Should Christians Ever Joke Around? by Mark D. Roberts

Ephesians 5:3-4

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving.

Ephesians 5:3-4

During my tenure at Irvine Presbyterian Church, the men of the church went on an annual retreat. Yes, there was plenty of time for singing, prayer, and Bible teaching. But one of the most distinctive elements of our men’s retreat was humor. We told jokes and stories. We did silly skits and pranked each other. We laughed and laughed. Once in a while, during informal gatherings, one of the men might tell an off-color joke. The others would chuckle and forget about it.

Until one year, when a man I’ll call Harry showed up at the retreat. He seemed a bit put off by the humorous tone of the event, preferring a more prayerful ambience. But he was especially critical of some of the suggestive stories. He cited Ephesians 5:4 as his authority, challenging the men to avoid “obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking.” Most of the other men wanted to reject Harry’s criticism by labeling him as a killjoy. But some of the others, including some who had enjoyed a racy joke or two in the past, knew they couldn’t simply reject biblical instruction because they didn’t like it. They wanted God’s Word to govern all of their lives, including their language at the men’s retreat.

Harry’s criticism launched a wider discussion about the appropriateness of humor at the men’s retreat. Was it right to be silly? Was some of our humor too negative? Some folks pointed to the King James Version of Ephesians 5:4, which cautions against “filthiness,” “foolish talking,” and “jesting.” Does this mean that all joking around is wrong?

When we carefully study both the context and the language of Ephesians 5:4, we see that Paul is not saying Christians should never tell a joke or a funny story. This is not a blanket prohibition of all humor and laughter. Rather, we are being cautioned about language that is obscene and impure. We are to avoid words that degrade what God has created for good, including our sexuality.
After considering Ephesians 5:4, the men from my church decided that it was fine to do much of what had made our retreats fun. Most of the jokes, stories, and gags were both enjoyable and edifying. But, they did make a new commitment to avoid off-color language and risqué stories. It seemed to me that their discernment was both consistent with Scripture and conducive to an even better retreat, one in which all men felt welcome and encouraged.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Have you ever found yourself in a situation like that of the men from my church? What happened? How can we know when our humor goes over a line and is no longer consistent with God’s intentions for us?

PRAYER: Gracious God, you have made us with the capacity for laughter. You have given us the gift of humor. Like all of your gifts, we can receive this particular gift with gratitude, using it in ways that please you. Or, we can take your gift and corrupt it. Forgive us, Lord, when we use humor in ways that degrade your creation or hurt people. Help us to discern when our joking around is edifying and when it is hurtful. Give us a refreshed desire to use all of our words for your purposes. Amen.

http://www.thehighcalling.org/reflection/should-christians-ever-joke-around#.U3H5UfldUhY

Performance vs. Potential: Open Hands by Kimberlee Conway Ireton

James 1

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.

James 1:5

Not too long ago, I stood in my kitchen with four small faces gazing up at me, waiting for me to give them instruction and guidance, and I knew in my bones:

I can’t do this.

That was not the first time those words had crossed my mind or pierced my heart. I am reminded, almost daily, that I am unequal to the tasks before me.

These children? I cannot raise them to be loving, faithful, and true…because I’m not.

This article? I can’t write it…there are too many deadlines and too little time.

This speech? I can’t give it…my words are dried to the roof of my mouth, and there’s no water in sight.

This relationship? I can’t love this person…I don’t even like him!

I can’t do this.

But that day in the kitchen, a small voice seemed to rise from somewhere deep within me. “You’re right. You can’t. But I can.” I can’t. But Jesus can.

The problem isn’t that I don’t have strength or wisdom or courage enough to do the task at hand—Christ in me has all the strength and wisdom and courage in the universe and beyond it. The problem, far too often, is that I don’t ask for what I need, and won’t receive what is freely given. My hands are clenched shut. To receive Christ’s strength, courage, and wisdom I must open my hands, let go of the fear, pride, perfectionism, driven-ness—whatever I’m holding on to. I must let it all fall to the ground. Only then can Jesus fill my hands…with himself.

