Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing

John 3 is one of the most important chapters in our Bible. Almost every child and every Christian knows John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him shall not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, KJV). images-2Yet, perhaps fewer Christians have studied the chapter in detail. The famous quote concerning God’s love for the world comes in the middle of a long conversation between Jesus and a man named Nicodemus. Nicodemus was a “ruler of the Jews”—a member of the Sanhedrin, Israel’s seventy member Jewish ruling council. He was almost certainly wealthy, well-educated, respected, and powerful. Nicodemus appears in Scripture as a just, fair, open-minded, and compassionate man.

Nicodemus also appears in John 7, where he defends Jesus against an early attempt to arrest him (John 7:45-52). Finally, John tells us that Nicodemus assisted Joseph of Arimathea in paying for and assisting in the burial of Jesus (John 19:39-40). Christian tradition holds that Nicodemus became a believer in Jesus, was baptized by Peter and John, lost his position in the Sanhedrin because of his faith in Christ, and was finally forced to flee the City of Jerusalem. [1] If this tradition is accurate, then Nicodemus was willing to give up everything—wealth, position influence, and power—in order to Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing.

Receiving Grace

I want to ponder in this blog the first seventeen verses of John. They read as follows:

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.” Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:1-17).

Questions of the Night

John’s Gospel is much different than the other gospels. It is structured around certain signs and sayings. It leaves out many things the other gospels contain and contains things the other gospels do not mention. In addition, John often uses images and metaphors to convey its message. One image that constantly appears in John is a comparison of the darkness of our world and the light that is in Christ (John 1:4-5; John 3:19-21; John 812; 9:35-41).

John 3 begins with Nicodemus making a visit to Jesus by night. imgresRembrandt and other famous painters have tried to capture the scene. I have chosen an image that shows the light of a wall candle, perhaps symbolizing the Holy Spirit, illuminating the scene. A lot of ink is spilt trying to explain the reason Nicodemus came by night. Was Nicodemus afraid? Was he fearful of what his wealthy and powerful friends might think? Was he just too busy to make a daytime visit? We will never know the exact reason, but we do know that John uses this night visit to compare the darkness in which Nicodemus lives to the light of Christ.

Nicodemus is portrayed as a man with questions. He has heard of the powerful teacher and miracle worker, Jesus of Nazareth, and wants to believe that this Jesus is a man of God who can somehow illuminate and explain for him the way to God (John 3:2). Jesus seems to understand that Nicodemus is an earnest seeker who wants to know how to have a new kind of life and, perhaps, escape the legalism of the Pharisees. Jesus understands that Nicodemus is a true seeker after God, what Jesus elsewhere calls, a “Person of Peace” (Luke 10:6). Therefore, he says, “I tell you the truth, no one can enter the Kingdom of God unless he is born again” (John 3:3). This begins and exchange of questions Nicodemus asks, questions that, in a different way, people continue to ask today.

First, Nicodemus asks, “How can a person be born anew when they are already old?” (John 3:4). In other words, “How can an old guy like me find a new life?” This is a question that people ask today, though in a different way. Sometimes, we do think that we are too old for God to use us or for to find a new life. Sometimes, we think that we have made too many mistakes, done to many things wrong, spent too many years away from God to find a new and better life. Sometimes, we feel too world-weary to begin again. When we feel like this, we are asking Nicodemus’ question.

Second, Nicodemus asks, “Assuming one could be born again, how would it work?” (John 3:4). “Surely a person cannot enter into his mother’s womb a second time. It cannot possibly work that way, can it?” Once again, all over the world in different ways and with different answers, people ask that question. Religions that believe in reincarnation essentially teach that our second chance comes in another life we will have in the future. Their idea is that we simply live life over and over again until we get it right. Skeptics, frankly, answer the question with the belief that it is not possible at all. There is no new life. Materialists ask the question and come up with a formula of diet, exercise, education, self-help, counseling, meditation, and the like that will permit human beings to recover our lost youth. You see, everyone and anyone who believes that they have messed up in life have wondered, “How do I start over?” When we feel like this, we are asking Nicodemus’ question.

One way or the other, all human beings ask the same questions Nicodemus asked Jesus. In moments of darkness, of despair, of failure, of longing for a new and better life, we all wish we could start over. By now, I have counseled so many people that I often cannot remember names, places, or even precise situations. Nevertheless, I do know that this question is one I’ve been asked a lot of times in different ways. There are business people who have done something foolish and asked, “How can I start over at my age?” There are husbands and wives that have failed and asked, “How can we start over given all the water under the bridge?” There are parents who have failed children and children who have failed parents who ask the question, “How can our family find renewal and new life?” Once again, Nicodemus’ questions are universal human questions we all encounter all the time when we get to know people.

Glimmers of Light

Into the spiritual darkness in which Nicodemus finds himself Jesus shines a bit of spiritual light. Of course, no one can physically start over in life. We cannot be physically born again once we have entered this world. We physically cannot start over once we have made certain decisions. We cannot avoid certain consequences of our decisions. We cannot overcome the physical limitations of our genetics and experiences. However, we can have a new life! We can be born again into God’s kingdom of Wisdom and Love. We can experience the blessedness of being a child of God. We can become a part of God’s family.

In answer to the question, “How can I be a New Person?” Jesus answers as follows:

Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, “You must be born again.” The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8).

In other words, Jesus is saying, “You can become a new person, Nicodemus. You can find a new life. You can eliminate the darkness you feel in your soul. You can have a deep, personal relationship with God. The birth will not be physical, but spiritual. You must open your heart and ask God, who is a spirit, to come into your heart.”

God can give us a new life; however, he gives us a new life that is spiritual in nature. He may not change our circumstances. He may not change our physical condition. He is surely not going to make time go backwards. Instead he gives us his own life, which is different than physical life. It is a life of self-giving love and wisdom that never ends.

In response to this answer of Jesus, Nicodemus goes on to ask, “How can this be?” (John 3:9). In other words, the conversation moves on to the second question, “How can I have this new life?” or “How can this work?” In his response, Jesus says perhaps the most important words in the entire passage, words that most of us have never considered:

You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him (John 3: 10-15).

