Leadership in the New Testament Church

September 19, 2017

This was a message prepared for a small group of the Lord’s people whose insightful and careful leader is being lost to retirement and other volunteer work.  The group is seeking direction.  There is denominational pressure toward “standard” patterns, but some are concerned that the New Testament- style we have been choosing could be lost in such a situation.  Perhaps it will be helpful to others who are in a similar dilemma.

Leadership in the Church

Many, if not most of us have chosen to be at GMF precisely because it is NOT like other “church” groups that we have encountered. We need to keep this in mind as we discuss and attempt to discern “What now?” as Jim and Ruth have felt led to move on. Who we are, and who we choose to become, will both affect and be affected by that decision.

It is fairly easy, for example, to observe whether the primary loyalty of a group is to a “kingdom of this world” or the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus, if, as soon as you walk in the door, you observe that an idolatrous national symbol adorns their “center of worship.”
It is similarly easy to discern a group’s “definition of church” by the titles and the deference accorded to their “leadership”. When well-meaning people responded to the news that we were “looking for a church” with an enthusiastic “Oh, you should come listen to our preacher (or minister, or pastor, or bishop, or choir, or worship team)”, we knew immediately that we would NOT find the fellowship we were seeking there. An “audience” at a “performance” is not our definition of “church.”

When, years after a couple of earlier abortive visits, we visited GMF again, we saw something quite different, and very rare. We saw a group trying to function as a brotherhood. And for better or worse, here we are.

More than 60 years ago, I had been attracted to a small group at college who were trying to become a brotherhood informed by and copied after the New Testament. It has been a long and often futile effort. I have never understood why folks who say they follow Jesus pay so little attention to the only source of reliable information about his instructions! Seems like that should be a no-brainer! It is only in the New Testament that we can find any reliable record of the transformation of a wildly diverse assortment of people into the “Body of Christ” – the Kingdom of God!

These folks knew they had become involved in a drastically different new life. Teaching was crucial, in order to learn how this new life was to operate. Fellowship, the sharing of their lives, provided the context for practical experience in Kingdom living. “Wonders and signs” accompanied the message, but the greatest wonder of all was the transformation of those thousands of individuals into a cohesive brotherhood.

Recently, Jim has done a beautiful job of describing some of the challenges of becoming the Body that the Lord intends for his people. In fact, the decision to be joined to the Body of Christ should be the last individual decision of a person’s life! From then on, he is no longer a single individual, but a part of a larger whole, a member of the Body. Alone, a hand, a foot, an eye, an ear, can neither survive, nor fulfill its intended purpose. It can’t even be properly related to the Head, without the necessary connecting parts! A finger is of no use unless it is connected to a hand, which is utterly dependent upon an arm, and thence to a shoulder — were each individual part connected directly to the head, the result would not be a body, but a monstrosity! “Just Jesus and me” does not work! Only together can his people become an extension of his presence in the world. Stanley Hauerwas posed a crucial question: “Can we so order our life together that the world might look at us and know that God has been busily at work?”

Probably the most detailed instructions in this regard are in Paul’s letter to Ephesus. He speaks of various functional persons being given to the church: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers — PLEASE NOTICE THAT THESE ARE ALL PLURAL!!! – for the purpose of “equipping the saints (that’s everybody, folks!) for works of service!!!” THESE ARE NOT OFFICIALS who do all the work or give orders to the others. They are ENABLERS, who teach and create opportunities for the rest, properly to represent their Lord in the world! (Jim has accepted this responsibility as skillfully as anyone I have ever seen! But there is only one of him. The church needs many, many more.)

This is the context in which the various “spiritual gifts” are found, and in which they are intended to function. That is another subject that we should study carefully, but there is not time today. For our present purpose, the message is simply that in a healthy Body, whenever a need arises, the Lord has a member of that Body available and empowered to minister to that need. If the Lord assigns a job outside the Body, he likewise provides one or more members with the ability to accomplish that task. These empowerments are not diplomas, titles, or status symbols, and certainly not hired positions; they are simply the wherewithal to get a job done. They constitute a delivery system, bringing the power of God to bear upon the human situation.

The life of the Lord Jesus will not flow through a Body whose fragments are all rushing off in different directions, taking their cues from some flamboyant “leader” other than the Head. His life will not flow through a body whose parts are atrophied from disuse. The Body will grow, mature, and become what the Lord intends only when all its parts are working TOGETHER, sharing with one another all that he has entrusted or revealed to each of them. EVERYONE IS INDISPENSABLE, if we learn rightly to “discern the Body.”

Is it necessary to assume, then, with all the Biblical emphasis on the contribution of every member, that no leadership in the conventional sense is needed, required or welcome in the Body of Christ? By no means! Leadership has not been eliminated: it has simply been redefined. True, there are no positions of dominance, prestige or power in a faithful Body. But there are many needs for leadership on the part of those who see their task as simply fulfilling one of many functions and not as a position of status or domination.

This orientation of the Kingdom, of course, was as diametrically opposed to the prevailing cultures of the first century as it is those of our own.

The Jewish and pagan religious systems had a surprising amount of common ground. In both, the ordinary person was denied the privilege to approach his god directly. The office of a priest-intermediary was required. After all, one had to be frightfully careful: a mistake could offend the deity, and result in disaster. People were familiar with the Old Testament stories of death and disaster coming upon those who dared to come too close. Pagan priests also held a tight rein on their constituencies. They ruled by dint of their esoteric knowledge and trickery shared only with their own initiates.

The gods had to be appeased, and only the priests knew how to mollify them. We saw in an earlier study how in the Jewish temple, a heavy veil was used to exclude ordinary folks from the presence of God, and how that veil of separation was utterly destroyed at the moment of Jesus’ death. For citizens of Jesus’ Kingdom, THE VEIL IS TAKEN AWAY once and forever!

Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus has chosen to speak TO and THROUGH ALL of his people!

