To live is Christ

I admire Paul’s devotion to please God and walk as Jesus did (1 Thessalonians 4:1).  He is an example whom I gladly imitate (1 Corinthians 11:1), and thankfully his letters in the New Testament left clear trace of his thoughts and life to follow after.  Of all his letters I cherish Philippians most, because therein I see clearly Paul’s courageous devotion, selfless humility and heartfelt desire for Christ his Lord.  Here also I his sincere concern for the he ministered to.

We know that when Paul wrote this letter he was a prisoner of Rome and responded to a gift and some news from a congregation in Philippi.  They were praying for Paul’s release, and he replied that he is confident of his release on account of their prayers.  He rejoices to see his imprisonment has furthered the gospel both in Rome and in Philippi.  He states that he would rather the Romans execute him so that he could be with his Lord, but he knows it would be better for them if he be restored to them.  Then Paul penned this well-known phrase For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1: 21).  This phrase is the anthem of Paul’s life, visible throughout his letters.  In a sense it is his live view.  And I desire it to be mine.

So I ask myself “How does ‘to live is Christ’ look like in my everyday life?”  And with that question I read through Paul’s letters in found these five practical ways in which Paul expressed “to live is Christ” in his everyday life.

I live to serve Christ

Paul lived to serve Christ.
Paul lived to serve Christ.

The first thing we read about Paul in most of his letter is this phrase: “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus”; on a number of other occasions he mentions “I serve God” (see 2 Timothy 1:3 and Romans 1:9).  Paul literally saw himself as a servant of Christ and a servant of God that were happy to do whatever his Lord desires.  After his conversion-meeting with the Christ (Acts 9; Galatians 1:13-24), Paul received a commission from Jesus his Lord, determining the course for the rest of his life as one who is sent by Christ (aka apostle), a course he stayed on until his execution.  Near the end of his life he shared these words with the leaders of the churches in Ephesus: I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).

Paul served Christ in this mandate willingly and cheerfully amidst the many beatings, whipping, imprisonment and other suffering (2 Corinthians 6:4-10).  He took his commission serious, and served the Lord and His people gladly and selflessly (Acts 20:17-19) not for a reward or praise from man. Paul only had in mind to please Christ his Lord (refer Ephesians 6:6 and Colossians 3:22).  .  In a like manner he encouraged the churches to serve the Lord (Romans 12:11) and also to serve one another in the manner Jesus served: in love (Galatians 5:13) and in humility “taking the form of a servant… becoming obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:5-8).

I live to know Christ

Grow in knowledge of Jesus.
Grow in knowledge of Jesus.

Paul had an all-consuming passion to “know Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:7), and stated that this intimate knowledge of Christ was more important than anything else in life – costing him the loss of everything else in life.  Paul yearned to “know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:14). Living to know Christ was not an academic pursuit; Paul knew Christ in communion with Christ (prayer and worship, see 1 Corinthians 3:17-18) as well as copying Jesus’s life of obedience to His Father – even if it meant suffering unjustly (Philippians 3:14).

I live to glorify Christ

On two occasions Paul referred to his life as “being poured out as a drink offering” (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6) to the Lord – a reference to a Levitical worship ceremony.  By calling his life a “drink offering” Paul meant that his life was lived for and consumed by his service to Christ, as an act of worship to God.   He existed to glorify Christ, to make Christ look great and to make his Lord famous.

Using another worship metaphor Paul implored the church in Rome to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (Romans 12:1).  He called on them to use their bodies as worship to God so that whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).  The “glory” he writes of here has to do with the fame and renown of God – that everyone may know of God: his great name, power and his great works.

Paul lived to worship God in everything he did and appealed the churches to do the same.  Thus worship was not removed from everyday life activities – rather, everyday activities was the means by which he glorified Christ.  For instance, he wrote that work was meant to be worship to the Lord (Colossians 3:23), marital relations ought to represent Christ (Ephesians 5:23-27), church relations ought to represent Christ (Ephesians 5:22; cf John 13:34-25), as well as how we manage our money (Philippians 4:12-13; 1 Timothy 6:6-11). Literally everything Paul did, he did for Christ, so that in reality he lived for Christ.

