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Imitate Me

One of the ways an infant learns behavior is through imitation. Child development psychologists say that infants engage in both immediate and delayed imitation. Obviously immediate imitation is cute. A baby who sticks out his or her tongue when you do is sure to bring a smile to your face. But delayed imitation is the goal. When a baby can repeat the same behavior hours and days after observing it, a parent knows the child is learning and developing well. Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget believed that infants and toddlers “think” with their eyes, ears, hands and other sensory-motor parts.

Christians too must learn by imitation. When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, he said it twice:

“Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:15-17).

“Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God—even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:32-11:1).

The Corinthians, one commentator reminds us, had no established Christian tradition, no members who had been believers for more than three years, no written gospels, and no Torah (the first five books of the Bible) to regulate behavior. They must learn how to live from someone who modeled it for them. That’s why Paul sent Timothy to them and asked them to imitate him. Timothy was to remind them of Paul’s life.

For Paul, this kind of imitation means only one thing: shaping our lives in accordance with the pattern of Jesus’ self-sacrificing love. A person who is worthy of imitating will not seek his own good, as Paul says, but will sacrifice his own good for the sake of others, just as Jesus did. In the same way, a model will not cause others to stumble, regardless of whether they are inside the church or not. He or she will align beliefs, teachings, and spoken words with lifestyle, practices, and habits.

One common objection to this line of thinking is that Christ is our model, and therefore we should not look up to anyone else. My youth pastor used to say, “Don’t follow me because I’ll let you down. Follow Jesus. My goal is to point you to Him.” I think he got it right and tried to balance being a faithful model of Christianity with humble acceptance of His limitations.

So, are you worthy of imitating? Are you living in such a way that those in your small group could model their lives after yours and still be faithful to Christ? Does your life and leadership point to the crucified Christ or to yourself?


Ordo Salutis: Personal Ministry

Andy Stanley says that one of the five things God uses to grow our faith is personal ministry. What we’re talking about here is serving in ministry, mainly within the church, but also outside of the church. If transforming our bodies is to become a priority, then we must begin to use them in tangible, new ways to serve others.

I’ve called this one of the catalysts toward spiritual formation. Scripture is full of references to the attitude we must have in our personal ministry.

Matthew 20:25-28 says, Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

We are not to be like the rulers, or benefactors, of the Gentiles, who in Jesus’ day were among the wealthiest 3% of the Roman world. They gave tons of money to cities and expected praise and adoration and power in return. Rather, Jesus calls us to embrace the shame of a slave.

Romans 1:25 (on how we used to serve created things instead of God) says, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.”

In this verse, we are reminded that our personal acts of service and worship in this world can be directed toward created things–money, other people, our jobs, social status–our equivalents of idols. When we do this, we participate in keeping the image of God in us marred and broken.

1 Cor. 12:4-6 says, There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” 

I love this passage. Gifts, serving and working are all paralleled here by Paul. In the various gifts and service that we find within the church, there is the same Triune God at work. God distributes the gifts. Notice that God is not only at work in the act of working, but also in those who are doing the work. This is one reason why faith sticks in teens and new Christians when they choose to serve in a local church. God shapes them in the work they do on worship teams, in kids ministry, at food giveaways, and in working with the homeless.

Ephesians 4:11-13 says, “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” 

These are such oft-quoted verses, especially at ordination services. And they should be, for they speak of the importance not only of the ordained minister, but of God’s people at work in service. I think of aging as an apt metaphor. As people age, those who stay physically active as much as possible tend to stay alive longer (a generalization, but one with empirical evidence). So it is in the Christian life. Those who continue to serve in the church trek onward in maturity in Christ, while those who sit on the sidelines miss out on the corporate spiritual formation God seeks to do in His people, the church.

Ordo Salutis: The Telos

How does God change us if we do not have an idea of the end goal of the Christian life? It’s one thing to experience conversion and to have the assurance that God is your God and you will one day live with Him in eternity. But it’s quite another to feel like you’ve got a grip on where He’s directing you in this life, right here and right now.