In practical terms, this means that ALL of the secrecy and exclusion common in the surrounding religions is totally out of order for the people of God – even – or especially – when it is enshrined in “official” structures like denominations or conferences! The New Testament, by contrast, is replete with examples of people who, entrusted with roles of leadership, went to great pains to be certain that everything was done with the utmost integrity. From every congregation that contributed to the relief offering for Judea, Paul took along a representative to ensure its safe delivery. Peter, even tho called and specifically instructed by the Holy Spirit, took along brethren from Joppa as witnesses when he visited Cornelius. After each missionary journey, Paul and his co-workers reported back to their sending congregation at Antioch. Free-lancing was not and is not the mark of faithful leadership.

Neither is taking personal credit for what the Lord does. Very early, Peter and John had opportunity for a “glory trip” after the healing of a lame man in the temple. They overtly rejected the plaudits of the crowd,, and attributed the event to the resurrection power of Jesus. Paul and Barnabas reacted the same way to the worship offered them at Lystra (Ac.14).

There will – there must – be leadership in the Kingdom. But faithful leaders will take care that there be NO VEIL – total openness, total honesty, and the complete absence of any shred of secrecy or manipulation, is absolutely necessary.

Another safeguard which helped prevent any abuse of authority is the consistent pattern that every assignment, every “office” in the N.T. church is always spoken of in the PLURAL. In every group, apostles appointed local elders (plural) to supervise the new brotherhood. Eph.4:11 lists apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers (ALL PLURAL) who are to facilitate the ministries of ALL THE SAINTS. And even a cursory study of that term reveals that “saints” consistently refers, not to individuals of superior power or holiness, but to ALL the people of God. There is no hint of expectation that all the jobs in any given congregation will be filled by one or two individuals hired to “run” the church. In a faithful colony of the Kingdom, NOBODY IS OVERWORKED!! If in any congregation or denomination someone is overloaded with responsibility, then someone else – probably many ‘someone else’s’– are being cheated out of the privilege to be active in the King’s service. THE PRIMARY JOB OF ANYONE IN LEADERSHIP IS TO SEE THAT THE BODY BENEFITS FROM THE CONTRIBUTION OF EVERY BROTHER AND SISTER!!!!! The second is to be busily training his replacement.

Jesus himself had sharply defined the function of leadership in the Matthew passage we read this morning, and strictly forbidden the use of any honorary titles or deferential treatment of anyone filling ANY role. The lesson was apparently learned so well that at this distance it is difficult to determine who had what responsibilities. Steven, for example, chosen for deacon work in caring for widows, became a powerful preacher. Paul’s letters refer to “apostles” (using both male and female names) of whom Acts bear no record. Philip, also starting out as a deacon, was later known as an evangelist. The concern clearly was getting the work done, not in handing out certificates of merit or protecting anyone’s “turf”.

Jesus had stated it very clearly: “You have one Teacher and you are all brothers.” Different people may be in charge of directing different aspects of Kingdom work, but NO ONE INDIVIDUAL IS IN CHARGE!

In fact there is only one NT reference to one person being “in charge” of a local group – In III Jn.9-10 Diotrephes is chastised for speaking against elder apostles, loving to be first, refusing to welcome other brethren, in short, “running the show.”

No leader must ever be beyond challenge. Paul reported to the Galatian church about his encounter with Peter, when Peter stood in need of correction. On several other occasions he challenged the “pedigree game” and deliberately rejected the “value” of his own.

How then were assignments made? In many different ways.
Saul, who was used to giving orders, was introduced to his new role by Ananias, an obscure disciple in Damascus, who is never mentioned again. Ananias’ obedience to the Lord, however was a link in the chain that gifted the world with the ministry of Paul. Later, Barnabas took him in hand and encouraged the other apostles to accept the authenticity of his conversion. How much poorer would we be, had these two not acted in faithfulness!
Matthias (Ac.1) was chosen by lot at the initiative of the first disciples, after the congregation had chosen two nominees.
The deacons were selected by the entire congregation, to minister to an unmet need among them. The twelve, who obviously exercised a degree of authority, did not act threatened or defensive when the oversight was called to their attention. They did not call a private “ministers meeting”. They threw the issue back to those who had perceived the problem, and said, in effect, “you’re right: find some qualified folks to do the job!”
Prophets (plural) and teachers (also plural) in Antioch were enjoying a prayer meeting when the Holy Spirit spoke, directing them to call Paul and Barnabas for a special assignment.
At Lystra, Paul met a promising young man and invited Timothy to join the work.

The method of selection does not seem to have mattered.
But please notice, that IN NO INSTANCE was a permanent or even a temporary title conferred upon anyone. Jesus had forbidden that!!! Each was simply called to perform a needed function!

In view of the importance of function a look at the system in action may be helpful. A good example is the account in Acts 15. The Gentile brethren in Antioch were being hassled by some self-appointed “defenders of the faith”. The troublemakers had not come with the endorsement of the brotherhood, but on their own initiative. Discussions became heated. Consequently, the church commissioned Paul and Barnabas and some others who are not listed, to take the matter to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, who were apparently serving in a supervisory capacity. Their choice is described by the same word that is translated “ordain” in other contexts. Sent by the church, they set out, reporting as they went the work of God in calling Gentiles into his Body.

In Jerusalem, they met with “the church, the apostles, and the elders.” As they repeated their report, some folks objected: likely either the ones who had caused the problem, or some of their cohorts. At this point, (perhaps there was too much commotion to make any sense out of things!) the apostles and elders gathered to study the matter. BEFORE A JUDGMENT WAS MADE, however, ALL THE ASSEMBLY (literally “all the multitude”) listened to the testimony. In an eloquent demonstration of New Testament leadership, James summarized the argument, related it to Biblical precedent, and recommended a solution. “Then it seemed good to the apostles and elders AND THE WHOLE CHURCH, having chosen men from among them, to send them to Antioch…” Their letter speaks of “having come to one mind”, and confidently reports “It seemed right to the Holy Spirit and to us.”

Here is New Testament leadership at its best: hearing all sides, bringing them face to face, and helping them to a Scriptural consensus that results in “great rejoicing” among the brethren. THERE WAS NO CLOSED DOOR MEETING OF AN HIERARCHICAL IN-GROUP, but simply open sharing of perceived light among the citizens of the Kingdom.

