Category Archives: Connections Articles

Called to Forgive

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:21-23)

Every once in a while, when people talk about Jesus’ words here about forgiving or withholding forgiveness, they speak as if they think Jesus is offering us two different options in how we might choose to respond to sin. It’s as if they hear Jesus saying, it’s up to us as disciples to evaluate whether someone is worthy of having their sins forgiven or not, and then apply our own judgment in what Jesus is calling us to do. Do we announce God’s grace and mercy in Christ, or do we refuse? Do we think it is up to us to decide?

In these words from the risen Christ, as he sent his disciples out with his peace, Jesus was not placing before us an option. Nor was he telling us to divide the world into different types of sinners or different degrees of sin in considering the message that he wants us to deliver. Rather, he was giving us a promise and a warning as speakers of his Word, showing us the blessing and the consequences of whether or not we, as Jesus’ disciples, carry out his calling.

Jesus is not giving us a choice on whether to forgive or not forgive, according to our scruples and sensibilities. He is calling us to forgive as we have been forgiven by God. He is also warning us of the dire consequences that will come from not heeding his call. To put it another way, Jesus is telling us that he has sent us into the world with the power of the Holy Spirit, to proclaim the forgiveness of sins in his name to a world overcome by darkness and evil — and he wants us to know that if we don’t do it, no one else will.

As I look at the current state of the world in which we live and the diminishment of faith in the public sphere, this is one of the things that troubles me most. The very concept of forgiveness has almost all but disappeared. When one looks at the modern phenomenon of “social justice” mobs piling on condemnation for whatever they deem to be the offense of the day, to the raging Cancel Culture that seeks to take out vengeance and destroy the lives of any who depart from the established and “accepted” narrative, what we are witnessing is a spiritual failure. Our society has lost all sense of the need to forgive.

And don’t be deceived, this is what it is — a need to forgive. Just as in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus shows our physical need for daily bread, he follows it up by showing that we have a spiritual need for daily forgiveness. If we know the Scriptures, we know that this is at the heart of what Jesus came into the world to do.  It was his death and resurrection that addressed our need for forgiveness. This is not just the case for Christians who acknowledge themselves as sinners, it is a need shared by all of us as human creatures.

The truth is, without forgiveness, the very structures of society begin to break down. The bond that holds us together is destroyed. This is because all of human society is based on relationships, and our individual relationships with one another overlap in larger and larger networks with many other people. As each cord is broken, the net that holds us together becomes weaker, until there is no bond left and everyone we encounter becomes our enemy.

In giving us his Holy Spirit, Jesus not only entrusts us with the power and authority to forgive in his name, he lets us know what the world will become if we don’t. Scripture tells us, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19). If we neglect the calling and command to bear his grace and mercy, our world itself will find the basis for life withheld.

As disciples of Jesus Christ, God has made us his instruments – his living means of grace. Through us, God is in the world, bringing to an end the legacy of sin, death, and the devil that hold all of us bound. In Christ, God is loosing the bonds of sin, one person at a time, by placing in our hands his Key of forgiveness – for he is the only One who truly has the power to set us free.

If you belong to Christ, you have no choice: you are an Ambassador for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). You are forgiven; you are set free, that you might make use of that same freeing power in the lives of those around you.  This is the promise of Christ. You have the opportunity to do what the world cannot do, and to give a gift that this world cannot (or will not) give.

Christ has given you the Holy Spirit, with the promise that “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them,” trusting that God will “forgive us our trespasses, even as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

— Pastor Steven E. King

Emptying Barns

“God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:20-21)

The verse above is the conclusion to Jesus’ parable of the man who built bigger and bigger barns for his wealth, often referred to as the Parable of the Rich Fool. In this parable, a man is blessed with productive land and an abundance of crops. His response to this blessing was not to share with those less fortunate than himself, or to invest the money in a manner that would help his community. Rather, the man decides to pull down his existing barns so that he can build larger ones, so that he would have more room to store up his goods for himself.

Having not been acknowledged (or even mentioned) previously in the story, God suddenly shows up to speak directly to the man. God calls him a “fool” and tells the man that what is required of him is his soul – his whole life – which belongs to God himself. The things that this man thought he possessed were nothing compared to what God himself owned, the claim that God has on all of us as his possession.

