As You Love Yourself

Last weekend at a Young Adult retreat, I gave my first seminar. And it went so well! Praise the Lord — I know anything good I write comes from Him and the fact that I delivered a spoken message in front of people without looking nervous or having a panic attack is a clear “God thing.” Since people liked it in-person, I’ve adapted my notes for a blog post to share with you today.

When someone asked Jesus which was the greatest commandment in the law, He gave a two part answer. 1) “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” And 2) “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:29-31, WEB). The theme for the retreat I spoke at was connecting with God and others, and that’s what these two great commandments are all about. The first tells us how to love God, which is the foundation for building a relationship with Him. And the second tells us how to love our neighbors. Jesus says to love them the same way we love ourselves.

But loving yourself isn’t something we talk about very much in Christianity. We focus on the “love your neighbor” side of this command. If we talk about the “as yourself” part, it’s often assumed that you already know how to love yourself. That’s part of our culture, right? We have a self-acceptance movement and a focus on looking out for “number one.” If anything, I think most Christians would say we love ourselves too much. So we don’t talk about it, just assuming we know how to show love towards ourselves and that we can use this as a guide for how to love others. But do we really know how to love ourselves the way God wants us to?As You Love Yourself | marissabaker.wordpress.com

The word “love” in the verse we just looked at is translated from a agape. This is a benevolent love that always seeks good things for the person who you’re loving. While it does involve feelings, it’s not what you would call an emotion driven kind of love. For example, if you’re giving a friend advice and one option is going to make them happy and your life easier, but the other option is clearly better for their long-term good, agape is always going to pick the better one even though it’s harder.

Agape is an incredibly important concept in the Bible. Of the 356 times the words “love” or “charity” appear in the King James Version of the New Testament, 320 are translated from a form of agape (that’s just shy of 90%). It’s so important that the Bible gives us a full definition in 1 Corinthians 13.

“Love is patient and is kind; love doesn’t envy. Love doesn’t brag, is not proud, doesn’t behave itself inappropriately, doesn’t seek its own way, is not provoked, takes no account of evil; doesn’t rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.” (1 Cor. 13:4-8, WEB)

Let’s ask some questions based on this verse:

  • Are you patient and kind with yourself?
  • Do you let yourself get eaten up with envy, bragging, or pride?
  • Are you treating yourself in a way you’d consider inappropriate if you were doing it to others?
  • Do you get unreasonably angry with yourself?
  • Do you keep an account of the bad things you’ve done so you can use it to beat yourself up?
  • Are you dwelling on the unrighteous things you’ve done or rejoicing in the ways you follow God’s truth?
  • Do you stick by yourself, believe in your ability to do better, and hope good things for your future?

When I asked how many people could honestly say they’re loving and kind toward themselves in this way, only one person raised their hand. But when I asked, “How many of you feel guilty about the idea of showing love toward yourself?” about half the group raised their hands. That included me, which is why I actually felt kinda weird talking about the subject of love like this. It sounds a little selfish, doesn’t it? And we know selfishness is bad. So let’s take a moment to clarify a few things.As You Love Yourself | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Real love never stops with yourself. If you’re the only object of your love and you always put yourself first, then you have a problem. That’s what it means to be selfish and self-centered. But avoiding selfishness doesn’t mean you refuse to take care of yourself. We’re to offer ourselves to God as a living sacrifice, not abuse ourselves. If you never meet your own needs or do those loving things mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13 for yourself, then you’re going to burn-out. And God loves you way too much to want that.

To see ourselves and care for ourselves and others properly, we need to understand how God sees and cares for us. Most of the time when I hear people talk about asking God to let you see yourself the way He sees you, they’re talking about discovering hidden faults. And that is important, because we all know the verses that talk about our inability to know our own hearts. We need God’s perspective to show us where we should change and grow as we keep moving toward perfection. But if we want a more complete picture of how He sees us, then we also need to understand how much He values us.