Clearly, there will – there MUST – be leadership. That is to be neither lamented nor celebrated, neither sought nor avoided, but carefully controlled, and conformed, not to the pattern of the world with its executives, flow charts and committees, but to the model of our Servant King. In the Kingdom, all the citizens function together, in obedience to their ONE leader, each filling the role assigned to him at the moment, in the power of God, in faithfulness and joy.

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Why Faithful Kingdom Citizens can’t “Go to Church”

May 22, 2017

(Prepared for our small congregation May 21, 2017)

I will begin to address this topic with our favorite teacher’s favorite question: “Well, what did you find?” I hope some of you did your “homework” and have some ideas to contribute.
(This was followed with responses by people who had looked up a few references as requested ahead of time, most of which were properly focused on the word “church” in Scripture).

This is not at all what I “grew up with”. My family usually “went to church” – a weekly visit to a large, gray stone building where you had to dress up (heels and stockings, hat, and gloves!) and be quiet. Children did not go to “big church”, but to “Sunday School” where you heard stories, sang songs, memorized a few psalms and other “verses”, and dressed up in bathrobes and long nightgowns (with cardboard crowns and tinsel halos) for a yearly “Christmas program”. In early teens, you “joined the church”, after which you were expected to sit quietly and listen to the skilled, hired choir, organist and preacher. I did not meet Jesus there.

I only encountered people who were serious about following Jesus after I went to college. I found the way they studied the New Testament, interacted, looked out for each other, and included me, fascinating and attractive. From these fellow-students, I learned that our most genuine need was to focus on trying to become the kind of disciples that the New Testament described. It was several years and (thankfully) in another context before I was subjected to the rhetoric about “wrath” and “being lost.” By that time, I was already immersed in the study of the New Testament and its original language, first just to learn more, and then to prepare for translating it for people who lacked that privilege. This had two very helpful results: it both led me to the practice of trying to figure out just what was meant by many of the words that most folks used almost automatically, and protected me from the unBiblical threats of some who called themselves “evangelists”. The New Testament itself became my standard and my goal.

The word translated “church”, “ekklesia”, which etymologically means simply “called out”, was not at all uncommon in classical usage – but not in the way I had ever heard it used. As early as Homer, in the 6th century BC, it was used of any assembly officially summoned for a particular purpose: legal, civil, or even military. It is used that way in the account of the riot in Ephesus, described in Acts 19, referring to both the angry mob and the legal jurisdiction to which the town clerk referred them. The classical dictionary notes that the NT uses it to refer to a “body of Christians”, and notes that the word was not applied to a building or to a cadre of officials, until sometime in the 4th to the 6th centuries, well after the Roman emperor Constantine had restructured the “church” into a civic institution.

But we are concerned today with the faithful New Testament pattern. The word occurs only three times in the Gospels: once in Matthew’s account of Peter’s recognition of Jesus’ true identity (16:18), and twice in Jesus’ instructions for reconciliation among brethren (Mt.18:17). Very likely, the lack of gospel references is due to the more common use of sunago and its related words (English “synagogue”) as a gathering, or the gathering place, of the Jewish faithful. If this is the case, then Jesus’ deliberate choice of a different word takes on sharp significance. When he says “I will build my church”, he clearly intends to do a new thing. Please note that Jesus says HE intends to do the building! In recent years it has been in vogue for individuals or groups – mere people – to set out to “build” churches. With all due respect to their sincerity, THAT IS NOT OUR JOB!!!!! Peter casts it properly in the passive voice, (I Pet.2:5) that we are to BE BUILT into Jesus’ household! We are the building materials – called “living stones” – not the builders. We need to make ourselves available as building materials – but leave the building to the Master Builder! HE knows what he wants done and how he wants to operate. He, after all, is the architect, the head contractor, and the construction superintendent!!

There’s plenty of work that IS assigned to us. This is found in the epistles, which are addressed to the growing churches – NOT, please notice, to officials in charge of them! Check out to whom the vast majority of the NT letters are addressed: “to all the saints” (faithful) at a particular place.
It is “through the church” – not a place, but a people – that “rulers and authorities”, whether in heaven or on earth, are expected to see a demonstration of the “many-faceted wisdom of God”! as was read in Ephesians this morning.

For this purpose, Jesus has been provided to us as “head over everything with respect to the church, which is his Body” (Eph.1:22, Col.1:18). Paul has furnished us with an “instruction manual” (I Cor.12) for learning to function as members of that Body – with each person actively contributing to the interdependent unit.
The closest we come to a “recipe” in the New Testament for a gathering of the church is found in I Cor.14 –
especially verses 24-31, where everyone was expected to come with something to share. I have never seen a group try that, have you? It would be a truly wonderful meeting! Admittedly, it would probably be upsetting to anyone who has a need to be in control, or who feels he “needs” to be under the control of some sort of “superior”. But please note that when anyone speaks, the rest are expected to evaluate what is said. It’s not a situation of an “anything goes” free-for-all. Nothing is to be automatically accepted without that evaluation. The description of their other activity in Ac.2:42-47 is similarly attractive, and just as rare.


Being composed of very human people, of course,
even the early church was not all glorious sweetness and light. Jesus himself (Mt.18:17) had given instructions for dealing with conflict, with the help of the church. An excellent practical example is described in the conference at Jerusalem (Ac.15), dealing with conflict concerning the inclusion of Gentiles – an outstanding example of mediated reconciliation. Notice that this was a meeting of the whole group, not just the “apostles and elders”. Paul emphasizes in I Cor. 5 and 6 that the church, and not civil courts, should be called upon when mediation is needed, and gives explicit instructions for dealing with someone who needs to be corrected.

