PHILIPPIANS 3 – ON NATIONAL AND ETHNIC IDENTITY

Identity_Philippians 3version 2
Image: InternationalChristianFellowshipFrankfurt

 

In the past two weeks we have covered Philippians Chapters 1 and 2, guided by insights from a deep dive into the history and character of the city of Philippi. It was a Roman colony with a rich Greek and Roman military history. It was originally a Greek city but had become a settler colony for elite retired Roman soldiers.

Philippi was the gateway from Asia to Europe; making it a strategic military zone. Lydia, a wealthy business woman, was the first convert to Christianity. When the Church in Philippi started, some Jewish Christians (the Judaizers) joined them and were teaching that to be truly Christian you must first adopt Jewish culture and identity. Paul was so offended by their teaching, in Philippians 3 he called them dogs!

Philippians 3:1-7 (The Living Bible) (shortened): “Whatever happens, dear friends, be glad in the Lord. I never get tired of telling you this… Watch out for those… dangerous dogs… who say you must be circumcised to be saved… We Christians… realize that we are helpless to save ourselves. Yet if anyone ever had reason to hope that he could save himself, it would be I… For I went through the Jewish initiation ceremony when I was eight days old, having been born into a pure-blooded Jewish home that was a branch of the old original Benjamin family… I was a member of the Pharisees… I greatly persecuted the Church; and I tried to obey every Jewish rule… But all these things that I once thought very worthwhile—now I’ve thrown them all away so that I can put my trust and hope in Christ alone.”

The Judaizers put their ethnic pride first. Paul says for Christians, this is not right; remember he had asked the Philippians to put away pride in Chapter 1 and to put on a humble mind like Jesus in Chapter 2; now in Chapter 3 he teaches that our ethnic identity should not be our chief influencer, our chief influencer should be Jesus.

To the Philippians this was news; they were in a Roman colony where people came from all over and worked hard to become Roman citizens. These Christians were now told by Judaizers – Roman identity is nothing, Jewish identity is topmost. Paul disagreed strongly; for Paul, having a humble mind like Christ is everything.

So, how should we manage national and ethnic identity? When Paul was jailed in Philippi, he used his Roman nationality to defend himself (Acts 16:35-40). Our nationality and ethnicity helps us navigate life on earth, but wins us no credit before our creator. In the heavenly court, a loving humble life like Jesus wins us a crown.

Lord, we pray for grace to grow out of seeing others only by nationality and ethnicity; help us love all sincerely and live humbly, Amen!

 

Image credit: International Christian Fellowship (ICF), Frankfurt, Germany – Sermon on Philippians (09Feb2020)

 

PHILIPPIANS – HUMILITY IS VITAL IN TIMES LIKE THESE!

Humility mother of giants
Image source: CoinCoach

 

Philippi’s mines supplied the gold that paid Alexander the Great’s army. In Roman times, retired soldiers including the elite special Praetorian Guards settled in Philippi to enjoy a restful life. Lydia, the first convert there, was a trader in ‘purple cloth’ – this was expensive cloth used mainly by royalty and the wealthy.

In Acts 16, we see that the preaching of Paul and Silas in Philippi met opposition. Their accusers, we are told in Acts 16:20-21: ‘brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”’ 

The Philippians were proud of their history, Roman culture, and patriotic military service laying down their lives for the Roman empire. This partly explains Paul’s tough words to them about humility, especially in Philippians Chapter 2 – which show that Jesus also laid down his life in a big way, for the greatest mission ever.

So Philippians 2:5-9 (Contemporary English Version) says: “…think the same way that Christ Jesus thought: Christ was truly God. But he did not try to remain equal with God. Instead he gave up everything and became a slave, when he became like one of us. Christ was humble. He obeyed God and even died on a cross. Then God gave Christ the highest place and honored his name above all others.”

Many scholars note that Paul uses phrases like, ‘think the same way’, ‘obey’, ‘honor’, because of the military influence in Philippi. Beyond writing style, Paul’s message to them is clear – humility before God is their number one need; to cure jealousy and pride over who is more important, who has more purple cloth!

To survive trials they were passing through, Paul called on the high and mighty Philippians to put on humility as their number one character trait. In these dangerous times we live in, individual and collective humility will serve us well. It is pleasing to God and vital in ensuring we support one another from a sincere heart.

Dear God, I hear your word, help me live it, Amen!

PHILIPPIANS – PUT AWAY PRIDE IN TIMES LIKE THESE!

 

Saint Lydia Purpuraria
St. Lydia from Philippi by Brenda Nippert (Source: TrinityStores)

 

Did you know that Lydia was the first convert to Christianity in Europe! She and her household were Apostle Paul’s first convert in the Greek-Roman city of Philippi (see Acts 16); Paul and Silas mission to Philippi was the first time the gospel was preached in Europe – Philippi was thus the gateway of the gospel into Europe.

