Blessing Those that Persecute

Life_in_Tension_web“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” (Romans 12:14 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Increasingly even in America, Christians find themselves the target of isolation, persecution, and even murder. During 2015 alone, a woman was jailed for publically espousing Biblical views on marriage [1], a church was the site of a mass shooting [2], and Christians were publicly beheaded by Islamic extremists [3]. These were only the most recent events. Few of us will forget the shooting of Cassie Bernall at Columbine High School for professing faith in Jesus Christ in 1999 [4]. Persecution of the faith is part of everyday experience.

From the cross, “Jesus said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34 ESV)

Persecution reminds us of who we are, who we belong to, and what we are about.

Who We Are. Jesus links persecution directly to our identity saying: “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matt 5:12 ESV) In effect, persecution for righteousness sake validates our faith and puts us in league with the prophets.

Who We Belong To. We are citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20) and undocumented workers here on earth. The Apostle Peter writes:

“Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” (1 Peter 2:10-12 ESV)

If our identity is in Christ, people look at us differently expecting to see Christ in us [5]. If we behave like everyone else, then we bring shame on Christ and on ourselves.

What We Are About. Again, the Apostle Peter writes:

“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:13-17 ESV)

Persecution is part of the mix of trials that we should expect to suffer [6].

Persecution also helps us establish priorities. Poorly focused objectives divides scarce church resources to the point that almost nothing at all is accomplished. Persecution helps us focus on Christ’ mission, not our own.

When Jesus talks about us being salt, it is attached to warning. Listen again to his words:

“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.” (Matt 5:13 ESV)

Trampling is a good analogy for the persecution of a church that has lost its way. Its better to be persecuted for righteousness sake (1 Peter 3:17).

 

[1] http://www.cnn.com/2015/09/07/politics/kim-davis-same-sex-marriage-kentucky-governor.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charleston_church_shooting.

[3] http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/19/africa/libya-isis-executions-ethiopian-christians.

[4] http://www.cassierenebernall.org.

[5] “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the LORD: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.” (Isa 51:1 ESV)

[6] “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died– more than that, who was raised– who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
(Rom. 8:34-39 ESV)

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Christian Paradox

Life_in_Tension_web“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live
to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:24 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When we think of sin, we normally think of sin against our neighbor rather than against God. In fact, the story of the tensions of faith over the past century have mostly focused on reconciliation with our neighbor, not God. The tensions over racial and ethnic equality, classism, and women’s rights, for example, are struggles over the sin of discrimination against our neighbor—a form of pride displayed at the expense of that neighbor. The Apostle Paul said it best over two thousand years ago:

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek [racial and ethnic equality], there is neither slave nor free [classism], there is no male and female [women’s rights], for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:27-28 ESV)

If our sin is against our neighbor, then what does that have to do with the atonement of Christ? Why would pursuing this righteousness lead to persecution?

In a strictly political sense, equality leads to instability. Why? Because no one is in charge. Everything is negotiated. Chaos is the natural outcome because personal and class interests are naturally in conflict and no one has the authority required to set rules and enforce law. Economists sometimes talk about competition as a transition to monopoly. Most people prefer security to equality—even if they think of themselves as democrats (small d). The more equality experienced, the greater the need for God!

In an unstable world, the swabbling would never stop. Revenge and counter-revenge have no natural end-point except death.

Jesus proposes specific alternatives:

  • “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39 ESV)
  • “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44 ESV).
  • “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (Matt. 5:41 ESV)
  • “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matt 7:1 ESV)
  • “…render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matt. 22:21 ESV)

Refuse to defend your honor, even if you suffer shame. In other words, in all things be humble [1]. Instead of defending your honor, practice humility and pursue righteousness even at the expense of persecution and death. Evil is defeated on the cross because God himself has paid the penalty of our sin (1 Peter 2:24; 1 Cor 15:3). The resurrection vindicated the claim that Jesus is the Son of God [2].

In a context of humility, violence is avoided by refusing to pursue one’s rights and preferring to set a good example by being proactively righteous. This is not a strategy to dominant another person or for one group to dominant another, in part, because the other party (or parties) gets to choose whether or not to reciprocate. Quite the contrary, the other party (or parties) can simply chose to persecute or dominate. However, the possibility that an enemy will chose to become a friend is only logically possible if this strategy of humility is sincerely chosen.

