Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 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. 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. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done. – Hebrews 12:14-17
This is the last water passage in Hebrews. It is one of those passages that I read and to be honest I am not so inspired or excited. Sort of like coming to a stretch of river with quiet water and a headwind. I will push on paddling with the expectation and hope of more interesting water ahead.
It begins with a very sensible command to live in peace with everyone. If everyone agreed to do this the world would be a different place. Then comes a bit of an unexpected riffle in this otherwise quiet water – we are to be holy for “without holiness no one will see the Lord.”. Apparently there is something about striving for holiness that gives us cave dwellers sight. Interestingly, the last passage I reflected on in Hebrews was about seeing Him who is invisible.
Holiness is a tricky concept, mainly because I think it has been incorrectly used and abused by some people. It conjures images for me of religious practices and traditions that are intended to represent holiness. We are all flawed followers in need of grace no matter how “holy” we are. The pope just as much as a pauper living in a tent along a freeway. We are called to a radical love for God and one another, regardless of salvation state or station.
So what are we to make of this ability of holiness to act as spiritual spectacles that enable us to see an invisible God? As I have chewed on this the only thing I can think of is that holiness is more of a posture than a practice. It is our position relative to God’s outstretched hand rather than a set of practices that make us holy. We tend to focus on the practices to achieve holiness when maybe we should be paying more attention to “body awareness” – both our physical body and our spiritual “body”.
I have been enjoying watching the 2020 Olympic games. One of my favorite events is men’s and women’s gymnastics. This is partially because I was a gymnast from about age five or six years old until college. Watching these athletes perform amazing feats with their bodies brings back many fond memories for me. I grew up in the gym training my body to do everything from handstands to highbar. I discovered that all this practice and training made me better at other sports, even without practicing.
So back to the passage and our call to be holy. Maybe holiness is really about “body awareness”. Knowing clearly where we are in relation to God and others. Maybe this sort of “holiness” only comes about through extensive practice in “God’s gym” – everyday life in community with others.
The passage ends with a reference to Esau and his poor decision to trade his inheritance for a meal. His tears reveal his soul sickness at losing his inheritance. We should be equally sad when we trade true holiness for haughtyness.
Prayer: God help us to be holy by knowing our position relative to You and others.
By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel. By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned. – Hebrews 11:24-29
Today’s passage is another appeal to the nostalgia and history found in Moses and his faith. Moses was an impressive God-follower to sure, but he was a flawed follower just like me. Yesterday’s post connected the old and the new through the mixing of blood and water for atonement and forgiveness. This passage connects Moses’ faith in an invisible God with the faith that Christ followers require.
Moses’ first demonstration of faith was rejecting the ephemeral earthly pleasures to be found with Pharaoh and his daughter in Egypt. Interestingly, the author makes a direct connect between Moses and Christ “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward”.
Moses was following God, but he was also following Christ hundreds of years before he was born. This represents a certain “bending of time” that must have been confusing for these earthly followers. How could Moses look forward to a reward in the distant future? My conclusion, after chewing on this for a bit, is that the “reward” did not change. The reward for faithful following was, is, and always will be to be with God for eternity. The same arm that lit up a bush on Mount Sinai was nailed to a cross for us. God believes in us and wants us to have the faith to trust and believe in Him.
The examples of Moses’ faith provided are the keeping of the Passover, which will take on new meaning through Christ’s blood shed on the cross ; and the parting of the Red Sea described in Exodus 14: 15-31. Moses leading the people across a seemingly uncrossable body of water is an interesting parallel to the mysterious man in Ezekiel 47:1-6 that allows us to cross “a river no one can cross.“.
This brings us back to concept the author is trying to communicate – how do we find a place with an “invisible God”? Hard concept simple answer – faith. The faith that Moses had and that we can choose to have, a faith that requires actions similar to those described in Acts.
Prayer: God help us to have faith in things unseen so we can find our way to You.
