Mark 3: Conflict

In this chapter, Jesus gets in to more conflict. First it is with the Pharisees, who disagree with him healing someone on the Sabbath. Then he gets into conflict with his own family. He famously says that those around him are his mother, brother and sisters, rather than those looking for him.

This does make me wonder whether conflict is just a normal part of the Christian faith. Will there always be people who disagree with us, even to the point where they want to kill us. Now obviously this is tricky for a number of reasons.

First, it is discerning whether the conflict is motivated for righteous and good reasons. The conflicts Jesus found himself in were obviously acceptable. He was sinless; it was always the other parties that were wrong. How do we know then when our conflicts are sinful or righteous? This is especially the case when, throughout the New Testament, Christians are called to show unity and love for one another. In fact, unity is one of the most important pieces of evidence that we are sent by Jesus. Therefore, if we are in conflicts with one another then we are not being particularly good witnesses for Christ. So, I suggest, that if the conflict is with another believer, it is wrong. Of course, the fact that we are reminded so often to live peacefully, patiently and lovingly with one another means we are likely to forget this. (You don’t remind someone to do something that comes naturally to them.) It takes effort but it’s an effort we should take.

Then, it is perhaps that we should expect conflict with non-believers. Perhaps not to the extreme shown here, but we should expect it nonetheless. But, we need to check our hearts and be humble. I don’t think we should be antagonistic, frustrating, stubborn or arrogant in this, as this is not a good witness. In fact, our words should be seasoned with salt and our answers should be full of grace. We should not pick a fight the the sake of picking a fight. However, we should not be surprised if opposition comes our way.

1 John 2: being without sin

This chapter picks up where the previous one picks up: in the tension of being a sinful but also redeemed. Here it reminds us that we should not sin but that we also have Jesus to rely on. It reminds me a bit of when Peter writes about how God provided everything but invites us to have a role. We often try too hard to rely on our own strength to reach purity, but the fact is we can only have it because God redeemed us through his son Jesus Christ. Our human efforts do nothing; it’s only through the cross and the good work Jesus is doing in us that we can achieve anything.

Verses 3 to 6 expand on us further. We are to keep Jesus’ commands out of love for him. Therefore, it’s so important to daily focus on him and what he did for us to motivate us. In times of trouble or temptation we look not to ourselves or our own strength but we look to the cross. Then we can love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

The next part of John looks at another way the love for our Lord is express: our love for others. It’s not coincidence that Jesus responded to the question about the greatest commandment with a twofold answer. We are to love our God, which is expressed here in how we love others. These verses also remind us of how Jesus said in Matthew 5. You can’t offer worship if you know a brother has something against you. Jesus came to redeem us with God and each other. Therefore, if there are relational issues within the church, we aren’t living in the fullness of Christ’s redemption.

Verses 12-14 are interesting, exciting and encouraging. The fact that we are told that we have overcome the evil one is an interesting concept in the fight against sin. As we battle against evil desires, we must remember: the victory is won! That’s another good reason to look toward the cross.

The last sections talk about not loving the world because it is temporary and to love what God has given you. We are also warned not to deny Christ. We are to remain in him and remain confident in his promises. In that way we can be pure when he comes again.

2 Peter 1: an invitation to participate

The introduction of 2 Peter seems to wrestle with ideas that can cause confusion within the church. In fact, it probably has been seen in a number of the large theological debates since the death of Jesus. It is this: how much of our salvation and sanctification depends on us and how much depends on God. I’m not going to make an effort to delve into these deep topics and the history of such debates, but here is my rather simple and probably flawed interpretation of the matter.

We are told first that God has given us everything we need to live a godly life. This puts the power into God’s hands: he provides. It goes on to say that he has called us, again making the impetus God’s. Furthermore, he has given us promises for us to cling onto and to receive. Then it goes on to say that this is so we can “participate in the divine nature” of God. First, before I analyse it to death, let me just say what a beautiful statement that is. Through our salvation, we get to live in the holiness of God. That sounds crazy and wonderful and strange. But, going back to my first point, “participate” tells us that we get a role to play.

