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In The Message—an interpretation, not a translation (so read with caution!)—the introduction to Galatians includes the following:
Through Jesus, Paul learned that God was not an impersonal force to be used to make people behave in certain prescribed ways, but a personal Savior who set us free to live a free life.
The Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary includes under its entry for "Logos":
In relation to humanity, Jesus the Logos was not the impersonal principle of Stoicism, but He was a personal Savior who took on human flesh in the incarnation (John 1:4–14).
Most of the evangelical world employs this phrase. Perhaps "Are you a born again Christian?" (isn't that redundant?) is even more popular, but "Have you made Jesus your own personal Savior?" definitely competes.
Can we claim Jesus as our own "personal Savior"?
Personal is used here in the relational sense—that Jesus saves me personally; He and I share a personal relationship. The alternative to this personal relationship, I suppose, would be a relationship between Jesus and His body, the church, which does not somehow translate into a relationship between Him and me or Him and you, personally.
What does the Bible teach on this?
The Bible does not contain those exact words—"personal Savior"—but what about the concept? Consider two of the most God-fearing and God-loving men in the Bible, one who lived under the Old Covenant and one under the New: David and Paul.
David wrote of his relationship with God, even as his Savior, in the Psalms.
I love you, O LORD, my strength.
The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Ps. 18.1-2)
I cried aloud to the LORD,
and he answered me from his holy hill. (Ps. 3.4)
Do not forsake me, O Lord!
O my God, be not far from me!
Make haste to help me,
O Lord, my salvation! (Ps. 38.21-22)
Do you sense a personal relationship in David's words? Yahweh was not just the God of Israel; He was David's God! This relationship comforts and empowers because it does not depend upon the state of anyone else in the world—it's directly between a man and his God.
Paul also helps us understand the nature of our relationship with Jesus the Savior.
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2.20)
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. (Phil. 3.12)
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (1 Tim. 1.12-14)
Can you say Jesus is your personal Savior? Do you have a personal relationship with Him? I dearly hope you do! It is the single most important relationship any human being can have—and you either are His or you aren't.
In yesterday’s sermon (April 30, 2023), we reviewed Dispensationalism. The dispensationalist claims and tries with all his might to read the Bible literally. Notice what dispensationalist Ken Blue wrote:
B. Dispensationalists hold to the literal principles of interpretation of Scripture. Someone has said that men spiritualize because they have no 'spiritual eyes.' The most dangerous method of Bible interpretation is that of spiritualizing a text or making everything a type.
Illustration: God promised Adam and Eve that the Seed of the woman would come. He did. Noah was warned of a flood. It came. Abraham's seed were promised a land. They received it. Moses was promised victory in leading Israel from Egypt; he did it. Rebellious Israel was warned of their coming dispersion; it came. The prophets promised Israel that God would return them to their home-land. He is doing it as we write. The virgin birth was foretold. It came to pass. The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ was prophesied. It took place. The destruction of the temple and of the nation was prophesied. It happened.
If these and hundreds of prophecies like them were literal and proved to be so, why should the Bible believer assume that remaining prophesies are to be spiritualized and applied to the church? One opens himself to serious error when the literal approach to the Bible is rejected. A study of dispensations demands a literal interpretation of Scripture.
Have you ever heard of the logical fallacy of equivocation? It’s when someone uses a definition for something one way (usually a way in which most everyone agrees), and then he subtly switches the definition a bit later in his argument. Equivocation is “calling two different things by the same name.”
For example, “Dairy is good for me, so I eat a gallon of ice cream a day.” The argument equates dairy and ice cream. Ice cream has milk in it, but it also has a bunch of other stuff that, unfortunately, makes it unhealthy in great quantities.
Often, we omit important information to get our equivocation argument to go through. My child might say, “Can I go over to my friend’s house for a little while? He’s having a couple of friends over to play some games.” I might ask my child to further clarify because those statements are quite general. I’m picturing four or five guys sitting around a table playing Risk, when the real plan is for half the school to come over and have a pool party with illicit refreshments freely flowing. If I confronted him later about his deception, he would say, “We didn’t say how long and who can say how many ‘a couple’ of friends is?”
Dispensationalists often (though not necessarily on purpose) equivocate with this idea of reading the Bible literally. You see what Ken Blue wrote above. Read through all his illustrations of how the Bible literally says something and that thing literally happened. There is practically nothing you would argue with, right? He seals his argument up at the end with a question: “Why should the Bible believer assume that remaining prophesies are to be spiritualized and applied to the church?”