Living in him, and he in me, I can do the task at hand, however fearful and impossible it seems to me. I can raise these children. I can write the article, give the speech, love that unlikeable colleague. The gap between what I can do and what I must do—between my performance and my potential—shrinks when I remember that Christ in me is just waiting for me to ask him to strengthen me.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: How can you invite Jesus, who strengthens and empowers you for all things, into the gap between what you can do and what you must do? What do you need to let go of so that he can pour his strength into you?

PRAYER: Jesus, I try so hard to do my life myself. I forget that I have resources of strength and wisdom and courage to tap into—your strength, your wisdom, your courage. I open my hands today to receive you, and your goodness. I pray that You would open my eyes to the myriad ways I try to barrel or muddle through on my own, and I ask that You would remind me in those moments to lean hard on Your strength that is in me. Amen.

http://www.thehighcalling.org/reflection/performance-vs-potential#.U2TG4_ldUhY

Being Like God . . . and Not Like God by Mark D. Roberts

Ephesians 5:1-2

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Ephesians 5:1-2

According to Ephesians 5:1, we are to “Follow God’s example.” The Greek underlying this imperative reads more literally, “Be imitators of God.” Now that’s a tall order . . . and a wonderful one, too.

This isn’t the first time in Scripture that God’s people are instructed to be like God. In Leviticus 19:2, for example, God says to Israel, “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.” In Matthew 5:48, Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” A few verses earlier in Ephesians, we learn that we are “to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (4:24).

The basis of our potential to be like God comes from our essential nature. In Genesis 1, God creates humankind in God’s own “image” and “likeness” (Gen. 1:26). Like God, human beings are to exercise authority over the earth, helping it to become all that the Creator intended it to be. Yet, as you may recall, we were not created to be like God in every way. In particular, we were not meant to be like God in having “the knowledge of good and evil” (Gen. 2:17). In Genesis 3, the serpent tempts the woman to sin with the promise that she “will be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:7).

So, we are to be like God in many ways. We are to imitate God in holiness, by living in a way that is different from what is common in our fallen world. We are to imitate God in righteousness, by obeying God so that our relationships are just and healthy. Yet, we are not to be like God in omniscience. There is some knowledge that is reserved for God alone. And we are not like God in ultimate sovereignty. Unlike God, we are called to obey one who is greater than we are. God obeys no one. We obey the one, true God, living our whole lives in service and submission to him.

Perhaps the way we are least like God is in the ability to save. Though we can receive God’s gift of salvation through Christ, and though we can share the good news of this salvation with others, we cannot save ourselves and we cannot save others. God alone is able to save. He does this not because of anything we do, but because of his matchless grace and abundant love.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: In what appropriate ways are you being like God? Are you ever tempted to be like God in ways that are not right, such as in trying to be Lord of your own life? As you think about how you might be like God today, what comes to mind? How might you rightly be like God at work? In class? Among your friends? With your family?

PRAYER: Once again, Lord, I am astounded by the honor and overwhelmed by the challenge of being like you. I want to be like you in all the right ways. And I want to stop trying to be like you in all the wrong ways. Help me, Lord, to discern wisely how I should be like you and how I should not be like you. In particular, I ask you to help me stop trying to be the Lord of my own life.

By your Spirit, guide me to be like you today, as I treat people with love and grace. Amen.

http://www.thehighcalling.org/reflection/being-god-and-not-god#.U1kFLvldUhY

Mimes of God by Mark D. Roberts

Ephesians 5:1-2

Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

Ephesians 5:1-2

At one time or another, I expect you’ve seen a mime. Perhaps it was on television or in a crowded square of a cosmopolitan city. It seems like every time I’m walking around in San Francisco, I come upon a mime or two. Inevitably, these mimes will be dressed in simple clothing, their faces painted white with black accents. Mimes are actors who communicate only with their bodies. They tell stories with their hands and faces. By their movements, they create impressions. If you watch an accomplished mime pretending to be in a box, pretty soon your mind begins to “see” an invisible box caging in the poor mime as it gets smaller and smaller.

According to Ephesians 5:1, you are I are to be mimes of God. The NIV translation begins, “Follow God’s example . . . .” This captures the sense of the original Greek, though a more literal translation would read, “Be imitators of God.” The Greek word for “imitators” is mimetes (mim-ay-tays), which is related etymologically to our word “mime.” A mimetes was an actor who imitated someone else.