Scripture speaks of the goal with a Greek word telos. Here are a few passages where it occurs, though not

  • Matthew 5:48: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
  • 1 Corinthians 13:9-13: “For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
  • Ephesians 4:11-13: “So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
  • Philippians 3:12: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.”
  • Colossians 1:28: “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.”
  • James 1:2-4: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
  • 1 Peter 1:7-9: “These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith, the salvation of your souls.”
  • 1 John 2:5-6: “But if anyone obeys his word, love for God is truly made complete in them. This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.”

From these passages of Scripture, we can list several things that could be part of the goal of the Christian life. It refers to being “mature” as a result of persevering through suffering, being “mature” as the result of hearing Christ taught, being perfect as God is perfect, the opposite of something that is partial, completeness, and refers to salvation as the end result of faith.

N.T. Wright looks at the Bible and says that the goal of the Christian life is this:

  1. The goal is the new heaven and new earth, with human beings raised from the dead to be the renewed world’s rulers and priests. 
  2. This goal is achieved through the kingdom-establishing work of Jesus and the Spirit, which we grasp by faith, participate in by baptism, and live out in love.
  3. Christian living in the present consists of anticipating this ultimate reality through the Spirit-led, habit-forming, truly human practice of faith, hope and love, sustaining Christians in their calling to worship God and reflect his glory into the world (After You Believe, p. 67).

It is interesting that the NT authors never use telos to describe the picture of the goal from Revelation. And yet the concept of a new humanity capable of living in the new heavens and new earth makes sense. If we agree with Wright, then the assumption is that our maturity here and now is something we’ll need there and then. We are practicing what it looks like to be the new world’s priests and rulers.

This vision of the goal of life encompasses what on one hand many Christians look forward to–eternal life with God–as well as what many other Christians strive for today–the coming of God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

How would you define the goal of the Christian life? What do you think God wants you to be/become? 

Spiritual Gifts: For the Common Good

I preached this sermon last Sunday as part of our emphasis on the Holy Spirit. I got sick halfway through writing it so I understand it is choppy. The only way I was able to preach it was through God’s Holy Spirit (seasonal allergies are at war with my nose and throat).

Text: 1 Corinthians 12

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This famous quote from our Declaration of Independence really means nothing. Equality is a sham. The status quo is actually status: who makes the most money, who has the right color of skin, who lives in the right neighborhood, who knows the right people, who lives in the right country, who believes the right things…these are measuring sticks used to size up our competition.

Today I’m not going to talk politics. If I ever do from the pulpit, tell me to sit down. Neither am I going to bash our society, though it could use a stern rebuke. We don’t expect our society to operate by the same standards as we do; it’s not a Christian society. The problem is when our societal norms become our church norms.

I’ve never heard these comments here, but they’re common in churches.

“He’s an usher. I wish I could be an usher.”

“I’m surprised she’s here today. I saw her car parked at the bar last night.”

“They’re on the leadership team. Why didn’t I get picked to be on it?”

“He’s black. Doesn’t he know they have churches for black people?”

“Did you hear about their kids? In trouble at school again. Such a shame.”

The questions we’ve been taught to ask in order to compare ourselves with others at school, work, or in our neighborhoods have permeated our churches. We’re more concerned about being better than others and we’ve forgotten what God thinks of us.

We’ve forgotten that God cares about each one of us the same.

Guess what? We’re not alone. There was a church in the New Testament that thought and acted the same way. It was the Corinthian Church.

Paul addressed this issue in his letter to them, 1 Corinthians. If you have a Bible, open it to 1 Corinthians 12. We’ll look at the whole chapter. Chapter 12 starts out:

Now about spiritual gifts, brothers, I do not want you to be ignorant. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore, I tell you that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit
(vv. 1-3).

Here is what Paul is dealing with. This is a group of believers who were arrogant and proud. They did not understand spiritual gifts though they thought they did. They cared little for one another, and chaos erupted just about every time they got together. They valued knowledge and wisdom above all else. They believed that those who knew more about God were special. They also thought that this knowledge led directly to speaking in tongues.