God does all the ground-work and all the hard stuff. He sent his son to die so that we may live. He saves us. He has the absolute power and authority in this. But, he still invites us to join in with him. He invites us to use our mind, hearts, strength and soul in what he is doing. I get the picture of a father doing a job and letting his young son or daughter “help”. Their child imitates their father but doesn’t really do anything particularly constructive in the effort. The father could have easily done the task on his own. Instead, it’s about the participation and the communion between father and child. That is what our Heavenly Father daily invites us into: a participation and a communion with him as he builds his kingdom. It really does not depend on me. I’m just to join in and enjoy the relationship I have with God.

We are also invited to participate in our own spiritual growth and development. We are to add goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual-affection and love to our faith. This, again, seems to be something for us to do as well. A metaphor perhaps for this could be a patient following the exercises to allow them to recover effectively after an operation. The surgeon does the hard work to fix the problem and oversees the recovery afterwards; the patient makes sure that they live in a way that enables them to take the best advantage of the operation and new lease of life they have been given.

So, how do we participate? Well, it seems that we do it through constantly reminding ourselves of the grace we have received and the cross. We look to Jesus. This inspires us to participate and to make the most of the freedom and salvation we have received.

1 Peter 4

This passage deals with living for God in a pagan society. I think that people often forget that the much of the Bible, especially the New Testament, was written when the cultural values it describes is against the prevailing culture. The Bible has always been counter-cultural and often deals with how the cultures that surround the believers, whether it is the nations surrounding Israel or the occupying Empires, have a moral and religious impact on God’s people. This passage was not written in the straight-laced Victorian people or in today’s Bible belt of the US. It was written in the Greco-Roman Empire, where morals were very much different to what the Bible professes.

So it’s interesting that when reading it today, it resonates with the experience of living within a Western society. Verses 3-4 says, “For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you.” We live in a culture where the are court cases debating whether men who accidentally kill their parters during rough sex are liable to prosecution. Sleeping with your partner before marriage is now the norm. In fact, to have had sexual partners still numbering in the single figures is deemed as having only a few. Although there isn’t direct persecution, there is a prevalent culture where chastity is an outdated oddity. Indeed, friends are surprised when you don’t get drunk on weekends and don’t seek out sexual partners.

However, as we follow Jesus, we are to follow a different standard. It’s hard because often society and Christian standards are at odds. It can be hard to uphold these differences in the face of what society says is right and wrong. So, how do we live counter-culturally that is welcoming, loving, seasoned with salt and also offensive to those around you? It’s a really hard tension and it’s really hard to know where we draw the line. I think in these things, however we need humility and faith in God’s Spirit, working in us. Helping us to discern and to have wisdom and strength whilst living lives so different to those around us.

1 Peter 3

Perhaps the most famous part this chapter is “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason to the hope that you have.” This verse has always made me ask myself a few questions.

  • What is the hope that we have?
  • What is the reason for this hope?
  • How do we give the answer in a clear manner?
  • Who is asking us these questions and why?

The passage this verse comes from is in the context of suffering, mainly suffering on account of your faith. It asks us to give account of our hope in the face of threats and problems. Now, this is perhaps why the question is being asked in the first place. Hope and optimism is not unusual when things are fine. If you’ve got a nice house and healthy bank account, no one is going to be surprised when you seem a bit perky. However, when you are facing genuine trials and opposition, it may seem a little more unusual. (It is a possible barrier to evangelism for missionaries in poorer contexts. When we preach how joyful we are because we know Jesus, they may be thinking it’s not Jesus but our wallets that are making us so cheerful. But that’s probably another blog post entirely.)

Now, these passages about suffering always trouble me. I’ve never really suffered for my faith. There was one time at secondary school where someone said, “I hate how you always tell me about your faith.” I then pointed out, she was in fact at a Christian Union event and I was answering a question she just asked. (And then I burst into tears.) But that’s hardly suffering. So it makes me wonder if I’m doing it wrong if I’m not suffering. And then, should I be asking the Lord for suffering? (I haven’t made my mind up on that one yet, so I may hold off on that prayer for a while.) But it makes me wonder about the state of the church in the West. Is the legitimacy for our witness hindered precisely because we have it too good? If you listen to stories of the persecuted church, there are incredible testimonies of churches flourishing under heavy opposition. In Europe, where everything is more comfortable, it is seen as a dying out-dated phenomenom. In America, Christianity is perhaps too closely associated with the “Karens” of the world. We have what we want, and often we believe we deserve it. In fact, the stories of suffering believers often come as a surprise even to “comfortable” Christians, and are perhaps a bit unsettling. So it’s easy to see how a testimony of hope is powerful in such a context.