In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. This is why even the first covenant was not put into effect without blood. When Moses had proclaimed every command of the law to all the people, he took the blood of calves, together with water, scarlet wool and branches of hyssop, and sprinkled the scroll and all the people. He said, “This is the blood of the covenant, which God has commanded you to keep.” In the same way, he sprinkled with the blood both the tabernacle and everything used in its ceremonies. In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. – Hebrews 9:16-22
Blood and water….two very important substances. When I think of these two liquids I think of two related proverbs or sayings, “water is life” and “blood is thicker than water”. The first is a recognition that as humans, consisting of 45-75% water, we need water to live. The second is an allusion to the importance of family and relationships. Mixing these concepts of water and blood, as Moses was instructed to do, results in a life-giving “family”. This is not a bad description of a group of faithful followers struggling to make their way home seeking after God.
The author seems to be a linking human dying and earthly inheritance with the sacrifices and blood required for atonement. In the old testament Moses was the “mixer” and deliverer, the first covenant. In the new testament the Messiah is “mixer”. The water and blood are his life and sacrifice on the cross, the second covenant. Let’s explore the first covenant then we will tackle the second.
Blood is essentially water infused with the essence of life, oxygen – without oxygen we die in a matter of minutes. We inhale and our miraculous bodies incorporate the oxygen into our blood and move it to all parts of our body. The oxygen keeps our cells alive and functioning. When Moses mixed the blood and water he was mixing the ceremonial cleansing achieved with water and the atonement achieved through animal sacrifices. Moses sprinkled the people of Israel, as God’s representative on earth, to give life and a sense of family.
On to the second “mixing”. Jesus associated Himself with water on many occasions and I have reflected before about how God is like water. There is both a cleansing and life-sustaining component to Christ’s watery nature. Jesus clearly indicated we should thirst for Him every bit as much as we thirst for life-giving water for our bodies. Jesus demonstrated His mastery of water and Waves and promised to quench our thirsty souls.
Jesus’ death on the cross, and the spilling if His own blood and water achieved a metaphysical mixing fundamentally different than the mixing of Moses. His life and sacrifice was personal and is accessible to each of us individually. We can choose to be sprinkled by Christ to receive forgiveness and atonement in this way or we can stay dirty and thirsty – our call.
Prayer: God thank You for providing life and forgiveness through Jesus. Help us to receive this gift of grace.
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace. Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God. But land that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and is in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned. – Hebrews 6:4-8
“Falling away” is the topic of today’s passage. The central idea is that once you have experienced the “heavenly gift” it is impossible to truly “fall away” and return to your state of repentance. This is turbulent water for sure as we are all flawed followers in need of continual redemption and repentance.
The idea is that once we have accepted Christ, and begun our journey home, we never get “lost” along the way. Honestly this has not been my experience and I have spoken with many other faithful followers who have had their share of difficult roads and dry times. I think the author’s point here is that we need to acknowledge when we stumble and realize the weight and consequences of our actions.
The author goes as far as saying “they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.” So our sidetracks and stumbles are compared to choosing to crucify Christ all over again, pretty serious stuff. I am confident God loves us just as He loved even those who were crucifying Him, but that does not let us off the need to choose wisely.
Then comes the water reference “Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God”. The idea of God being associated with rain shows up many times in the old and new testaments. The common theme of many of these references is that we are tender plants, and God is the father of the rain. The purpose of Rain is to help us to grow and eventually produce good fruit.
If the end result of receiving God’s blessings is a life that “produces thorns and thistles” than we have a problem. We are “in danger of being cursed. In the end it will be burned.” This is not a result of God’s wrath but rather our willful separation from Him and the decisions of our daily lives. We need to consciously plant ourselves near the Spring of Living Water so that our roots are strong and the Master Gardener can use us to produce amazing fruits.
Prayer: God help us to appreciate the magnitude of when we fall short but never lose sight of the grace you extend.