This created a dichotomy between those with knowledge/wisdom and tongues and those without. The superior Christians and the inferior Christians.

So Paul gives them a gut check. He says, “I don’t want you to be ignorant about spiritual gifts.” This is really better translated, “spiritual things,” since the word just means pertaining to the spiritual realm. Paul’s sentence is a sarcastic rebuke to a bunch of people who thought they had it all together. Paul even acknowledges their prior experience in spiritual things in verse 2, how they had been led astray by idols. But really this is meant to say, “Hold on a second fellas. You have no idea what the Holy Spirit wants to do in you. Listen.”

He then gives them a spiritual litmus test: Those who speak by the Spirit cannot curse Jesus, and those who confess Jesus as Lord can only speak it through the Holy Spirit.

In a world like theirs, similar to ours, this litmus test was of utmost importance. With hundreds of gods to choose from, and everyone feeling like they’re a spiritual guru, this was and is one way to understand who’s a believer and who isn’t.

This litmus test had to come before Paul wrote about spiritual gifts. If they weren’t loving one another as Jesus commanded, they were in essence cursing Jesus. They claimed to speak by the Spirit (speaking in tongues) but were cursing Jesus by the way they took pride in their “spiritual arrival.” Paul needed to address the hypocrisy before teaching the truth about the Spirit and spiritual gifts.

Verses 4-6: There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.

His point is simple: To those of you who value tongues and knowledge so much, you’re missing out on everything else. There are many gifts, many types of service, and many types of workings. But only one God.

Spiritual gifts are only for the believer. Though Paul says God works them out in all men, we have to look at that in the context of what He is talking about. He just said they had been led astray by idols in their past. He just said that only people with the Holy Spirit can claim Jesus as Lord.

Verses 7-11: Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.

Paul’s basic point here is stated in verse 7: Spiritual gifts are given to each person for the common good. Each person receives a gift from the Spirit. It’s not something we can work for, not something only the spiritually elite have, and not something to be wasted or hoarded. Your spiritual gift is for the common good.

Yesterday we had the first “Fearfully and Wonderfully” Made class. And we talked about how wasting our gift is a sin. It is. Matthew 25 tells the story of the talents. The master went away on business, but before he left he gave his servants talents (money). One used the five to earn five more; another used the two to earn two more. But one buried his one talent in the ground, thinking his master would be proud of his shrewd business move. Instead his master rebuked him: “You wicked, lazy servant! You should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so when I returned I would have received it back with interest.”

Paul here says that our spiritual gifts, given to us by the Spirit, are for the COMMON good. No burying or wasting. They’re for the body of Christ.

He goes on to illustrate his point in verses 12-26.

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be?

As it is, there are many parts, but one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

The metaphor of a body for a bunch of people was common. Except it was generally not used in this way. The secular world used it to keep people of lower social class in their place so they wouldn’t rise up against the powerful social class.

Paul pulls a 180, saying things like, “We were all baptized by one Spirit into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free,” transcending social classes. So instead of everyone trying to become the part of the body that was craved—the head—it was okay to be something else. Not just okay, but necessary.

If everyone is an eye, how can the body hear?

And here’s the point. There must be both diversity and interdependence within the body of Christ. You have to have eyes, ears, fingers, etc. that are different from one another, and yet they all depend on one another.

Your gift isn’t any more special than mine. Mine isn’t any more special than yours. I can’t be a Christian on my own; neither can you.

To summarize, let me give you ten truths about spiritual gifts.

Only believers have spiritual gifts.

Every Christian has at least one gift.

No one receives all the gifts.

No single gift is given to everyone.

You can’t work for a spiritual gift, or it wouldn’t be a gift.

The Holy Spirit decides what gifts I get.

Knowing and accepting the gifts given to me allows me to have an accurate view of myself and my part in Christ’s body.

I am to develop the gifts God gave me.

It is a sin to waste the gifts God gave me.

The purpose of my spiritual gift is to edify the Body of Christ.

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