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The Example of Paul — Dustin Forthun

The example of Paul is as relevant and powerful as ever!  The apostle Paul’s life shows all that is possible when one wholly surrenders to the Lord.  Before he was the great preacher and missionary that we’ve come to love, Saul (his pre-Christian name) was a Pharisee, and Pharisees hated Christians.  Anything that was good for Christianity was deemed a threat by the Pharisees who felt more than justified in taking the attack to Christians.

Paul was not just a run-of-the-mill Pharisee.  He was excellent in his craft and devoted to his cause.  He believed that hurting Christians was service to God, and he wanted to serve God with excellence.  Within a sea of Jews who hated Jesus, Paul stood out as more zealous than his peers (Gal. 1:14).

Here we can learn a lesson:  Paul believed that devotion drives direction; the deeper one’s love for the Lord is, the more earnest and passionate the service will be.  Ironically, we applaud Paul for giving his best to the Lord.  He did not just want to get by in his religion.  He was not content to be loosely associated with his religion.  His religion was not just something that he thought about a few times a week.

Paul was on a mission to be the best possible representative of his religion.  He wanted to live its tenets totally.  This, of course, is the way man should respond to our great God who is worthy of the very best.  One’s religion is supposed to be real, not rented.  Paul’s was (and this seeming core principle will be seen in his later Christian ministry).  If our religion does not change us, are we really serving the Lord?  If the practice of our religion stays neatly in our comfort zone — doing what we want, how we want, when we want — aren’t we really just serving our self?  Paul was a man whose religion drove him.  He lost himself in the never-ending quest to be his best for God.

Yet Paul was wrong.  Despite his considerable zeal, Paul was wrong in what he thought God wanted.  Here’s our next lesson:  it’s possible for a good man to be wrong.  Paul believed that he was right; he even felt it in his heart (Acts 23:1).  He was highly educated (Acts 22:3) and respected (Acts 22:20).  It’s likely that his family was supportive of his accomplishments and proud of him.  How could so many people be so wrong?

It happens when people think they know what God wants instead of being certain.  Directing one’s own steps usually does not place one on the straight and narrow path (Jer. 10:23).  When minds are closed, even the clearest truths get missed.  Some knew the truth about Jesus.  Even some of the Pharisees deduced that He was from God (John 3:2).  However, an entire religious system worked to hide this truth from the people.  Obviously, the religious leaders had no desire for the masses to follow Jesus.  The most extreme case of their obstruction came when they had the nerve to say that the miracles done by Jesus — the clear sign that He was from God — were actually made possible by Beelzebub (Matt. 12:22-24).

Whether deliberately led astray or just honestly confused, people who thought they were right with God were actually wrong.  Some of these were sincere, well-intending, and good.  Like those on the day of judgement who will defend their righteousness (Matt. 7:21-23), they worked in vain because they did not make sure to find and follow God’s right way.  An important note to consider is that God will always allow one who truly desires salvation to find that right way.  Read Matthew 7:7 and rest assured that no honest soul will be blocked from finding God.

While Paul teaches us that it’s possible for a good man to still be wrong, he further teaches that it’s never too late to obey God.  Paul invested so much time, effort, and energy in his Pharisee life.  He was committed to this way.  He was settled and established, yet he needed to change.  The Lord visited Paul and made it clear that change was necessary (Acts 9:5-6).  In a great example for us, Paul did better as soon as he learned better.  He no longer stayed in the error that was sure to damn his soul.  Amazingly, Paul was hunting Christians when he found Christ.  Paul’s plan was to find and bind Christians whom he considered to be guilty of heresy (Acts 9:2).  In the span of one conversation, Paul learned that he had been wrong his whole life.  Rather than protest or refuse to change, this same man who always loved God and wanted to give Him the best, changed his ways and became a follower of Jesus Christ.

This was life-changing for Paul who literally turned his back on everything he believed to be right.  Imagine the number of relationships suddenly ended and the number of enemies suddenly made.  People who once praised Paul as a Pharisee now hated him as a Christian, and they wanted him dead.  Paul did what he knew was right, and this time he was certain.  Paul’s example speaks to us still.  Your friends in churches of Christ are praying for you to make certain that you’re following the Lord’s right way.

Dustin preaches for the Augusta Road congregation in Greenville, SC.

A Way That Seems Right In Religion — Dustin Forthun

Years ago my interest in golf was much more than it is now. I watched tournaments, news, reality shows, instructionals, and pretty much anything golf-related. I recall one segment featuring a golf coach touting game-improving tips and advice. He said something much more meaningful than just shooting lower scores in golf.  “Feel isn’t real,” he quipped while trouble-shooting a golf swing.  Feel isn’t real!  It seems there are quite a few golfers who feel like they’re doing it right. Closer inspection, though, reveals that things are not always as they feel.