Today, as I write my article for this issue, I face the prospect of picking up my household and moving to another part of the country. I realize these days, this is something fairly common for people to do. But it forces me once again to take stock of all the “things” I claim as my own.  I remember back to the first days, when my wife and I were newly married, it seemed as if each time we moved — from seminary to internship, then back to seminary and on to my first call — the moving truck kept getting larger and larger. By the time I moved to my second call, my children were just reaching school-age when we moved into the church’s parsonage. Not long after, we bought own house in the town of Maple Lake, where I served most of my ministry. Again, the amount of “things” continued to grow.

It was not until I shifted from parish ministry to full-time in the publishing ministry, that my wife and I became so-called “empty nesters.” While it was true that the birds had grown and flown off, the nest itself was still filled with many things. Not until the next move did we have our first experience with down-sizing.

It was more difficult than I would have imagined. Though the new house to which we were moving was about the same size as the one we were moving from, the amount of storage space available went from plentiful to minimal. Hard decisions had to be made, and we were not entirely successful in our attempt to divest ourselves excess inventory.

But now, as we prepare to move again, I am surprised to find this process far less difficult. I would like to think it is because I am older and wiser, and am better able to travel light. I would like to think that I have learned the lesson of not building bigger barns, having a greater faith and trust that “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). But I am not sure that this is the case.

Rather, I think it has more to do with the experience of loss, and how God shapes us by what he takes away. Like the Vinedresser, pruning the branches of the vine, I have come to understand that God’s blessings are not just in what he gives, but perhaps even more visible in what he removes.

As one who believes in a Savior who “takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), I recognize that there are many other things that God has taken away — hard experiences by which he has shaped me in faith. The things that I once thought of as my own now seem somehow less tangible, compared to the value I find in the unseen things of faith.

After a lifetime of praying, “Lord, give us this day our daily bread,” I have learned not only the value of what God gives, but also the value of what he does not give. Perhaps that is why God does not promise us our yearly bread, our monthly bread, or even our weekly bread. What he promises is daily bread. Having the Lord empty my barns has made me more conscious of my dependence upon him every single day. For that I am grateful.

In teaching the Word, I have often compared the life of faith to a candle that begins tall and slowly burns down as we mature. I have suggested that our prayer as disciples should be that when our time on the earth has ended, there would be nothing left but a nub, for we would have given all we have and all we are for the sake of Christ.

In my own life, what I have found is that this is the only way his light will shine in us. Only by the burning of the candle is the light of our Savior made known to the world. For only by his Light is the darkness of this world overcome.

So I give thanks that God came to me in Christ while I was still a fool, while I was building my barns. I give thanks that he has opened silos and poured out the grain I thought was my own, and instead, has claimed me as His own.

— Pastor Steven E. King

God Willing

In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:11-12)

In old English, people expressed an action in the future tense by using the word “shall” — as in “It shall rain tomorrow.” The wording indicated an unaccomplished action, or the certainty of something that had yet to happen. People in those days, however, expressed their future desire by using the word “will” — as in “someday, I will become the master of my destiny” (meaning, I want or wish to do so).

Ironically, over the years it became so common to express one’s future intentions in this way that in modern English, the word “will” has all but replaced the word “shall” as the way we express the future tense. People say “I will do this…” or “This will happen…” to indicate things yet to occur.

In a subtle and selfish conceit, we have come to use an expression of our human desire as a way of speaking about the certainty of our future. This tells us a lot about the power and priority we like to ascribe to our individual human will.

But Scripture does not do this. When Scripture speaks of what shapes our future and destiny, it does not give that credit to the human will, but rather to the will of God.

For example, when John describes those who have received Christ and are born again in faith, he says they, “were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but the will of God” (John 1:13). This is strikingly different from the way many Christians talk about “receiving Christ” as an act of their own human will. According to Scripture, to be saved by grace through faith is an act of God’s will. As Scripture says, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

It is with this understanding of faith that Jesus taught us to pray to the Father: “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We are not asking to get our own way, but rather that God would have his way with us.  We are not praying that our own wishes and desires should determine our destiny, but that God and his will would rule our destiny just as he rules in heaven. Faith is not an act of the human will; it is the surrendering of our will to God’s. To be a disciple is not to set our own destination, but to simply follow to the destination where our Lord leads us.