And the reason for the hope is clear: in their hearts they revere Christ as Lord. It’s interesting that the word “revere” is used here. It’s not love or some other warm emotion. Revere suggests a respect or fear towards someone. There is perhaps a clear implication: Christ is Lord. If suffering in obedience is a part of his will, then it is right. I interviewed my Khmer best friend about hope in troubles, and he said the most important thing to do is to fear God. This is, of course, interesting and jarring to the ears of British (and I suspect of other) Christians. We often soften God and perhaps do a disservice to our faith in doing so. Of course, God is love and cares for us. But he isn’t safe and cuddly.

How then do we bring a theology of suffering and fear of God back into our churches? How to we then give reason to the hope that we have?

1 Peter 2

The second chapter of 1 Peter begins with a continuation of the theme of holiness and living an obedient life to which we were called. It tells us to remove anything that hinders this holiness. It’s interesting that in Peter’s list in 1 Peter 2:1, the priority is the relationships we have with one another. Malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy, slander are all about how we view or interact with others. Therefore, our holiness is not an individual thing that we obtain through distancing ourselves from others, but it is actually obtained in communion with others.

This idea is further expanded upon in verses 4-10. Each believer is a spiritual stone, that is being formed to create a temple. The foundation stone of that temple is Jesus. What is also interesting is how a temple is where God’s presence that dwells on earth. We have often been told about how God dwells within us. But often we consider it an individual idea, but there seems to be quite a few verses that explore the idea of a community believers being his dwelling place. I imagine that it is a bit of both: we are individually chosen as stones for a wider body which creates a dwelling place for the manifest presence of God in the world. Verses 9 and 10 use a variety of images that have a group and community aspect to it.

Peter then tells us to live under the authority and rule of unkind masters. First, he discusses the emperor, who would have been Nero. Nero oppressed and killed Christians, so it was not something that was easy. Then, again the topic of slavery comes up. This is because slavery was widespread during the writing of the New Testament, in the context of the Roman Empire. Here, Peter acknowledges the injustice of it, but also asks the slaves to patiently endure. We are to take our model from Jesus, who suffered the greatest injustice of history without retaliation. The key is to trust God as the one who his just. Therefore, it is through remembering Christ’s sufferings that we too are able to endure sufferings.

1 Peter 1

Peter is writing to believers throughout Asia Minor and the Middle East. In the first few verses, he recognises those as God’s elect, God’s chosen, those sanctified by the Holy Spirit and those who are obedient to Christ.

Peter praises God for what he has given us: hope in difficulties, an imperishable inheritance, mercy, new birth. Although the believers may have sufferings, they are filled with an abundance of joy and faith, rejoicing in God. I wonder if the first thing that people say when they think about Christians is, “they have an abundance of joy”? I don’t think it is. But it’s such a crucial part to our faith. We are called to be joyful people, always thinking of the many mercies we have received from God and of our salvation through Christ. How do we do that? Well, Philippians 4:8 gives us a clue.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Philippians 4:8

I wonder how often we are distracted or frustrated needlessly. I know I am. Even minor issues or difficulties can cause me to lose sight of God’s goodness and the hope I have in him.

Peter then goes on to tell us what we are to do in response to God’s grace and mercy: be alert, hopeful, obedient and holy. We are to shun the desires that we had previously and seek holiness. This holiness should pervade all we do, and it a holiness that reflects God’s holiness.

James 5

The last chapter of James starts off with strong condemnation against the rich. It tells of their fate on the day of judgement (namely, much weeping and wailing). They have not helped the poor, they have been selfish, they have failed to act justly. Therefore, they are condemned and their corruption will destroy them. The imagery is graphic and striking. There can be no mistaking it: James does not think highly of rich people, especially those who exploit, demean or reject the poor.

Of course, once again, it makes me look to Western culture and society. How much of our values are about accruing wealth without thought of who it affects. This can be from our throw-away culture, with cheap clothes and plastics, that usually mean sweatshops and environmental damage. Or the selfishness of the banks, the business and the political leaders.