So, what is “the work of the church”?
The church at Antioch, after consensus about the Holy Spirit’s leading at a simple prayer meeting, sent out Paul, Barnabas, and Silas (and possibly others) to carry the message into unreached areas. Paul, however, is careful to remind folks that he has earned his own support and did not beg it of others (Ac.20:34). On occasion, congregations also volunteered to help support their work: the letter to the Philippians is basically a thank-you note. See (Phil.4:15, II Cor.11:8, 12-13), and a sizable group cooperated to send relief to needy brethren (II Cor.8) when they heard of a famine among distant brethren.

The church” was also charged with the care of widows who had no family – which would have been a serious concern in groups under persecution. Paul gave very explicit instructions for this responsibility to Timothy in his first letter. The description at the end of Ac. 2 and Ac.4 lists some of their other activities, as does the extensive reference to the relief offering in II Cor.

Most of the church groups seem to have met in people’s homes. Ac.2:46 speaks of “breaking bread from house to house”, and Paul mentions groups meeting in the homes of Aquila and Priscilla (I Cor.16 and Rom.16), and Titus Justus (Ac.18:7) in Corinth; Nympha (Col.4:15) and Philemon (Phm.2) in Colossae; Lydia (Ac.16) in Philippi; John Mark’s mother in Jerusalem (Ac.12:12); and probably Gaius (Rom.16) wherever Romans was written from. Occasionally, as in Ephesus (Ac.19:9) at the beginning, a rented hall was used – perhaps to accommodate a larger group, or before a host was available. It was natural, then, for Paul to refer to the church (I Tim.3:15) as “the household of God.” About half of the references are plural, which probably indicates more than one congregation in a location. In any event, real estate does not seem to have been a concern.

There is no reference to the church as “a place to go on Sunday” to sit and listen to a learned lecture (or less-learned diatribe) and professionally performed music or other entertainment. There is no prescribed agenda or “liturgy,” except for Paul’s advice referenced in I Cor.14 and mentioned earlier.

It is important to note that, except for his instructions to Timothy and Titus, who seem to have been serving as his “deputies”, Paul addresses his letters to “
all God’s people [the “saints”] at ….” [a location], and not to officials of any kind. In Phil.1:1, leaders are included in the address, but are not primary. This makes one wonder about the addressing of the “mail” in Rev.2 and 3 to “the messenger” (aggelos)– traditionally rendered “angel” (there is a word study on this usage), and the “you” words are singular, which is uncommon. Might this person have been some sort of corresponding secretary? But even in this case, everyone is called upon to heed “what the Spirit says to the churches.”

So what is this New Creation called “the church”?
I like the suggestion of a student years ago in a word study class, “a combination of a colony of the Kingdom and a support group!”
These are people gathered, as in Ac.2:42-47, to celebrate and share the resurrection life of their King.
As in Ac.11:26, to learn his ways, in order to represent him faithfully to those outside,
As in Ac.12:15, for mutual support and prayer in the face of persecution.
They deliberately avoid (Heb.10:25) neglecting to get together, since they need to keep coaching and encouraging one another
to faithfulness,
(I Cor.14:12) each seeking to excel in what will edify the church, as they
(Heb.10:24) concentrate on prodding each other with love and good deeds.
They serve as a “demonstration project” of the wisdom and glory of God (Eph.3:10)
being “built together into a permanent dwelling place for God, in the Spirit.”(Eph.2:22).


No, the citizens of the Kingdom of Jesus do not and can not “go to church.” If they are faithful, they never LEAVE!!! “Church” is not a place to go. It is WHO YOU ARE!!! Not a place, but a people. Remember, that “you” is plural. Jesus’ statement that he is present whenever two or three of his people are deliberately “gathered in his name” (another subject that needs serious study, along with the rest of Mt.18), has far-reaching implications. The identity of the “church” and those who compose it is a personal, but not a private, affair. One’s decision to commit his life to faithfulness to Jesus should be the last wholly individual decision of his life. Only together can we be truly faithful to the gracious calling that we share.

May we learn to do so faithfully!


A Message to all the site visitors

February 6, 2017

Dear brothers and sisters:

Yesterday, one of you pushed the total of views of this blog site over the 100,000 mark.  You represent 186 countries, and over 3000 of you have downloaded the Pioneers” New Testament.  I just want you all to know what an enormous gift that has been to an aging, but still eager, fellow-follower of the Lord Jesus.

This month marks 8 years since my son Dan began putting my studies on the web.  This year will also mark 60 years since the Lord confirmed to me that I was supposed to spend my life at the task of working to provide for people a tool — or a set of tools — for more accurately understanding the text of the New Testament, which is our best record of the life and purpose of our Lord.  Although I tried diligently to prepare for this assignment with academic training in both the Greek language and the principles and practice of linguistics, the privilege to work at it in any sort of “official” fashion was denied me.  I had no “sponsor” among the hierarchies of several “church” institutions, and I was not willing (because of  very clear New Testament precedent) to go around begging strangers to pay my way.  Additionally, as you surely can imagine from reading many of the studies, my work rattled a few too many cages, kicked too many “sacred cows”, to be attractive to officials who treasure their pet “doctrines” more highly than linguistic accuracy.

However, with the immeasurably precious support of  an equally committed husband, and occasional encouragement by fellow-seekers,  the work continued.  For a bit over ten years (most of the 1980’s), we taught informal classes to enable folks to do serious study on their own.  These dear people kept asking for more organized work.  Finally, in the early 1990’s, our dear daughter-in-law, Colleen, patiently introduced me to the alien computer world of “Word Perfect”, in order to prepare for a trial print version.  Our students were enthusiastic — but with no “sponsor”, distribution was minimal.  Later, our eldest son Dan created a CD version, with similar results.  So it was that after several more revisions, Dan undertook to put it on the web, where most of you have found it.  And this outlet enables me to continue to insist that it NEVER BE SOLD, but be freely available to all.  I believe firmly that if anything is truly from the Lord, its only price-tag is obedience.

No one can stop it now!  I thank the Lord for the privilege to share this work with each of you.  I would still love to hear from more of you.  The work would be much better with interactive efforts.  None of us is “smart” enough to fully understand, alone.  That’s why the Lord planned for a Body.
May we all represent him faithfully!