This is why the Apostle Paul was able to rejoice when he said:

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:3-6)

Paul gives thanks for a decision God made – an act that God accomplished in Christ – when he determined to make us his people. Paul gives praise that God’s will has been done for us in Jesus Christ, just as we were chosen in heaven before the foundation of the world.

It may seem quaint to us now, but there was a time when people spoke of what they hoped to do in the future, they would add the phrase “God willing” — to indicate who was really in charge. Such an expression was one that came from faith, acknowledging that the will of God is sovereign, not our own.

It is because I trust that God’s will be done that I pray he keeps each and every one of us in faith and that, God willing, all people would come to know the power and promise of Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

— Pastor Steven E. King

The Holy Spirit’s Work

“To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, he has provided the Gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.” (Augsburg Confession, Article 5)

For some time now, in my articles for Connections, I have been writing under the title of “Sacramental Discipleship.” The main theme I have tried to convey is that in our lives as disciples of Jesus, we serve as a kind of living “means of grace” in service to the world. That is, God uses us – real human beings – to convey the message of the Gospel through our word and actions, so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

Scripture teaches us that it is the Holy Spirit who creates faith, and he does it by means of his Word, spoken and heard (Romans 10:17). It is by the Spirit’s power, active in the message of Christ, that God turns us into believers. This foundational truth underlies the very definition of faith that Martin Luther describes in his Small Catechism.

Many often point to Luther’s words in his explanation to the Third Article of the Creed, where Luther affirms that his faith in Christ did not come “by my own reason or strength,” but rather because “the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel … and kept me in true faith.”

Luther’s statement echoes the Scriptural affirmation that “By grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). It also reflects the same definition of faith that Luther presents when he addresses the Second Petition of the Lord’s Prayer.

Luther wrote, “The kingdom of God comes indeed by itself, without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may also come to us.” First off, we must realize that the biblical phrase “kingdom of God” is a reference to the reality of faith in our present lives.  Such language is not about an earthly kingdom of this world, nor is it simply about a future life in heaven. It is the way Jesus described what it means when he rules as King in our hearts through faith (Matthew 6:33).

So when Luther goes on to ask the question, “How does God’s kingdom come?” he is able to say plainly, “God’s kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that by his grace we believe his holy Word and live a godly life now and in eternity.” The kingdom comes to us when God himself brings us to trust and believe in Jesus.

But underneath Luther’s statement is also a clue to how Discipleship fits into this equation. As followers of Jesus, it is clear that we are not the ones who create faith – either in ourselves or others. But God does use us to make it happen. God has sent us out into the world as bearers of his Word. We are the instruments and ambassadors of God through which his message of the Gospel goes out to all nations – not to mention our own local congregation and communities. The Holy Spirit uses our witness as the means by which he enters the ear of listeners and takes hold of their hearts. As disciples of Christ, God uses us as his “means of grace” to communicate the promise of the Gospel to others.

As Scripture tells us: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). You have the promise that the Holy Spirit is at work in the words you speak in the name of Christ.

“As through means, God gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.” This is how God builds his kingdom in the world, one believer at a time.

— Pastor Steven E. King

In His Name Alone

“Let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well.” (Acts 4:10)

Chapter 4 of the Book of Acts shows us the conclusion to an event that happened in the previous chapter. Peter and John had been going up to the temple one day in Jerusalem when they encountered a man born lame who was begging for alms. What he received that day was much more!  Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” (Acts 3:6) Scripture goes on to tell us that Peter “took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong” (v.7).

One of the things that is notable in these two chapters in Acts is the emphasis placed on the “name” of Jesus Christ. Peter could have just as easily talked about the power, spirit, or grace of Jesus Christ; all that would have been just as accurate and true. But he focused on the Name – as if to make it clear that Jesus’ name was the means by which our Lord conveyed his power, spirit, and grace.