I live to reveal Christ

As a servant sent by Christ (aka apostle) Paul saw himself as an ambassador (Ephesians 6:20) – one representing Christ and His Kingdom.  Thus it was important for Paul to not only bear the message of the gospel of Christ, but also to represent the righteous, loving nature of Christ his King in the way he lived.  Paul knew that as one bearing the name of Christ (i.e. Christian) his life was a reflection of the Kingdom he represented as ambassador and proclaimed.  That is why Paul also appealed to the churches to walk “worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27, Ephesians 4:1).

For Paul, “to live is Christ” meant living to present the glory of his King and the nature of Christ’s Kingdom.

I live to preach Christ

Paul preaching in Athens.
Paul preaching in Athens.

As Paul was about to embark on his journey to Jerusalem at the end of his third missionary journey, Paul stated that he knows great troubles await him there, “but I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24).  As long as Paul had breath he would preach Christ, as he wrote elsewhere “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16).

When he wrote “for me to live is Christ” Paul definitely thought of preaching Christ as well.

An example to follow after

to-live-is-Christ

Paul encountered Christ on the road to Damascus and his life was forever transformed.  He saw Jesus and met him as his Lord.  From that day onward his life motto was “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain.”  From that day onward he gave himself to serve Christ He was consumed with the desire to know Christ, and his greatest ambition was to glorify Christ in everything he does.  His life purpose was to preach Christ and therefore he also resolved to represent Christ well as an ambassador of this great King.

He challenged the Corinthians church to live for Christ as he does, arguing that [Christ] has died for all, …so that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised.”  We have no choice but to live for Christ!  This is symbolism which we enact in baptism (Romans 6:3-13) – our life is no longer for our benefit, but for Christ’s who saved us and made us his own.

Does Paul’s devotion to Christ inspire you too? How will you respond to his life motto “for me, to live is Christ.”

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On Spiritual Maturity : The Error of Balaam

In the book of Numbers, four chapters are devoted to the history of a prophet who had a profound impact on God’s people during their conquest of the Promised Land.  This prophet was not a Jewish man, but a seer who dwelt in Pethor: Balaam son of Beor.  In 1967 archeological evidence was discovered with the inscription of “Baalam son of Beor” prophet of “El Shaddai” – the Almighty God as he was known to the Israelites in the days of Moses.  This archeological evidence adds tremendous historic weight this account in the Bible.

Image of wall tiles inscribed by "Balaam son of Peor, Prophet of El Shaddai" found at  Tell Deir Alla, Succoth (dated to 1406/750 BC). See  www.bible.ca/archeology/
Image of wall tiles inscribed by “Balaam son of Peor, Prophet of El Shaddai” found at Tell Deir Alla, Succoth (dated to 1406/750 BC). See http://www.bible.ca/archeology/

The reason why this account of a foreign prophet speaking to ancient Israel is important to contemporary believers is highlighted by the numerous New Testament references to Balaam.  All of these references of Balaam are warnings: Peter warns the church of false prophets who “have gone astray… in the way of Balaam…” (2 Peter 2:15).  Jude warns of “ungodly people… [who] abandoned themselves for the sake of gain to Balaam’s error” (Jude 1:1, 11).  John wrote of those in the church in Pergamum “who hold to the teachings of Balaam.” (Revelations 2:14).  In each of the three texts the prophet Balaam is used as reference or type of ungodly lifestyles and doctrinal error of believers that is condemnable.  But what is this dangerous “error”, “way” or “doctrine”?

