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The Peace That Transcends All (Mis)Understanding

sleeping baby

sleeping baby (Photo credit: mahalie)

Before you pull out your Bibles (or iPads) and tell me I’m misquoting Scripture, I know what Paul said in Philippians 4:7. It truly is one of the most beautiful promises in the Bible. Combined with v. 9 the promise is made complete – the God of peace and the peace of God. But I want to offer just a twist on v. 7, and ask if it would not be legitimate to speak of a peace sent by God that transcends all of our false interpretations and erroneous attempts at understanding it.

A recent thorn in the side of theology, particularly American theology, is the thought that “peace” and the other blessings that God bestows upon us are all somehow measured in physical attributes. Even if it is not something that we can touch, measure, smell or spend, God wants us to have something that reassures us that he loves us and that he, in fact, does exist. It’s like a child looking around at all the presents on Christmas morning but still checking to see if the cookies and milk disappeared, just to prove that Santa had truly visited the house.

So, we measure the “immeasurable” peace of God by our attractive spouses, our nice cars, our secure jobs, the diplomas on the wall, the pictures of the grandkids, the RV out in the driveway, the membership at the country club. Yes, we speak of the peace that transcends all understanding, but it can be measured, photographed and spent.

What if Paul had said, “The peace that transcends all misunderstanding?” That is, a peace that exists in spite of our blessings instead of because of them. A peace that exists in the presence of all kinds of hardship, trial and persecution. We look at a nation of people who are suffering and we pray for their peace. Why? Could it be that they have more peace in their trials and persecutions than we have in our safety and constitutionally protected freedom to worship? Why do we always think that others have it worse than we do because they do not have air-conditioned or heated auditoriums in which to “freely assemble?”

I write this today because quite honestly I am one of the worst offenders and one who needs to hear the word of Paul afresh. I have recently gone through a period of time (and I’m not quite sure when it will end, but I know it will at some point) in which I have been anything but at peace. Why? I don’t know. I have all the comforts of a profoundly affluent life. I could not even ask for a more loving, beautiful wife or a more precious, amazing daughter. I live in a nice house, have 4 cats, and more guitars than I can play. (Brief aside: even if I just had one, it would still be one more than I could play.) And yet I feel deep within me a turmoil that just won’t go away. I am working on it, but I think part of the problem is that I am trying to understand peace in a manner that is simply foreign to the concept of peace in the Bible, and particularly as Paul used the term.

So, I pray for the peace that passes all understanding. That is biblical. But I also pray for a peace that transcends all of my misunderstandings, too. I don’t want the cheap stuff. I want the real deal. I know I won’t fully comprehend it when I realize that God has already given it to me. That is one of the beautiful aspects of the Divine paradox. I’m just tired of misunderstanding it.

The Christian Worldview and the “Mind of Christ”

Model of atom.

Model of atom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(6th in a series)

In my last post in this series I briefly pointed out how Paul used the phrase “mind of Christ” to communicate what I am referring to as a Christian worldview. Or, stated more correctly, what I am referring to as a Christian worldview is best summed up in Paul’s beautiful phrase. As promised, in this post I will show a little more clearly (hopefully) how Paul relates all of the solutions to the Philippian problems to this one, over-arching concept.

A common misconception about the book of Philippians is that the Philippian congregation was the one congregation that Paul wrote to that had no problems. The entire book is just about rejoicing and loving each other and one great big “kumbaya” moment. That we would come to such a conclusion is evidence of how skillfully Paul did deal with the Philippian problem(s). However, I believe that there are a cluster of problems within the Philippian congregation, and although the letter is not presented as a systematic theology, there is a wonderful symmetry to the book that underscores Paul’s major point.

To begin with there is a problem of disunity within the congregation. Paul begins by rehearsing his strong bond with the members, (1:1-11) and then in 1:27-30 encourages them to “stand firm in one spirit” and to “(contend) as one man for the faith of the gospel.” Then, of course, there is the famous injunction to Euodia and Syntyche to start getting along with each other, and to the rest of the congregation (or one person?) to facilitate that reunion (4:2-3).