As it turns out, we humans are pretty partial to ourselves. Just ask anyone you know if what he or she is doing makes sense and seems right. The answer will likely be a rousing “Yes, of course,” because we don’t normally do things that feel otherwise. Yet “feel isn’t real.” What if it were possible to do something wrong even though it seemed right? That question, of course, is not one to ponder too long.  Obviously it’s possible to do bad things that seem good. This fact accounts for so much of what’s wrong with the world.

Even the religious world struggles in this way. Of far greater import than how one feels when he’s swinging a golf club, many Christians and churches are doing things which feel right to themselves without much inspection. The apostle Paul famously observed this:  “For I am not aware of anything against myself…” (1 Cor. 4:4, ESV). Referring to his infamous years before Christ, Paul described feelings of being right.  Everything seemed okay.  Paul could likely deliver a long, eloquent justification for being against Christ.  Paul was raised to be a Pharisee.  His parents believed Christ was the enemy of Moses.  Paul was taught at considerable expense how to attack the faith of Christians.  Every bit of this training felt right to him. It seemed like he was doing what God wanted him to do. Even when Paul held the coats of the men who murdered Stephen (Acts 8:58), he believed he was doing the right thing. When he perpetrated his own persecution against the people of God, it seemed perfectly fine to him (Acts 9:3). “I have lived in all good conscience…” (Acts 23:1, KJV). That’s how this man described his feelings about his life and religion.  He didn’t feel that he was doing anything wrong at all.  Everything felt right.  Yet “feel isn’t real.” The sad reality of Paul’s pre-Christian life was that he was far, far off course.

Paul felt that his life was all right when it was actually all wrong. As a man shaken to his very core, Paul didn’t eat for three days upon being told how wrong he was.  He was also stricken blind, possibly to convey how his life was truly errant. Later in his Christian ministry, Paul would strike Elymas blind (Acts 13:9-11).  While punitive, this blindness is possibly also a commentary on Elymas’ teachings.  Jesus famously called the scribes and Pharisees blind leaders who should be left alone (Matt. 15:14). The amazing thing was that the Pharisees felt that they were right. So did the scribes.  So did Elymas. Paul felt like he was right! This eventful episode in Paul’s life shows just how possible it is to be sincere and wrong.  Sincerity is not enough to please God.  We have to be right in the things we do.  Thanks be to God that Paul changed his ways when he was taught the error of his ways.

In addition to Paul, consider another example of this principle:  Nadab and Abihu.  Nadab and Abihu share some points of similarity with Paul.  They were Aaron’s sons, trained by devout religious teachers. Religion was a real part of their lives. They desired to please God, and they believed they were pleasing God.  Leviticus 10 records the last time they ever worshipped God. The fact that they were worshipping God often gets overshadowed by their dire punishment. These boys were worshipping God, and presumably they were doing so because they wanted to honor him. Nadab and Abihu were not satanic or overtly rebellious toward God. If they hated God or wanted to rebel, why worship him? It seems most likely that Nadab and Abihu were sincere, devout, and well-intending in their worship to God. However, the text reports that they used an unauthorized element in their worship — something that must have seemed small and insignificant. Rather than use the fire which God said had to be used, the brothers made a substitution. Surely they did not get their censers and incense and do all that work just to fail in worshipping God.  No, probably they felt fine in making this substitution. Surely they could justify their actions and make explanations that they found logical.

There is a way that seems right to a man, But its end is the way of death” (Prov. 14:12). In these immortal words, Solomon articulates the examples shown above and sounds a warning to us all.  No one sets off to do something that will be self-destructive (or, thankfully, at least very few people do so).  God indeed proclaims that there is generally a love and care that people have for themselves (Eph. 5:29), but it’s so easy to get off track while thinking nothing is wrong. Just about everyone who has done something wrong, destructive, or harmful is amazed as how easy it is.  Most of the times, it even feels right!  Yet, “feel isn’t real.”

While physical harm is something we would all like to see less of, the spiritual harm that can be done is far worse.  Losing a limb, getting a scar, or damaging property is no one’s idea of a fun time, but what about losing your soul? Right now Christians and churches are doing what seems right to them.  I did an online search of churches in my area and found hundreds of results. They’re all different.  Some differences are minor while some are major.  Yet one thing I know that’s true for each is that they all believe what they’re doing is right. Like Paul, Nadab and Abihu, they have their reasons.  They’ve thought about it.  Maybe they have even lived their whole life doing what they’re doing. Not only does it feel right, it feels normal.  Anything else would feel foreign.  Yet “feel isn’t real.”  We all need the inspection of God’s Word.  James tells us to look into it as one would a mirror (James 1:25) .  People looking into a mirror make adjustments based on what they see.  They fix their hair, trim their beards, and put on makeup based on what that mirror reveals.  God wants us to use his Word that way. Look at it often.  Some carry around small mirrors to check their appearance often.  Imagine a world in which people cared that much about how their souls looked to God!  What a place that would be.