In the book of Proverbs we find the following:

I am the most ignorant of men; I do not have human understanding. I have not learned wisdom,  nor have I attained to the knowledge of the Holy One. Who has gone up to heaven and come down? Whose hands have gathered up the wind? Who has wrapped up the waters in a cloak? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is the name of his son? Surely you know! (Proverbs 30:1-4).

images-1This is one of those places where it is hard to believe those who assert that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of God, could possibly be correct. Nicodemus was a wise man. He was learned in the Old Testament. He was a ruler of the Jewish people, familiar with the proverbs of Israel that were used to teach those who would one day be in a leadership position. Nicodemus knew what we know as Proverbs 30. He probably had memorized it. In these verses from John, Jesus is saying, “Nicodemus, you know that the only person who could really answer your questions, the only person who has penetrated the heart of the wisdom of God, would be the Son of God. You know that the prophets looked forward to a messiah they called the Son of Man (Daniel 8:13). I am that person, and I am going to be lifted up on a cross just like Moses lifted up the snake in wilderness, so that you and everyone else will know this.” This is where we come to the text we all know. Jesus goes on to say:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:16-17, NIV).

Here is the Gospel restated: The creator of the universe, the giver of the Law to Moses, the God of the Prophets, loves the world so much he is willing to give his son for its salvation. Those who believe in the Son and who receive the gift by faith will enjoy “Eternal Life,” that is the very life of God.

What is the Main Thing in Your Heart

Jesus ends this section of teaching by comparing the Light that He is with the Darkness of the world and of the human heart (John 3:19-20). It is as if he is asking, Nicodemus, and us, “What do you love?” “What do you believe in?” “Who do you really trust?” “Do you believe, really believe that God is love?” “Do you really believe that by my Spirit you can receive eternal life?” “Do you believe the life of faith by the power of the Holy Spirit is the Main Thing?” “Are you willing to trust in me and me alone as the ultimate source of your life?”

In other words, he is asking, “What is the main thing in your heart?” God loves you. God wants you to enjoy his divine life now and in the world to come. All he asks is that you believe in his promise. As I mentioned at the beginning, we think Nicodemus chose to believe in and follow the Christ. May we do the same.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] Ronald F. Youngblood, ed., “Nicodemus” in Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary Rev. Ed. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1986), 895.

Come as You Are—But Don’t Stay that Way

This last Sunday was Pentecost. On Pentecost, we celebrate the birth of the Christian church. It is the day the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in Jerusalem, the gospel was preached by Peter, and thousands were saved (Acts 2:1-41). imgresIt is also the day on which new believers began meeting together, hearing the teachings of the apostles, praying, having communion together, and experiencing the new life of the Kingdom of God (Acts 2:42-47). In the early church, Pentecost was more important than Christmas and nearly as important as Easter. Today is also a reminder that we can participate in the life of God. We do not have to stay as we are; we can be new people by the power of the Holy Spirit. We, like the early Christians, can be filled with the Spirit and changed by our faith.

Not so long ago, I met a person I knew forty-five or so years ago. When we were in High School, this person was skinny, not a good student, and not athletic. He was a party animal. He did not go straight to college, but worked for a while after graduation. I lost track of him. Not long ago, a handsome, confident, obviously kind person came up to greet me. “I hear you are a pastor,” he said. He then sat down and began to tell me about his Christian walk and introduced me to his wife. What a changed person he was! Actually, even today, if I did not know he was the person I knew in high school, I would not believe it was him!

By the same token, I have had the experience of seeing someone I knew in High School who left school, got hooked on alcohol or drugs, drifted into other behaviors, and looked twice their age. What we experience in our lives makes a difference. People change for the better or for worse in life. In this blog, we are talking about God’s power to change our lives for the better.

Come as You Are—But Don’t Stay that Way

Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is one of the most important letters in the New Testament. Scholars often reflect on its importance to Christian life and Christian thought. [1] In this letter, we see Christ’s sacrifice and our salvation as a part of God’s eternal plan (Ephesians 1:4-14). Because of the resurrection, Paul believes that Christians can be enlightened and empowered by the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Pentecost—to know God and to live in the power of God’s Spirit (1:15-23). Then, in Chapter 2, Paul sets out his doctrine of Grace—the Power of God’s Spirit acting in love. Here is how he puts it:

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do (Ephesians 2:4-10).

The Nature of Grace

There is no idea of the Christian faith more important than the idea of Grace.images-1 There is certainly no idea more important to Protestants, since the idea that we are Saved by Grace through Faith in Christ Alone is central to the Reformation and to all Protestant theology and life. [2] Grace, however, is much more than an idea in theology books. It is a reality that must be experienced and lived. Our busy, work-oriented, frantic, lonely, and isolated culture needs to understand and, much more importantly, experience God’s grace. The therapy of God by the Spirit is of importance to our happiness as well as our salvation! [3]

So, what is God’s Grace? Grace is God’s self-giving love towards us offered freely and without cost. The Greek word, “Charis” is the same word from which we get the word “Gift” as in Spiritual Gifts. The definition of Grace has important implications for Christians:

  • We can’t earn Grace: It is a gift not something we earn.
  • We can’t deserve Grace: It is a gift not something we deserve.
  • We can only receive Grace as a gift. As Paul reminds us in today’s text Grace is a gift we receive by faith, so we have nothing to boast about.

Grace is the most important thing in the world. Grace is not only essential to our salvation; it is essential to a health human life. One reason our culture is characterized by fear about the future and excessive striving to secure our future is that we have forgotten how to rest in God and allow God to work in areas we cannot control and should not control. Thomas Oden puts it this way:

The Christian life comes to us on God’s initiative, not our own. We can choose by God’s grace to put ourselves in those times and places where God promises to be present. We can avail ourselves of the means of grace, but not so as to control them. They remain precisely grace—sheer gift. The teaching of grace stands as a penetrating challenge to all pretensions of self-sufficiency. [4]

We can never make any progress in the Christian life until we get straight on the fundamental principle: We cannot save ourselves. Only God can do that. What we can do is have faith in the love of God and in what Christ accomplished and revealed on the Cross. When I teach about Faith and Grace I put tell the following story. When our children were young, each Christmas Eve we would sit by the tree opening presents. Kathy would pick up a present, read a name, and hand the present to me. Then, one of our children would come up and get the gift. They had not earned the gift. They could not pay for the gift. But they did have to come up and get the gift. Faith is the means by which we receive the gift God has for us.

Grace Accepts Us Just as We Are.

I suppose every child has played in the mud, and every mother has cleaned up a filthy child (usually a little boy) who has found a pool of mud. When I was little, I was always getting filthy playing in dirt, mud, haystacks, piles of leaves, and other places from which Mom probably wished I would stay away. When our son was young, we learned that he had inherited this same quality! Did my mother reject me because I played in the mud? Did Kathy cease to love our son just because he got filthy? No!