The reason the two most important commands are about loving God and loving others is because God Himself is love. Agape is the key element of His essential character. But sometimes, even if it’s not something we’d say out loud, we think that God loves us more when we’re being good. We treat ourselves as if God’s love is conditional on our having already achieved perfection. But it’s not. Remember Romans 5:8 says, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (LEB). The Father and Jesus Christ thought you were worth the price of Jesus’ life even before you were saved. So don’t you dare say you’re not worth loving now.As You Love Yourself | marissabaker.wordpress.com

One of the most interesting studies I’ve ever done was about how God uses the word “perfect” in the Bible. He describes Job as “a perfect and an upright man” twice at the beginning of the story (Job 1:8 and 2:3). We know Job learned and grew as a result of the trials he went through, and yet God could describe him as “perfect” with complete honesty before that growth happened. We tend to think of perfect as the best that you can get, but from this example we see that’s not really how God uses the word.

The Hebrew word translated “perfect” is tam (H8535). The word refers to completeness and entirety, but doesn’t necessarily mean finished. Rather, the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament says the root of tam (H8552; tamam) refers to someone moving “naturally toward that which is ethically sound.” Thus, followers of God can be described as “perfect” while still on the path toward perfection. God will take care of perfecting you – He just needs you to keep moving forward. God loves us even with all our flaws and weaknesses and ways we fall short. He also wants us to grow toward being the best people we can be in Him because that’s what leads to the best outcome we can get – having a relationship with Him that lasts into eternity.

Becoming part of God’s family is made possible because He is love. Having God’s agape directed toward you is amazing. The strength of that love has literally shaped the way the entire universe functions. It’s what motivated the Father to send His Son to this earth to live in a human body and become our sympathetic High Priest as well as the sacrifice that makes salvation possible. If that was the only kind of love God had toward us it would be more than enough and more than we ever had a right to hope for. But it’s actually not the only way God the Father and Jesus Christ love us.

One of my favorite Bible verses reads, for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me, and have believed that I came from God” (John 16:27. WEB). Seems simple enough, but this word is not agape. It’s translated from phileo (G5368). According to Spiros Zodhiates’ Greek dictionary, the word phileo means “to have affection for someone.” HELPs word studies adds that it is “characterized by tender, heartfelt consideration and kinship.” Phileo implies having common interests or friendship with the object of one’s love. This type of love is one we can readily identify with because it’s what we feel for our closest friends.As You Love Yourself | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Have you ever thought about God loving you like that? In the context of John 16, Jesus is assuring His disciples that the Father personally listens to our prayers because of His friendly, affectionate love for us and because of our belief on His Son Jesus. If you can honestly say you love Jesus and believe that He’s the son of God, then God Himself wants to be your friend. God is agape and He has that love for every person in the world. God’s phileo, on the other hand, is reserved for those He’s in relationship with – the ones who share His interests, believe in His word, and enter a covenant with Him.

All this love that God has poured into our lives shows us how we’re to relate to ourselves and to others. As John says, “We love, because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19, LEB). The love God has poured into our lives shows us how to love ourselves as well as how to love others because we learn to see ourselves and others the way He sees us. C.S. Lewis touches on this in The Screwtape Letters. This book is composed of a series of fictional letters written from one demon to another teaching them how to seduce human beings away from God, whom they refer to as “The Enemy.” (I know that sounds a bit strange, but it’s a fantastic book that puts a different perspective on talking about what God wants for us.)

The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favor that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbor’s talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognize all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things. He wants to kill their animal self-love as soon as possible; but it is His long- term policy, I fear, to restore to them a new kind of self-love—a charity and gratitude for all selves, including their own; when they have really learned to love their neighbors as themselves, they will be allowed to love themselves as their neighbors. For we must never forget what is the most repellent and inexplicable trait in our Enemy; He really loves the hairless bipeds He has created and always gives back to them with His right hand what He has taken away with His left.

The thing Screwtape finds disgusting is a facet of Christianity that gives us great cause for rejoicing. God does not want you to hate yourself. He wants you to love Him, and your neighbors, and yourself all in a right and proper way. So, now that we’ve talked about what love is and how God shows love toward us, let’s go back and fill in some answers to our first question.As You Love Yourself | marissabaker.wordpress.com

Here’s the list I came up with when prepping for the seminar.