During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek. We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil. – Hebrews 5:7-14
Welcome to the book of Hebrews. I floated right by Titus and Philemon without any water-related passages that I could find. The book of Hebrews is apparently a letter to Jewish believers. The author and recipients of the letter are not so clear. It does seem there is general agreement that the author was not Paul, but some other learned early follower of Christ and the recipients were Jewish followers of Christ that were having difficulty accepting some parts of the new teachings.
The author is teaching about obedience and submission, and using Christ and His willingness to sacrifice and submit as an example. Jesus’ tears, fervent prayers. and petitions are part of the reason He was heard by God. Of course Jesus had a hotline to God being the Son of God and all, but in a mysterious metamorphosis He was fully God and fully man at the same time. In the act of Jesus to dying on a cross he became “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. Jesus made it clear to all those with ears to hear that He was the Living Water that we all need to live.
Then comes this a statement which has puzzled me every time I float past it reading the bible, apparently Jesus “was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek”. As far as I can tell this was an appeal to the Jews who were not willing to allow Jesus as their “high priest” unless he fit into the priestly order, which had historically only been descendants of Levi, Abraham’s great-grandson. This would seem to be a clear mixing of the “old treasures” with the new. The author seems to acknowledge that this “priesthood” of Melchizedek reference is confusing “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand.”
I am not sure what is meant by they are “no longer trying to understand”. The image it conjures in my mind is someone putting their hands over their ears and making noise so that they do not have to hear something objectionable that someone is saying to them. The Hebrews seem to be making a conscience decision to reject parts of the new song being shared with them about Jesus. It sounds like the author is likening them to a young child refusing to eat their dinner “You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”
So these young and confused followers are rejecting the hard and challenging teachings in favor of the easy to digest parts. They are not alone in their selective submission. I think we are all guilty of reserving certain behaviors and beliefs from our old selves. We need to learn to eat the “foods” that are good for us, and I am not talking about peas, spinach, or Brussels sprouts. The “foods” we need to learn how to digest and consume are the hard truths of the Gospel. God wants to shape us into new beings by teaching us to eat spiritual “food” that will help us to grow and be strong and courageous on our journey home to the undiscovered country.
Prayer: God help us to learn how to grow strong in our faith through the consumption of the spiritual truths you need us to hear, even if we find them hard to swallow sometimes.
I thank God, whom I serve, as my ancestors did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and in your mother Eunice and, I am persuaded, now lives in you also. For this reason I remind you to fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline. So do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner. Rather, join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God. He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace. This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher. That is why I am suffering as I am. Yet this is no cause for shame, because I know whom I have believed, and am convinced that he is able to guard what I have entrusted to him until that day. What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.- 2 Timothy 1: 3-14
I am continuing to paddle against the wind here in the Pauline letters. I am not sure why they are so challenging, but in some ways they are even harder than some of the challenging old testament books and passages. I am still chewing and reflecting on this in an attempt to understand why this stretch of water is difficult. Certainly there are topics in the letters that are challenging and Paul’s bombastic style sometimes leaves little room for metaphors and water imagery, but I signed up for the entire river so I will push on despite these difficult stretches with the hope there are some quiet waters mixed in.
Paul is reaching out to the believers in Ephesus in this second letter to Timothy, whom he has sent to help the church in Ephesus. This is a letter of encouragement to encourage Timothy in his efforts to share the Gospel, and the other followers to stay faithful to their commitment to follow Christ.
Paul is “recalling tears” in this letter. It is not clear whether these tears are being shed because the people miss Paul or some other reason. The context suggests that Paul is recalling the tears that were shed when he left them. Tears are typically an outward expression of strong inward emotions, samples of our souls if you will. In this case the emotions were probably a mixture of loss, fear, and uncertainty as Paul left for an uncertain future, and the people in Ephesus faced challenges to their faith through questionable leadership.
The word picture that is forming in my head is of the believers in Ephesus as scattered embers or coals, isolated from one another and in danger of being extinguished. Paul alludes to this when he says “fan into flame the gift of God, which is in you through the laying on of my hands.” Paul is referring to the Holy Spirit which poured out and into these followers through Paul’s own teaching. The Holy fire has apparently gone dim for these followers and Paul is trying to help them rekindle it.