Although Stephen was the first Christian martyr, many more followed. The only apostle that was not martyred was the Apostle John (Foxe 2001, 10). Outside of martyrdom, other Christians have given testimony through service at the risk of their own lives. For example, during a plague in Alexandria in the third century Christians refused to abandon the city preferring to remain and care for the sick. Have we followed their example?  (Kinnamen and Lyons 2007, 110).

Divine intervention is required to abandon one’s rights and live in service to others. While Christ’s resurrection points to his divinity, his life and his sacrifice point to God’s alternative. Dare we follow?

 

[1] Neyrey (1998) devotes his entire book to this subject.

[2] Jesus preferred to refer to himself as the Son of Man. Out of 189 verses in the Bible that use this term, 89 are found in Ezekiel which refer to the prophet himself. The term in Hebrew literally means “son of Adam” ( בֶּן־אָדָם (Ezek. 2:1 WTT)). In the more famous passage in Daniel 7:13, the Hebrew expression is the more familiar “son of man” (כְּבַ֥ר אֱנָ֖שׁ).

REFERENCES

Foxe, John and Harold J. Chadwick. 2001. The New Foxes’ Book of Martyrs (Orig Pub 1563). Gainsville, FL: Bridge-Logos Publishers.

Kinnaman, David with Gabe Lyons. 2007. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

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Righteous Suffering

Life_in_Tension_web“Then the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt
and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters.
I know their sufferings” (Exod 3:7 ESV).

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

For the Christian and for the Jew, the experience of God frequently arises in the context of righteous suffering.

Genesis begins the Bible with the creation account, but Genesis itself was written by Moses who encounters God as a refugee from his homeland and his people in the desert tending his father-in-law’s sheep (Exodus 3:1). As a man wanted for murder, Moses find himself in the presence of God consumed by grief over his sins and shamed by his inability to help his people. Here is a former prince of Egypt now tending sheep not even his own. Do you think Moses felt persecuted? Do you think that he suffered?

God gives Moses a new assignment. “Come, I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” (Exod 3:10 ESV)

Moses is not anxious. Quite the contrary. He is wanted for murder in Egypt. Going to Pharaoh entails substantial and obvious personal risk. However, God offers Moses a number of assurances. Most important among these are the words: “But I will be with you” (Exod 3:12 ESV). In the midst of our own suffering God promises to be with us.

In the Law of Moses, God promises to be with us in the midst of suffering. God’s presence is manifested two other tangible gifts: the giving of the divine name and the giving of the law. With respect to the NAME, we read:

“God said to Moses, I AM WHO I AM. And he said, Say this to the people of Israel, I AM has sent me to you. God also said to Moses, Say this to the people of Israel, ‘The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you. This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” (Exod. 3:14-15 ESV)

The ancients believed that knowing the name of a god gave one power over that god. When God freely gave Moses his name, he was offering him what we might call the power of prayer. And God’s covenant name was significant: YHWH which in Hebrew means “I will be who I will be” or “I am who I am”. In common English, we might say: “I am the real deal”. The ancients were accustomed to gods made up by their leaders to serve their own political purposes [1]  A REAL GOD with REAL POWER was something entirely new.

With respect to the Law, the covenant of Moses begins with a reminder: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” (Exod. 20:2 ESV). The laws that followed gave the people of Israel a clear picture of what God required of them. To our ears, this sounds like no big deal, but the problem faced by the ancients was not knowing who God was and what he requires. It is hard to pray to God if you do not know his name or know what he requires of you. Consequently, knowing God’s name and having his law may life an aweful lot easier and reduced anxiety levels dramatically.

In the prophets, suffering continues but something new appears. The Prophet Job is described as a righteous man:

“There was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (Job 1:1 ESV)

Job is so righteous that God even brags about him to Satan:

“Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” (Job 1:8 ESV)

To which Satan asks to test him and God grants his request. Satan is given permission to take everything Job has away and to afflict horribly (Job 1-2).

What is interesting here is that the story of Job is thought to have been the oldest book of the Bible, written my Moses, and used to convince the Israelite people to follow him out of Egypt. What is new here is the first evidence of the need for a savior: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.” (Job 19:25 ESV) Even in his apparent righteousness, Job feels a need for salvation. Righteous suffering, whether by human taskmasters or Satanic oppression, pushes us to seek out and to rely on God rather than our own resources or on the law [2].