  • accept the love God is giving you
  • take time for yourself to read the Bible, meditate, and pray
  • understand and find ways Godly to meet your needs
  • work through your stressful emotions instead of burying them
  • be kind to your shortcomings
  • turn the things that cause you anxiety over to God
  • push yourself to improve and develop your strengths
  • remember God made you human and gave you limits
  • Accept God’s gifts of rest, good food, and exercise
  • build good boundaries

Now here’s your homework. Make sure you’re doing these things for the people around you as well as yourself. For example, you could help your roommate with the housework so they aren’t worried about finding time to study and pray. You can be patient with the shortcomings of the people you go to church with and encourage them keep trying. While you’re taking care of yourself as a person who is incredibly valuable to God, remember the people around you hold the same value in his eyes.

In closing, I want to quote C.S. Lewis again. This is from an article titled “The Weight of Glory” (click to read the full text). Here, Lewis talks about the potential for each human being to enter the family of God.

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. … It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal.”

In 2 Peter 3:9, it says the Lord is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (KJV). God sees the potential of every human being He has created to become something wonderful. And He wants us to see that, too. That’s what Lewis is getting at in these passages. As part of our expression of agape, we need to start seeing our neighbors as candidates for eternal life and valuing their potential as highly as we know God values ours.

A couple years ago, I was a funeral and the speaker said the man we were there to remember “lived his life as though it had eternal consequences.” That’s what God intends us to do as well. How we view and treat ourselves and others will have consequences that stretch far beyond this life. We need to keep our eternal potential in mind when we make decisions about how we treat ourselves and by extension how we interact with others. Jesus said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” I hope we now have a better idea of exactly how to do that.As You Love Yourself | marissabaker.wordpress.com

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The Greatest Is Love

The Greatest Is Love | marissabaker.wordpress.comWhat’s the most important thing you can do as a Christian? What is it that sets followers of Jesus apart from the rest of the world? Is it baptism? professing Christ as their savior? doing “the work of God”? keeping the Sabbath? While these are all important, they are not what Christ described as the greatest commandments.

Then one of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, and saying, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt. 22:35-40)

In Mark’s account, Christ says, “There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:31). Both these commandments begin with the instruction, “You shall love.” In Greek, the word is agapao (G25), and it “indicates a direction of the will and finding one’s joy in something” (all dictionary quotes from Zodhiates). I also find it interesting that, even though the lawyer only asked about the most important commandment, Jesus told him about the second as well. It was important to Christ that His hearers knew they had to love each other as well as God.

How Important is Love?

We’ve already seen Jesus describe “You shall love the Lord your God” and “You shall love your neighbor” as the two most important commandments. On His last Passover, He added another layer.

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35)

We are to love other people the way we love ourselves, and we are also to love our brethren the way Jesus loves us. Love among the believers is how Christ said “all men” would recognize His true church. It’s the key to how we should treat one another, as we talked about last week. We need to actively care for one another, to sacrificially love others as Christ did when He laid down His life for His friends (John 15:12-14). This sort of love isn’t just a feeling — it involves a choice to find our joy in our fellow believers and in our relationship with God. It is absolutely necessary for our personal growth and for peace in the church.

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. (1 Cor. 13:1)

Paul had just been talking about spiritual gifts and unity in the church body. Now, he says that those gifts are useless without love.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (1 Cor. 13:2)

All these things that we find so impressive — inspired speaking, understanding the mysteries of God, knowing everything about the Bible, mountain-moving faith — they are all nothing without love. I know of a man who is convinced he’s close to having full knowledge of God, and he’s so caught up in this that he’s almost impossible to talk with. He’d probably scoff at the idea that love is more important than his pet Bible theories. Yet it was the person who knew that to love God “with all the understanding, with all the soul, and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is more than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” to whom Jesus said, “You are not far from the kingdom of God” (Mark 12:32-34).

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing. (1 Cor. 13:3)

Now Paul tells us that we can go through all the motions that look like sacrificial love, and still not have genuine love. Unless our actions are motivated by true agape, they don’t do us any good. Our good actions will benefit others, but if our hearts are not right we will not reap the benefits of practicing the kind of love that Jesus Christ models.

What is Love?