Likewise, when he was questioned by the religious leaders about this miraculous healing, Peter again emphasized the Name. Speaking of the death and resurrection of Jesus, he affirmed it was through “his name and by faith in his name” that this man was healed and made strong (v. 4:16). And if the point was not plain enough, Peter applied this promise to all people, saying of Jesus, that “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

In the Lord’s Prayer, when we pray “hallowed be thy name” we are asking God to reveal the power and holiness of his name in our lives. To call something “holy” is to say that it is special or unique – something “set apart” from all else. In Peter and John’s encounter with the man born lame, the power of Jesus’ name had certainly been made manifest. But in that same miracle, the holiness of Jesus’ name had also been revealed.

To have the audacity to say that “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” tells us that Jesus’ name is special and unique. To say that only by Jesus’ name can any of us be saved shows his name is indeed “holy” – set apart to God alone. God “hallowed” his name that day through Peter and John. Our prayer is that God would do so in our lives as well.

Martin Luther reminds us that this is what true discipleship is all about. He says, “God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we ask in this prayer that it may be made holy among us!” Our life lived as a faithful disciple of Jesus does not make God holy. Rather, it is God’s own holiness revealed in Jesus Christ that makes us faithful.

As disciples, we are the earthen vessels that God uses to reveal himself to the world. We are living sacraments, so to speak, as he uses our lives as his “means of grace” to communicate the promise of the Gospel to others.

As witnesses and evangelists, we are simply tools in the hands of our holy Lord. But what an amazing gift it is to know that he has not only given us the privilege of calling upon his name, but also the authority to speak in his name. “In the name of Jesus Christ, and by his authority, I declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins!”

Like the man born lame, sitting at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple, we were once lame in regard to our own salvation. We were born in sin and “brought forth in iniquity” as Psalm 51:5 reminds us, with no silver or gold that could buy the grace and mercy of God. But that is we have been given, free of price, through the holy name of Jesus Christ. It is for this reason that we are able to stand and confess that God has used our sin and weakness to reveal the holiness of his name. We have been marked and claimed by the name of Jesus Christ, and it is only in His name that we have life!

– Pastor Steven E. King

The Covetous Will

“We know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:14-15)

As people begin to study and become more familiar with the Holy Scriptures, inevitably, they are confronted with the question of the human will. Most people start with an assumption of human freedom, and the God-given ability to do as we desire. Then they come across a passage like the one above, where the Apostle Paul confesses that he is unable to do what he wants. By this, he is referring to his inability to do what is right. Paul wants to avoid sin and obey the will of God, but finds that he is unable. He understands the he is in bondage to sin and cannot free himself.

Likewise, I’ve noticed when people begin to mature in their theology and learn more about Martin Luther, they are often surprised to hear that Luther was not a big fan of the idea of human free will. Early in his career, Luther wrote that “free-will after the fall exists in name only.”* Luther later went on to write what many consider to be his greatest book: “On the Bondage of the Will.” Luther did not believe that humans have a free will.

But here I must be clear. Luther did believe that human beings have a will. All human beings have desires — things that we “will” or want to happen. Luther also acknowledged that human beings have a limited ability to choose. Indeed, we face numerous choices every day, from the moment we wake up. “What slippers shall I put on? What shall I have for breakfast.” Luther did not deny our ability to make such choices. What he did call into question is how “free” those choices really are. One cannot “choose” to eat Corn Flakes for breakfast, if all you have are Cheerios.

As Paul wrote, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but the very thing I hate”(Romans 7:15). Paul goes on in the next verses to confess, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18-19)

Paul recognized the will and desire to do what is right, but he also confessed that he was not able to act upon that choice. His sin kept him bound. He could not free himself.

Most of us are not so honest. We like to think that we are free to do as we please. Many Christians speak of free will as the “gift” of God — as if from the beginning, God wanted human beings to be able to choose and decide between good and evil for ourselves. But those who know Scripture know that God expressly forbid Adam and Eve from eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God did not want human beings to choose for themselves; he wanted humans to trust and obey the one true God.