So, then, how are we to be mimes of God? Surely not in the sense that we are never to speak about God. But Ephesians 5:1 calls us to be imitators of God, people who live in such a way that others can see God present in our lives, even though God is not visible to the eyes. In our deeds and our words, people observing us should be able to “see” God, much as we might “see” a box surrounding a mime. (There is a difference between God and the imaginary box, of course. Though God is not visible to those who see us, he is truly there, present with us through the Spirit.)

In tomorrow’s reflection we’ll consider further how we are to be “mimes of God.” For now, let me encourage you to reflect upon how God is visible to others through your life.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Do those who observe you each day “see” God present through your life? Do your colleagues at work? How about your family members or close friends? Would those who interact with you on the street or in the grocery store see you as “miming” God?

PRAYER: Gracious God, what an amazing imperative: Be imitators of God. I find this encouraging and overwhelming. Help me to know what it means for me to imitate you (and what it doesn’t mean, also).

As people observe my life, as they see my deeds and hear my words, may they sense your presence in me. May they know that, even though they cannot see you, you are real and your Spirit dwells in me. May my life honor you in all that I do no matter where I am. Amen.

http://www.thehighcalling.org/reflection/mimes-god#.U1enb_ldUhY

Envisioning a Community of Forgiveness by Mark D. Roberts

Ephesians 4:31-32

Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.

Ephesians 4:32

In our reflections before Holy Week (Part 1 and Part 2), we were considering the question: Why should you forgive someone who wronged you? We saw that we are to forgive as an expression of kindness and compassion because God has forgiven us in Christ. Before we leave the topic of forgiveness, there is something else in Ephesians 4:32 that deserves our attention.

This verse reads, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” To be sure, this verse speaks to each of us individually, calling us to kindness, compassion, and forgiveness. Yet, we must remember that this verse, like the rest of Ephesians, is not addressed to a single individual, but rather to a community, to the members of the body of Christ, to brothers and sisters in the family of God. You can see this corporate context in the phrases “to one another” and “each other.” Ephesians 4:32 envisions, not just a bunch of separate Christians who forgive, but also a community of forgiveness.

Wherever the people of God gather as the church, that fellowship should be characterized by forgiveness. This doesn’t mean minimizing sin. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Forgiveness is needed only when a wrong has been done. So, a community of forgiveness isn’t the same as a “make nice” fellowship that overlooks wrongdoing so as to “live and let live.” Rather, in a forgiving community, sin is taken seriously as a precursor to true forgiveness and reconciliation.

Yet, a forgiving community doesn’t focus on sin as an opportunity to judge, to condemn, or to ostracize those who have done wrong. A forgiving community doesn’t reward the proud who see themselves as less in need of forgiveness than others. Instead, a forgiving community is one in which all members are aware of their failures, in which all realize that they are lost apart from God’s grace, and in which all who have been forgiven by God extend that forgiveness to others who have wronged them.

Throughout my five decades as a Christian, I have seen churches exemplify this kind of forgiving community. I have also seen churches demonstrate anything but forgiveness. Our track record as the body of Christ is mixed, to be sure. But, no matter how well or poorly we are doing at the moment, Ephesians 4:32 holds up to us a vision of a forgiving community, where people fail as people always do, and where failure is not dismissed, but where failure is always a prelude to forgiveness.

As we seek to live out the biblical vision of a forgiving community, you and I have the opportunity to shape, not only our churches, but also our other communities. In our marriages and families, in our neighborhoods and friendships, in our workplaces and cities, we can choose to forgive as God has forgiven us in Christ, thus creating in miniature what God intends for all of his people.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Have you ever been part of a forgiving community? When? What did you experience? How might you help the communities of which you are a member become more forgiving? What could you do in your family, workplace, classroom, football team, and church so as to live out the vision of Ephesians 4:32?

PRAYER: Gracious God, today I pray for the communities of which I am a member. I pray for my marriage, my family, my colleagues at work, my church, my city, my ministry partnerships, my friendships, that we might become communities of forgiveness, based upon and modeled after your forgiveness in Christ. Help me, Lord, to be one who contributes to and helps to shape the forgiving quality of these communities. May our life together as your people, a life characterized by forgiveness, be a demonstration to the world of the gospel. Amen.

http://www.thehighcalling.org/reflection/envisioning-community-forgiveness#.U1aL-PldUhY

The First Word & The Second Word by Mark D. Roberts

Luke 23:1-34

“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

Luke 23:34

The Seven Last Words of Christ for Holy Week

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of our Holy Week journey to the cross of Christ, and through the cross to the resurrection on Easter morning. Beginning today and continuing throughout the week, I’d like to focus my reflections on the seven last words of Christ from the cross.