The idea of purity is important to Jewish thought. To the Jew, the goal of human life was to become “righteous” by following the law and avoiding all forms of impurity. This explains a lot of the laws the ancient Jews were to obey. It is just contrary to this way of thinking to believe that God can accept us just as we are. God wants us to become pure and cannot accept us as we are.

Jesus changed all this. The Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke is the best possible example. In the parable, a younger son dishonors his father and family by asking for his inheritance early. Unexpectedly, the father agrees. [5] Then, while the son defiles himself in immorality, the father patiently and lovingly waits for the child to come home. imgres-2When the son does come home, the father welcomes him with open arms, gives him fresh clothing, throws a party, and celebrates. The older brother cannot understand how a father could possibly act like this, expressing the Jewish discomfort with grace. But the father affirms that the wayward son is welcome because “Once he was lost, but now he is found. Once he was dead, but now he is alive” (Luke 15:11-32).

In this parable, Jesus reveals a God who does not reject people for failing, for doing foolish things, for behaving immorally, etc. Instead God is portrayed in the Parable of the Prodigal Son as a forgiving, loving, restoring God. This is what God showed us in Christ: God loves each one of us unconditionally, like the greatest father any of us might have or dream of having.

This has implications for Advent as a church as well as for Christians. Just as God does not reject people because of their sinfulness, brokenness, and pain, so also God’s church is called to be a place of Grace. We are called to be a place where sinners find a home where the Good News is preached and lived.

Grace Does Not Leave Us As We Are

Grace accepts us as we are, but grace does not leave us as we are. Tomorrow is Memorial Day. I will go out in the yard to do some once a summer work. In the course of a few hours, I will begin to look a lot like a dirty child. Moreover, I will begin to smell like what women sometimes call, “A Stinky Boy.” Kathy will not reject me or banish me from the house because of this. She will not stop loving me. She will, however, demand that I take a shower before dinner. When Tim and I used to get muddy playing outside, Mom did not disown us or stop loving us, but she did make us take off our clothes and bathe. Any mother of a small child who managed to get covered with cleans up her child. God, like any good mother, does not leave us as he finds us! God loves us enough to continue by grace to help us change.

John Burke, Pastor of Gateway Church in San Antonio, has writing a book called, No Perfect People Allowed: Creating a Come as You are Culture in the Church. In the book, he describes what would happen if one of us found a Rembrandt covered in mud:

“If you saw a Rembrandt covered in mud, you wouldn’t focus on the mud or treat it like mud. Your primary concern would not be the mud at all — though it would need to be removed. You’d be ecstatic to have something so valuable in your care. But if you tried to clean it yourself, you might damage it. So you would carefully bring this work of art to a master who could guide you and help you to restore it to the condition originally intended. When people begin treating one another as God’s masterpiece waiting to be revealed, God’s grace grows in their lives and cleanses them.” [6]

Each of us is like a masterpiece painted by God. Along the journey of life, we may have managed to get covered in mud, but that does stop God from loving us. God reaches out to us just as we are. However, it is not God’s plan to leave us as we are. God’s grace continues to operate in our lives after we accept Christ. This grace, sometimes called, “Sanctifying Grace” helps us become the people God desires us to be.

There is a kind of evangelical Christianity that is not just about grace, it is about what the German martyr, theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, called “Cheap Grace.” dbprisonCheap Grace is not really grace at all. It is counterfeit grace—a kind of religious co-dependence. In his book, the Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer decries the Church’s tendency to market Cheap Grace to people. Cheap Grace is grace without a commitment to change, grace without true repentance, grace without awareness and confession of sin, grace without the necessity of discipleship. [7] Cheap Grace is really not grace at all.

Grace Creates What We Shall Be

Bonhoeffer goes on to describe real, Costly Grace. Costly Grace is like the Pearl of Great Price Jesus describes in his parable of the same name. Jesus says that the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Discipleship is like a precious jewel hidden in a field. A reasonable person knowing of such a jewel would go, sell everything, borrow as much as possible, and purchase that pearl (Matthew 13:45-46). Real Grace is Costly Grace. It costs us everything because it is the priceless gift of God. If we have been truly saved then whatever good works we do are not just works of our human strength, but also works of God.

In the early church, there were people who accused Paul of a kind of Cheap Grace. Paul’s doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith and not works was and is subject to misunderstanding. Some people accused Paul of “antinomianism,” or being against the Torah, the law of God. In Romans, Paul specifically defends himself against this charge, saying:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life (Romans 6:1-4).

Christianity does not eliminate the law or the desire of God that we live in holiness. Our problem is, as Paul knows, we cannot obey the law without a new kind of live, a divine life given to us by God (Romans 7:21-25). Our new birth in Christ is like our natural birth. No one of us had anything to do with our physical birth. We received life as a gift from our parents. Similarly, we cannot be “born again” by our own works or by any action we take. Only God can give us a new life. Nevertheless, after we are born again we can and must cooperate with God in discipleship as by grace God transforms us into the people he desires us to be. This is what is sometimes called “Cooperating Grace.” In discipleship we cooperate with God in becoming the people God calls us to be. Grace you see does not end with our salvation. It continues after our salvation as God completes the work he began in our salvation (Philippians 1:6).


There are a lot of folks these days trying to figure our how to live forever. What if there was a way to live forever? What if there was a way not just to live forever, but also to live forever in a state of blessedness human beings never enjoy however much money they have? What if there were a way to live not just as we now live, but as we dream of living, filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control, hope and the like? There is. God’s Sanctifying Grace is also God’s Perfecting Grace. We will not fully experience it in this world, but we will experience it. God is in the business of making all things perfect, including us. There will be a New Heaven and a New Earth, and there will be a new you and a new me (Revelation 21:1).

Ephesians says we are saved by grace not by works, yet God has prepared works for us to do. This sounds hard until we realize that the works God has for us to do are simply the works of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control, hope, and the like we will do once we are captured by his love and renewed by his grace. The works of which Paul speaks are not something unpleasant or otherworldly. Instead, the works of Grace consist in living our ordinary lives in an extraordinary, loving, grace-filled way. This is the life of discipleship.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See Francis W. Beare, “Epistle to the Ephesians” in The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1953). I do not agree with Beare regarding authorship but it is a fine commentary.

[2] The Reformation outlined the so-called “Sola’s.” “Sola” means “Alone.” For Luther and the reformers, there were five ”Sola’s”: Sola Christus (Christ Alone), Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Sola Fide (Faith Alone), and Sola Gracia (Grace Alone) and Sola Gloria (Glory of God Alone). Today, the focus is on grace.