This theme of relying solely on God is repeated in the story of Daniel’s friends, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. When his friends refuse to worship King Nebuchadnezzar’s golden idol instead of the one true God, they are thrown into the fiery furnance. We read:

“And these three men, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, fell bound into the burning fiery furnace. Then King Nebuchadnezzar was astonished and rose up in haste. He declared to his counselors, Did we not cast three men bound into the fire? They answered and said to the king, True, O king. He answered and said, But I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods.” (Dan 3:23-25 ESV)

Righteous suffering not only leads us to God, it becomes a testimony to others. This is the blessing.

The eighth beatitude is perhaps the most paradoxical: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:10 ESV) How can we be blessed in suffering? The answer comes later in Matthew directly from the mouth of Jesus: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10:39 ESV)

This is the Christian paradox.

 

[1]  An example of this phenomena is found in the story of Jeroboam, ,the first king of Israel (Northern Kingdom) after rebelling against Rehoboam, the son of Solomon:

“And Jeroboam said in his heart, Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the LORD at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah. So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt. And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.” (1 Kings 12:26-29 ESV)

[2] The Prophen Jeremiah writes: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jer. 31:31-34 ESV)

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Prosecute Righteousness

Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:10 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The eighth beatitude continues our look at tension with others. Persecution is probably the most obvious form of interpersonal tension. Yet, it is sometimes more obvious to third parties than it is to us because we are prone to practice intense denial about such things. Denial is a strong component here, in part, because we have trouble admitting to ourselves that we are being persecuted and, in part, because of our tendency as Christians to think aspirationally. If we truly have the mind of Christ, we see others as Christ sees them—the person that God created them to be, not as they actually are.

As the Apostle Paul reminds us:

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:4-7 ESV)

James also provides important insight into our attitude about persecution:

“Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4 ESV)

In effect, persecution for righteousness’ sake is part of our sanctification. So we are sometimes strangely blind to the persecution that we experience and even surprised to hear about it. For example, Billy Graham (1955, 98) poses a somewhat paradoxical question: “Why are good people persecuted?”

Here the word, persecution (διώκω), means: “to harass someone, esp. because of beliefs, persecute” (BDAG 2059(2)). Often persecute is used in the context of a military engagement vigorously pursued (e.g. Deut 11:4). Guelich (1982, 93) notes that the perfect participale form of the word is uniquely used here and no where else in the Bible and it suggests actual community experience, not a hypothetical possibility. The word, righteousness (δικαιοσύνη), means: “the quality or characteristic of upright behavior, uprightness, righteousness” (BDAG 2004 (3)). Where a would-be king might hunger and thirst to acquire a kingdom, we are to hunger and thirst for righteousness and expect to have others hunger and thirst to persecute us. The Bible reminds us that being called a Christian was often associated with suffering and not always considered an honor (1 Peter 4:16) [1].

Jesus’ association of persecution with righteousness was prophetic. Luke’s Gospel records these words from the cross:

“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us! But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong. And he said, Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. And he said to him, Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43 ESV)

Notice that each of the elements of the eighth beatitude are present in Luke’s pericope: the idea of righteous persecution followed by the reward of heaven.

Religious persecution is as old as the story of Cain and Abel. Cain killed Abel out of jealousy for Abel’s sacrifice being accepted by God when his own was not. In effect, Abel was righteous while Cain was not so Cain persecuted his brother unto death (Gen 4:3-9). Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was similiarly stoned for, among other things, pointing out the persecution of the prophets (Acts 7:52-53)[2].The Apostle Paul admonishes us:

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:35-37 ESV)

Jesus reminds us that a student is not better than his teacher. He was persecuted; we will be persecuted (Matt 10:24-25). But Jesus did not stop there. He admonished us to: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44 ESV).

In doing so, we turn our enemies into our friends.

 

[1] “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.” (1 Peter 4:16 ESV)

[2] “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.” (Acts 7:52-53 ESV)

REFERENCES

Bauer, Walter (BDAG). 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. 3rd ed. ed. de Frederick W. Danker. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. <BibleWorks. v.9.>.

BibleWorks. 2015. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.10>.

Graham, Billy. 1955. The Secret of Happiness. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

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Peace on God’s Terms

Life_in_Tension_web“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Gal 5:22-23 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

In order to extend shalom, one must find shalom. Shalom starts with God; works in our hearts; and then is extended to others.

The apple does not fall far from the tree: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matt 5:9 ESV) In other words, peacemaking is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). Out of our identity in Christ, we act.