Fire is an interesting thing, almost as interesting as water, but with very different attributes. Fire, in order to exist, requires fuel, something to burn, and typically oxygen to allow the burning reaction to take place. We are probably most familiar with burning wood, but there are many things that burn. As anyone who has started a fire knows it is a process of creating a chain reaction in the wood so that it is self-sustaining. The heat of the fire actually makes it easier for other pieces of wood to catch fire and contribute their energy. There are several things that can making starting a fire more difficult: 1) green wood; 2) wet wood; 3) insufficient kindling. Each of these have interesting metaphorical meanings in the context of the church in Ephesus and their efforts to be self-sustaining.
The church in Ephesus was made up of very new believers, green wood. They were not seasoned by years of faithful following. Their ability to provide spiritual guidance (heat) to one another was limited, and in fact was being thwarted by misguided leaders who were not leading them toward God. The only way to make green wood burn better is time and “seasoning”. I am sure that what these followers were experiencing in Paul’s absence felt like a very dry time spiritually. Paul is encouraging them to seek out the true water source in this dry time of seasoning.
I grew up in Seattle and I have had my share of experiences attempting to build a fire using wet wood. It is usually a smoky and messy process fraught with singed fingers and stressful angst about whether the fire will actually start. This is especially true if you are out camping and have just spent the night in a wet tent and sleeping bag. It seems the believers in Ephesus feel a bit like this – wet and tired awaiting a warming fire. They are weathering all manner of spiritual squalls as they try to figure out what it means to follow Christ. Paul is reminding them that they have a helper in this process. The Holy Spirit can provide the spark they need to “get the fire started” and keep it going. Even wet wood can burn if there is enough heat.
Lack of kindling can make it really difficult for even the most seasoned fire starter to be successful. Kindling consists of small pieces of wood which by themselves would burn out rather quickly, but provide the heat to get larger pieces of wood going. The members of the church in Ephesus are the kindling at this point and the larger church body is the large piece of wood they are attempting to “get going”. The problem is that the “kindling” is confused about some of the teachings of Christ. This is the fault of some flawed followers who are leading them astray. Paul’s solution to confused kindling is to redirect them to first principles “What you heard from me, keep as the pattern of sound teaching, with faith and love in Christ Jesus. Guard the good deposit that was entrusted to you—guard it with the help of the Holy Spirit who lives in us.”
This process of “fire starting” is still alive and well in the present day believers and churches. We face the same challenges of being wet, green, and confused. The solution is the same advice Paul gave to the believers in Ephesus, return to first principles.
Prayer: God help us to trust the Holy Spirit to kindle the fires of faith both individually and as we gather together.
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning. I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism. Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure. Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses. The sins of some are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are not obvious cannot remain hidden forever. – 1 Timothy 5:17-25
Reading and reflecting on this passage has been harder than many previous passages. Sort of like paddling against the wind on a stretch of flat water. I am not sure why but to be honest it felt a little like sitting in a four-hour church meeting. I have served as an elder in the past and I can attest that it is a lot of work and involves much prayer and pondering over questions large and small. I remember one issue involving the steeple on our church building that became a really big deal for many people. Eventually the sticky steeple issue was resolved but decades to resolve. I am not sure what “double honor” is but I would agree that those who lead our bodies of believers deserve it.
The main subject of this passage is elders and how they should be treated. Some of this advice is to protect the elder and other parts are intended to protect the people they are leading while following. The passage begins by lauding these leaders “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” We need to honor and support those who are serving leadership roles to guide the church. They are working hard to figure out how to put put the words of Jesus into practice in the everyday life of the followers they are leading.
Some conflict is inevitable whenever groups of people are trying to do something together. One solution would be to become a hermit and avoid groups of people, but God has instructed us to live in community with one another. If you have an issue with an elder, or a decision they have supported, you are directed to find two or three other people who agree that the issue is in need of addressing with the elder. This makes practical sense as the decisions of the elders are bound to cause tension a times. Paul’s solution seems reasonable and is probably not a bad practice outside of church leadership.