Philippi was named after King Philip, the father of Alexander the Great. In Roman times, this was where Mark Antony and Octavian fought and defeated Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar. As was common at the time, the young Church in the prestigious city of Philippi faced persecution and hardships.

How were these Europeans accustomed to the good life, to respond to the big changes brought by Christianity to their lives? Would they let go of the Philippian dream of a gentle luxury life in this mightily proud city? This is an important background to keep in my mind when reading Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

So Paul says to them in Philippians 1:27 (New Living Translation): Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. Then, whether I come and see you again or only hear about you, I will know that you are standing together with one spirit and one purpose, fighting together for the faith, which is the Good News.

Paul is saying – in the face of the great challenges we face, let your response and conduct be guided by Christ – not self interests, not pride, not the Philippian dream! Its like saying to Christians in the USA, let your response not be determined by racial pride but by Christ; or to Christians in many developing countries, let your response to challenges you face not be guided by ethnic pride but by Christ!

Our faith calls us to put away pride in challenging times; may the Spirit of Jesus in us, help us live like Jesus in these present times, Amen!

PROPHET ZEPHANIAH’S BLACK ANCESTRY

 

Black Zephaniah
18th-century Russian icon of prophet Zephaniah in Kizhi, Karelia

 

Last week we saw Ebed-melech, the black saint in the book of Jeremiah; about the same time, 700 years before Jesus, there was prophet Zephaniah. He preached fiercely against corruption, violence, and deception in Judah, and the surrounding nations of Philistia to the West, Moab and Ammon to the East, Cush (Ancient Ethiopia/Nubia) to the South, and Assyria (capital Nineveh) to the North.

This was a time when Cush was a world power and even ruled over Egypt. The black Cushite Pharaoh Taharqa (or Tirhakah) was a military partner to King Hezekiah (see Isaiah 37). Black African Kings, Queens, soldiers, bureaucrats and advisors were involved in world history during Bible times and intermarried with Jews. Thus, there are black Ethiopians today with proven Jewish ancestry.

Zephaniah 1:1 (New Living Translation) says: “The Lord gave this message to Zephaniah when Josiah son of Amon was king of Judah. Zephaniah was the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah.”

The Moody Bible commentary on Zephaniah, by Walter White Jr., states: “The name of Zephaniah’s father, “Cushi” (1:1) means “black” or “Cushite,” sometimes describing someone of Ethiopian or Nubian (African) descent, but… there is insufficient evidence to make any firm conclusions about his ethnicity or heritage…”

However, the Jewish Virtual Library commentary on Zephaniah says: “It has been suggested plausibly that “Cushi” refers to the prophet’s ultimate African origin in the area conventionally rendered “Ethiopia,”… contemporary Sudan…”

The Bible scholar Gene Rice in his excellent commentary on Zephaniah writes: “Since Zephaniah’s ancestry is traced in an unbroken line on his father’s side… it is most natural to think of Cushi’s mother (Gedaliah’s wife) as an African.”

The black presence in the Bible is huge; while it has been denied, overlooked, and downplayed by the white Church in the past, this should not be the case today. There is no doctrine of white supremacy and black inferiority in the Bible.

Lord, thank you for the judgement on racial injustices around the world; teach us how to build racially just and fair societies, Amen! 

——- 

Read more – Rice G. (1979) The African Roots of the Prophet Zephaniah, Journal of Religious Thought 36: 21-31

 

EBED-MELECH – THE BIBLE HONORED BLACK SAINT

Ebed-melech
Ebed-melech the honorable black saint (Image source: StephenMcalpine.com

 

Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, is not a name one hears often from the pulpit. A notable white Bible scholar puts this partly to the fact that as a black man, many white Christian scholars, preachers, and missionaries, from the reformation era to the present day, have not felt comfortable, giving Ebed-melech airtime in Christendom.

Who is Ebed-melech? He is the Ethiopian who saved Prophet Jeremiah from painful death, when the King and princes of Judah, imprisoned Jeremiah in a well. The story of this honorable black man is told in Jeremiah Chapters 38 and 39.

Jeremiah 38:7-10 (The Living Bible) says: “When Ebed-melech the Ethiopian, an important palace official, heard that Jeremiah was in the cistern [well], he rushed out to the Gate of Benjamin where the king was holding court. “My lord the king,” he said, “these men have done a very evil thing in putting Jeremiah into the cistern. He will die of hunger, for almost all the bread in the city is gone.” Then the king commanded Ebed-melech to take thirty men with him and pull Jeremiah out before he died.”

Jeremiah angered the leaders of Judah, with his preaching that God’s is judging them for their corruption, wicked practices, and idolatry; as a result they will be captured and enslaved by Babylon. Jeremiah was deeply unpopular, so the leaders decided he should die, except for Ebed-melech who believed Jeremiah.