My love to you all —  Ruth

 


Word Study #205 — Restore, Restoration

January 5, 2017

A recent reference at church to the concept of “restoring what was lost”, quoting a number of Old Testament prophetic messages (but ignoring the accompanying conditionsthe requirement that God’s people deliberately return to following his instructions) sent me on a quest to discover exactly what the New Testament had to say about “restoration.” This subject has been a source of curiosity ever since a college friend – whom I still consider a faithful brother – announced his decision to identify with “Restoration Theology”, which he described as a return to the principles and practice of the early church. This is a goal with which I readily identify – but his description of the group he had chosen bore little resemblance to anything I could find in the New Testament.

This was not an easy quest, since a careful search yielded only eleven uses of either the noun or verb, most of which simply referenced physical healing or the payment of what was owed.

We are dealing here with three quite different words in the original text, each of which is rendered with a wide assortment of English translations.

Apodidomi, the most versatile of these words, usually referred to a payment of some kind. Lk.19:8 quotes Zacchaeus’ intention to “restore” (give back) his ill-gotten gains from his tax business – the only time that traditional translators rendered it “restore”. Other uses include the payment of wages (Mt.20:8), a debt (Mt.18:25-34), or a bill (Lk.10:25.); giving an account of behavior (Ac.19:40, Mt.12:26, Lk.16:2); paying rent (Mt.21:41), the sale of people or goods (Ac.5:8, 7:9); the yield of a harvest (Heb.16:11, Rv.22:2), or some sort of reward (Mt.6:4,6,18; 16:21; II Tim 4:14).
All of these and more are included in the L/S treatment of the term: “to render what is due: debts, penalties, or honor; the yield of land; to concede or allow; to bring to a conclusion; to give an account, explanation, or interpretation;” and even “to accept a bribe”!

Apokathistemi, in contrast, is rendered “restore” in all 8 occurrences. Classically, this word is more specific also: L/S lists “to reestablish, restore, reinstate; to pay what is due, to hand over or deliver; to settle affairs; and (of planets) to return to their place.”

Four of the eight references simply describe healing: Mt.12:13 and parallels in Mk.3:5 and Lk.3:10, and Mk.9:25. One (Heb.13:19) simply requests prayer that the writer be “restored” to the recipients of the letter – presumably referring to a hoped-for visit.

The other three are the only ones that could possibly have any connection to any of the prophetic messages. There are two references to Jesus’ explanatory statement to his startled disciples on the occasion of his transfiguration (Mt.17:11 and Mk.9:12), where he relates the ministry of John the Baptist to Elijah’s “restoring all things” or “setting all things right.” Jesus makes the point that John did indeed come to “prepare the way”, as he had said. But both Gospel writers record John’s own description (Mt.3:3, Mk.1:3) of his task as “hetoimazo” (“prepare or make ready”) – a different word entirely. Jesus goes on to describe John’s fate as foreshadowing his own. No blaze of glory here!

The only other appearance of this word is the disciples’ query, just before Jesus’ ascension, “Is this when you’re going to restore the kingdom (sovereignty) to Israel?” (Ac.1:6). Jesus’ response here is most significant. It might well be paraphrased, “You guys are asking the wrong question! Get busy at your real assignment: you are supposed to BE the kingdom, not just speculate about it! And it’s not just about Israel any more: it’s ‘to the ends of the earth’!”

Finally, katartizo , usually translated with some form of “perfect” (see study #13) or “complete” – L/S “adjust, put in order, mend, restore, furnish, equip, prepare, or make ready” – is only once rendered “restore” in the New Testament (Gal.6:1) where it refers to the reinstatement of a brother who had fallen away from his commitment.

So – where does this leave us?
“Restoration” is indeed truly integral to the message of the Gospel, whether it refers to physical healing, honest payment of debts, wages, or other obligations; the reinstatement and welcome of those who have stumbled, or the reward of the faithful.

In no case, however, does it imply, advocate, or justify any form of nationalism – anywhere.

The single reference to the political ascendancy of Israel was explicitly rejected by the Lord Jesus himself, who instructed his followers to become, and to spread, HIS Kingdom “to the ends of the earth!” Restoration is a work assignment – not a trophy!

May we all be faithfully occupied in that effort!


A Christmas Story for “Ordinary Folks”

December 19, 2016

This little illustration was first published in a church magazine in 1984, when I was already sympathizing with fellow-disciples who were also being denigrated for doing their level best to be faithful. I think it is even more needed now, so I am offering it to you as an alternative narrative that just might bear consideration.
I called it “A Word in Defense of the Much-maligned Innkeeper”.

The Christmas season is upon us again, and with it the usual deluge of abuse, printed and preached, for the defenseless “villain” of the story, the innkeeper who sent Mary and Joseph to the stable, “because there was no room for them in the inn.” That is all that Luke says: yet from those few words, for some perverse reason, people have conjured-up the image of a heartless, unfeeling man, who had no sympathy at all for the lowly folks on his doorstep.

I wish I could have invited you to our home years ago, on Christmas Eve. You just might leave with a different view of the innkeeper. In fact, I am heretical enough to suggest that the innkeeper might have done for the expectant parents the very kindest thing in his power.

When we lived in the country, we enjoyed the delight of having a few animals. They included, at various times, sheep, goats, and a cow, as well as the ubiquitous dogs and cats. On our first Christmas there, one of the kids got the idea, “Why don’t we have our Christmas worship down in the barn with the animals?” Sort of the “authentic real thing?” We invited a few friends, and all were so impressed that this became an annual tradition.

All of our animals were pets, to the great amusement of the neighbors who were “real” farmers. Very likely, our relationship with our animals was more like what you would have seen in the rural Middle East of the first century, where people lived very close to their creatures, (even sometimes in the same house!) – than to the situation of those neighbors, for whom their animals had only commercial value. Our barn was sheltered, and surprisingly warm, in spite of being cheaply built of salvaged materials. The straw and hay was clean-smelling and cozy. The sheep, especially, were friendly and curious. One would often come and lie down with her head in my lap, sharing the warmth of her beautiful thick wool.