[3] See, Thomas C. Oden, The Transforming Power of Grace (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1993. I have relied on this book to guide the theology of grace set out, and especially in crafting the definition of grace set out below.

[4] Id, at 37.

[5] See, Ken Bailey, Poet and Peasant through Peasant Eyes Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1976). Bailey points out that no first century middle eastern father would have agreed to such a request, and Jesus’ hearers would have understood something we miss—the Father’s love us extravagant, unusual, and unbelievable.

[6] John Burke, No Perfect People Allowed: Creating a Come as You are Culture in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 97.

[7] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York, NY: Macmillan Paperbacks, 1959, 1961 reprint), 45-47.

From Family to Christian Community

Last week, this blog was on the value of family in Christian faith and life. Families are important to God and important to wise living. It is in our families that we learn and relearn the most basic skill of wise living—loving other people unconditionally. Family is essential for raising children, passing on values to another generation, and  passing faith from generation to generation. We ended last week with a warning: As important as families are, families are only a part of God’s plan. Our human families merge into God’s family, the church. Our human families fully become what God desires them to be as they become part of God’s family. Chris Portrait 008

This week at staff meeting, we talked about the church in America and the challenges we face. Tuesday afternoon, four different people sent me an article containing the results of a recent Pew Institute Poll showing that the number of people who claim to be Christians fell seven percent in only seven years, the largest decline in American history. [1] The Los Angeles Times, the BBC, the New York Times, and other major media outlets picked up the study. For a long time, religious scholars have seen a decline in church attendance. It is not surprising that after a long period of decline in attendance, we now see the results in the number of people who claim to be Christians. The Pew researched showed that the number of Americans claiming to be Christian has fallen precipitously in the past few years.

The word “Church” comes from a Greek word meaning “those who are called out”. [2] The Bible teaches that God calls people into his kingdom of wisdom and love. There is an old gospel hymn called “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling.” This hymn captures the truth that God calls us in Christ out of the World into his Church. Once Christians are called out, we are called to assemble with other believers as a church. Therefore, the word “ekklesia,” is also a word that translates the Hebrew word for “Assembly,” as when the people of Israel assembled as a nation in the Old Testament. [3] We were called to live together as the church.

Don’t Stop Being Community

This blog’s text comes from Hebrews. Hebrews was written, as the title indicates, to a group of Jewish Christians, perhaps in Rome. [4] The King James Version assumes Paul wrote the letter; however, not very many people actually think Paul wrote it, though he might have. The best candidate is a man named “Apollos” who appears in several of Paul’s letters. Apollos was a master of Greek Rhetoric and scholar of the Old Testament, and seems a likely candidate. Hebrews is written in the best New Testament Greek by someone who knew the Old Testament backwards and forwards. This indicates Paul, Apollos, or someone very similar in background wrote the book. Here is my text for this blog as it comes from the Book of Hebrews:

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Hebrews 10:19-25).

Prayer: Eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: you live eternally in a fellowship of love and desire for us to live in your church as your called out people proclaiming your love to the world. Help us to value your church and to value the relationships we have here with you and others.

 Christ: The Center of Hebrews

As I mentioned above, Hebrews is one of the most elegant books in the New Testament. Whoever wrote it was a committed Christian, familiar with the Old Testament, a brilliant scholar, and a writer of great skill.  The book is organized like a sermon. As is often the case in sermons, Hebrews  alternates theological arguments and practical implications. [5] In this blog, we are talking about the practical implications. However, it helps to know what the author has said earlier about Christ.

imagesHebrews begins with the following statement of the importance of Christ:

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs (Hebrews 1:1-4).

Here we have a clear statement of the supremacy of Christ. Christ is superior to the prophets (1:1-2).Christ is the means through which God created the universe (1:2).Christ sustains all things by the power of God (1:2). Christ reveals exactly who God is and what God is like. Christ is superior to angels (1:6-14). Christ is superior to Moses (3:1-4). Christ is the great High Priest (54:14-5:6). Christ is the perfect sacrifice for our sins (9:11-28). Christ is the way in which we can have new relationship with God, a perfect relationship with God by his new and living way (10:20). This is the main point the author of Hebrews wants to make: Christ is the center of Hebrews and the center of our faith.

Because of Christ: Our Relationship with God

We began our text with the word, “Therefore.” When an author begins a sentence with “Therefore,” he or she means to let us know that because of everything that has come before there are certain conclusions to be drawn. The author of Hebrews is no exception. Because of who Christ is and what Christ has done, Christians need to be different and live differently than other people. You see, there are implications to Christian faith. Here are a few mentioned in our text:

First of all, because of who Christ is and what Christ has done, we should draw near to God (v.22). In Jesus, it is revealed that God is not an angry judge. God is not out to get us because we are sinners. Christ reveals that God is love and loves us. We have nothing to fear. I have a friend who is a bit gruff. Most of the time people are just a little afraid of him. However, once you get to know him, you find out he is as loving and gentle as can be. God is like my friend. If you only casually know him, he can be scary. But if you really know who God is in Christ, you know he is safe.

Second, we should not be afraid. God is love. God desires to save us. God has paid the full price for our sins. Therefore, we should have faith and have full assurance that God loves us and we are free from our sins and from the guilty conscience we sometimes have from our sins. This is, I think, one of the most important things about faith: We don’t have to carry around our guilt concerning the past. We are cleansed of that guilt and shame from the past (v. 22). Many people live burdened by guilt and shame from the past. It is not necessary. God has provide a way of healing in Christ.

Finally, we should never lose hope. Because Christ is the exact representation of God, revealing God’s perfect self-giving love, we need not fear. I got a note the other day from one of our members. In the note he said, “Don’t worry. We’ve got your back.” God has our back. The just, loving, wise and all-powerful God of the heavens and the earth has our back. We have nothing to fear. Whatever may happen to us on this earth, we can be sure that the God of Hope, who raised Jesus from the dead, loves us and intends to respond to his faithfulness.