Reading through the historic account of Balaam’s dealings with Israel (Numbers 22:1-25:10, 31:8,16), one has to acknowledge his absolute commitment to relay only what God says: “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God to do less or more” (22:18).  Throughout these three chapters he maintains this stance, repeating his commitment to speak only the words of God another five times (22:38;  23:8, 12, 26; 24:13).  In the end, Balaam’s loyalty to prophesy in truth as God revealed cost him his wages which Balak promised (24:11).  Thus Balaam is an accurate prophet, true to delivering God’s message, not yielding to pressure or bribe to speak falsely.

So why the negative connotations with Balaam?  Numbers 25 records a shameful time in Israel’s travels as they camped on the Eastern side of the Jordan river and started living like the Moabite people.  Swaying under the power of cultural seduction to sexual immorality and idol worship, the Israelites came under the wrath of God through as a plague that killed 24’000 Israelites (Numbers 25:1-9).  This moral decay is attributed to Balaam (Numbers 31:16).  Although he was extremely gifted and graced by God to hear and speak accurately the pure words of God, he himself was an immoral man whose way of life was corrupted with sin (“way of Balaam” 2 Peter 2:15; ““error” Jude 1: 11) and his teachings deceptive (Numbers 31:16).  His lifestyle and teachings were not to be followed, admired or trusted.  In fact, Balaam was executed along with the Midianites under the wrath of God (Numbers 31:8).

The first talking ass - Balaam's donkey!
The first talking ass – Balaam’s donkey!

Although his prophesies is shown to be infallible in the text, the author of Numbers includes the humorous account of his journey on the donkey to Balak (Numbers 22:21-38), which is very deliberately inserted to humble this “great prophet”.  For instance, Balaam the great prophet is hired to subdue Israel with words, but he cannot even subdue his donkey with a stick.  He claims to see visions (24:4,17) but can’s see what the donkey sees on three occasions (22:32).  He claims that his prophetic speech is from God (22:38; 23:5, 12, 16), yet the donkey silences him as its mouth is also opened by God (22:28).  Balaam claims to posess knowledge “from the Most High” (24:16) was beaten in verbal exchange with a stupid donkey (22:30) and then has to admit to the angel “I did not know [what the donkey knows]” (22:34).  Although Balaam is on his way to slay a whole nation with his words he has to draw a sword to kill the donkey (22:29); while lamenting lamenting that he had no sword to slay the animal, the donkey sees the drawn sword in the hands of the angel (22:23) right in front of him.  This irony is meant as a lesson in humility – that the great prophet, like any donkey, can see and speak only what God shows him, and that he simply is graced to serve in the purposes of God.  Secondly, this account shows that although the prophet speaks graceful words by God’s Spirit, he is more beastly than his donkey: where the beast is kind to move his master Balaam out of harm’s way three times, the master is beastly in beating the faithful, kind-hearted, willing animal without considering the motive.

Godliness and our culture

Although Balaam had the ability to speak God’s words accurately, he had lead a whole nation astray.  His life serves as a warning that accurate spiritual discernment without holy living (from a godly character) is dangerous.  What was this ungodliness?  Balaam’s error (2 Peter 2:15) or Balaam’s way (Jude 1:11) simply refers to his lifestyle of cultural acceptance.  Although being a gifted prophet Balaam lived as the Midianites did, and that lead to the corruption of God’s holy people as they followed his “way” and “erred” in his footsteps.  His love for sensual pleasure made him prone towards greed, sexual immorality and cultural festivity surrounding the worship of other gods, plus his independence lead to rebellion.  (See 2 Peter 2:2-14; Jude 1:1, 6-11; Psalm 106:28; Revelation 2:14).

no_rules
The doctrine of Balaam: everything goes! No consequences!