Moving from theory in to practice is especially hard when it comes to peacemaking. Everyone one loves peace—on their own terms. Pax Romana was peace on Rome’s terms; Pax America is peace on Washington’s terms. In order to find shalom, we must seek peace on God’s terms. Shalom is a fruit of the Spirit, but the whole fruit basket is a package deal!

The Apostle Paul writes:

“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal 5:19-24 ESV)

To find inner peace, two movements are necessary: throwing off sin (become holy) and taking on godliness (immitate God). Through the atonement of Christ, we are able not to sin. Through the example of the life of Christ, we are able to put on the righteousness of Christ (the fruit of the Spirit) which then spills over into our relationships with other people. This spilling over affects our relationships in the family, community, church, work, and the world (Graham 1955, 92-95).

The seventh beautitude influenced my life at a sensitive age. At age 19 on August 4, 1972, I wrote the following to my draft board:

“I can not fight in a war because as a Christian my highest duty is to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. I believe that life is the sacred gift of God which is to be honored and respected by all men. I believe that every man has a constructive contribution to make to humanity and that each man has the right to fulfill this destiny. I believe there is a beauty in all life and that we should use love, concern, and non-violent methods to solve our conflicts. I believe all men are of one indivisible whole and that each man’s life is important to the life of the whole. I must live in peace to uphold my faith.”

The Vietnam war ended on New Year’s Eve of that year so my draft number (13) was never called. However, my stand against the war spilled over into my family life and strongly influenced later career choices [1]. I predicated my pacifist stand on the belief that Vietnam was an unjust war and therefore Christian participation was not justified.

Choices such as mine divided the generations in the 1960s and 1970s, but did not lead to lasting peace in the world—success is seldom within our control. As Christians, our call is to be faithful and to model faithfulness [2]. We may not institute world peace, but like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) we can help the needy person who crosses our path [3].

 

[1] Neyrey (1998, 184) notes that it is this family context where Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt. 10:34 ESV)

[2] Mouw (2010, 65) sees moral simplicity accompanied by openness to God’s grace as a path towards sanctification and cites the examples of Corrie ten Boom and Mother Teresa.

[3] Why is the Good Samaritan not called the Great Samaritan? He did what was necessary, not everything possible, to save a man’s life (Cloud and Townsend 1992, 38-39).

REFERENCES

Cloud, Henry and John Townsend. 1992. Boundaries: When to Say YES, When to Say NO, To Take Control of Your Life. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Graham, Billy. 1955. The Secret of Happiness. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

Mouw, Richard J. 2010. Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

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Trinity of Peace

Life_in_Tension_web“On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were
for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, Peace be with you.
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were
glad when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, Peace be with you.
As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”
(John 20:19-21 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When we focus on the peace as reconciliation among feuding folks—relief of the tension with our brothers and sisters, we miss the significance of God’s peace breaking out throughout the New Testament. Remember that shalom (שָׁלוֹם) means “completeness, soundness, welfare, peace” (BDB 10002). In other words, it also implies healing, restoration, reconciliation, and salvation—a return to Eden. It is not just hello and goodbye, as it is often used in Hebrew. It is reminder of the covenant and God’s work among us. Shalom implies inner peace, peace with God, and peace between brothers and sisters.

If this interpretation seems far-fetched, remember the beatitudes and Jesus’ call sermon at Nazareth (Luke 4:14-21) start with the words of the Prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion– to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he may be glorified.” (Isa. 61:1-3 ESV)

Notice the inner peace referenced with the phrase: “bind up the brokenhearted”. This sounds a lot like comforting depressed people. Notice the peace with God implied in the phrase: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me”. God himself has initiated this mission of shalom. Notice the peace with brothers and sisters implied in the phrase: “to proclaim liberty to the captives”. In effect, we are witnessing a trinity of shalom breaking out.

Inner Peace. What could bring peace more quickly than physical and mental healing? Jesus’ first miracle after leaving Nazareth is in the synagogue in Capernaum (Peter’s home town; Luke 4:38) where Jesus drives out a demon out of a man (Luke 4:31-36). This happened repeatedly (Luke 4:41).

Jesus’ ability to heal transformed a person so dramatically that it was obvious just looking at them. For example, after healing the man with the unclean spirit in the Gerasenes, we see:

“And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid.” (Mark 5:15 ESV)

Wow. What power in shalom! The man healed was immediately transformed also into an evangelist (Mark 5:20), much like the woman at the well (John 4:28-30).