There would be a lot of worse places to have a baby! Starting with a smelly, crowded, vermin-infested inn! Remember, it was not a Holiday Inn that turned away the wandering couple. Inns of that day consisted of one large common room, shared by all, with no privacy and negligible sanitation. Give me a clean, quiet barn any day! I would much prefer friendly sheep as birth attendants, to a horde of stinking, swearing mule-drivers snarling their displeasure at being forced to register for yet another oppressive Roman tax!

The only people who think of a barn as a dirty, uninviting place are those who have never been around people who cared for their animals. Surely, for rural people accustomed to living with their flocks, the stable would have been the most comforting place imaginable, if they were denied the privilege of staying in their own home!

As we read the Christmas story, and the earlier prophecies, and gave thanks for the Lord who did not scorn to identify with humble folk, a very different scenario suggested itself:

A simple couple arriving at the door of an inn, tired from their journey, and somewhat frightened at the impending birth, is greeted by a kindly old grandpa-type and his wife. Hardened by the harshness of many of their customers, the sight of the soon-to-be-parents awakens a compassion that they had almost forgotten. “The inn is crowded – see for yourselves! This is no place to have a baby! You need quiet and rest. We ourselves have only a corner off the kitchen. But if you wish, out back here, there is a quiet spot…”

Throwing down some clean straw, and shooing the occupants out of one stall, they lead the young parents out of the noise and shoving, and into peace…..

Thanks be to God!


Word Study #204 — Strangers, foreigners, refugees

October 4, 2016

When I first received the suggestion to work on this subject, I was not sure how fruitful that could be. After all, in the early, often persecuted church, one was much more likely to be a refugee, than to be in a position to assist them! However, like so many initial impressions, that one turned out to be seriously mistaken. Not only is the subject amply addressed in the New Testament, but the treatment of strangers is held up as evidence of one’s standing in the Kingdom of Jesus! As such, it is well worth our attention. Please also refer to word study #145, “Neighbors and Enemies,” in this regard.

Paroikeo (verb), paroikos (noun), and the similar parepidemos, refer simply to anyone living in a foreign context, for whatever reason. L/S offers “a resident in a foreign city, a sojourner in a strange place”, and Bauer adds “a visitor or resident alien.” This is the word used of the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt (Ac.7:29 and 13:17), the traveling disciples’ query of the resurrected Jesus (Lk.24:18), and both Peter’s (I Pet.2:11) and Paul’s (Eph.2:19) characterization of the faithful with respect to the rest of the world, for which Peter and the writer to the Hebrews also use parepidemos (I Pet..1:1 and Heb.11:13). As an eloquent song from the ’80’s put it, “We are foreigners who don’t belong.” Notice, however, that these terms do not carry any assumption of overt hostility; only strangeness.

Allotrios, allotrioo, on the other hand, originally included overtones of hostility or estrangement (L/S), and were used of enemy groups as well as those who were simply foreign; whose loyalty was definitely elsewhere. These terms appear in Jesus’ observation that sheep will not follow a “stranger” (Jn.10:5), and that governments impose taxes (tribute) on “others”, and not their own people (Mt.17:25-26) as well as situations of overt hostility (Heb.11:34) or alienation (Eph.2:12 4:18; Col.1:21). The idea of “belonging to someone else” appears in Lk.16:12, Rom.14:4, 15:20; II Cor.10:15-16, I Tim.5:22, and Heb.9:25.

More common than any of these is the much less specific xenos, xenizo, xenodokeo. This latter iteration appears only once (I Tim. 5:10), where having “welcomed / hosted strangers” is among the qualifications of a faithful woman, along with “having relieved those who were suffering.”

The verb form is used primarily of simple hospitality, and is applied to both guests and hosts (Heb.13:12, Ac.10:6, 18, 23, 32; Ac.21:16 and 28:7). Most of these involve fellow-believers, but the latter describes the hospitality of Publius, the Roman governor, to Paul and his shipwrecked companions.

Xenos , which may be used as either a noun or an adjective, is much more flexible. It may refer to anyone or anything that seems “strange” to the speaker (Ac.17:18,21; Heb.13:9, I Pet.4:12), or to any people outside one’s own circle (Mt.27:7), and is also used in a manner similar to parepidemos, of those who are deemed “outsiders” for any reason (Eph.2:!2, 19; Heb.11:13, III Jn 5).

L/S also gives xenos quite wide latitude: “a guest or friend; a stranger, wanderer, or refugee; a giver or receiver of hospitality”, or, as an adjective, “strange, foreign, or unusual; to be surprised, astonished, or puzzled.” As you may have noticed, virtually all these references are simply descriptive, except for the admonition mentioned in I Tim.5.

There is one account, however, which not only reaches far beyond that pattern, but carries much greater weight with respect to our understanding of faithfulness. That is to be found in Jesus’ exposition regarding “judgment” in Matthew 25, where a careful analysis of both the vocabulary and the grammar reveals seldom-noticed aspects of that scene. Please do not attempt either to accept or to reject this as any sort of “theological” treatise. These are simply observations of usually-overlooked features of the text.

1. The “cast of characters”. The interview is between the glorified “Son of Man”, finally enthroned, and a gathering of panta ta ethne – literally, “all the nations”. Please see Word study #62 for an exposition of “ethnos”, and remember that this term was usually used in Jewish settings of “Gentiles” and among Greeks of lesser-valued “foreigners” or “barbarians.”
The King (presumably Jesus) represents himself as personified in the person/people in any kind of need. (Do we all perhaps need some sort of “cataract surgery” in order to see him clearly?)

2. Both the commendations and the accusations are uniformly addressed in the plural. They are NOT targeted toward individuals. Please review study #142 on the use of the plural “you”, whose individual, collective, and selective aspects are combined so carelessly in English translations. Might this imply that a group could/should have clearer vision than an individual?

3. The criteria of judgment. “How did you-all (your group) respond to folks in need?” Note that neither group had correctly recognized that the King was represented by those needy. Both responded “when did we see you –?” The difference in this case was not one of discernment, but of caring response.