If human beings ended up with a will that is free from God, it was not because God gave it to them as a gift, it was because they stole that ability to decide for themselves, against the wishes of God.

There is a very common word in Scripture to describe the human act of choosing apart from, or over against, God. The Bible calls that Sin. There is also a biblical word to describe the human will and desire to have what God does not want us to have. That word is Coveting.

God begins the Ten Commandments with the call to “have no other gods” before him. The first and most important commandment is to let God be God — to trust and obey God as the Lord of our lives. As Jesus showed us in his own perfect obedience, the prayer of the faithful to our Father is this: “Not my will, but your will be done” (Matthew 26:39). All the other commandments flow from this one.

Ironically, by the time we reach the end on the Ten Commandments, we return again to the subject of the human will. When God says, “you shall not covet,” he is saying that we should not desire or wish to have what does not belong to us. We are not to yearn for things we have no right to. This includes not wanting to have what belongs to God alone.

Adam and Eve fell to the temptation that if they ate of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good Evil – if they gave in to the temptation of being able to choose for themselves – they would “become like God” (Genesis 3:5). That was the lie that the snake told them, and it is the lie we have been telling ourselves ever since.  In our effort to become the god of our own lives, we have raised up “coveting” as the highest virtue, and have given it the grand and glorious title of “free will.” We tell ourselves that the ability to pursue our personal desires is the highest good – a human right that not even the Lord himself would dare get in the way of.

But Scripture says this desire is just another example of sin. To covet the freedom that belongs to God alone is the very root of sin and the power that keeps us bound. As Paul confessed on behalf of us all:

“I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:22-25)

Paul recognized that his hope did not rest in the freedom of his human will, but in the promise of Christ. Only in him are we saved from the sin of what we covet for ourselves, and brought to the faith that is able to say, “Not my will, but your will be done.”

— Pastor Steven E. King

*from Luther’s Heidelberg Disputations, 1518 AD

Personal Witness

Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:45-49)

When I think of God’s Commandment that we should not bear false witness against our neighbor, I can’t help but think about what kind of witness we should give to our neighbors. If “bearing false witness” means to misrepresent, lie, and deceive, then bearing true witness means to give honest testimony to what we have seen, heard, and experienced.

This kind of witness is important both in a courtroom and in our everyday dealings with other people. But it is even more important when it comes to our Christian calling to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5) by bearing witness to Christ. Bearing truthful witness is not only required under the Law, it is critical to the ministry of the Gospel.

There is a way of proclaiming the Gospel in the abstract, apart from subjective experience. Like the evangelists of Scripture, it is good and right to speak to others of who Jesus is and what he accomplished in his death and resurrection. In the victory of the cross, Christ has overcome sin, death, and the power of the devil.

As Christians, we believe that this is a message of objective truth in Christ, and we have been called to speak this good news on his behalf, proclaiming: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12) This is most certainly true.

But there is also a way of speaking the Gospel that is much more personal and subjective. Not only are we called to tell the good news of what Christ has done for the world, we are also called to bear witness to what Christ has done for us in particular.

For example, when Martin Luther spoke of the promise of God that we have in Christ, he liked to emphasize the words “for me” and “for you.” Like when we come to the altar in Holy Communion, Luther emphasized that the promise in the Sacrament is not simply that Christ is present in bread and wine, but that the body and blood of Christ is given for you, and his forgiveness is for you in particular. This provides a target for the promise, by placing a bulls-eye on us, to help us see that his Word of grace and mercy is aimed at our hearts.

When I think of why our personal Christian witness is so important to evangelism, it is for this same reason. One of the best ways to share our faith with others is simply to talk about how we have experienced the power of God at work in our own lives. These moments of faith may not be earth-shattering events, or radical transformations in our way of life, but may be simple instances where God was with us to comfort or encourage us. Some of the best stories we can tell of Jesus are of times when we were weak or when circumstances were beyond our control, and we learned we had to trust in God alone. As the Apostle Paul once said, “I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).

By being honest about the struggles we experience and our daily need for God, we bear witness to what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus. We become examples of a faith that does not rest in ourselves, but in Christ alone. We have the privilege of letting others know that Jesus is not just the Savior; he is our Savior.