The doctrine of Balaam (Revelation 2:14) teaches that God’s people are chosen, holy and saved in God’s eternal covenant and therefore nothing can change that reality – not even their lifestyle.  So by his example and by his teachings the great prophet Balaam deceived God’s people into a lifestyle of sexual immorality and the worship of Baal of Peor.  As a result, many died under the wrath of God, never reaching the Promised Land (Jude 1:5).  Still today Balaam’s dualism (distinguishing spiritual holiness from moral life) is taught in many places (associated with Gnosticism in the early church and extreme grace teachings).  Apart from formal teaching, the way of Balaam is engrained in our spiritual DNA by the example of our contemporary church culture where Sundays is God’s day, and the rest of the week we live good lives, but find pleasure and security as the rest of society does.

Balaam is not the only example of this fallacy in Scripture.  Samson, the mighty deliverer of Israel was like him: a man empowered by the Spirit of God to lead and deliver Israel, yet always seduced and enticed by his worldly passions and made ineffective. (Judges 14-16)  Giving in to the seduction of sensual sins enslaves God’s people and brings shame to his Name.

In contrast to Balaam and Samson, Daniel and his friends stand out as examples of godliness amidst a crooked world.  Daniel chapter three records how Nebuchadnezzar set up a golden image that everyone in his kingdom had to bow down to whenever the music played. The image was not an image of a particular god, but rather represented the religious culture of the day.  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to the image, and was persevered by God in the fire.  Their refusal to succumb to the cultural pressure in faithfulness to the One True God stands as an example to every believer in our present-day materialistic, promiscuous culture feeling pressures us to conform.

How do we respond?

Considering the the error of Balaam, I find three ways to respond to this in pursuit of spiritual maturity.

  1. Review your definition of “Spiritual Maturity”

The reference to Balaam in Peter’s second epistle pertains to false prophets among the first readers, thus spiritually gifted leaders. This is worth mentioning.  Peter appeals to his readers to note the ungodly fruit of these spiritually gifted ministers, and therefore not following their example of sensuality and rebellion.  Peter looked at the character and behavior of these gifted leaders and was not easily mesmerized by their prophetic ability.  After all, Jesus taught him that a person is “known by [his] fruit” (Matthew 12:33).

Peter needed to write this to the growing young church, since the charismatic gift of prophets is very appealing to especially young believers.  And the display of spiritual gifts is easily taken as signs of spiritual maturity. It is the will of God that we grow up (Ephesians 4:11ff), but how do you define maturity? That is why these warnings by Jesus and his apostles are so strong and clear.  So re-evaluate your view of spiritual maturity: Who do you admire?  Who do you want to follow after?  Consider their character – are they known by their love? What can you learn from their marriage and family relationships, their work ethic and how they manage money?

Take stock of your life spiritually.
Take stock of your life spiritually.
  1. Take stock of your own life.

In Jude and Revelations the warning to individuals walking in the error or teachings of Balaam is merely to wrong belief of individuals in their congregations of those in their midst.  Balaam is the image of a spiritually gifted man with the lust of sensual pleasures that are lead by his passions through this life like waves thrown around by their earthly desires (Jude 1:12-14).  Take an honest view of your life your own life, with special reference to you your passions and desires.  Are you leaving it unchecked?  What are you doing about it?  And who are you accountable to about it?

  1. Grow in godliness.

Our aim remains to be conformed to the image of Christ Jesus and to help form others into that image (Romans 8:29; Colossians 2:28-29).  Be purposeful about it.  How have you grown in godliness in the last year, and in which area do you need to grow now?  Are you growing in the will of God?  What does the Lord say, and what will you do to grow in that area of Christ-likeness.  Again, and who knows about that?

While closing with growth in Christ-likeness, remember these words of Paul: “Continue to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, giving you the desire and ability for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)  Continue, don’t stagnate in your pursuit of Christ-likeness.  Work it out yourself, don’t expect it to automatic or someone else’s job.  As you grow in Christ-likeness you also will grow to emulate the Christ – the Anointed One (Acts 10:38).  Earnestly desire spiritual gifts but let the motive be love (1 Corinthians 12:31).

And work with God – it is he that works in you, leading your through your desires and gracing your with the power needed to grow in Christ-likeness.  Don’t stop!  Work joyfully with the grace God gives.