Hope is not a feeling or a kind of unrealistic optimism. John Polkinghorne notes that faith creates a kind of hope that is not a feeling, not mere optimism, but an acceptance of the world and its possibilities and impossibilities joined with confidence in the fundamental goodness of God. [6] Later he puts it this way:

Hope lies in the divine chesed, God’s steadfast love, and not in some unchanging realm of ideas or an intrinsic immortality of the human soul. Christian trust in the divine faithfulness is reinforced by the knowledge that God is the One who raised Jesus from the dead. Only such a God could be the ground for the hope against hope that transcends the limits of natural expectations. [7]

In Hebrews one finds a list of the great hero’s of the Old Testament. Some of them received the promises of God in their lifetime; others did not (11:13). Those saints who did not, died looking forward to fulfillment of promises they did not receive. They died looking forward to “a better country” (11:16). Christian hope, therefore, looks forward to the future in confidence, not because it is assured of success in this world, but because the God who is faithful will eventually grant justice in this world or in a better world to come.

Because of Christ: Our Relationship with One Another

Those readers who have been on a Great Banquet during which I was the Head Spiritual Director know that I quote Hebrews 10:25 at almost every closing. “Do not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing” (my paraphrase). Christians were never meant to live out the Christian life in We may be alone for a time, but we were not meant to live out our Christian life alone. Community is the normal state for Christians. Aloneness is something we endure. “Church”—“Community”—is our natural state. We were meant for one another.

Christians were meant to live in community, and the community we were meant to live in is the family of God, or the community of God, or what we call “the Church.” Just as God lives in a community, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, so also God has created the church as a visible reminder of what God is like. God intends for us to be a part of His community of love and live in that community. He never meant it to be made up of people who are passing through relationships with a congregation or one another. He meant it to be made up of people who are in a committed relationship with one another.

My parents belonged to what was known as the “Builder’s Class” of their church. The class was very close. We had picnics, holiday celebrations, like the 4th of July, parties, and the like. That class still exists, though it is quite small. It began somewhere around 1960 or about 55 years ago. At some point during my childhood, one of the members left his wife and family. My Dad, who was an FBI agent, found out where the man was, drove 250 miles, and talked the man into returning to his family. Without their close community and fellowship, it would not have been possible for Dad to do this; however, the man knew Dad cared enough to take a day off, drive 250 miles, and sit down to talk.

In Hebrews 10: 24-25, the author asks us to consider how we can spur one another to good deeds and that we encourage one another. Obviously, there is no encouraging one another without community. The idea of supporting and encouraging one another is the most common idea in the entire New Testament. A prominent Church consultant and author published some fifty-nine such texts in the New Testament. [8] Here are just a few:

  • “Be at peace with each other” (Mark 9:50).
  • “Love one another…” (John 13:34; John 13:35; John 15:12; John 15:17; I John 3:11; I John 3: 2; Romans 13:83; I John 4:7; I John 4:11; I John 4:12; II John 5; I Thessalonians 4:9’ I Thessalonians 3:12; I Peter 3:8; I Peter 4:8).
  • “Be devoted to one another” (Romans 12:10).
  • “Honor one another…” (Romans 12:10).
  • “Live in harmony with one another…” (Romans 12:16; I Peter 3:8).
  • “Accept one another…” (Romans 15:7).
  • “Instruct one another…” (Romans 15:14; Colossians 3:16)
  • “Greet one another with a holy kiss…” (Romans 16:16; I Corinthians 16:20; II Corinthians 13:12; I Peter 5:14)
  • “Have equal concern for one another” (I Corinthians 12:25)
  • Serve one another…” (Galatians 5:13).
  • “Carry one another’s burdens…” (Galatians 6:2).
  • “Be patient and bear with one another…” (Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:13).
  • “Be kind and compassionate to one another…” (Ephesians 4:32).
  • “Forgive one another…” (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13).
  • “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
  • “In humility consider others better than yourselves.” (Philippians 2:3)
  • “Admonish one another” (Colossians 3:16).
  • “Encourage one another…”(I Thessalonians 4:18; I Thessalonians 5:11; Hebrews 10:25; Hebrews 3:13).
  • “Build up one another…” (I Thessalonians 5:11).
  • “Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).
  • “Do not slander one another.” (James 4:11).
  • “Don’t grumble against one another…” (James 5:9).
  • “Confess your sins to one another…” (James 5:16).
  • “Pray for one another.” (James 5:16)
  • “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (I Peter 4:9).
  • “Use whatever gift you have received to serve one another…” (I Peter 4:10).
  • “…Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another…”(I Peter 5:5).

It is obvious from this list that God want us to live in a community of love with each other, not jumping around looking for the perfect church, but living in a community of love with each other. There will be failures, uncomfortable moments, sin, and the like. There is in every human community. On the other hand, there will be times when the Kingdom of God shines through our human brokenness and we glimpse a bit of what heaven is like. We glimpse the Kingdom that is coming in the midst of the world as it is.

What We Are

I began with the observation that the Greek word for “Church” means “those who have been called out by God.” The church is not made up of especially smart, strong, capable, spiritually mature, loving, wise, or caring people. The church is made up of ordinary people whom God has called to declare his praises to the world and show something of his wisdom, love, character, and perfect will in our world (I Peter 2:9). In this world, no congregation will ever be a perfect church. All churches are made up of ordinary, fallen, imperfect people. Therefore, there can be no perfect church. Nevertheless, we are here to represent God to the world as best we can.

This Sunday is Graduation Sunday in our congregation. I want to close this blog with an encouragement to our graduates and the graduates of each and every church. Many graduates will go off to college or begin careers. Some will join campus ministries. Let me encourage you to also become part of a local church wherever you go, hopefully a church where you will be part of an ordinary congregation filled with ordinary people. Find a church where everyone is not your age, your income level, your race, having your interests. Don’t just be friends with the college students. Find someone who is fifty years older than you are to befriend. Find a normal church and continue to love people as God has called you to love. God wants us to be in a community of love not just when we are young, or when we have children, or when we need community, but always. If you are leaving home this year, go do just that.


Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] See, “America’s Religious Landscape is Changing” (downloaded May 14, 2015).

[2] The Greek word is “ekklesia.” This word literally translates “those called out from.” The idea is that Christians have been called out from the world into God’s family, the church.

[3] Gerharad Kittle & Gerhard Friedrich, “Kaleo” in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament Geoffrey Bromiley ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Erdmanns, 1985), 394-402.

[4] William Barclay, “The Letter to the Hebrews” in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1976). I am indebted to Barclay for much of the historical background of this book. See also, John Calvin, “Commentary on Hebrews” in Calvin’s Commentaries Vol. 22 (Grand Rapids, MI Baker Books, 1993).

[5] There are three main ideas of the book that we must get in our mind to understand what is being said in Chapters 10-13: (1) the supremacy of Christ, the priesthood of Christ, and the perfect sacrifice of Christ.

[6] John Polkinghorne, The God of Hope and the End of the World (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), 48-49.