Well, he didn’t give us any examples of some of the other prophecies he takes literally. Neither does he explain what “spiritualizing” means to him. If we take the land promise and nation promise of Genesis 12.1–3 and apply those now to the church age, is that spiritualizing, or is that seeing how God is literally carrying out His promise in the way He had determined before time began? The dispensationalist waits today for God to fulfill the land promise to the nation of Israel. We read Jesus in Matthew 5.5, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” and we realize this is connected directly back to Old Covenant language such as Psalm 25.13; 37.9, 11, 22, 29, 34. Jesus applies that language to citizens of His Kingdom under the New Covenant, so why should we not connect the land promise to ourselves who are citizens of Christ’s Kingdom?
There’s a reason why we interpret all those things Ken Blue listed as literally true. Almost all of them come from historical narratives in the Old Testament. When we read history, of course we interpret it literally. We believe it happened just as it is written.
However, other genres exist among the books of the Bible. Not everything is historical narrative. Prophecy in scripture is often proclaimed through poetry, and sometimes a certain type of prophetic language which we call “apocalyptic” is used.
For example, King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream in Daniel 2 about a statue which had different body parts composed of different metals: a head of gold, chest and arms of silver, middle and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet of iron mixed with clay. A huge rock was cut out without man’s hands and was hurled at the feet of the statue, breaking it to pieces. Daniel interpreted the dream, and we understand each part of the statue stood for a kingdom in present or future history (future to Daniel). Was the statue literal? It was a literal dream of a statue, but Nebuchadnezzar would not be looking for a literal statue like that because he discovered that it was merely symbolic of historical realities to come.
We could also look at Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the great tree in Daniel 4. Again, the tree symbolized Nebuchadnezzar himself and what God had planned for him in his near future.
The last six chapters of Daniel are full of prophetic imagery. Daniel 7 reveals a dream Daniel had of four great beasts: one like a lion and had eagles’ wings which had the voice of a man given to it; one like a bear raised up on one side with three ribs in his mouth; one like a leopard with four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and one with ten horns and great iron teeth which it used to devour and break in pieces. Are we to take Daniel’s dream literally? In what sense do we take it literally? We believe he literally had a dream, but we also understand that those four beasts were not literal freaks of nature that God brought or will bring to earth. They stood, again, for four kingdoms which would come. We know that because Daniel received an interpretation at the end of the chapter (“As for the fourth beast, there shall be a fourth kingdom on earth…” Dan. 7.23).
When Jesus spoke in parables, He interpreted a few of them (Matthew 13) but not all of them. His interpretations of the few instructs us on how to interpret the rest of them. He teaches us how to listen to parables, to find a deeper meaning behind the simple stories. Likewise, God gives us interpretations for some apocalyptic language (such as in Daniel 7), which helps us understand how to read other apocalyptic literature, even when God does not supply the interpretation. We understand how to read this kind of literature. We are not supposed to read it literally but as it is given in symbols and signs.
Take Revelation 14.1–5. The premillennial dispensationalist believes in a literal 144,000 who have the literal name of the Father written on their literal foreheads. I assume they also believe these 144,000 will be literal viren men who never lie.
In Revelation 20.1–6, John five times mentions a 1,000-year period. The dispensationalist believes in a literal 1,000 years, and they believe it has not yet begun. They believe Jesus will come to earth to reign for this 1,000 years. You will notice, as you read those verses, that they do not say that Christ will reign on earth during those 1,000 years. That is read into the passage by bringing in other passages and ideas.
Are we to understand those numbers as literal? If we take them as figurative or symbolic, are we guilty of “spiritualizing” the text? Or are we reading it the way God intended us to read that genre of literature?
Reading the Bible is not always cut-and-dry easy, and that’s one reason it is so thrilling! We have much to learn, many mysteries to investigate, and wonders to behold of which we probably have no clue. As the Jews under the Old Covenant completely failed to understand the exact nature of God’s plan, even though it was revealed throughout the prophecies, so I expect we completely fail to understand the exact nature of what God is planning for us. Two things should be true: (1) we should investigate what God has revealed, asking questions and digging deep; and (2) we should be comfortable with not knowing all the details and waiting for the reality to come upon us.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding (Proverbs 3.5). Walk in humility. Love those who think they have it figured out, and encourage them to walk with God in faithfulness whether or not history works out exactly like they think it will.
God has the plan, and He’s working it!
What does it mean to be poor in spirit? Jesus said I am blessed if I am poor in spirit, and, in addition, I have (present tense) the kingdom of heaven, so it sounds important to be poor in spirit.
Jesus started His list of “blessed” statements (what we typically call the “Beatitudes”) with this one. Notice, by the way, the how many Ts are in “beatitude” and how many are in “attitude.” They are not related words. A beatitude is not an attitude we are supposed to be. “Beatitude” means “a supremely blessed state.” Jesus said I am supremely blessed if I am poor in spirit.