Consequently, we read from Jeremiah 39:15-18 (The Living Bible): “The Lord gave the following message to Jeremiah before the Babylonians arrived, while he was still in prison: “Send this word to Ebed-melech the Ethiopian: The Lord, the God of Israel, says: I will do to this city everything I threatened; I will destroy it before your eyes, but I will deliver you. You shall not be killed by those you fear so much. As a reward for trusting me, I will preserve your life and keep you safe.”

Jewish traditional teachings say Ebed-melech, like Enoch and Elijah, did not die but entered into paradise alive. The Bible narrative about Ebed-melech is so honorable, and powerfully contradicted the slave era and colonial era idea of the inferior black person, white Christians avoided given it airtime in the Churches.

In this era when we are exposing racial injustices, Lord open our hearts to fully accept the equality of all peoples, black and white, Amen!           

RESPONDING TO EPOCHAL EVENTS – LEARNING FROM JEREMIAH

George Floyd Mural 2

 

We are living in epochal times – meaning a period of notable events that will change the course of world history. In epochal times, there is a tearing down of the familiar, and a building up of the new. There are many epochal events in our Bible but the most well recorded is the fall of Judah to Babylonian captivity.

The events of the conquest of Judah are in the book of Jeremiah. The epochal character of the book of Jeremiah is made clear from the start when God says to the prophet in Jeremiah 1:10 (NIV): “See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”  

In our present time, there is much we can learn from Jeremiah, about God’s plans and purpose. While there are a number of consequential lessons for all Christians and the world in Jeremiah, let’s tease out the most basic.

Jeremiah 44:7-10 (NIV) (shortened) states: “Now this is what the Lord… the God of Israel, says… Why arouse my anger with what your hands have made, burning incense to other gods in Egypt… Have you forgotten the wickedness committed by your ancestors and by the kings and queens… by you and your wives in… the streets of Jerusalem? To this day they have not humbled themselves or shown reverence, nor have they followed my law and the decrees I set before you and your ancestors.”

In the above Bible passage, some of the Jews who fled to Egypt, after Judah had been destroyed by Babylon, continued worshiping idols rather than repent. God reminds them how idol worship had a disastrous effect on Judah. King Manasseh for example is recorded to have sacrificed his own son and to have shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end (see 2 Kings 21:1-18).

Consequently, God chose to tear down Judah, using Babylon to get the job done. Rather than repent, we see from the passage above taken from Jeremiah 44 the sad report that: “To this day they have not humbled themselves or shown reverence, nor have they followed my law and the decrees I set before you and your ancestors.”

If the people’s arrogant hard-hearted response seems shocking, let’s think about our response to the epoch defining killing of George Floyd. Are we responding out of a spirit of reverential humility before God and a conviction that racism is unjust; or are we determined to maintain things as they are, God be damned!

Lord, empower us to do better than the fellows in Jeremiah 44, Amen!

 

 

HATE IS A VIRUS, LOVE IS THE CURE!

George Floyd

 

How do we deal with a virus? We avoid contact through hand washing, face covering and disinfecting. If we get infected, we seek treatment; to stop the virus from continually shutting down society, we do all that is possible to find a cure.

Hate is a virus, and when it infects a person, sooner than later that person becomes a menace to others. If the virus of hate is not contained through fairness and justice, it leads to social distancing and ultimately shuts down society.

Love is the cure to the hate-thy-neighbor-virus; a wiser man penned a poem to love; may his words inspire us to be and to do better in all our relationships:

“If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing.”

“If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”

“Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self.

Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” Doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always

Always looks for the best [in others], Never looks back, But keeps going to the end…”

“We don’t yet see things clearly. We’re squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! We’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees us, knowing him directly just as he knows us!”

“But for right now, until that completeness, we have three things to do to lead us toward that consummation: Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly.”

“And the best of the three is love.” 

Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians, Chapter 13, The Message Bible (MSG) Translation

MATTHEW 24 – PROPHECIES SHOW FUTURE PLANS

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Image source: SpreadJesus

Every year, governments, business, churches, and many organizations, make plans; some even go on to make 5-year, 10-year, and 20-year plans. They announce this to their citizens, workers, members, and to society. If we trust the leaders of these organizations, we are happy to listen to their plans; the plans give us hope; the plans give us direction; the plans make us work together united as one.

Prophecy reveals God’s plans for the world he created. When we make future plans, we consider our past and current situation; we consider our resources; and we ensure that the plans will convince our members to work together united as one. The prophecies in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, follow these principles.

Last week, I introduced the prophecies in Matthew 24. They were given during Jesus last trip to Jerusalem; you can read all that happened on this trip starting from Matthew 21. The people thought Jesus was coming to use his powers to throw out the Roman colonizers; but instead Jesus went to the temple, threw out hundreds of business people, preached to thousands who had come to celebrate the feast of Passover, and healed all the blind and lame that came to him in the temple.

