, are analogous to the gifts Paul proceeds to describe: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.”
Remember the old saying “It takes a village to raise a child”? Whether a butcher, a baker, or candlestick maker, everyone in the village had roles which contributed to the corporate livelihood of the village. Within this framework of Christ’s royal realm, Paul’s list of giftings are roles whose positions and functions are meant to establish and nurture Kingdom culture. If our churches begin to view ourselves as Kingdom colonies whose culture is a reflection of the King’s character, perhaps our fellowships will actually result in the holy community that is perceived by the neighboring world as good news.
From the outset of 1 Corinthians 12, the primary text on spiritual gifts, Paul does not actually use the word gifts. In v1, gifts is implied as the noun possibly being described by the adjective spiritual, as if Paul were saying “I don’t want you to be ignorant about those things or realities that take shape deep in our spirits”.
In vv2-3, Paul continues that, as former pagans, idolatrous influences were what had taken shape in their spirits. But since those idols were simply stone or wood, their spirits had just been responding to what was not actually calling or leading. It was incongruent, off-balanced living. In Christ, however, God’s living Spirit was now taking shape in theirs. In God’s Spirit, they had stepped into a life of congruence between who God was or what God was doing, and who they were now becoming. It is in the consistency of this congruent reality that special spiritual things, like cream rising to the top, begin to emerge.
When Paul eventually uses the word gifts in v4, its built on the root word for grace (charis) and the suffix used to indicate an end result (-ma); thus we have the word charisma, which here means an end result or expression of grace, or as sometimes interpreted, a grace-gift. One might even call these gifts “graces”. Given how our consumer culture conditions us to think of gifts as something we’re entitled to (Christmas/birthday lists) or as something we’re free to do with whatever we want, this aspect of grace helps keep our perception of giftings properly framed. This could shape our view of the gifts in at least two ways.
One, it clarifies these gifts are not ours to own. In vv4-7, Paul emphasizes four times that whatever the gift, the activity it enables, or function it serves, these gifts are rooted in, activated through, and governed by the Spirit. These gifts have their essence and being in and of the Spirit. They are His specialty, fashioned and given purpose in the depths of God’s personhood. They are functionary reflections of God’s Spirit. These graces of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing abilities, miracle working, prophecy, discernment of spirits, tongues, and interpretations we receive are inherent and natural to God’s Spirit. While our spirits are specially enabled, they remain as expressions of the Spirit’s essence.
Two, by receiving in part what is the Spirit’s entirely, these grace-gifts are essentially loans. Since God’s freely given Grace possesses a nature that necessarily correlates with God’s holy nature, our receipt of this Grace comes with the condition that we preserve its holy nature in the way we maintain it. His Grace-in-us is thus partially expressed as loans, or giftings, we have been entrusted with so that, as with Jesus’ parable of the talents (Mt25), when it comes time to settle accounts with God, we will have shown ourselves faithful and fruitful trustees of His Grace.
The spiritual gifts, therefore, are the resulting expressions of the Grace God’s Spirit is enabling into our spirits. It is how we choose to physically express these expressions of God’s Spirit that will determine if they are be a gift that keeps on giving God’s Grace.
By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the Jewish people’s relationship to the Law had grown complicated. Since they returned to their land from exile, they made such a concerted effort to avoid the lawlessness that had led to exile that they not only pledged to keep the Mosaic law, but they also erected additional traditions as a fence around the Law. As dedicated an effort it was intended to be, it ultimately resulted in a congestion that not only wound tightly around the neck of the people’s life of worship but also undermined it with hypocrisy. There was no clear line of sight into the heart of God.
So when he was eventually and, appropriately, asked by a lawyer which commandment of the law was the greatest, Jesus’ reply provided welcomed clarity. He answered “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt22:37-40).
So impactful was Jesus’ statement here that Paul echoed it in his own writings (Rom13:8-10, Gal5:14,). Jesus and Paul were both comfortable summarizing the Law as love because they knew their audience possessed an abundance of detailed knowledge of the Law; so much, in fact, that a summary was necessary. To this day, Jesus’ love summarization is one we have rightly come to rely on in our attempt to understand God’s demand on our lives.
A summary is only useful, however, as long as knowledge of what is being summarized is retained and appreciated. When the summarization becomes so constantly used that the specific details being summarized are no longer remembered or esteemed, it has become a generalization. Such is the situation I believe may be facing the Church today.
Many churches and ministers are so grateful for whatever attention span their congregations give that instead of spending it fixating on complex topics requiring explanation and nuance, they opt for simplicity, hence the appeal of the love summarization. Similarly, as Scripture’s complexities raise issues of holiness, communal obligations, or dealing with political ideologies and allegiances, the love summarization quickly provides much less tension and divide. Therefore, the desire of simplicity and the summarization of love are understandable avenues for maximizing one’s message in a short amount of time. Having said that, however, an over-reliance on the love summarization can inevitably lead to liabilities.