[7] Id, at 95.

[8] Carl F. George, Prepare Your Church for the Future (Tarrytown, NY: Revell, 1991), 129-131. I have not included the entire list here, but eliminated similar and negative “one anothers”. Others have made similar lists of varying sizes. I have shortened George’s for this blog.

Generations of Grace

Every year near Fathers Day, we are reminded that Mothers Day is one of the highest attended Sunday’s of the year. When we lived in Brownsville, I learned that the day before Mothers Day is also the busiest day of the year for florists. A member who was a florist had to employ a number of additional helpers to meet the demand of Mothers Day.

Let’s face it. Mothers are important. IMG_0035When Kathy would go out of town when the children were young they always looked forward to her return. The food and cleanliness of the house made a big improvement within minutes of her return! Mothers are also important for Christian faith. I have heard a lot of testimonies over the last 35 years. The most common testimony is of how a mother or grandmother was essential in bringing a child to faith in Christ. Many of these testimonies were by young men who strayed from the Christian faith only to be rescued by the prayers and sacrifice of a mother or grandmother.

Two weeks ago when looking at the importance of Scripture for the wise and loving life, we looked at II Timothy. Timothy is one of the most important people in the New Testament. Timothy’s mother, Eunice, was central to his Christian faith. Paul discipled Timothy, but it was Eunice who brought him to Christian faith. Most Christians know the story of St. Augustine, who was not a Christian until very shortly before his mother’s death. [1] Monica prayed and prayed for young Augustine. Finally, after much wandering, Augustine embraced his mother’s faith in one of the most dramatic and important conversions in all of Christian history.

If Christian faith is going to be passed from generation to generation, then it will be because mothers, fathers, parents, grandparents, and others take responsibility to disciple children seriously. Churches are important in this process, but family is more important—and mothers may be the most important people of all!

A Warning from History

It may seem odd to read from the book of Judges on and near Mothers Day. However, mothers are part of families, and this is a blog on passing along faith in families. Therefore, it is appropriate to ask the question, “What happens if faith is not passed along?” “What happens if our children and grandchildren forget our faith or the faith of their parents and grandparents?” Judges tells just such a story. Our text comes from Judges 2, and I am going to be readying verse 7 and verses 10-13:

The people served the Lord throughout the lifetime of Joshua and of the elders who outlived him and who had seen all the great things the Lord had done for Israel. … After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths. In his anger against Israel the Lord gave them into the hands of raiders who plundered them (Judges 2:7, 10-14).

Most Christians seldom read the book of Judges. It is the seventh book in our Bible and tells the story of Israel between the death of Joshua, who led the people into the Promised Land, until the time of Samuel, the last judge. As Judges begins, a godly, wise, and effective leader has led the people of Israel into the Promised Land. Joshua was Moses’ assistant, a great general, and a godly person. Now, Joshua is passing away.

So long as Joshua was alive, the people of Israel followed the LORD. Joshua and the generation Joshua led into the Promised Land remembered their captivity in Egypt. They remembered that God had released them from captivity, led them in the desert, and miraculously delivered them to the Promised Land. However, after Joshua and the members of his generation died, the newer generations did not remember what God had done. They lost their memory of slavery in Egypt, of their suffering, of God’s miraculous deliverance by the leadership of Moses, the long wandering in the wilderness, and their conquest of the Promised Land. They lost their memory, and as they lost their memory of what God had done, they lost their faith. Soon they were worshiping false gods, living immorally, and acting violently. It was not long before they began to lose their blessings as well.

How long did it take? It took less time than the United States has existed as a nation. We need to take a warning from Israel’s history. There is every reason to believe that our nation and our families are forgetting God, forgetting our history, forgetting those who came here seeking religious freedom, forgetting their struggle for liberty.

Increasingly, young people are abandoning the church and the values of our nation. Increasingly, we see signs of religious persecution as elites who have no respect for religion, and even think it dangerous and deliberately suppress and often distort religion’s importance in our history. As individuals, as families, as communities, and as a nation we need to take the threat of losing our blessings seriously. Our nation was formed on the basis of religious freedom and self-discipline. It cannot survive without it.

Our founding pastor used to like to say; “The Church is only a generation away from extinction in every generation.” This is true. If those who went before us had not been faithful in their day, we who are Christians would not be here today. If we do not find ways to be faithful now, in our day and time, then the blessings of the wisdom and love that can only come from God will not be with our children. Worse, the sufferings that come with moral and spiritual failure will be theirs. We see every indication that this is happening in our time, in our nation. The increase in violence, selfish self-seeking, the increase in divorce, increasing incidence of instability, a loss of good jobs, and the loss of respect for human life—all these things coincide with our culture’s drift away from its spiritual, moral, and legal heritage.

Grace from God

Romans 8 is one of the most beautiful texts in the entire Bible. Here is the part of what Paul has to say in this lovely passage:

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory (Romans 8:14-17).

Here is the idea Paul is communicating: God is calling us by his Spirit. He has made us so that we desire to connect with an ultimate meaning and purpose. We have a longing for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful. We have a longing for God built into all of our souls. This is reflected in St. Augustine’s famous line, “our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.” [2] God in his great mercy has made us with hearts that yearn for meaning, purpose, faith, goodness, wisdom, beauty, and love.

God’s Spirit cries out in each one of us. When we respond and cry out, “Abba Father” or “Father God” we bring ourselves into alignment with the God of Wisdom and Love. When we do that, we are brought into God’s family. From this point, whatever our former condition, the power of God’s wisdom and love is unleashed in our lives to change us, reform us, renew, us, and permit us to live wise and morally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy lives. This can also mean a healing of our human family.Chris Portrait 008 I personally know this to be true in my life. My conversion to Christ coincided with a healing in my family. God’s grace is not just for our salvation when we die, it is for our healing and salvation and for the healing and salvation of our families, our communities, our church, our nation, our world, as impossible as that seems.

The first and most important things we can do to have a godly family is to open our hearts to God’s grace, invite God in, and allow God to change us. We won’t make a lot of progress on our own. We need God to help us.

Godly Families

Once we have God in the right place, we come to the place where we can get our human families in order as well. There is an old, old adage that a good marriage has three parties, a husband, a wife, and God.imgresThere are times when any family will come apart unless both parties are committed to something more important than their own self-interest. A reason divorce has become prevalent in our culture, even among Christians, is that we often do not remember that there is more at stake in a marriage than our own needs and satisfactions. We forget that God has an eternal purpose in our marriages and families. While God does want us to be happy and fulfilled, God has eternal reasons for the family as a place where children are loved, understood, and nurtured. The family is also a place where the elderly grow old in the care of their children and are respected for their experience and wisdom. This does not always work out; it never works out perfectly. Nevertheless, it is a goal we seek by God’s grace.