There’s an allusion to Jesus’ words in Luke 12:33-34: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroy. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This verse concerns me. How many of us actually take these words seriously? How many of us give abundantly generously to the poor and are willing to sell what we have to do it? Would I be willing to sell my laptop or my motorbike or my furniture in order to give the money to the poor? Or am I more concerned about accumulating items that provide fleeting comfort or simply look nice?

We might think, “Oh, I already tithe, I give regularly to charity, I give my 10%” But Jesus’ words would have been addressed to his fellow Jews. They were already giving money and offerings to the temples and giving tax to the Roman Empire. Around 1-2 thirds of their income would have gone this way. Now Jesus is asking them to give more. So, this is a challenge to us. I look around and I see so much stuff. Clutter and books and papers and exercise equipment I hardly use and decorative things that have no actual real function. I’m not sure this is the life that I am called for and I’m pretty sure something needs to change.

The next passage reminds us again of the importance of patience, especially in suffering. Then it discusses the importance of prayer, rejoicing and confession. Finally, James ends with thoughts about leading those who have gone astray back to righteousness.

Reflection

  • How do we live so we pursue justice for the poor?
  • What should our attitude towards money be?
  • How generous is enough?
  • Should we really sell all our things and give to the poor?

James 4

James 4 deals with a few issues: quarrelling and fighting; not receiving what you want from God; not following the world’s pattern; life with the Spirit; humility; true repentance; slander; and finally, arrogance. It quickly moves from one topic to the other, but James manages to link them all.

The quarrelling and fighting is caused by our sinful nature, envy and desires. These desires are a result of not receiving what we want from God, such as wisdom. Of course, it is proper to ask God for things, but James points out that his readers ask these things for selfish reasons: self-indulgence or for superiority. Therefore, God does not grant these things. Rather we should be asking, in prayer, in humility and for the sake of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

He then goes to rebuke people for following the world’s pattern. That is one of selfishness, egocentric behaviour and a sense of entitlement. It does make me think about modern Western society. (Especially when we consider the response of simple things such as having to wear masks in the face of COVID-19. ) It seems that personal rights, freedoms, liberties, comforts take a higher importance than obeying Scripture. This, of course, means careful consideration about appropriate responses to oppression. (I do not think there’s a Biblical argument to not fight against injustices. I’m just not yet sure how.)

James then reminds us, that we are to embrace the way of God and the indwelling of the Spirit within us. This is where we humbly acknowledge our sinful nature, and with a grief and burden from sin, cry out to God. James, here, does not ask us to be miserable but instead recognise the gravity and repugnance of our sin. The joy comes in knowing that we are given grace and that God lifts us out of our sinful state.

This humility makes us realise that we cannot slander others, because we don’t have a leg to stand on. Who are we to condemn others when we know the full state of sin within our own hearts? We perhaps only know a few of the sins of our neighbours; but if we were honest about ourselves, we truly know how terrible and sinful we truly are.

The humility also has another response: that we are aware our lives and times are God’s and not our own. Of course, 2020 has been a huge lesson in this. We are to know that we are living within God’s will, so therefore must be humble and not boastful. We cannot say that are plans are certain and not make huge boasts about business ventures or mighty schemes. Because, we simply do not know what tomorrow brings.

Reflection questions

  1. What are my motives when I ask for something in prayer?
  2. How do we put obedience, submission and scripture over person desires, wants and ambitions?
  3. How do we acknowledge God’s will in what we do?

James 3

This chapter looks at words and wisdom. James continues to explore the idea of the tongue being dangerous. Words are powerful, as it tells us throughout scripture. The universe was born into creation by God’s word, and this power to use our words, although obviously not as strong, is shown in us. Therefore, we must be extremely wise in how we use our words.

However, our tongues are evil and hard to control. We gossip, lie, bad-mouth people. These people we are gossiping about or criticising are inherently praiseworthy, because they are made in the image of God. Therefore, we should seek to encourage, bless and build with our words.

If we produce evil from our lips, then that is the fruit of what we are. Our praises to God are tainted and defiled by this – as the same lips that produced words of evil are attempting to produce pure, good words. It reminds me of Isaiah’s lips being cleansed by the hot coal. We all need that and to humbly come before the throne, asking for our lips to be purified.

We also need to be humble in deeds, as this reveals our wisdom. Wisdom is not merely an academic pursuit, but one that results in goodness, unity and others being encouraged too. Therefore, we need to make sure that our wisdom is used to build the church, not to bring each other down.