Peace with God. These days many people take peace with God for granted. This was certainly not a first century view. Jerusalem was destroyed first by the Babylonians for idolatry [1] and later by the Romans, presumably for sin, refusing the listen to the prophets and killing them (Matt 23:34-47). Remembers that Old Testament prophets served to remind the people of their obligations under the Mosaic covenant—in other words, their sin. Consequently, when Paul writes:

“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.” (1 Cor. 15:3-5 ESV)

He is reminding the Corinthian church that Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross and only that sacrifice made peace with God possible. No sacrifice; no peace. If God would not spare Jerusalem because of their sin, why would he spare sinful Corinth? Or, for that matter, Washington or New York?

Nothing but the blood of Jesus can atone for our sin and bring us peace with God.

Peace among Brothers and Sisters. We normally think of peace in terms of reconciliation, in part, because peace on earth is so hard to obtain. Often cited in this context is Paul’s admonition:

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Rom 12:18 ESV)

The shalom of Christ is, however, more generous than simply offering the absence of conflict. Jesus’ first miracle recorded in John’s Gospel shows Jesus rescuing the wedding of an impoverished couple of newlyweds from social embarassment. Notice that Jesus’ generosity has two dimensions—quantity and quality:

“Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast. So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” (John 2:6-10 ESV)

Notice the math here—six times twenty is one hundred and twenty gallons of wine. You might say Jesus gave them a truck loaded with wine! If that were not enough, the wine stewart—a local critic hired to maintain community standards—praises the wine’s quality! You might say Jesus offered them a named French estate wine when a mixed store brand was expected.

Shalom implies inner peace, peace with God, and peace between brothers and sisters. Jesus delivers so much more peace than we expect or deserve.

 

[1] “You took up the tent of Moloch and the star of your god Rephan, the images that you made to worship; and I will send you into exile beyond Babylon.” (Acts 7:43 ESV)

REFERENCES

BibleWorks. 2011. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.9>.

Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905. Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged.

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Prince of Peace

Life_in_Tension_web“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and
over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time
forth and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.” (Isa 9:6-7 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Shalom (שָׁלוֹם) as “completeness, soundness, welfare, peace” (BDB 10002) is divine attribute and mostly out of reach in the Old Testament. More typically, conflict was the norm.

In the Books of the Law, conflict between brothers is a theme repeated over and over. After the conflict between Cain and Abel, we see conflict between the twin brothers, Jacob and Esau, over the birthright and inheritance (Gen 25:26-34). Later, Jacob’s sons are so jealous of the favoritism shown to their brother, Joseph, that they sell him into slavery (Gen 37:2-28). This brother’s theme clearly points, like the sublimated violence in our own time, towards an absence of shalom and the need for God.

Interestingly, when Stephen recites the Story of Israel in Acts 7, he lingers over the story of a young Moses attempting to reconcile two of his Hebrew “brothers”, but without success:

“One day, when Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and looked on their burdens, and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, behold, two Hebrews were struggling together. And he said to the man in the wrong, Why do you strike your companion? He answered, Who made you a prince and a judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian? Then Moses was afraid, and thought, Surely the thing is known. When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses. But Moses fled from Pharaoh and stayed in the land of Midian.” (Exod 2:11-15 ESV)

In effect, Moses tries emulate God’s reconciliation between Cain and Abel by making peace between his brothers, but his own sin gets in the way and his reconciliation fails—a murderer cannot easily make peace!

In the Books of the Prophets, peace remains out of reach. Two dominant types of conflict emerge.

The first type of conflict is between the Nation of Israel and God. The covenant with Moses, summarized in the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 and reiterated in Deuteronomy 5, is repeatedly forgotten. Nevertheless, God offers a promise:

“And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.” (Deut 30:1-3 ESV)

In other words, peace with God will be restored if you obey the commandments. Here is the invitation to pursuing holiness. But the destruction of Israel and the scattering of the people of Israel is also anticipated. God repeatedly sent the prophets to remind people of the covenant and to chasen the Nation of Israel to prevent this from happening.