We’re told not to walk by the sight of our eyes or by our own understanding, but by the faith-producing Word that comes from the Lord! He tells us what is right, and it’s our duty and honor to do what He says. In some cases, we may wish things could be different. We may find a teaching in the Bible that we would like to change. Paul momentarily imagined how things could be different and mused of giving himself for the salvation of his countrymen (Rom. 9:3). Yet what we think should be, would be, could be right doesn’t matter.  “Feel isn’t real.”  There is a way that seems right, but it’s not always right!  God, however, is always right.  Always.  Your friends in churches of Christ do not think they’re any better than you or anyone else.  Members of the church of Christ know that we’re all put here to please the Lord.  He has told us how this must be done, and no one is able to change that plan.

When Paul was so far off course, God asked why he was “kicking against the pricks” (Acts 9:5).  The dated reference is of an animal which was plowing.  Some animals chose to fight the direction in which they were being steered.  They would buck and kick and protest in every way possible.  Nothing good ever came of this!  The animal was stressed and unhappy.  The rider was none too pleased either.  Eventually the animal was still made to do the job.  All the protest and kicking didn’t change a thing.  One day every knee will bow (Rom. 14:11) and every tongue will confess (Phil. 2:11).  All the kicking and protesting won’t change a thing.  One day everyone will see the right way, love it,  and want to follow it!  Please make today the day that you commit to that plan.  One day you will.  One day everyone will.  Will you do today what God says is right over what may seem right?

Dustin preaches for the Augusta Road congregation in Greenville, SC.

The Works of the Flesh – Dustin Forthun

Students of the Bible will note its use of many lists. These lists include the days of creation (Ge. 1), the ones in Ephesians chapter 4, the fruit of the Spirit (Ga. 5), and the works of the flesh—which is the topic of this article. Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia addresses several of their struggles. These Galatian Christians questioned Paul’s validity and authority; they also questioned the role of the New Covenant. They seemed to be in the process of returning back to the Law of Moses and risked forfeiture of the freedom they had gained in Christ.

Paul’s solution to these and many other spiritual ailments was for these Christians to stand fast in the faith and continue being led by the Spirit’s teachings. A key component to this prescription is to avoid the works of the flesh which are listed in Galatians 5:19-21. This list breaks down into three basic groups: Treatment of Self, Treatment of God, and Treatment of Others.

Treatment of Self. Though unpopular to accept, it is a fact that fornication and adultery are harmful to one’s own body. What the world portrays as harmless and fun the infinite wisdom of God’s Word describes much more differently. Paul states that fornication is a sin against one’s own body (1 Co. 6:18). Relatedly, a CNN Money story from May 2015 reported that the popularity of “hookup” apps correlate with a rise in sexually transmitted diseases. The harm is not just being done among the young as some may falsely conclude. The New York Times has recently reported that some STDs have doubled among Americans over the age of 65, showing that the problem is multi-generational.

The harmful effects of promiscuity are seen in the homosexual community where multiple partners and casual sex are very common. The disease rate and associated risks are so high that the data shows many in the homosexual community will die much sooner than heterosexual, monogamous individuals. Solomon was well aware of sins of the flesh and recalls the wounds and dishonor usually associated with unchastity (Pr. 6:32-33). Hosea’s portrayal of wayward Israel is notable because of the sins listed along with adultery: lying, killing, and stealing (Ho. 4:2). It doesn’t take a genius to see that fornication and adultery are ingredients to an unwholesome mixture that will rob someone of health, happiness, and heaven.

With his words uncleanness and lasciviousness Paul is alerting us to the dangers of a climate of impurity and wantonness. These lay the foundation that sexual immorality is usually built on. What’s euphemistically branded as “children growing up too fast” and “sex sells” hide society’s darker side.   An acceptance of immodest dress and the sexualization of everything accelerates a departure from God. Those laboring to take the perfect selfie are likely to get the attention of various immoral gawkers only interested in their own desires. Beauty is idolized and fetishized, and there are numerous studies linking pornography to gross objectification and desensitization teeming in our society.

Christians must be vigilant in this area. Some moms and dads may also have to wake up to this new reality. Paul is describing sins that ruin a society, but they also harm the individual participants. There is no innocent fun to be had here. The results of loose morals are always bad. Take a look at Sodom and Gomorrah to see just how bad things can become if discipline isn’t exercised.