In fact, all citizens of Jesus’ kingdom must be poor in spirit, because if we are not poor in spirit, we do not have the kingdom of heaven!
The first and last of the eight beatitudes hold the same promise—“for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”—so this short list defines citizens of Jesus’ kingdom. This is not some random list of proverbs; this is a definition of who is in the kingdom of heaven. Every Christ-follower is poor in spirit, mourns, is meek, hungers and thirsts for righteousness, is merciful, is pure in heart, is a peacemaker, and rejoices in persecution.
But return to the first one—what does it mean to be poor in spirit?
Poor means lacking, not having, being empty. But what do we lack? Jesus taught that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, and He told the rich ruler to sell all he had, give to the poor, and go follow Jesus. Is that what this is talking about? Does Jesus demand all His followers sell everything they have and give to the poor?
A man can be worldly poor and still not be poor in spirit. These are not equal.
Poor in spirit is like humility. We realize our low place in reference to God and others. Yet it is more than simple humility. We stand before God spiritually destitute, having nothing to bring to Him. Like Adam and Eve, we have sinned and stand naked before God, without even the ability to properly cover ourselves.
Nothing in my hand I bring; Simply to the cross I cling;
Naked come to Thee for dress; Helpless look to Thee for grace;
Vile, I to the fountain fly; Wash me, Savior, or I die.
(from “Rock of Ages” by Augustus M. Toplady)
Every citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven comes to Jesus with empty hands, on his knees, asking for Jesus’ blood to cover his sins. And after Jesus wondrously, graciously, lovingly applies the blood and forgives the sins, the kingdom citizen remains perpetually conscious of his never-ending need for grace and strength from the Lord. Never will he boast of anything before God except the work of Christ!
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for there is the kingdom of heaven.
The cross offended some false teachers in Galatia, against whom Paul strongly preached. Jews had infiltrated the churches. They claimed to be Christians, but they brought a twisted, corrupted, distorted gospel with them (Gal. 1.6-9) as they attempted to bind the Gentile Christians under a host of Jewish laws which Christ had already eliminated through the cross.
Circumcision is not a sin. Paul was circumcised (Phil. 3.5), and he even had Timothy circumcised for practical reasons (Acts 16.3), so he wasn't condemning the actual act. He condemned it as a religious ritual as the Jews were teaching; they commanded all Christian men to be circumcised to be right with God, making it a prerequisite to salvation.
In addition to circumcision, they also insisted Christians keep special Jewish feast days (Gal. 4.10), adding them onto the list of things necessary for salvation. In other words, the Jewish Christians wouldn't really accept the Gentile Christians as brothers until they measured up to their list of laws and demands.
Why did the cross offend these Jews? Paul preached against circumcision for salvation and that keeping the ceremonial and civil aspects of the Law of Moses is now unnecessary under Christ! He preached that Jesus abolished the Old Law and clearly stated that salvation is by faith in Christ apart from works of the law (Gal. 2.15-16). In fact, "if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose" (Gal. 2.21), and "if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law" (Gal. 3.21). But now that faith has come, we are no longer under the guardianship of the law (Gal. 3.25).
Christ has set us free in order that we may experience true freedom (Gal. 5.1). He has freed us from sin and law. The law binds us under sin, so Christ had to abolish the law so we might be perfectly free from sin! This is grace.
But grace offends the legalist (who believes he is saved by keeping a law) because grace says we are not saved by our work of keeping law; we are saved by Christ's work of keeping the law and His sufficient sacrifice on the cross on our behalf. Just as the cross offended the Jews because it did away with their law, the cross offends legalists today because it does away with their law.
Who gets to make the list of laws which are necessary for entering into the kingdom of heaven? Only God holds that position. Is there a law Jesus expects us to submit to? Absolutely! If you don't think so, you should read Matthew 5-7, Romans 6, James, and Galatians 5-6. But Jesus clarifies our relationship to law—law doesn't save; He does. We keep His law because we are His children, not to make ourselves His children.
The legalist lists actions and teachings which will keep a person out of heaven. Many such lists have been made which exceed the boundaries of gospel-level issues, and those lists divide good-hearted brethren. The legalist believes that eating (or not eating) certain meats will keep you out of heaven (Rom. 14; 1 Cor. 8). The legalist believes that observing (or not observing) certain special religious days will annul your salvation. The legalist believes you must add this or subtract that from your life in order to be saved. Their additions to the gospel divide and do violence to the body of Christ! And that's why Paul so vigorously opposed the mindset of legalism.