In actuality, the seven last “words” of Christ are seven sentences spoken by Jesus from the cross. They are found in the four biblical Gospels: Matthew/Mark (1 word); Luke (3 words); John (3 words). For centuries, Christians have focused on these words so as to understand and experience the cross of Christ more truly and deeply. Beginning today and continuing throughout Holy Week, my reflections will focus on the seven last words of Christ so that we might enter more completely into the passion, mercy, and glory of Jesus.

It makes sense that the first word of Jesus from the cross is a word of forgiveness: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Forgiveness is central to the cross, after all. Jesus was dying so that we might be forgiven for our sins, so that we might be reconciled to God for eternity.

But the forgiveness of God through Christ doesn’t come only to those who don’t know what they are doing when they sin. In the mercy of God, we receive his forgiveness even when we do what we know to be wrong. God chooses to wipe away our sins, not because we have convenient excuses, and not because we have tried hard to make up for them, but because he is a God of amazing grace with mercies that are new every morning.

As we read the words, “Father, forgive them,” may we understand that, we too, are forgiven through Christ. Remember what John writes in his first letter, “But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness” (1 John 1:9). Because Christ died on the cross for us, we are cleansed from all wickedness, from every last sin. Moreover, we are united with God the Father as his beloved children. We are free to approach his throne of grace with our needs and concerns (Heb. 4:16). God “has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:13). What great news!

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: Do you really believe God has forgiven your sins? Do you take time on a regular basis to confess your sins so that you might enjoy the freedom of forgiveness? Do you need to experience God’s forgiveness in a fresh way today?

PRAYER: Gracious Lord Jesus, it’s easy for me to speak of your forgiveness, even to ask for it and to thank you for it. But do I really believe I’m forgiven? Do I experience the freedom that comes from the assurance that you have cleansed me from my sins? Or do I live as if I’m “semi-forgiven”? Even though I’ve put my faith in you and confessed my sins, do I live as if sin still has power over me? Do I try to prove myself to you, as if I might be able to earn more forgiveness by my own effort?

Dear Lord, though I believe at one level that you have forgiven me, this amazing truth needs to penetrate my heart in new ways. Help me to know with fresh conviction that I am fully and finally forgiven, not because of anything I have done, but because of what you have done for me.

May I live today as a forgiven person, opening my heart to you, choosing not to sin because the power of sin has been broken by your sacrifice on the cross.

All praise be to you, Lord Jesus, for your matchless forgiveness! Amen.

http://www.thehighcalling.org/reflection/seven-last-words-christ-holy-week-first-word#.U00PBvldUhY

Luke 23:35-43

“I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Luke 23:43

The Seven Last Words of Christ for Holy Week

As Jesus hung on the cross, he was mocked by the religious leaders and the Roman soldiers. One of the criminals being crucified with him added his own measure of scorn. But the other crucified criminal sensed that Jesus was being treated unjustly. After speaking up for Jesus, he cried out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42).

Jesus responded to this criminal, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v. 43). The word “paradise,” from the Greek word paradeisos, which meant “garden,” was used in the Greek Old Testament for the Garden of Eden. In Judaism during the time of Jesus, it was associated with heaven, as well as with the future when God would restore all things to the perfection of the first Garden. Paradise was sometimes thought to be the place where righteous people went after death. This seems to be the sense of paradise in Luke 23:43.

Here we encounter one of the most astounding and encouraging verses in all of Scripture. Jesus promised that the criminal would be with him in paradise. Yet the text of Luke gives us no reason to believe this man had been a follower of Jesus, or even a believer in him in any well-developed sense. He might have felt sorry for his sins, but he did not obviously repent. Rather, the criminal’s cry to be remembered seems more like a desperate, last-gasp effort. He believed in Jesus just enough to shout: “Jesus, remember me!” And that’s exactly what Jesus promised to do.