Treatment of God. Shortly after their exodus, Israel chose idolatry because of their fear, stress, and weakness. Exodus 32 reveals that Moses was with God receiving the 10 Commandments. The people, however, feared that he would not return; they cried for Aaron to make a god (a request that should seem very contradictory). Aaron seemed too ready to capitulate and return to this idolatrous comfort zone. Egypt was filled with idols. Israel likely learned this form there; however, the true God of heaven had conquered those idols and delivered Israel from that land. He stood prepared to be their God—the only God they would ever need. However, they were not willing to break their connection to idols.

In their early establishment as a nation, Israel desired to be like everyone else around them. They felt different, odd, and unaccepted. The same God that delivered them from Egypt and delivered them into the promised land still wanted to be their Leader and Provider. Israel’s faith, however, had not grown. They were not willing to fully accept God; they wanted something tangible. They got their king like the nations around them (1 Sa. 8:5, 20), but they cast God from them. John records that many turned away from God’s Son simply because they did not like Jesus. The masses loved the food that Jesus gave, but they did not have equal love for His message, and many deserted Him (Jn. 6:66). These people simply wanted a better deal, and they seemed fine to shop around for a “better” god.

While these above cases can be read and understood on some level, the mind is still boggled. It’s very difficult to imagine why one would want any god other than the real God. It’s at this point, though, that we have to be diligent in noting that anything someone places ahead of God is an idol. A long time ago, God’s people put wooden images, golden calves, and kings in place of Him. Now the idols of money, acceptance, and technology are preferred.

Paul also condemns sorcery as another insufficient substitute for God. Whether it’s an infatuation with mother nature, astronomy, virtual reality, or something else, man’s quest for something beyond himself seems insatiable and incurable. The term translated sorcery (or witchcraft) is pharmakeia and has a connection to medicine and pharmaceutics. This is an interesting coincidence given that top executives from Google and other giant tech companies are seeking to increase longevity with the end goal being to escape death altogether. Some researchers in this field posit that the first person who will live to be 1,000 years old may have already been born.

Whether man is able to virtually change his environment into something we can’t yet imagine, terraform some part of space, or prolong his life by gigantic sums, no one will ever be able to replace the need for God. Everyone will appear before His throne (2 Co. 5:10), so accept no substitute.

Treatment of Others. Allow the remaining 11 items on this list (from hatred through reveling) to be speak to man’s treatment of others. Make of it what you will that the bulk of these works of the flesh touch the topic of our treatment of others. Jesus taught that the way we treat the least of His brethren is indicative of our treatment of Himself (Mt. 25:40-45). The apostle John further points out the gross disconnect between one who mistreats his fellow man while claiming a love for God (1 Jn. 4:20).

Hatred, variance, and strife describe the quarrelsome mentality that reeks havoc upon the Lord’s body. Contending for the faith is completely within the bounds of our Christian calling. However, to contend for our own way over the wishes of others makes us no better than the Pharisees who killed Jesus. It’s worth noting that the Pharisees began their plot to kill Jesus after He broke their tradition about the Sabbath. Compare the following in Matthew 12:10-14, Mark 3:1-6, and Luke 6:6-11 for the full account of this. Emulations comes from a word meaning “heat” and is understood to be a zeal for doing something bad. Together with wrath these two words describe the twisted psychology of ones who delight in the wrong they do. Proverbs 6:18 talks about feet that are swift in running to mischief. Those kind of feet belong to people who practice these works of the flesh.

Seditions and heresies label the factious nature of those aligned against God. They seek to divide and conquer the Lord not realizing the vanity of their efforts. Once the whole world united against God (Genesis 11) and the outcome was no different than if only one or two would have stood against Him. God is greater than any one of us or all of us, so creating or breaking up alliances doesn’t do anything to impact our standing with Him.

Envy and murder share a relationship as do drunkenness and revellings. Cain’s envy of Abel had a murderous end (Ge. 4:3-8) just as the decision to drink alcohol in any amount can be the precursor to drinking parties. God is very comprehensive in His condemnation of these evils. It would be hard to imagine a worse duo than abortion and social drinking. Since the passage of Roe v Wade in 1972, nearly 58 million abortions have occurred. God will demand justice for these crimes. The US Department of Justice estimates that alcohol plays a role in the majority of all crimes (and an even bigger majority of violent crimes) each year.

While we would like to imagine a world void of all of these works of the flesh, just imagine a world without alcohol and murder. Wouldn’t that be a much happier world to wake up to! The truth is we cannot eliminate these works of the flesh (or any related activity described in Paul’s “such like” clause) from the world. We cannot eliminate these works of the flesh from a single person other than ourselves. It will take courage, but we need to be courageous. It will take work, but we need to work. The world is not going to get any better on its own. If the works of the flesh are going to end, we are going to have to put them to an end in our lives. God is on our side in this battle. He can give us the victory. Find a faithful member of the Lord’s church and get started.