The Greek word for “love” in 1 Corinthians 13 is agape (G26), a derivative of agapao. Zodhiates says this “word [is] not found in class Gr. but only in revealed religion.” He goes on to say that agape means benevolent love, which is “not shown by doing what the person loved desires but what the one who loves deems as needed by the one loved.” Think of God sending Jesus as the sacrifice for sins to a people who thought they didn’t want Him, or of Casting Crowns’ song Love You With The Truth. But this definition still isn’t a full picture of agape. For that, we need to read on in 1 Corinthians 13.

Love suffers long (1 Cor. 13:4)

“Suffers long” is from the Greek word makrothumeo (G3134). It means to be long-suffering and have endurance rather than giving up and losing faith or becoming angry. Specifically, “makrothumeo involves exercising understanding and patience toward persons” (there’s another word for patience with things and circumstances). It is used to describe God’s attitude toward us (2 Pet. 3:9), and is an attitude we should have toward every person (1 Thes. 5:14).

 and is kind (1 Cor. 13:4)

This verse is the only time the word chresteuomai (G5541) apears in scripture. It is, however, related to the word chrestos (G5543), which means “profitable, fit, good for any use.” Kindness is a willingness to be useful, a readiness to assist others. God is kind toward all (Luke 6:35; Eph. 2:7), and as with other attributes of God it is something we must also learn (Eph. 4:32; Col. 3:12).

love does not envy (1 Cor. 13:4)

The words translated “envy” is closely related to zeal, and can actually be used in a good or bad sense. Paul uses it both ways in Galatians 4:17-18, where zeloo (G2206) is translated  “zealous.” In 1 Corinthians 13, it means having a wrong kind of zeal that manifests itself in jealousy and envy (Acts 17:5-9).

love does not parade itself, is not puffed up (1 Cor. 13:4)

The Greatest Is Love | marissabaker.wordpress.comThese two attributes of love are similar. One involves not bragging about the things you have. The other involves avoiding pride and self-conceit. Proverbs 6:16-17 tells us that pride is an abomination to God. Humility is what He looks for in people who have His love inside them (1 Pet. 5:5-7).

does not behave rudely (1 Cor. 13:5)

To “behave rudely” is the Greek word aschemoneo (G807). It means to “behave in an ugly, indecent, unseemly, or unbecoming manner” that brings disgrace and reproach. Zodhiates says its use in 1 Corinthians 13 “succinctly means that love in its speech and action seeks to contain no evil, but seeks to change the evildoer.”

does not seek its own (1 Cor. 13:5)

Love isn’t concerned with accumulating wealth or glory for the self. Rather, those who love “esteem others better than himself” and look out “not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4).

is not provoked (1 Cor. 13:5)

The basic meaning of the word parozuno (G3947) is to sharpen, but in the New Testament it is used “metaphorically, to sharpen the mind, tempter or courage of someone, to incite, to impel … to provoke or rouse to anger.” This reminds me of a verse in Ecclesiastes: “Do not hasten in your spirit to be angry, for anger rests in the bosom of fools” (Ecc. 7:9).

thinks no evil (1 Cor. 13:5)

Here again, looking at the Greek adds layers of meaning. The word “think” is logizomai (G3049), and it means “to put together with one’s mind, to count, to occupy oneself with reckonings or calculations.” This is telling us that love does not devote mental energy to wicked, evil, or corrupt schemes. Our minds must be occupied with good (Phil. 4:8).

does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6)

Iniquity, translated from adikia (G93), is “not conformable with justice” and exists in opposition to truth. Truth, aletheia (G225), is “unveiled reality,” often referring to divine truth in the New Testament. It exposes iniquity, which is what Christ is alluding to in John 15:22 when He says His words have left people with “no excuse for their sin.”

I also find it interesting that the word for rejoicing in iniquity is a general word for being glad (chario, G5463), but the word for rejoicing in the truth is sugchario G4796), which involves rejoicing together with others. The rejoicing that love does it not isolated — it is shared joy.

bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor. 13:7)

“Bears” means “to cover over in silence.” Specifically, in 1 Corinthians 13, stego (G4722) means that “love hides the faults of others and covers them up.” The word “Believe” is from pisteuo (G4100), and it means to have faith or trust in something. In particular, “to be firmly persuaded as to something,” especially of belief in God. The Greek word elpizo (G1679) means to hope or “expect with desire.” It can also refer to putting hope or trust in God.