This again shows the sacramental nature of our daily discipleship. God uses us as his “means of grace” by demonstrating that the real power of faith belongs to God, and not to us as human beings. By being honest about our struggles, doubts, and weaknesses, we can give our neighbors hope and faith that God is at work in their lives as well. Others will see in us that “no temptation has overtaken us that is not common to all people, but God is faithful” (1 Corinthians 10:13).

In making us his witnesses, God reveals his Gospel incarnate in us. We become the instrument and the example of his light shining in the darkness. “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:5-6).  It is to Him that we bear witness.

– Pastor Steven E. King

Respecting the Stewardship of Others

All who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44-45)

In the second chapter of the Book of Acts, directly after the day of Pentecost, we are given a glimpse of the first days of the early Church, and how the first fledgling congregation “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). We also hear of how they loved and cared for one another in faith, by sharing what they had and providing for those who were in need.

Scripture says, “All who believed were together and had all things in common” (Acts 2:44). Some interpreters have suggested that this verse is evidence our Lord had taught his disciples to practice and enforce an economic system that requires the equal distribution of wealth. Some argue that this kind of system is necessary in our world for us to have a true and just society. Others argue that since all we have belongs to God, there should not even be such things as individual ownership or property, and that all resources must be made free and available to everyone.  Creating such a fair and equitable system, they imagine, would usher in the very kingdom of God on earth.

Yet, the truth is, there have always been differences among people, in wealth, in resources, in riches – and in less tangible things as well like personal skills, talents, and natural abilities. This is the case among those outside the Church as well as among believers. We see this reality illustrated in the Parable of the Talents, where Jesus describes a Master who entrusts differing amounts to each of his servants. “To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one — to each according to his ability” (Matthew 15:15). Even in the comparable Parable of the Minas, in Luke 19, where the Master gave each servant the same amount, the resulting return on the Master’s investment was different in every case.

Nowhere in these stories does the Master tell the servants, “Since all the resources belong to me, the return is irrelevant.” Nor does the Master allow one steward to lay claim to the resources he entrusted to another, as if a servant had the right to steal from their fellow servants or were entitled to an equal share. No, the Master held each of his servants accountable for their own individual stewardship, and responsible for the way they used the resources of the Master to engage in his business.

But are we not called as disciples – commanded even – to care for our neighbors in love? Is not generosity and concern for the well-being of others part of what it means to be a steward of God? Indeed it is. As Jesus once asked his disciples:

“Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes (Luke 12:41-43).  

Being a follower of Jesus means we trust in God enough to be generous and merciful. We have the promise from our Lord, himself, who said:

“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Luke 12:32-34)

As disciples, we are called to be faithful and wise stewards of all that God has given us. But our individual stewardship is not measured according to what has been entrusted to others, it is according to what we have been given that each of us are accountable.

Imagine several cashiers working in the same store, side-by-side, in a row of registers. At the end of a shift, each cashier knows that they are responsible for the cash in their drawer, any checks written or coupons they have redeemed for their customers, in addition to the record of transactions that were made electronically. During the shift, if one cashier were to secretly remove $100 from a co-worker’s register and put it in her own drawer, could she make the argument that this is not stealing? None of the money belongs to the cashiers anyway; it all belongs to the store. However, she would know full well that other cashier will come up short at the end of the night, and that other cashier will be accountable for the missing money.

The Commandment, “Thou shall not steal” is not made irrelevant by the fact that all things belong to God. Nor can the biblical example of the early Church caring for each other’s needs be used as a pretext for stealing from one steward to benefit another – whether it be by force, by deceit, or by political-economic systems.

Jesus did not come into the world to set up a new societal system for the distribution of goods and services. He did not come to create a system of economic equity or any other kind of “kingdom of this world.” He came into the world to give his life for us, that our hearts would be grasped by his love, so that in faith we would show that same love to others.

Christ has called us as his disciples, and has given us many and varied gifts — not for the sake of making us equal, but for the sake of doing his work in the world. We are each entrusted with different amounts the Master’s resources, not to make things “fair”for us, but engage in the Master’s business of showing mercy, grace, and love in his name — for his sake.