Paul could have made a long list to show why he was "qualified" to be saved, but he counted all his so-called qualifications as loss, he said, "for the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I my gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith..." (Phil. 3.2-10).
Let us refrain from binding fellow Christians to our lists of laws! If Christ said to do it, then we shall do it. If Christ said to avoid it, then we shall avoid it. But let's not add to or subtract from what He has said, and let us not think that we are saved by keeping His laws. We've been saved in order that we might keep His laws. There's a big difference, and that difference has eternal consequences (Gal. 5.4)!
Here is the last in a series of dirty clothes Paul instructs Christians to take off and clean clothes to put on in their place, and this one is a doozy. He began this list in Ephesians 4.25, and we have now come to Ephesians 4.31–32:
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.
Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.
Take Off These Corruptions
The first set of attributes, which we are to remove from our persons, reminds us of storybook villains.
Bitterness eats us like spiritual cancer, doesn’t it? We harden our hearts towards one another, and over time our unresolved conflicts and untreated wounds result in irreconcilable differences. Bitterness traps our hearts in quicksand which swallows up our joy of living and stains our relationships.
The next two words—wrath and anger—seem synonymous.
The first (wrath in the ESV) is thumos in the Greek and only appears a handful of times. In Acts 19.25, a crowd in Ephesus became enraged (thumos), and the Nazareth Jews were filled with wrath (thumos) when Jesus contrasted their unbelief with the faith of Gentiles (Luke 4.28).
The second word (anger in the ESV) is orgē in the Greek and is translated variously “wrath” and “anger” in different verses. Jesus displayed this anger in Mark 3.5, as he saw the hardness of the Jewish leaders’ hearts towards a man with a withered hand. Orgē is often used for the “wrath of God.” In the context of these two verses in Ephesians 4, this has to do with wrath and anger we have towards one another.
Interestingly, Paul already dealt with anger just a few verses prior in Ephesians 4.26, “Be angry and do not sin.” He used the verb form of orgē, orgizō. Like we observed when we examined that verse, anger is not necessarily a sin in itself, but it can quickly lead to sin, and it becomes sin when we let it fester and grow.
Clamor has to do with loud cries—a high volume of sound. Hebrews 5.7 uses this same word saying that Jesus used “loud cries and tears” in crying out to the Father. In Acts 23.9 a great clamor arose among a crowd of Jews as they argued with one another. What kind of clamor does Paul address here? We should not be yelling at one another! We should not be contending, fighting, arguing with one another. We all know that guy or that gal who is always pushing back, raising the temperature, and getting into arguments.
Slander is the Greek word blasphēmia, from which we get “to blaspheme” and “blasphemy.” It means to speak against someone. Why would we speak against one another? Why would we tear down a brother’s or sister’s good name and cultivate mistrust and suspicion? Slander does that. Even if elements of truth exist in the slander, it leans hard on negative characteristics, so a hearer walks away upset and disgusted at the slanderer’s target.
Finally, we are to put away all malice. This word is variously translated “wickedness,” “trouble,” “evil,” and “malice.” When you intend evil towards someone, when you devise wickedness in your heart toward someone, you act maliciously. You intend for someone to fret, to fail, to fall.
Put On These Graces
It would be wonderful if none of us harbored any bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, or malice toward another. Every man, in his flesh, will act this way at times. It takes the grace and power of God to eliminate these corruptions from our lives and to cultivate mercy and grace in our hearts.
Therefore, by the power of Christ and his Holy Spirit, we should replace those evil things with:
Kindness! For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy peace, patience, kindness… Love is patient; love is kind. If God is kind to the ungrateful and to the evil (Luke 6.35), how much more should we, being listed among the evil, be kind to our neighbors and our brethren?
And we are to be tenderhearted. First Peter 3.8 also uses this word: tender heart. We should be sensitive to the troubles of our brethren, weep with them when they weep, and rejoice with them when they rejoice. Help them when they hurt.
Forgiveness! We should forgive each other as God has forgiven us, and that’s a high calling! Here, God teaches us how to overcome bitterness. Why do we think we will lose when we forgive someone of an offence? Don’t we, though? We think we will lose power, our right to retaliate. Satan is selling his lies again. In fact, we will lose heartache and the bitterness of soul that eats away at us. We will lose the desire for retaliation. If we let go of the offense, we may gain a fast friendship. How fully has God forgiven us when we asked? Has he not given us everything we’ve asked for? How can we still harbor resentment and evil thoughts towards our brethren?
As we complete this short list of things to take off and put on, I hope we can see the secrets Paul reveals to show us how to enjoy healthy and holy relationships with our brethren. He lights the path of peace; we just need to trust and obey! God has promised awesome rewards down this road.