Though we should make every effort to have right theology, and though we should live our lives each day as disciples of Jesus, in the end, our relationship with him comes down to simple trust. “Jesus, remember me,” we cry, not unlike the desperate criminal on the cross next to Jesus. And Jesus, both communicating and embodying the mercy of God, says to us, “You will be with me in paradise.” We are welcome there not because we have figured out all of the answers, and not because we are living perfectly, but because God is merciful and we have put our trust in Jesus, the Savior, the one who will remember us. Thanks be to God!

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: Have you staked your life on Jesus? Have you put your ultimate trust in him? Do you know that, when your time comes, you will be with him in paradise?

PRAYER: Dear Lord Jesus, how I wonder at your grace and mercy! When we cry out to you, you hear us. When we ask you to remember us when you come into your kingdom, you offer the promise of paradise. Your mercy, dear Lord, exceeds anything we might imagine. It embraces us, encourages us, heals us, saves us.

O Lord, though my situation is different from the criminal who cried out to you, I am in many ways quite like him. Today I live, trusting you and you alone. My life, both now and in the world to come, is in your hands. And so I pray:

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom! Jesus, remember me today as I seek to live within your kingdom! Amen.

http://www.thehighcalling.org/reflection/seven-last-words-christ-holy-week-second-word#.U00PSvldUhY

The Third Word

John 19:1-27

“Dear woman, here is your son.”

John 19:26

The Seven Last Words of Christ for Holy Week

As Jesus was dying, his mother was among those who remained with him. Most of the male disciples had fled, with the exception of one whom the Fourth Gospel calls “the disciple he loved.” We can’t be exactly sure of the identity of this beloved disciple, though many interpreters believe he is John, who is also the one behind the writing of the Fourth Gospel. (Other scholars believe this disciple was Lazarus, who is described in John’s Gospel as someone Jesus especially loved. See John 11:5, 36.)

No matter who the beloved disciple was, it’s clear that Jesus was forging a relationship between his mother and this disciple, one in which the disciple would take care of Mary financially and in other ways. Jesus wanted to make sure she would be in good hands after his death.

The presence of Mary at the cross adds both humanity and horror to the scene. We are reminded that Jesus was a real human being, a man who had once been a boy, a boy who had once been carried in the womb of his mother. Even as he was dying on the cross as the Savior of the world, Jesus was also a son, a role he didn’t neglect in his last moments.

When we think of the crucifixion of Jesus from the perspective of his mother, our horror increases dramatically. The death of a child is one of the most painful experiences a parent can ever know. To watch one’s beloved child experience the extreme torture of crucifixion must have been unimaginably terrible for Mary. We’re reminded of the prophecy of Simeon shortly after Jesus’ birth, when he said to her: “And a sword will pierce your very soul” (Luke 2:35). No doubt, Mary’s soul was painfully pierced as she witnessed her son’s passion.

This scene helps us not to overly spiritualize the crucifixion of Jesus, to make it something neat, tidy, and otherworldly. Jesus was a real man, true flesh and blood, a son of a mother. He was dying in unbearable agony. His pain was altogether real, and he took it on for you and for me.

Of course, the suffering of Jesus wasn’t only physical. Tomorrow’s “word” will help us consider the spiritual dimensions of the cross. For now, however, we are reminded of the full humanity of our Savior and the genuineness of his suffering for our sake, suffering highlighted by the presence of Jesus’ mother at the cross.

QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION: What does Mary’s presence at the cross evoke in you? Why do you think it was necessary for Jesus to suffer physical pain as he died?

PRAYER: Lord Jesus, the presence of your mother at the cross engages my heart. You are no longer only the Savior dying for the sins of the world. You are also a fully human man, a son with a mother, a son who cares about his mother to the end.

O Lord, how can I begin to thank you for what you suffered? My words fall short. My thoughts seem superficial and vague. Nevertheless, I offer my sincere gratitude for your suffering. Thank you for bearing my sin on the cross. I give you my praise, my love, my heart . . . all that I am, because you have given me all that you are.

All praise be to you, Lord Jesus, fully God and fully human, Savior of the world . . . my Savior! Amen.

http://www.thehighcalling.org/reflection/seven-last-words-christ-holy-week-third-word#.U00OC_ldUhY