In the Gospel of John, when Jesus came to the family home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, in thanks for all the Lord had done for them, Mary of Bethany came forward to anoint Jesus with a jar of expensive perfumed oil, and wipe his feet with her hair. Judas spoke out against what he considered to be an act of economic injustice, saying,“Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:5).  Scripture tells us, “He said this, not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief…” (12:6).

Jesus responded to the accusation of Judas by saying, “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me” (John 12:8). Jesus lets us know that in our lives we will have unending opportunities to show love to those who are poor, just as the early Church showed love to one another by “selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45). This, indeed, is what it means to love our neighbor.

But we do it, not for the sake of equity — for we know that in this world things will never be equal, and the poor we will always have with us. We do it, not for the sake of some abstract ideal or system of economic justice; we do it for the sake of Christ himself. We demonstrate his love to the least of his brothers and sisters, because in caring and serving and loving our neighbors, we are doing it for Him.

– Pastor Steven E. King

A Profound Mystery

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church. (Ephesians 5:31-32)

In the Book of Ephesians, as Paul is talking about what faith means for our human relationships, and how God calls husband and wife to love and respect one another, it’s as if he can’t keep himself limited to the topic at hand. Like the good preacher he is, he finds it necessary to point back to Christ and what Christ has done for us.  Regarding the ordinary and everyday relationship experienced by husbands and wives throughout the world, he says:  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church” (v. 5:32).

Lest we think that marriage is just one of those things that people do – some kind of quaint, old-fashioned tradition from times gone by, that has no meaning for our modern world – Paul says that it is something that teaches us about the very nature of our relationship with God.

On a surface level, we can recognize that both marriage and faith are relationships of love. Just as our spouse is a person for whom we have affection, we know that our love for God is based on his love for us (1 John 4:19). In a similar way, we know that the love a mother and father have for their children is a reflection of the love that our Father in heaven has for us. But I think Paul is saying more than this.

The “profound mystery” of which he speaks is more than just a metaphorical comparison or simile – i.e. this is like that. Paul is speaking here of something that strikes to the heart of what it means to call Christ our Savior. It is a deeper reference to trust and dependence, and what it means to know that our life and well-being rests in the hands of another.

One of my favorite images in all of Scripture is when Jesus speaks of himself as the “stronger man” who rescues us from the powers of sin, death, and the devil.  In the Gospel of Mark, when Jesus was accused of casting out demons in the name of the devil, Jesus pointed out how foolish that accusation was. He says:

“If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.” (Mark 3:26-27)

Satan is the strong man who holds us prisoner in his dungeon. Far from being on Satan’s side, Jesus shows that He is the one who is stronger than Satan! Jesus has the power to bind the strong man and rescue us from the devil. Jesus breaks in and plunders hell itself, to bring us back to God.  Truly, “Nothing in all creation will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Romans 8:39).

As a disciple of Christ, who trusts and believes in Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I know that I cannot save myself. I need someone to break in from the outside, not only just to save me from the devil – but frankly, to save me from myself. Sometimes I fancy myself as the “strong man;” I cling and hold on to my goods, thinking that somehow I can save myself. But then Christ comes, and proves me wrong.

The irony I have found is that it is most often my wife who shows me this. In my vocation as a husband or a father – or simply as a sinner trying to live my life in faith – I depend upon someone from outside myself to intervene.  I need someone, beyond myself, who sees me bound in sin and does not turn away. I need someone who has the strength and the love and the courage to speak the Word of Christ to me in my weakness. I need someone who is not afraid to speak God’s grace and forgiveness into my captivity, so that Christ himself would set me free.

As Christians, I believe that is the very thing we are all called to do for one another. But no where is this more true than in the relationship between husband and wife.

Martin Luther once said of his own experience as a husband to his wife Katie, “A Christian is supposed to love his neighbor, and since his wife is his nearest neighbor, she should be his deepest love.” (Of course, the same could be said of wife to husband.)