The second type of conflict was internal to the Nation of Israel. King Solomon may have been a wise man, but he was an opulent ruler who laid a heavy tax burden on the nation. When he died and his son, Rehoboam, became king, the tribes of Israel sent delegates to the king asking him to go easy on the taxes. He asked his father’s advisers and his friends how to respond. His father’s advisers counseled lower taxes; his friends counseled higher taxes. Rehoboam decided to listen to his friends—implicitly rejecting both his father’s advisors and his father’s relationship with God. When he raised taxes, the tribes rebelled and the kingdom was split. Two southern tribes, Judah and Benjamin, remained loyal to Rehoboam (Judah); the other ten northern tribes rebelled to form a new kingdom (Israel). The leader of the rebellion, Jeroboam, became the king of Israel. Jeroboam was fearful that people visiting Jerusalem for religious worship would eventually return to Rehoboam so he set up alternative worship sites and recast new golden calf idols (1 Kings 12). These actions were later referred as the “sins of Jeroboam” (e.g. 1 Kings 14:16) [1]. The split of the kingdom was eventually followed by the destruction of both kingdoms and exile of many of the people.

The counterweight to conflict in the Old Testament is the emergence of messianic texts, such as Isaiah 9:6-7, that link the Messiah and heaven to the idea of shalom: “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”. We place a higher value on things, like shalom, that we normally lack. In the Prophet Isaiah’s vision of heaven he sees:

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.” (Isa 11:6 ESV)

The outbreak of shalom—an end to predation and the play of a little child—is a sign of God’s mighty work among us.

 

[1] Animosity between the Northern and Southern kingdoms continued until New Testament times when Jews openly discriminated against Samaritans—part of the Northern Kingdom.

REFERENCE

BibleWorks. 2011. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.9>.

Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905. Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged.

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Make Peace—Embody Shalom

Life_in_Tension_web“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.” (Matt. 5:9 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The seventh beatitude focuses on peacemaking. Here we move from tension with ourselves and tension with God to tension with others.  Peacemaking embodies them all.

What does it mean to be a peacemaker?

The absence of peace on earth begins with sin and its consequences. In response to Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve, God curses him with these words:

“I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” (Gen 3:15 ESV)

The first example of peacemaking in scripture follows shortly thereafter and demonstrates God at work. We read:

“So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The LORD said to Cain, Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” (Gen 4:5-7 ESV)

God sees Cain angry at his brother, Abel, and intervenes to reconcile them. God cautions Cain to get a handle on his own desires. In other words, Abel is not the problem. Cain ignores God; projects his anger on his brother; and kills him. Cain becomes an object of pity because he can neither control his emotions nor his behavior. Jesus himself uses this illustration later in the Sermon on the Mount where he links anger and murder (Matt 5:21-26).

Through this example in Genesis, we see God himself modeling peacemaking through self-control, advising how to avoid sin, and being available to help others. Notice how God’s intervention deals with the three sources of tension here: within ourselves, with God, and with other people! Peacemaking is according seen as a divine attribute and messianic title (Isaiah 9:6-7) which utilizes each of the three dimensions of spirituality. Peacemaking clearly embodies the Hebrew concept of shalom which encompasses each of these dimensions [1].

Shalom (שָׁלוֹם) means “completeness, soundness, welfare, peace” (BDB 10002). The Greek word for shalom (εἰρήνη) has similar scope, but focuses more often on “concord, peace, harmony” (BDAG 2285). The English word, peace, is almost exclusively focused on the absence of war and needs to be modified to encompass shalom [2].

The Apostle Matthew understands the different aspects of shalom in Jesus’ teaching. Two are found in chapter 10 of his Gospel:

“And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you.” (Matt. 10:13 ESV)

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matt. 10:34 ESV)

Verse 13 builds on the Hebrew custom of saying both hello and goodbye with the word, shalom—if your hello does not stick, then take it with you when you leave! Verse 34 clearly focuses on the more political interpretation of shalom—peace. Peacemaking can be a positive or a negative attribute depending on the object [3]. Both were important in the Roman-occupied Palestine of the first century. Still, it is the Apostle John that most clearly captures the tension in shalom when he writes:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.” (John 14:27 ESV)

World peace in the first century meant Pax Romana which promised tranquility but delivered a brutal occupation.

Clearly, Jesus sees shalom and its embodiment, peacemaking, as transformative. In spite of the brutality of Roman occupation, Jesus commands them:

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:44-48 ESV)

Here we see the parallel between enemy love and peacemaking through the link to the promise—”so that you may be sons [and daughters] of your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:45) which reads almost the same as: “sons [and daughters] of God” (Matt 5:9). The word, love (ἀγαπᾶτε), appears here in the imperative form. In order to treat an enemy as a brother, one needs to settle one’s heart, be faithful to God’s command, and practice shalom. Then and only then, will you be like your father in heaven and be able to transform your enemy into your friend.