Next, Paul deals with an authentic call to Christian service/ministry in 1:12-26 and again in 2:19-30. Apparently Paul is concerned that the Philippians are not walking the walk that their talk is leading them.

But, that talk is important as well, and so the truth underlying the talk must be properly defined and defended (1:9-11; 2:12-18; 3:1-4:1).

Finally, as is so frequent in Paul’s writings, there is a call to genuine Christian gratitude (4:10-23).

This, then is a rough outline (it can be tweaked a little, and certainly given some more definition, but it is a solid outline of what I think Paul is trying to communicate) of the book of Philippians. And, notice what is at the center of all of these exhortations to the Philippian Christians – the profound Christological hymn of 2:1-11. In other words, although Paul is not writing systematically, he deals with several issues around a core truth. If we “have the mind of Christ” then issues such as Christian unity, Christian service and ministry, Christian doctrine and faith, and Christian gratitude all fall neatly into place. But, if you remove the “mind of Christ” from his followers and all we have left is a mind set on “earthly things” (3:19) and that will lead to destruction.

On a rabbit chasing tangent, this sets the context for that bug-a-boo verse in 2:12 where Paul exhorts the Philippians to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Often mis-interpreted and greatly abused to mean that we are somehow responsible for at least half of our salvation (meekly allowing God to take care of the other half), this verse teaches directly the opposite! If the “mind of Christ” is in us, then the works of Christ should flow out of us. We do not earn our salvation. Far from it! We cannot earn even half of our salvation. We can only “work out” what God has worked within us. As verse 13 makes blatantly clear: most of our mis-interpretations occur because we do not read the verse preceding our pet verse, or the verse following it. The only “work” we can do is the work of the “mind of Christ” which is in us. Paul says substantially the same thing in 1 Cor. 2:16 – “we have the mind of Christ.”

So returning to our main thesis. The book of Philippians is a concise and beautifully written letter that presents not only what a Christian worldview is (the “mind of Christ”), but it relates to us how that Christian worldview is relevant to solving so many of our current problems. Granted, Paul does not dot every “i” nor does he cross every “t”. That will be our continuing mission – to flesh out exactly what the “mind of Christ” has to do in a world that utterly rejects any part or parcel of the Christian mindset.

The “Mind of Christ”

A peace symbol, originally designed by the Bri...

A peace symbol, originally designed by the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament movement (CND). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(5th in a series)

Okay, enough of the destruction and de-construction. Now, onward and upward with the building of a Christian worldview. If you have not already read the previous articles in this series, I suggest you do so to familiarize yourself with what I am NOT trying to do, or with the concept that I am trying to overcome.

Perhaps some are still perplexed as to the exact meaning of the word “worldview,” especially in the sense in which I am using it. I think I hit upon the most succinct meaning in my sermon of April 15 when I said that it was “how we see God, others and ourselves in this world.” That may not be the best technical definition of the word, but it is the way in which I am using the term.

There are several different passages that I will be examining as I move along toward creating this Christian worldview. I have decided that the passage that speaks most clearly to what I am trying to communicate is Philippians 2:5, a wonderfully succint yet deeply packed verse of Scripture. The key word in the sentence is the word that is translated either “mind” or “attitude.” So, the verse reads either, “Have the same attitude as that of Christ Jesus” or “Have the same mind as that of Christ Jesus.” I suppose if you wanted to you could make a case that there is a big difference between the two words, but for our purposes we will say that “mind” and “attitude” are fundamentally synonymous. For my own 2 cents worth, I prefer the word “mind,” because the word in Greek seems to be especially important to Paul as he writes this letter. Just for comparison purposes, notice also 1:7, 2:2, 3:15 and 19, and 4:2 and 10. That is seven uses of the word in this short letter, far more than what Paul uses even in his much longer letters. If I understand the letter correctly, Paul was wanting the Philippian Christians to be unified in their “mind,” and the mind that he wanted them to be unified in was the “mind of Christ Jesus.”