When we talked about the phrase “love suffers long,” I said that word referred to people and another word was for patience with circumstances. Hupomeno (G5278), translated “endures,” is that word. It means “to persevere, endure, sustain, bear-up under, suffer as a load of miseries, adversaries, persecutions, or provocations with faith.”

Things That Last

It is worth keeping in mind that, since “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16), this definition of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is also a description of God. As we grow to have these characteristics of love, we are also becoming more like Him.

as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. (2 Pet. 1:3-4)

God has given us all the tools we need to partake in His “divine nature.” His process of building a family involves making us like Him and like His Son by changing our minds and actions now, and our bodies in the future.

Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. And everyone who has this hope in Him purifies himself, just as He is pure. (1 John 3:2-3)

The Greatest Is Love | marissabaker.wordpress.comThere are many things that we can’t take into the next life, including our physical possessions and physical bodies. There are also attitudes and beliefs that God won’t allow in because they are incompatible with His nature. But there are other things — things we can “lay up” as “treasures in heaven” (Matt. 6:20) — which we can take with us. That is why those who have hope of becoming like Jesus purify themselves “as He is pure,” because only the parts of ourselves that look like Him will endure.

Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect has come, then that which is in part will be done away. … And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor. 13:8-10, 13)

Even some of the good things we have now — like knowledge, certain gifts, and prophecy — eventually won’t be relevant in their current form because they will be superseded “when that which is perfect has come.” Our understanding of these things now is limited and child-like, and will be replaced by something deeper (1 Cor. 13:11-12).

This is not the case with love. Love transfers to the next world. It is not put away and it never fails. That is because God is sharing His very nature with us, right now. It is a gift so great that it doesn’t need to be replaced with something better. Indeed, it cannot be.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. … If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us. …

And we have known and believed the love that God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world. (1 John 4:7, 12, 16-17)

God has shared His love with us, and intends to perfect that aspect of Himself in us right now. He wants us to be “as He is” even while we are in the world. We started out talking about how important it is that we love all our brethren, and we see it again here in 1 John. Loving one another proves that we are born of God, and it is a prerequisite for God dwelling in us. In fact, John tells us that if we don’t learn to love our brethren, we cannot claim to love God (1 John 4:20-21). It is vital to understand this, dear readers, because if we don’t have God’s love in us we are missing the greatest attribute designed to carry over into God’s kingdom. If we don’t have love, will there even be any point in God having us there?

How Should We View Other Church Groups?

How Should We View Other Church Groups? | marissabaker.wordpress.comWe all know there are divisions in the church today. There are large groups, small groups, corporate churches, independent churches, and then factions and rivalries inside and among many of them. I think we can all agree this is not an ideal situation — that Christ’s intention is for us to be “at one.” Often we think the way to achieve that unity is for “all those people out there” to just “come to their senses and join my church.”

But what if there isn’t anything wrong with “them”? What if they are already in God’s church, and the problems lie with us picking and choosing a “my church” to stick with? Take the churches of my faith background as an example. There are literally hundreds of different groups that are all keeping the 7th Day Sabbath and God’s Holy Days of Leviticus 23, and each of them considers that a defining “thing” about our particular variety of Christianity. Yet there are still people, especially in the larger or more exclusive groups, who think if you aren’t keeping the Sabbath with their church is doesn’t really count. And then we tell ourselves we’re better than “mainstream Christianity”!

Other Sheep

There was a similar problem in the New Testament church, with divisions between Jewish and Gentile believers. Up until Acts 10, the disciples assumed only Jews were being called to know Jesus Christ. Then, God showed very clearly that He was opening up the chance for salvation to everyone.

There was a certain man in Caesarea called Cornelius, a centurion of what was called the Italian Regiment, a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people, and prayed to God always. (Acts 10:1-2)

This man was already serving the God of Israel, but the Jews wouldn’t have had anything to do with him. Unless there were other Gentile believers around, he didn’t have anyone to fellowship with except his family. Some of us have probably been there, without a local group to fellowship with or feeling like we’re unwelcome in the ones that are there. In Cornelius’s case, God took care of this problem by sending him a vision telling him to send for Peter, and then God told Peter to go (Acts 10:3-27).