The Apostles were confused by Jesus preaching and actions; so he sat them down to teach them and give them clarity about God’s future plans – this is what we see in Matthew 24 and 25. He taught them that the temple will be destroyed; many other powerful nations will rise after Rome; many natural disasters will happen; and many false prophets will come; but these do not determine the end.

Put yourself in the shoes of these Apostles; they were stunned listening to Jesus. They were being told the future history of the world in big brushstrokes. Have these great events been happening – a very big yes, we can trust the teachings of Jesus! These great and disturbing events do not determine the end of things. It is the globalization of the gospel that determines when the end comes (Matthew 24:14). 

Matthew 24: 45-51 (NIV) (shortened) thus says: “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom the master has put in charge of the servants in his household… will be good for that servant whose master finds him doing so… suppose that servant is wicked and says… ‘My master is staying away a long time,’ and he then begins to beat his fellow servants… The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect… cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites…” 

Jesus advises the Apostles to focus on being sincere patient servants. The prophecies assure us that there is a plan; we are not told the day or the hour of the end of this present age, but we know the trigger. Jesus will stay away for a long time; catastrophes will happen in the world; the gospel will be globalized; then he comes. Let’s not get overwhelmed chasing after every little detail of prophecy. Prophecies are assurance that God has future plans; stay sincere with God, and you are safe!

Thank you Lord for your good future plans, Amen! 

MATTHEW 24 – THE MOST IMPORTANT PROPHECY

Matthew 24 v2
Image source: terrihamman.com

 

More people are presently asking if the coronavirus signals the end of the world. How well we understand Bible prophecy will determine the clarity of our response. Prophecies about the fate of humanity are many in the Bible, but are probably more elaborate in the books of Isaiah, Daniel, Matthew and Revelation.

Matthew is the easiest to understand; prophecies about the future are in Jesus fifth and last sermon in Matthew Chapters 23 to 25. Jesus other sermons in Matthew are: first, the godly life (Chapters 5-7); Christian missions (Chapter 10); Church growth (Chapter 13); and the fourth about servant leadership (Chapter 18).

Matthew was writing to the Jews, showing them how their leaders rejected Jesus, and were cast aside by Jesus (see the alarming 7 woes and judgement in Matthew 23). The Apostles were shocked and wanted to know more about the judgement against Israel; this led to the discussion of future things in Matthew 24.

In Matthew 24, Jesus tells them that there is a soon coming judgement against Israel where the Temple will be completely destroyed – this happened in the year AD 70, about 40 years after Jesus spoke about it. He told them this would be a terrible time for Israel, but the world would not end; he referred them to the prophecies of Daniel; he talked about Christian persecution, countless wars, and disease pandemics.

Jesus states in Matthew 24:14 (NIV): “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” The end comes when the gospel goes global. We live in an age when the gospel is global, and when the wealth of the Church plus technology means the preaching of the gospel is at an accelerated speed. This is the most important prophecy in the Bible.

Lord, the end comes not because of coronavirus, but due to the accelerated speed of preaching the gospel; help us stay faithful to the end, Amen!

1 PETER – UPLIFTING IN TESTING TIMES

1 Peter 5
Image source: FaithlifeMedia

 

While governments are now responding better to the Coronavirus pandemic, many individuals and families are still hurting; many have lost loved ones, jobs, and peace of mind. My wife and I have to work on the challenge of staying mentally healthy everyday; homeschooling our young kids has been real tough!

My go to place for strength in the last month has been First Peter. I have learnt that testing times for Christians will involve a test of faith if it is sincere and genuine.  Peter elevated my thinking, showing me that even in testing times, I remain a part of God’s kingdom masterplan; and in response I should put my best foot forward in my relationships with government, employers, family, and everyone else.

Peter, writing to suffering Christians, explains how Jesus handled suffering with a tenderheart, and a focus on his godly mission, such that even in death, Jesus went on preaching, to the spirits who were in prison; in response, Jesus has been lifted up to a place of supreme authority. We too, as we stay with God, and call on him for strength during this coronatimes, he will respond with grace and mercy.

At the end of the letter, Peter says in 1 Peter 5:5b-6 (The Living Bible): “And all of you serve each other with humble spirits, for God gives special blessings to those who are humble, but sets himself against those who are proud. If you will humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, in his good time he will lift you up.” 

We should be humble in testing times; Peter states clearly “humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, in his good time he will lift you up”. Humility is the key to divine uplifting in our lives even in testing times. In this coronatimes, lets not be hasty, angry, bitter with God; let’s stay humble and God will lift us up!

Dear God, thank you for Peter’s wise counsel; let this counsel make a difference in my life in this coronatimes, Amen!