The next part gets a little more confusing, and I suspect contextual for specific issues occurring with the church in Ephesus “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others.” The first part of this would seem to be an effort to determine who to help, similar to “Love lists” that I reflected on a few days ago (1 Timothy 5:3-10). Ultimately, I think the the Holy Spirit should be guiding our healing hands, but I concede that this is way more difficult than it sounds. The second part is more perplexing. Perhaps there were elders who were hanging out with sinners and engaging in sinful behavior. I do not know. The guidance is to “Keep yourself pure.” Which brings us to the water reference in this passage.
The way to keep pure is to “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” On a purely pragmatic level this directive to mix alcohol (wine) with your water was a common and wise practice at this time in history. Water was often contaminated with deadly pathogens that would be killed, or at least weakened, by adding alcohol to the water. There is undoubtedly a metaphorical meaning here as well that is connected to the practices that are making people impure and spiritually “ill”. Let’s explore water contamination for a minute as see if it will shed some light on this part of the passage.
Water contamination has been around forever. Before the industrial age most of this contamination came from human and animal waste (feces) getting into water sources. The discovery of microbes would not come until the 1600’s and a curious young man named Antony Van Leeuwenhoek. He was one of the first to see microbes in water and infer that these might be causing illness. Many others followed and we eventually came to understand that organisms like cholera, E. Coli, and Giardia present in the water make people ill and sometimes kill them. This happens because our bodies are built to harbor some of these organisms in our intestinal tract. Outside of this location, and in too great a numbers, they can create toxins and responses from our bodies that can be deadly. In modern times we have all sorts of mechanisms to disinfect water like chlorine and other filtering methods. This is one of my research interests as a water scientist and I have published papers describing methods to filter water in Haiti.
Back to the passage and Paul’s directive to mix water and wine. I take the “water” to be representative of the “pure” message that the Spring of Living Water, Jesus, delivered to the disciples and others as he taught, fed, and healed people by the lake. Unfortunately this message is easily contaminated by flawed followers that sometime misunderstand the message or miss the Messiah. The “wine” may represent the traditions and practices that humans have created which can be bad or good. Some mixing of these is inevitable, and can even be good, if the proper prayerful precautions and preparations are made “The sins of some are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them”. This is saying that not all sin that can ensnare us will be clear. Some will obvious and result in immediate consequences, while others may be subtle and hidden, only to become clear years after the actual sin.
Jesus turned water in wine at the wedding in Cana in Galilee, removing the distinction between these two liquids. As followers of Christ we cannot reproduce this feat. We are left with a messy mixing of the precious Living Water with worldly wine to make sure we stay spiritually healthy. Elders are on the front lines of this process of mixing the “water” and “wine” to keep us spiritually healthy and “pure”. This work is really hard and often goes on without much recognition. These “bartenders of blessings” certainly deserve a double portion of honor.
Prayer: God thank You for those who have been called to help lead. Help us to thank and acknowledge their efforts.
Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. The widow who is really in need and left all alone puts her hope in God and continues night and day to pray and to ask God for help. But the widow who lives for pleasure is dead even while she lives. Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame. Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. No widow may be put on the list of widows unless she is over sixty, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble and devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds. – 1 Timothy 5:3-10
Well I am still tired from running the “Ephesian rapids“. That was a tricky stretch of river that required some discerning discipleship for sure. The “drought” of water passages here in the new testament continues as I floated right through 2 Thessalonians without encountering any water passages. We find ourselves in 1 Timothy today. This letter, although directed toward Timothy, was really for the church in Ephesus. So in a sense this is a circling back to rerun some of the same river covered in Ephesians.
The first four chapters of 1 Timothy contain many rapids and challenging teachings. I am not intentionally avoiding these treacherous waters, they simply did not contain references to water. Timothy was apparently a believer from the city of Lystra in Asia Minor. He had a Jewish mother who had become a Christian believer, and a Greek father. It is not clear to what extent his father was a believer, but his female relatives are mentioned in the two letters to Timothy. Their is apparently some debate about the authorship of the letters to timothy, but I will not wade into those waters.