4. The “destiny” aspect. The kingdom which the faithful are invited to “inherit” was “prepared for you all from the foundation of the world!” Remember, these folks being addressed are ethnoi – outsiders!
In contrast, the “fire” to which the uncaring are consigned was NOT prepared for people, but “for the devil and his messengers”! (v.41) Might a bit of common rhetoric need to be adjusted in that regard?

Now, read the whole account again, very slowly and carefully. Do you find, even in the most carefully edited versions, any query about what anyone said they “believed”? Or, for that matter, any individual analysis at all? Please note, I am not denying individual responsibility, but suggesting that it is definitely not the entire story. This stance is supported by another very interesting word, not usually associated with either the “in-group” or the “out-group” – one to which we would all do well to take heed.

Most commonly translated “to gather, to come together, to assemble”, sunago appears in this passage four times: once of the “gathering” of the nations before the King, and three times of the inclusion of the stranger (xenos). The noun form of this word is quite familiar as “synagogue” – the gathering place of post-exile Judaism. Only in James (2:2) did traditional translators use “assembly”, and chose “congregation” (from a Latin equivalent) for Ac.13:43. Perhaps the “inclusion” of strangers is an assignment for the Body as a whole, rather than instruction for individual charity? This observation should precipitate very serious discussion among groups of the Lord’s people. Together, we could make a much bigger dent in the plethora of folks in need of the Master’s care, than could even the best and most skillful of us in our independent efforts.
As “strangers” ourselves in the world, we (should) know how it feels, and move to mitigate alienation wherever we find it. That effort will – and should – take many different forms, as varied needs are perceived and addressed.

Perhaps what we really need to study is the implication of “inclusion” — how, and to what extent “strangers” are/should be helped to become a functioning part of a faithful group? How does one “welcome” those who may not share the group’s objectives and commitment?

This study makes no effort at a coherent conclusion. It is offered rather as a “jumping-off place” for careful consideration and discussion by many “colonies of the Kingdom”, as we seek to be faithful to our King.


Adoption and Inheritance

September 18, 2016

Much of this information is available under the word studies of similar titles.  I am posting it here to give you an idea of how messages can be prepared from the topics treated in particular studies.  This one was prepared for our small fellowship on September 18, 2016.

“Adoption and Inheritance”

It is interesting that with all the noise in self-styled “evangelical” contexts about the concept of being “born”, or “born again” (which latter term appears only three times in the entire New Testament!), another rarely-appearing idea, the related topic of “adoption”, to which Ben referred in his message some weeks ago, in spite of its appearing more times – but still only 5 – seems to have escaped the fertile imaginations of the commentators, who so delight in establishing and defending long lists of regulations for including or excluding their fellows and narrowing their definitions of the Kingdom of Jesus.

Very interesting light is cast on this subject when one researches first century cultural patterns. Since inheritance is legally connected, and central in all of these cultures, it seems appropriate to examine together the two ideas, “adoption”, and “inheritance.” One could also include the references to one’s “birth family” and a “resurrection life” (more commonly mentioned than either “birth” or “adoption” in the New Testament) symbolized in baptism, and I have included those in other word studies, but in order not to become too ponderous, we will look primarily today at the much-misunderstood concepts of “adoption” and “inheritance”.

It is also interesting, that although the English translation “adoption” historically represented eleven different classical Greek words, related to at least three different roots, only a single form, huiothesia, appears in the New Testament writings, and it is unique to Paul’s epistles. It does not appear at all in the LXX. Accurate understanding of the cultural implications of huiothesia – etymologically a combination of huios (son) and a noun iteration of the verb tithemi (to put or to place) – is complicated by the fact that in the first century middle east, one is confronted with three major cultural streams: Greek, Roman, and Hebrew. These are augmented with a smattering of other customs introduced by traders who frequented the area from farther afield. Roman law prevailed, of course, since the legions of Rome had subjugated the whole area. I found the old classic, Gibbons’ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, most helpful in this research. As pointed out in the Jewish Encyclopedia (online), the subject was not really addressed in the Hebrew context, because their system of requiring the brother (or another “near kinsman”) of a deceased man to provide for the decedent’s wife and children filled the need for both the responsibility and the privilege of inheritance. In the other cultures, however, “adoption”, or, rather, huiothesia, the word which has been translated that way, was an integral part of the legal technicalities of inheritance. It had little or nothing to do with our modern concept of providing for the care of young children. Now please understand, I am in no way intending to disparage the modern procedure of “adoption” to fill this need. It is a commendable institution: but it is NOT what the New Testament is talking about.

In all three cultures, an heir acquired not only the property, but also the debts and obligations of the deceased, as well as responsibility for the care and protection of the rest of his family. Under Roman law, there was even a provision for a debt-ridden father to arrange for his son/heir to be formally adopted by someone else, in order that the overwhelming debt might “die” with the father.

Although Greek customs in their various city-states were often more lenient and less highly defined than Roman law in many respects, it was important to both that a male heir be established to comply with legal requirements. Hence the advent of formal, legal adoption – especially when royal succession was involved. (The emperor Augustus, formerly known as Octavian, had been adopted by the family of Julius Caesar for that very reason.)

This version of adoption necessarily involved an older child, not a baby, as both the survivability and the competence of the adoptee were a serious issue, since the administration of an estate was involved.

Adoption was also a common way of cementing an alliance between families, in a way similar to the function of marriage in medieval Europe, and the son in question often maintained ties to both families.

The long-term welfare of a family without male progeny required the adoption of a son to whom responsibility for their care could be passed on. This could be the son of a friend or relative who had more sons than he needed, or even a trusted servant or slave. A formal court procedure sealed the agreement, and the adopted son assumed the name of the adoptive father.

Interestingly, under Roman law, a formally adopted son could not be disowned, as could a natural son.
Adopted sons shared all the rights and responsibilities of natural children.

Daughters were not adopted, for a very simple economic reason: a father would be expected to provide a substantial dowry for a daughter; whereas a son would be expected to add to the family’s wealth by marriage.