When we bring God into our family, it is important to really and truly make God a part of our family. A strength of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church is our emphasis on family and on the role of mothers and fathers in the spiritual nurture of children. In a few weeks, we will have Vacation Bible School. All summer long we will have youth and children’s programs. Next fall, we will have EPIC (our midweek children’s program designed after what is called, “LOGOS”). We always have Sunday School. Our church is committed to helping parents in raising Christian children. Yet, the primary place our children learn Christian faith and discipleship is in the home.

A lot of mothers and fathers try to have family devotionals, try to say grace, try to have spiritual conversations with their children, and feel like failures. I urge us not to think this way. Often, we do not see immediate results in discipling children. Sometimes the results of our nurture are long years in revealing themselves. The example of Augustine’s mother, Monica, should always be with us in difficult times.

The Ultimate Family

I wish there were some way to say what I need to say now simply. This is the hardest part of this blog to understand, but it is important. In life there are things that are good in themselves, but they can become harmful when they become ultimate things. Love of country is a good thing—but as we saw in Nazi Germany and in Russian Communism, when love of country is not subject to love of God it can become something terrible. Love of family is the same way. From time to time we see inward-looking families who have no time for others, they are completely absorbed in themselves. Such families are rarely healthy. For a human family to find its place of greatest peace, it must find its true meaning and purpose as a part of the human family and God’s family. Families are part of God’s plan for the wise life, but the family is not God’s entire plan for human happiness.

Over the years, we have been on a few mission trips with our family and other families. Truthfully, I wish we had done more of these. I have really good memories of a few mission trips to Mexico and seeing Hilary, Trammell, Clara or Melanie on the roof of a house being built—and Kathy standing grinning or playing the guitar for a Bible School. On at least one occasion, a couple from Advent came with us and we stayed in the same motel in Mexico. It was a wonderful experience. Serving others, reaching out as a family to help others, getting out of our own selves long enough to see the needs of others is a wonderful and necessary thing.

A couple of weeks ago, the staff attended what is called the “Kainos Conference” in Memphis. It is a special conference that focuses on multi-racial ministry. “Kainos” means “fresh” or “new” in Greek. The idea is that God is doing a new, fresh thing in American churches, as our nation becomes increasingly multi-cultural. Several speakers encouraged us to make friends across cultural and racial barriers. They mentioned that people are uncomfortable with people who are different.

During the talk, one speaker quoted from Revelation a passage wherein we learn that, at the end of human history, we will all be together in heaven—people from every tribe, language group, and nation—all praising God together (Revelation 5:9-10). Then he said, “We are going to be together in heaven; we might as well be together on earth.” It is very true.

My mother is gone phone day 053 One promise I hold dear is that I will see Mom and Dad again in heaven. Our family is not over. Our family remains important to God, and he will restore it. In the end, I will meet people in my family, like my grandfather, I never even knew. Furthermore, in heaven, all the dysfunctions and problems of our family will be healed and we will be bound together in a perfect love we never achieved on earth. Finally, as important as my family will be to me in heaven, there will be another family there, the family of God, the Ultimate Family, of which my own family—and yours—is just a part.


[1] See, At. Augustine, The Confessions of St. Augustine tr. John K. Ryan (New York, NY: Image Books, 1960).

[2] Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 1, p. 43.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

Praying in the Future

Our theme in today’s blog is prayer. imgresPrayer is a key to Christian discipleship, Christian growth, Christian community, and Christian life. As such it is something Christians should value. On my bookshelf, there are a number of books on prayer. I’ve read a number of them. However, prayer is like playing an instrument or any sport. The question is not, “How many books have your read?” The question is, “How much have you practiced?” Prayer is not primarily a matter of knowledge. It is a matter of practice. The best thing to do to learn to pray is pray.

Each weekend in the bulletin there is a prayer list. The last thing we do in every staff meeting is to prepare that prayer list for the congregation. In addition, at 9:30 each Tuesday, a group of staff members meet and pray. Some years ago, when we were changing denominations, we began having prayer vigils on the First Friday of the month. Every first Friday, for the past four years there has been a prayer guide outside the chapel and services at 7:00, 12:00 noon, and 6:00 in the evening. Our prayer day isn’t always well attended, but during this time, we pray for the needs of our church, community, and world. The Session prays for the needs of our church at every meeting, sometimes for a long time.

This is a Great Banquet Weekend. The other day, I woke up early, and Kathy was gone. Well, not really gone. She was downstairs praying for me, for the coming Great Banquet, for our children, and for other prayer requests. This weekend, there have been people praying for the Great Banquet all weekend long. Yesterday, our Men’s Saturday reunion group did what we spend the first Saturday of each month doing: we spent a half a day praying, meditating, and seeking to to grow closer to God.

Paul’s Good Advice.

Our text for this blog comes from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Although a part of the text has to do with a problem in Philippi, the fact is that Philippians is a happy letter. The Philippian church was a strong church and supported Paul through thick and thin. It was also a generous church, giving to the needs of the church in Jerusalem in a time of need. [1] Like all churches, the Philippian church was not perfect. After Paul left, there were false teachers and other issues. As we begin our text, it is obvious that two people, Euodius and Syntyche, are quarreling. Paul’s admonition to rejoice, pray, and dwell on true and good things arises out of his response to this problem. Here is the Word of God as it comes from Philippians:

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, my true companion, help these women since they have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 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. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you (Philippians 4:1-9).

Prayer: God of Joy and Peace: Come to us in these words so that we can learn how it by prayer and purity we can enjoy the fullness of joy you have for each one of us. In Jesus Name, Amen.

Our Fallen Condition.

This is a blog about praying, but it needs to begin with our human condition. The problems between the two people in Philippi reminds us that human beings are not by nature in God’s will. We are all naturally self-centered, self-interested, short-sighted, desiring secondary pleasures and unimportant things, inclined to worry and be anxious, sometimes jealous of those who have more than we do, and prone to divide into factions. Each of us may not have all of these inclinations, but we all have some of them. We all have these problems because none of us by nature has the spiritual connection with God that enables us to avoid them. The story of Genesis and the fall is the story of our human condition and its consequences in real life. Since the fall, human beings have had a problem staying connected with God.