Then he [Peter] said to them, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation. But God has shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean. (Acts 10:28)

Then Peter opened his mouth and said: “In truth I perceive that God shows no partiality. But in every nation whoever fears Him and works righteousness is accepted by Him. (Acts 10:34-35)

And just to clear up any lingering doubts in the minds of Peter’s Jewish companions, God gave Cornelius and his family the Holy Spirit before they were even baptized.

While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. (Acts 10:44-45)

They really shouldn’t have been so surprised. Christ’s ministry on earth was to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt. 15:24), but He still spoke with a Samaritan woman in John 4, healed a Gentile woman’s daughter in Matthew 15, and had this to say in John 10:

And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd. (John 10:16)

From the very beginning of the New Testament church, Jesus made it clear that He wasn’t going to work with just one group or one type of people. He had bigger plans.

Church Squabbles

Several things happened in the aftermath of Cornelius’s conversion. First, Peter had to defend his choice to even talk with a Gentile. Once the whole story was known, though, there wasn’t much to say.

When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.” (Acts 11:18)

That wasn’t the end of the squabbling, however, because church culture started becoming an issue. The way I see it, the whole circumcision debate that became such an issue in the early church boiled down to a group of people who thought everyone else had to worship God the exact same way they did. They didn’t want the Gentiles bringing in any of their culture or ideas about how to worship, and they certainly didn’t want anyone to “get away with” anything.

And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” Therefore, when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and dispute with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem, to the apostles and elders, about this question. (Acts 15:1-2)

There’s quite a discussion about this question in the rest of Acts 15. The basic decision was to lay no unnecessary burden on the new converts. Precisely why physical, male circumcision is unnecessary under the New Covenant is something addressed in Paul’s epistles (1 Cor. 7:18-19). My point is that this question was a big deal to some people, and it caused division, dissension, and dispute in the church. Yet the consensus upon examining the issue was that it wasn’t really anything to get worked up about either way. There were far more important things to focus on, like the keeping of God’s commandments and developing a relationship with Him.

So far we’ve seen church culture/background divisions and doctrinal divisions in the New Testament church. They also struggled with another sort of division that we face today, regarding which human teacher you follow.

Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Cor. 1:10-13)

Paul would no doubt have much the same thing to tell us today — that we should stop squabbling about who we follow or what group we’re in and be unified in Christ. The message is not to convert everyone to your faction and then get along. It’s to be unified right now — to be peaceful with the people you’re currently squabbling with both inside and outside “your” group. There are Biblical guidelines for resolving conflict (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 6:1-11), and none of them involve starting a new church group because you can’t agree on when the barley in Jerusalem is ripe, or excommunicating a family because they want to keep the land Sabbath on their farm (true stories).

Made One

We have different ways of dividing ourselves now other than Jews vs. Gentiles or circumcision vs. uncircumcision, but the principles laid-out for how these groups were to interact give us guidelines for how the churches of God should look today.

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. (Rom. 10:12)

There is no difference — how strange that must have seemed to them! As strange as telling a former Catholic and a former Baptist who meet in the same group now that there was never any difference between them in God’s eyes; as strange as telling a Sabbath keeper with a Worldwide Church of God background that there’s no difference between them and a Messianic believer.

Therefore remember that you, once Gentiles in the flesh — who are called Uncircumcision by what is called the Circumcision made in the flesh by hands — that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation (Eph. 2:11-14)

There used to be dividing lines, but no longer — they are all done away in Christ.

For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father. Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. (Eph. 2:18-22)

There aren’t multiple groups in God’s eyes. Every person He has called into His family is part of the temple He is building. He doesn’t expect everyone in His family to look or act exactly alike, so why should we?

For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.  For in fact the body is not one member but many.

How Should We View Other Church Groups? | marissabaker.wordpress.comIf the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body?And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body,” is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. And if they were all one member, where would the body be?