Much of this letter has to do with Christian leaders and leadership, and in this passage specifically with caring for widows. What would seem to be inordinate details are provided about which widows are worthy of caring for and how that might happen. Presumably there was some confusion about which who should receive help and care. The approach being followed by the people of Ephesus was apparently to create a list of “worthy” recipients. It seems like if one were to ask Jesus which widows and orphans we should help he would say all of them.
The letter provides a puzzling preamble to a list of instructions about who and how to help: “Give the people these instructions, so that no one may be open to blame.” This is somewhat confusing to me. Why would helping the “wrong” people in the “wrong” way open up people to blame? I guess one possibility is that in helping some people and not others they were ultimately using their own experience and talents rather than trusting God and the Holy Spirit to guide them. I do not know. I guess I am of the opinion that we should love them all and let God sort them out. The instructions, in simplified form, are: 1) care and provide for your relatives and family; and 2) care for older widows who are actively helping and caring for others.
The first item makes sense from a pragmatic perspective. One would probably know the needs and how to help and care for one’s own relatives and family better than others who are not related. In the course of my work in Haiti over the last 14 years I have been impressed by the way the people of Haiti care for their families and extended families. This is extended globally by the Haitian diaspora that often send a significant portion of their earnings back to Haiti to help support friends and relatives. This focus on one’s family would seem to be somewhat at odds with Jesus’ redefinition of family to include anyone who needs our help or is seeking God.
The second item goes into excruciating detail about what a “good widow” is based on her actions and attributes which include: 1) over sixty years old; 2) faithful to her husband; 3) well known for her good deeds, such as bringing up children, showing hospitality, washing the feet of the Lord’s people, helping those in trouble; and 4) devoting herself to all kinds of good deeds. This is where the water reference comes in with the inclusion of foot washing which Jesus demonstrated was one way we could show our love and care for one another.
I cannot shake the sense that this list of instructions is very inwardly focused. It seems to miss the messiah that healed and cared for all comers. I cannot imagine Jesus sitting around with the disciples compiling a list of people that were worthy of his love and care. What happened between when Jesus walked the beach to provide a window between worlds and these flawed followers in Ephesus trying to figure out who to help? I am not sure I have a good answer, but I think we struggle with the same problem that the Ephesians were trying to tackle. Who and how do we help?
This is especially relevant as many cities are trying to tackle widespread homelessness and hunger problems. Should we make “a list” of which homeless to help? I do not think that is the love and care we are called to provide. I do not have any easy answers to homelessness and hunger, but I know someone who does.
Prayer: God help us to love and care for all those who need our help.
Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Well the water references in this reach of the bible are few and far between. I floated right through Philippians and Colossians with no water-related passages. I finally found one here in 1 Thessalonians, a letter written by Paul to the believers in Thessalonia. Apparently this group of believers was somewhat isolated and Paul was concerned about their making the entire “journey home“.
It sounds like there were some questions surrounding resurrection and when Jesus would be returning and who He would bring with him. In seem like in modern times the curiosity about resurrection has faded, but speculating about how and when Jesus will return remains a popular pastime – despite Jesus making it clear that we are not supposed to get too focused on times and numbers.
Paul seems to be reassuring the Thessalonians that it does not matter whether you are alive when Jesus returns or not as long as you , continue to faithfully follow God, “we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep”. This focus on priority and who will get to escape this land of oblivion first, seems a bit out step with the perspective and teaching that Jesus shared as he taught the disciples by the lake.
I am not sure why it matters the order of participation in the second coming of Christ, but Paul believes that the “the dead in Christ will rise first” then those still living and following Christ will “caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. There will be a great confluence in the clouds. At some point we will be together in a place that is not the same as this earth.