Make peace—embody shalom.

 

[1] I am not the first to notice these three dimensions of peacemaking and relationship with shalom: “Peacemaking, therefore, is much more than a passive suffering to maintain peach or even ‘bridge-building’ or reconciling alienated parties. It is a demonstration of God’s love through Christ in all its profundity (John 3:16’ Rom 5:1 and 6-11). The peacemakers of 5:9 refers to those who, experiencing the shalom of God, become his agents establishing his peace in the world (Shcniewind, Matthaus 48).” Guelich (1982, 92).

[2] For example, we might talk about inner peace or peace and well-being, but peace itself is too narrow to compare with shalom.

[3] What is the object of the peace? Justice, wholeness, or maintenance of privilege? (Neyrey 1998, 184)

REFERENCES

BibleWorks. 2011. Norfolk, VA: BibleWorks, LLC. <BibleWorks v.9>.

Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius (BDB). 1905. Hebrew-English Lexicon, unabridged. (BibleWorks)

Guelich, Robert. 1982. The Sermon on the Mount: A Foundation for Understanding. Dallas: Word Publishing.

Neyrey, Jerome H. 1998. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

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Living Out Our Faith

Life_in_Tension_web“The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein,
for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.
Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul
to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.” (Psalm 24:1-4 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Reducing tension with a holy God sometimes increases our tension with an unholy world.

In his book, UnChristian, Davide Kinnaman (2007, 29-30) cites 6 themes in non-Christian skepticism about Christians:

1. Hypocritical. We say one thing and do another.
2. Christians are: “too focused on getting converts.”
3. Homophobic. “Christians are bigoted and show distain for gays and lesbians.”
4. Sheltered. Christians are: ”old-fashioned, boring, and out of touch with reality”.
5. Too political. Christians: “promote and represent politically conservative interests and issues.”
6. Judgmental. People doubt that “we really love people as we say we do.”

Thinly veiled behind each of these criticisms is a concern about Christian holiness. For example, if we are say that we are Christian and act like everyone else, especially when it comes to matters of sexuality, we are seen to be hypocritical, not holy. Or, if we live out our faith, then our live style is taken as judgment on those that do not. People know who we are.

When one discusses holiness issues within the church, one is frequently jabbed with the question—where is the grace in your worldview? In view here is the passage from the Gospel of John:

“For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:16-17 ESV)

Here grace and law are seen as opposing each other. Two points can be made about this passage.

  1. Grace is a divine attribute and often used as a synonym most of the time for divine forgiveness, as in the forgiveness conferred on us by God through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  In its concreteness, the law aids in holiness being helpful in educating in righteousness, in law enforcement, and in outlining holiness in daily living, according to John Calvin (Haas 2006, 100).
  2. Grace and truth (law is a kind of prescriptive truth) go together. Almost no one in this context brings up the second part—truth. The idea of objective truth—God’s truth—is not a popular idea these days, but it is a precondition for any kind of serious scientific inquiry [1].

The Apostle Paul also provides interesting comments on this question. He writes:

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means![2] How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2 ESV)

Grace is not an excuse for a libertine lifestyle. We are accountable for our actions and non-actions [3].  Law helps maintain our accountability.

The Law of Moses is often divided into two parts: the holiness code and ceremonial law. Because the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70, the ceremonial law could no longer be fulfilled. Consequently, when Jesus said:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5:17 ESV)

Jesus’ fulfillment is, in part, a replacement of the ceremonial law that could no longer to fulfilled in the absence of the temple. But the holiness code itself—especially the prohibitions against sexual immorality—was never abolished or abrogated.  For example, the Council of Jerusalem in AD 50 removed the requirement that a person become a Jew before becoming a Christian, but reaffirmed the prohibition of sexual immorality for gentile Christians, the primary complaint today against the holiness code (Acts 15:19-20).

If you think that the holiness code is obsolete, consider the clean up in New York City that occurred in the 1980s. Two criminologists, James O. Wilson and George Kelling, started the clean up with what they called the “broken windows” theory. They argued:

“Crime is inevitable result of disorder. If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and a sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street if faces, sending the signal that anything goes. The idea is that crime is contagious.”

So New York City waged a war on broken windows and graffiti in the neighborhoods and subway. Minor infractions of law were not tolerated. And crime throughout the city began to fall precipitously to everyone’s surprise (White, 2004, 158).