But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary. And those members of the body which we think to be less honorable, on these we bestow greater honor; and our unpresentable parts have greater modesty, but our presentable parts have no need. But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. (1 Cor. 12:12-25)

And there you have it — God is working with a wide variety of people who are filling different roles as He sees fit. When we decide a certain person, or type of person, doesn’t have a place in our church group, that’s like saying our bodies would be just fine without an eye or a foot.

Say, “Come”

God knows what He’s doing. He doesn’t make a habit of calling people to follow Him unless He has a plan for working with them. It is not our place to decide who God is and is not working with, or who He should call. How arrogant is it for us to assume we can decide which people God takes an interest in?

Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls.  …

But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. … So then each of us shall give account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. (Rom. 14:4, 10, 12-13)

There are times in the church when we have to make judgements concerning right and wrong. Sometimes the fruits seen in a person’s life call for them being excluded from fellowship until they return to God’s way of life, but those incidents should be rare and very carefully considered (Matt. 18:15-17; 1 Cor. 5:1-13). As a general rule, the actions we need to be most concerned about are our own. God isn’t going to have people in His family who can’t get along with each other and who refuse to work with certain people. His plan is for the whole world to repent and be saved (John 3:16-17). If you’re excluding people from God’s family, even just in your own mind, then your thoughts are not in line with His.

At the end of the book of Revelation there is a beautiful picture of the future where “a pure river of water of life” flows out “from the throne of God and of the Lamb.” A tree of life grows by this river, and the “leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” who will see God’s face and live in His light (Rev. 22:1-5). In this future, what do we see the Lamb’s wife — the church — doing?

And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely. (Rev. 22:17)

We’re welcoming anyone who wants to come, inviting them to freely partake of what God is offering. We aren’t picking and choosing who’s allowed in — we’re inviting everyone to come and learn. This is something we have to start learning how to do now. I think sometimes we expect all this will be easy when we’re spirit beings, but if that was a magic cure-all for bad attitudes, Lucifer wouldn’t have fallen (Is. 14:12-21; Ezk. 28:11-19). It is imperative that we learn how to relate to one another now, for if we cannot be faithful and obedient on a physical level in a command so important as “love thy neighbor as thyself,” why would God entrust us with true riches? (Matt. 22:36-40; Luke 16:10-12).

 

Who Is My Neighbor?

Some time ago, I was reading through the parable of the good Samaritan, and asking much the same question as the certain lawyer who prompted the parable: “who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:25-37). The parable itself makes this answer pretty clear, but I still decided to look up the Greek word for “neighbor,” just to see if there was something I might have missed.

The word is plesion (G4139). It means generally the same thing as our English word “neighbor,” someone who lives near us. Even so, I found the way Zodhiates phrases the definition in my study Bible worth sharing:

It means neighbor, fellow man or fellow creature, indicating primarily an outward nearness or proximity. Occurs in Luke 10:29, the parable of the Good Samaritan, which teaches that he who is outwardly near us should be the object of our concern in spite of the fact that there are no ties of kindred or nation between us.

Other words, if someone is anywhere near you — if you can see, hear, or know of them — they are your neighbor and you have a responsibility to them.

Love Your Neighbor

Thinking about this fact has made me feel guilty on numerous occasions. For example, I had classes with some people I disagreed with and flat-out didn’t like, but at least for the four hours a week that we were in the same classroom, they were my neighbors.

Jesus Christ said, “the first and great commandment” is to “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.” The second commandemnt “is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.  On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matt. 37-40). The commands to love sum up a main message of the Bible.

Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)

It is vitally important that we learn to love our neighbors. And not just the ones we like, because the same word for love — agape — is used when Jesus tells us, “Love your enemies” (Matt. 5:44).

Learning to Love

In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis said, “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbor; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”  Acting as if we love a person is a better first step than trying to develop warm fuzzy feelings for someone we don’t like. The feelings we usually associate with love are optional, caring about the person’s well-being is not.

Agape (G26) and its root word agapao (G25) are best defined as “affectionate regard, good will, benevolence.” They indicate “a direction of the will” and differ “from phileo (5368), to love, indicating feelings, warm affection” (Zodhiates). The agape kind of love can involve emotions, and frequently does, but it is more concerned with an active decision to care about the well being of another person. Love is a choice, and if we want to become like God, it is a choice we must learn to make.