One, as Bible reading and literacy decreases, so does knowledge and understanding of its vast but critical narratives and theologies. Like a high-schooler’s preference for Wikipedia entries instead of reading the original material, the summarization of love becomes preferred to the appreciation of God’s Scriptural revelation.
Second, the love summarization, in and of its abstract self, carries no explicit moral impetus. During my freshmen year at a Christian college, I went to a store with another ministry student. He stole an item in front of me. When I objected, his response was that I needed to be more loving because God is love. When the concept of love becomes an enabler of lawlessness, what harmony or good does it or can it claim to represent or promote?
Finally, “Love” in its popular usage doesn’t necessarily require an acknowledging of the person and priorities of King Jesus. Consider the COEXIST bumper sticker; while every group featured there would uphold or celebrate “Love”, they are philosophically indifferent or opposed to King Jesus and what he demands. So, while in the Church “Jesus=Love” (maybe), outside of the Church, “Love” doesn’t carry the same gospel distinction, and is, therefore, insufficient as a tool in conveying the comprehensive reality of Jesus.
The summarization Jesus and Paul employed to demonstrate how love is the sum of the Law was a helpful and necessary one at the time. It provided much needed clarity into the heart of God. But if the Church’s use of that summarization begins to nurture an ignorance of Scriptural reality, or an indifference to its demands on our lives or to King Jesus himself, that summarization then requires a thorough unpacking. Churches and Christians would thus benefit greatly from education of a more developed quality. A kind that moves away from the inspirational pop theology characterizing many pulpits today, and instead digs into the texts, examines and discusses the hard topics, expanding upon the simplicities and the love summarizations to allow for an appreciation of the inherent details, complexities, and nuance to take root and flourish. Jesus and Paul’s love summary was a gift; it only remains a gift when there is an appreciation and allegiance to what it was summarizing.
Some time ago it was put to me that since Jesus’ teachings were delivered prior to his crucifixion, they fell under the old covenant and are, therefore, irrelevant.
Uncertain of the logic at work, I was unsure how to immediately respond. Perhaps it was a form of Marcionism applied to all events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion. Maybe it was an interpretation of Jesus’ last supper words “this is the new covenant in my blood” that presumed the whole of the new covenant’s reality exists only after his blood was shed. Whatever the case, if the statement is followed to its logical conclusion, it essentially discards everything Jesus said, did, and, ultimately, requires of us. Therefore, lest such a notion flourish within the Church community, I wish to share three brief thoughts on the establishing of the new covenant.
First, while the new covenant was certainly certified and initiated at the cross, the reality of the new covenant’s good news was initially established at the start of John the baptizer’s ministry. In Luke 16:16, Jesus says “The law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed”.
The law and the prophets constituted the reality of the old covenant. John’s message heralded the impending new covenant. Where the herald of the king is, there is the reality of the imminent king. How much more when the king actually appears?
Secondly, therefore, as God’s Spirit incarnate, Jesus’ arrival and ministry simultaneously fulfilled the righteous requirements of the old covenant while also transformatively establishing the reality and essence of the new covenant. In his earliest recorded sermon, Jesus began “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt5:17-19).
How is it that the old covenant passes away but its law does not? By becoming something else, what it was always meant to be—holiness distinguishing the heart of God in us. Not a system of works-righteousness, but worship lived in responsive conformity to the righteousness the King embodied on our behalf.
Finally, through Jesus’ death as the inaugural sacrifice, the new covenant is initiated as the living standard for all who would follow him. The old covenant followed the same pattern. Moses delivered the law to the Israelite people (Ex19-23), then the people pledged to obey it (Ex24:3). After Moses offered sacrifices (Ex24:4-6), he identified the blood as what notarized the covenant that then defined the relationship between God and his people (Ex24:7). Jesus mirrors this imagery at the last supper when he says, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt26:28).
Having received forgiveness, we now answer God’s grace with a response of obedience proportionate to what his new covenant requires of us.
Why does this material matter?
John Bright writes “Repelled by all legalism, we have come close to the point of apologizing for any duty religion seems to involve, nay, have offered a religion almost without the demand of duty at all. Can it be that in casting off all religious duty, we have ended up admitting no duty—save to ourselves? It is time that we heeded the lesson of the Holy Commonwealth: that religion, aside from all that it does for man, lays before him a duty and demands that he do it. Christianity does involve duty. And that duty is to obey God, not in general and as it is convenient, but in every detail, and without exception.”
Brought to life as his Church, we are a covenant-people whose culture is to distinguish a holiness and worship that reveals in us the heart upon which God has said “I will put my law” (Jer31:33).