I think Paul was using the word “clouds” metaphorically to refer to the undiscovered country or “Heaven” as it is typically referred to in other passages, and in popular culture. The impression I have of heaven is that it is not so much a place as a metaphysical meeting – soul soup if you will, but a soup in which the ingredients remain distinct and individual. A spiritual sea into which we are poured out when we die. I am not sure this how this image of what heaven could be like fits into the resurrection and “confluence in the clouds” Paul is talking about.
I am not convinced that some sort of reanimation of our earthly vessels is what it will be like. It seems to me that to “meet the Lord in the air” and “be with the Lord forever” we will need a different “ship” for our souls, perhaps a virtual vessel that is compatible with the spiritual sea we will be navigating. I am purely speculating here so there is plenty of room for other ideas and ways of understanding what resurrection will look like. I suspect it will be something we cannot really imagine and we will not really know until it happens.
In the meantime Paul asks the Thessalonians to “encourage one another…”. Perhaps we should encourage one another to focus on allowing God to strip away all that could ensnare us and keep us from reaching the clouds.
Prayer: God help us to encourage one another and focus on our inner souls so they are ready to join You.
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. – Ephesians 5:21-30
I will have been married to the same wonderful woman for 34 years next month. This does not make me an expert on marriage by any means, but I would say I am experienced. This passage contains some tricky water as Paul shares his views on marriage and gender roles. I will not wade into whether these views were affected by the patriarchal context within which Paul lived and wrote, but I will say that Jesus had plenty of early followers from both genders. Some of the most faithful wondering souls were women. The key sentence for me in the entire passage is the first one “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
The main subject of the passage is marital mechanics and how to make marriage work, probably one of the most written about topics ever. This is a subject that Paul, a bachelor, has no first-hand knowledge about. His understanding is no doubt informed by the Holy Spirit, but it may also be limited by experience. That said, what are the matrimonial mysteries being plumbed here?
How should husbands and wives relate to one another? What if there is a disagreement? What are the responsibilities of both husband and wife to each other and to God? These are all difficult questions fraught with potential pitfalls.
Paul dives right in with the statement that “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord”. This directive by itself is completely consistent with Jesus’ commands to love the Lord with all your heart mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. In this case Paul is defining “neighbor” as the husband.
Then comes a class IV rapid “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.” This rapid leads right into a class V rapid with “Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” I feel like if Paul were married he may have worded this differently. Paul’s husbandly hierarchy aside, I think the main point is mutual submission to one another and to faithfully following God together. Phew my arms are tired after that series of rapids…
Paul continues with the other side of the submission equation. Husbands are to love their wives “as Christ loved the church”. This sentence contains some deep water that I skipped over as I was distracted by the rhetorical rapids we just ran. What does Paul mean by “church”? Presumably this means where two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name but this statement is a bit of a time bender as when Jesus walked the earth there was not really a “church” per se. Home churches and other more formal gatherings came only after Jesus left this earth. Jesus did much of His teaching on the beach and by the lake so it was public and experiential. So I suppose one could argue that wherever He was that was “church”.
I think another way to state what Paul was getting at here is to say husband’s and wives are to love one another as Jesus loved all those he encountered. Jesus approached each person he encountered with great compassion and understanding. If every husband (and wife) were capable of doing this there would probably be a lot more healthy marriages.
The water reference here is “cleansing her by the washing with water through the word”. This has been interpreted to mean bathing your wife in the bible, which is certainly one way to understand this sentence. Another possible way to read it is to take the meaning of “the Word” from the Gospel of John “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”. So another way to understand what Paul is saying is that we are to bathe our wives in God.
The washing with water through the “word” is an interesting detail in that Jesus, the Word, called Himself the Well of Living Water. Jesus also provided an amazing example of submission and servant leadership by washing the feet of His followers and ultimately sacrificing His life for us.
So what are the take home lessons for me from this raucous rapids? Submit to God and one another. Love God and one another. If we do this God and the Holy Spirit will help us with the messy matrimonial details we are bound to experience.
Prayer: God help us to love and submit to You, and love and submit to one another.