I know all my readers know that Kathy and I would never, ever quarrel, and I am sure that none of you who are married ever quarrel, but I have observed in my adult life that when human beings quarrel with another person, we cease to communicate, and when we cease to communicate our problem seldom gets better. In fact, I have noticed over the years that quarrels themselves are often a failure of loving communication in the first place! People who are fighting do not communicate well.

Our relationship with God is no different. Our human tendency is to push God into a corner of our lives, perhaps Sunday morning or a few minutes each day if we remember. The result is that we don’t have the relationship and constant communication we need with God to experience the joy and peace God desires for us to have.

The Solution.

The first step in getting out of ourselves and and our own desires and into God and the desires that God has for us, then, is to rejoice and be thankful for the gift of life and for what God has done for us. It is interesting that, right after Paul comments on the quarrel in the Philippian church, he speaks the following words: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice!” (v. 4). A life of prayer begins with rejoicing in faith. Our rejoicing will not always be without pain or fatigue or anxiety. Yet, we know there is a God who cares and so we pray to Him.

Second, Paul goes tells the Philippians to be gentle and not to worry, but in everything with prayers and petitions to let God know what we need (v.5). It is as if Paul is saying, once you have your attitude right about God and have begun to praise God and rejoice your salvation by faith, then start talking. Let God know what you need and how much you need it. Just let God know what is on your heart—everything that is on your heart (v.6). Once again, the point is not that we will never be anxious. The point is to turn our anxiety over to God.

Third, Paul says that we should be thoughtful and think about things that are true, roble, right, pure, lovely and admirable (v.8). In other words, we can’t be filled with the Spirit if we don’t think about things that will fill us with the Spirit of God—the True, the Good and the Beautiful. Thinking about true, good and lovely things centers us on the One who is True, Good, and Beautiful.

Finally, Paul says that the Philippians need to think about what they have seen Paul do, how he lived, the results the Gospel had in his life, and put the Gospel into practice (v. 9). It is only as we rejoice, pray, and become wise, and put into practice the grace we have received that God’s peace will come into our hearts (v. 7, 9). Just like study needs to lead to action, prayer needs to lead to action. We need to put our prayers into practice.

Our congregation is generous when it comes to missions. We give to the EPC World Outreach. We support several missionaries whose names appear in the Prayer List in our bulletin. We support what is called, “The Presbyterian Outreach Foundation,” which supports missions in our former denomination, the EPC, and other denominations. One of the members of that board, who lives in the Southeast, is a real prayer warrior. Every so often, I go into my office and he has a prayer message on my phone. Occasionally, he calls and prays. He did this just this week! Sometimes, I get emails with a word of wisdom and a prayer contained within them. I’ve watched my friend for some time now. He is not a pastor. He is in business. He serves on a financial-related committee of the Outreach Foundation. He is unfailingly cheerful and gentle. He is always obviously prayerful. His prayers are powerful and touching. His comments are unfailingly wise and thoughtful. And, in his personal and professional life he puts into practice what it is he believes and prays for. He does not just pray; he leads a prayerful life.

An Approach.

In this Blog, I don’t want to talk about a method of prayer. Most Christians know about the “ACTS method” of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, and about other prayer methods. Instead, I want to talk about an approach to prayer that can help each of us develop a deeper prayer life. This week, in the Bulletin and on Facebook, the meditation was as follows:

In prayer, three things happen: We come in touch with God and God’s will, we come in touch with how our will and God’s will can become one, and we come into unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ. When our will and God’s will become one, the power of God’s wisdom and love becomes unleashed in our personal lives. When God’s will and the will of a community of believers become one, the power of God’s wisdom and love becomes unleashed in the world.

The first step in developing a prayer life is alignment. If all we do is ask for things, eventually our prayer life burns out. None of us gets all of our prayers answered, and all of us will have times when we ask God for things we cannot and should not have. As we listen to God and align our prayers with God’s will, we slowly begin asking and praying within the will of God. When that happens our prayer life becomes more powerful. The prayer group our Saturday Men’s Reunion Group attends is primarily a listening prayer experience.

Second, one reason we come together and pray as a group on Sunday mornings, in worship, in small groups, and in classes is that, as the members of our Session, Church, classes, and small groups pray together, their wills and prayers begin to align with God’s will.

Think of alignment as something like a laser. imagesLasers are essentially light beams that have become “aligned,” or in scientific terms, “coherent”—that is to say all the beams of light are going in the same direction. The light beam of a laser is powerful because it is aligned and coherent. As we pray and listen to God, our wills and God’s will become aligned. We stop asking for things that are not in God’s will. We do ask for things that are in God’s will. As a group prays and listens to God its prayers become aligned, that is to say the entire group is praying in unity within God’s will. When that happens, the power of God is unleashed in churches, families and communities. This is one reason spouses should pray together: It creates unity and alignment.

Finally, we should pray constantly. We all need to have quiet times. We all need special times of prayers at home and church. At the same time, we should all try to develop the habit of constant prayer—a kind of prayer without ceasing. Paul says we should pray in everything, and that means about everything and all the time. When we are worried, tired, stressed, short, jealous, angry, etc. we need to pray. When life is not going our way, we need to pray. If we listen to God, we will certainly find many, many prayers to lift up to God.

As I mentioned a moment ago, the Men’s Saturday Reunion Group at our church meets once a month at a local Episcopal Church for an extended time of prayer. For a good amount of the time, we are silently listening for God. If we are to become aligned with God and God’s will, we have to develop the habit of listening to God and allowing God to form us and speak to us in the silence of our hearts. It is hard for those of us who are active and used to being busy. It is not easy for me. Alignment and constancy in prayer are not natural. They are a gift that God gives to those who wait and desire to be one with God in important matters of the spirit.


Most Christians know that, on the night before he was crucified, Jesus went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane. He prayed to be relieved of the duty God had placed upon him. However, he ended the prayer, “Not my will, but your will be done” (Matthew 26:39). In other words, Jesus’ human will had become aligned with God’s will, so that now he had the strength to endure what was about to happen.

Not all of our prayers will be in easy times. Not all will have pleasant results. Our prayer, in the end, is for our human will to embrace God’s will so we may be filled with his power whatever the circumstances. Paul’s advice to lift everything up to God with Thanksgiving is as good a piece of advice today as it was in the First Century.

Copyright 2015, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] The scholarly sources for this sermon are William Barclay, “The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians” in The Daily Bible Study Series Rev. Ed. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster 1975) and Richard R. Melick, Jr., Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon” in The New American Commentary vol. 32, (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1991).