The broken windows theory is to cities what the holiness code is to individuals.  King Solomon famously wrote of the “little” sins:  “Catch the foxes for us, the little foxes that spoil the vineyards, for our vineyards are in blossom.” (Song 2:15 ESV)  Make your bed; brush your teeth; sweat the details. Little things matter—they form and reflect your attitude.

What we do and how we conduct ourselves matters. As Christians, we need to be a good example to our families and those around us—especially when it hurts. Who is going to honor God and our marriages if we do not?

We need to live into the faith that we have in Christ.

[1] The existence of one set of physical laws in the universe offers interesting insight into the question of God’s existence.

[2] Wallace (1969, 482) writes: ”Obviously Paul’s usage of μὴ γένοιτο [by no means] is not the same as Luke’s. Here it indicates, as it usually does, his repulsion at the thought that someone might infer an erroneous conclusion from the previous argument.” Greek instructors love this phrase (μὴ γένοιτο) because it is an example of the rare optative mood not readily found in English.

[3] The “we” here makes an important point. Christians are to pursue holiness; holiness is not a requirement that we impose on others. Requiring others to pursue holiness leaves us open to the charge of being judgmental cited earlier.

REFERENCES

Haas, Guenther H. 2004. “Calvin’s Ethics.” In The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, 93–105. Edited by Donald K. McKim. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kinnaman, David with Gabe Lyons. 2007. UnChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids: BakerBooks.

Wallace, Daniel B. 1996. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

White, James Emery. 2004. Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.

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Prune, Intensify, and Apply

Life_in_Tension_web“You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you that
everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that
you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” (Matt 5:27-29 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

When Jesus says “Blessed are the pure in heart”, three actions come into view: to prune, to intensify, and to apply.

Prune. Jesus says later in the sermon on the mount: “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” (Matt 5:29) In case you are hard of hearing, he repeats the idea again in the next verse: “And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” (Matt. 5:30 ESV). Pruning consists of removing the sin from your life.

Jesus is serious about pursuing holiness and he assumes that it is hard work. Think about the analogies that he employs—tear out your eye, cut off your hand. These are not easy actions to take. Eyes and hands are part of the body—parts of us. Still, when our lives are threatened, amputation is a acceptable option. If sin were no big deal, the analogy might have been to trim your nails or cut your hair.

Intensify. Jesus does not water down the requirements of the Mosaic law, he intensifies it. In his comments about adultery, he discounts the actual commission of the the act and focuses on the corruption of the heart. The sin begins, not with the act, but with a lustful look or intent. Billy Graham reminds us:

“What does this word adultery mean? It is derived from the same Latin root from which we get our word adulterate which means’corrupt; to make impure or to weaken.” (Graham 1955, 78).

If sin begins in the heart, then purity of heart is an absolute necessity in pursuing holiness, but more is required. We must not only avoid sin, we must focus our desires on Christ. The Apostle Paul writes:

“But that is not the way you learned Christ!–assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph 4:20-24 ESV)

We must actually practice godliness [1]. Paul admonishes Timothy to “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim. 4:7 ESV) and so must we.

Apply. If the heart and mind both make us a unified person, then all of us is affected when we pursue holiness and practice godliness. In the Hebrew mindset it makes no sense to talk about faith being separated from action. When James, the brother of Jesus, writes:

“But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.” (James 1:22-25 ESV)

James would almost certainly share Jesus’ assumption that unity of person implies unity of faith and action. In fact, one meaure of sin in this context would precisely be the amount of sunshine between what we say and what we do. After all, Jesus was the first one to use the word, hypocrite, to mean two-faced—saying one thing and doing another [2]. Prior to Jesus, an hypocrite was an actor on the Greek stage.

This unity of faith and action reflects the unity of our Triune God whose love is simply a reflection of his person [3].

So we must prune, intensify, and apply if we are to be pure in heart and see God.

 

[1] Bridges (1996a, 7) writes: “The Pursuit of Holiness [also a book title] dealt largely with putting off the old self—dealing with sin in our lives. The Practice of Godliness [also another title] focuses on putting on the new self—growing in Christian character.

[2] “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence.” (Matt. 23:25 ESV)

[3] “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deut. 6:4-5 ESV)

REFERENCES

Bridges, Jerry. 1996a. The Practice of Godliness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Bridges, Jerry. 1996b. The Pursuit of Holiness. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Graham, Billy. 1955. The Secret of Happiness. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, Inc.

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