At this point I could continue with either a mind-numbing verse by verse exegesis of the book of Philippians, or I could just cut the chase and get right to my conclusion. I think you will all be pleased to know I have chosen door #2. So, in brief, this is what I believe Paul is telling the Philippians, at least as it relates to the word “mind” that he uses so frequently.

1.  The Philippian church was either already divided, or it was on the brink of division, and Paul very gently corrects their faulty thinking by calling them to be like-minded, or unified (chapters 1 and 4).

2.  The ultimate prescription for these Christians to recover, or to develop, a like-mindedness was for each of them to adopt the “mind of Christ” (chapter 2).

3.  Maturity in the Christian faith, and a desire to continue to mature in the Christian faith, had a huge role to play in deciding whether a person would accept Paul’s teaching or remain childish, and therefore divided (3:1-16).

4.  The opposite of having the mind of Christ would be to have the mind of the world (3:17-4:1). This is precisely what my first 4 articles were designed to illustrate. We cannot have both the mind of the world and the mind of Christ.

In my next post I will work with the letter to the Philippians to show how Paul weaves several strands of obedience together to create the tapestry of unity that he has in mind. I did not want this post to get too long and burdensome, so we will continue our study of Philippians in our next step toward developing a Christian worldview.

“TST” – An Energetic Example

As a final installment in this series of thoughts on making stupid mistakes in theology I wanted to find a perfect text – but not so perfect that my illustration would be lost in denominational or cultural bias. That pretty much eliminated any discussion of baptism, women’s role in the churches, the Lord’s Supper, etc. Then it occurred to me that I had just discussed such a passage in my Sunday morning Bible class – Philippians 2:12.

Now, in and of itself Philippians 2:12 poses no huge issues that have divided christendom. There is, however, a misunderstanding involving the last phrase of the verse that plagued me for many years. In the last phrase Paul tells the Philippian Christians to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Now, if that was the only verse in the Bible that dealt with a person’s salvation it would probably be no big issue. However, if you compare and contrast Philippians 2 with Ephesians 2 and Galatians 2 we apparently have a real problem. In Ephesians and Galatians Paul makes it clear that we are saved by grace through faith, and there is nothing that works have to do with the equation. Many understand Philippians 2 to teach the opposite – we work our fingers to the bone in absolute terror that we may fail, and hopefully God will reach down and make up the difference.

That is the stupid mistake. Anytime we arrive at an interpretation of a text that stands in 100% contradiction to another text then either we have misinterpreted one text or the other – or both.

So, if we back up and say, “Something is wrong with this picture here” what is the clue that puts everything back into focus? What gets us back on the correct course?

The key is found in the root of a Greek word that occurs three times in the last phrase of v. 12 and v. 13. The ESV does a fairly good job of translating the phrase, putting the word “work” where the word appears. To transliterate the word into English it would be better to use some form of the word “energize,” although that would be a little tough in v. 12. Paul is telling the Christians to “energize” their salvation, to “work out” their salvation, to “put their salvation into energy.” Why? Because, as he makes so perfectly clear in v. 13, it is God who “energizes” them both to will and to “energize” his good will.

Think of the Energizer battery bunny. He just keeps going and going and going because of the energy stored in his batteries. Perhaps a better example would be the sun. Does the sun radiate in order to be the sun? Or does the sun radiate because it IS the sun, and because it has so much inherent energy that it HAS to radiate its heat and light. Christians are to radiate their salvation because God has given them so much energy that to do anything else would cause them to explode! They don’t work, and most important they do not have to work, in order to earn their salvation. They work because they have been given their salvation and God has given them a place in his world to shine. Philippians 2 fits with Ephesians 2 and Galatians 2 just perfectly.

I have to thank a very dear professor, Dr. John T. Willis of Abilene Christian University for opening up this passage for me. Ironically, Dr. Willis’ field of expertise was the Old Testament, but he taught a seminar on Philippians one semester so that he would be forced to apply his Greek and other New Testament exegetical skills. It is due to Dr. Willis’ indefatigable joy in studying the Scriptures that I owe so much of my own inspiration. My mistakes, however, are fully my own, and I blame them on no one else.

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