But there was another aspect of these cultural expectations that sheds important light upon the New Testament translations of the word huiothesia.
In the case of any family, but especially one with multiple sons, another legal provision came into play. When the designated heir attained majority – the age of legal responsibility – the father was required to make a formal legal and binding statement to that effect. This was necessary whether the son in question was naturally born or adopted. This too was described as huiothesia – the same word. It has been suggested that this requirement may have been culturally connected to the “voice from heaven” mentioned at Jesus’ baptism and again at the time of his Transfiguration. Although the word does not appear there, the statement “This is my Son” would have been readily recognized as the format of the standard legal acknowledgment. This is the reason for my choice of “acknowledgment” rather than “adoption” as a more accurate translation of the word.

On a purely civil level, responsibility would normally pass to the eldest son – the “firstborn” (prototokos)– which term, 8 of the 9 times it appears in the New Testament, uniformly applies to Jesus. Only in Heb.11:28, when the reference is to the death of firstborn sons in Egypt, is mention made of anyone other than Jesus. Twice the designation “firstborn” is in relation to Mary’s first child (Mt.1:25 and Lk.2:7), and it appears three times in Paul’s letters, twice in Hebrews, and once in the Revelation. Two of these reference Jesus’ resurrection: “the firstborn from the dead” (Col.1:18 and Rv1:5), his ultimate triumph. In Romans 8:29 he is called “the firstborn of many brethren”, in Col.1:15 “the firstborn of every creature” (or “of all creation”), in Heb.1:6 of the Father “bringing his firstborn into the world”, and Heb.12:23 speaks of “the church of the firstborn.” In assuming this title, Jesus has accepted responsibility for the welfare of ALL the other children! This realization also may help to shed light on the response of the eldest son in the parable read last week, of a younger son squandering his share of the father’s property: Now the eldest would need to provide his profligate brother’s total support! No wonder he was annoyed!

Huiothesia is the word used in all five New Testament occurrences of the English word “adoption” – Romans 8:15, 8:23, and 9:4, Gal.4:5, and Eph:1:5. All but the Rom. 9 passage refer to all the faithful. In Rom.9:4, Paul laments that the Hebrew nation, for whom the assignment was intended, refused the responsibility. Remember – huiothesia is a designation not only of privilege, but of responsibility faithfully to administer the assets and to care for the people and the property of the father! They were only interested in the privilege part! And unfortunately, privilege is the orientation of most of the modern rhetoric about “inheritance.”

That is why a correct understanding of the word huiothesia is so critical to the interpretation of the Galatians passage read this morning! Begin with 3:26:

“For you are all God’s sons, in Christ Jesus, through faithfulness. For whoever was baptized into Christ, has been clothed with Christ. There isn’t any Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, and heirs according to the promise.” …. then follows an explanation that inheritance does not take effect until maturity, and then (4:5-7) “God sent out his son … in order that we might receive acknowledgment as his sons! …So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son also an heir, through God!”

Now before anyone starts getting bent-out-of-shape over all these references to “sons”, please consider the implication of this usage of the word “sons” in the cultural context we have just examined! Embedded in Paul’s explanation is the very clear, unambiguous statement that Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are all one in Christ! The key is in the last clause: “if a son, also an heir!” We are ALL considered “sons”, because legally, only sons can be heirs! That statement is NOT exclusive, but gloriously INCLUSIVE!!! Like nothing the world had ever seen before – or since! Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, are, by the decree of God and the life given by the Lord Jesus, equally gifted and equally responsible for the administration of the gift of his inheritance! He has made us ALL his sons” – his specifically designated heirs – in order that we ALL may become faithful executors of his will!

The idea of inheritance deserves its own study – and maybe that can happen at another time. But there are a few points that it is necessary to address here:

1. An inheritance does NOT take effect after you die! There is no “pie in the sky bye and bye” in this equation. The distribution of an inheritance requires the certification of the death of the testator – the one who wrote the will – the one from whom the inheritance is received! But the heir, who receives both the inheritance and the responsibility for its administration, is very much alive! There is a careful explanation of this process in Hebrews 8 and 9. The references to “inheritance” in Eph.1:11, Rom.8:17, and Gal.4:7 are present tense – not future. You/we ARE heirs. NOW. The Hebrews passage carefully explains that such certification is/was a major reason for the death of Jesus! Where have you ever heard that celebrated in song or sermon?

2. “Will” and “covenant” are used in most English versions as translations of the same word. And as explained in Hebrews, the new one instituted by Jesus is “not like the old,” which it labels a failure. A will has no connection with any sort of “sacrifice”, ceremony, or shedding of blood. It is a legal document. Period. No more and no less. A “covenant”, likewise, is a legal, business agreement, with carefully stated requirements assigned to both parties, and includes the stipulation that a breach by either party renders the agreement of no effect.

3. Nevertheless, the inheritance we presently are called upon to administer faithfully as executors of the Lord’s will, is not “all there is.” We have received a down-payment on our inheritance, the gift of the Holy Spirit (Eph.1:14), whose job is to enable the proper administration of the will – but there is much more to come – Heb.1:14 and Rv. 21:7 – participation in which is dependent upon the faithful handling of what has already been received. Jesus’ future tense statement, “The victor will inherit these things, and I will be God for him, and he will be a son for me,” again, the formal statement of a father concerning his designated heir, immediately precedes the arrival of the Bride of the Lamb, and the joyful final consummation of history.

Perhaps this historical overview will shed some light on the confusion of folks who wonder, “Why the interest in adoption, when we have already been born into the Lord’s family?”
Life does indeed begin with birth, the result of the expression of love.
But the acknowledgment / adoption of sons is an expression of earned trust – and that is for grown-ups!
Inheritance is the exercise of responsibility, not the popular but shallower concept of a personal, private “reward”.

Might it be, then, that Paul’s frequent admonitions to “grow up” into the life to which we have been called, have in view the faithful administration of our inheritance?

May we faithfully “grow up” together into the Kingdom of our Lord.