But the love of which Luther spoke in these words is more than a simple attraction of male to female. It is even more than the affection we feel toward one with which we are in love. Like Paul, the love of which Luther speaks is the greater love of God that can only come from outside of ourselves. It is a love spoken in real-life words of grace and mercy in Christ that are lived out within a life of weakness and genuine need.

So when I think about why it is that God created such a thing as marriage, I don’t see it as just a human tradition or a out-dated contract between two people in this world. I see marriage as a way that God has built the gospel itself into who we are.

I am blessed to say, both a spirit of confession and as a matter of dependence and trust, it is for this reason that I left my father and mother and now hold fast to my wife. For I know that tied up within this marital bond is the very means of grace by which I am able to live from day to day. My wife is a channel of divine love to me, and the one in whom I most clearly see the face of God. Indeed, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the Church.”

– Pastor Steven E. King

God’s Purview

“See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.”  (Deuteronomy 32:39)

Throughout the Scriptures we hear directly from God claims that would not be true if spoken by any other being. In the face of all god-like pretenders, the Lord Almighty asserts divine sovereignty – even over life and death itself. Scripture maintains a monotheistic view of one God who is above all. In fact, the very word “holy” means “set apart.”

When it comes to the Commandments, people often seem to forget this radical “otherness” of God. We talk as if we think God is (or ought to be) subject to the same standards and limitations that we are. We point out places in the Bible where God does not seem to follow his own rules, and are troubled when God does things that he told us not to do.

But that is precisely the point.  Strictly speaking, good and evil, right and wrong — these are standards given to us for how we are to live as God’s creatures. They are not laws to which God is subject.

We all know that God is able to do things that human beings cannot (Matthew 19:6); but what we often forget is that God may do things that we may not.  That is to say, God, as Ruler of the Universe, may legitimately do things that we, as limited finite creatures, are not allowed to do. In fact, the very reason that we are not allowed to do some things, is because those things are functions reserved for God alone.

Take killing for example. God has made it a commandment that, “You shall not kill.” Yet, in Scripture we see God killing as a matter of course (in examples such as the Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah, the Egyptians at the Red Sea, etc.). It seems like a contradiction, with God breaking his own rules.  But God is not subject to the rules he made for us; we — and the rules — are subject to God.

To put it crudely, what if the reason we, as human beings, are not allowed to kill each other, is because killing is God’s job. The reason we may not kill or take life is because life and death are under God’s purview alone. To take such matters into our own hands is to put ourselves in the place of God — the kind of idolatry that is the very foundation of sin itself (Genesis 3:5).

This is why, in the verse above, God says: “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” (Deuteronomy 32:39)

And lest we, like the heretic Marcion, think this is just the “Old Testament God of Wrath” talking, we should pay attention to what the New Testament says about Christ. The Apostle Paul writes:

“If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” (Romans 14:8-9)

The very center of the Gospel — the death and resurrection of Christ himself — is founded on the logic of there being One God to whom all things belong, even our own life and death.

So what does all this have to do with Christian discipleship?

It shows that being a follower of Christ is more than just being the adherent of some moral code. Christ is not simply a wise guru whose advice we heed in a personal effort to live a more spiritual or religious life. Christ is not simply an ethical teacher who has found enlightenment and has now become a motivational speaker or life-coach to teach us his “best practices.”

Jesus Christ is Lord of the Living and the Dead. He himself is the end goal and basis of our faith. To be a disciple of Jesus is not simply to follow the example of a great teacher, but rather, to be captured by his lordship as the Ruler of Heaven and Earth, and to be transformed by his sovereign will at work in us.

When it comes to discipleship — whether it be in regard to the Ten Commandments, or “the Law” in general – God’s purpose is not to lay out a path by which we navigate our way through right and wrong to reach spiritual perfection.  Faith is simple obedience to our Master, for his sake alone, brought about by the Holy Spirit of God. It is Christ’s own work in us, exercised in his sovereign lordship over life and death, which puts to death the sinner in us in order to raise us up to new life. This is something only God can do.

As Luther observed: “He has done all this in order that I might be his own, live under him in his kingdom, and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as he is risen from the dead and lives and reigns for all eternity. This is most certainly true!”

– Pastor Steven E. King