Reflections on the Fruit of the Spirit

(I realize I’ve already posted another blog for this week, but I had something I wanted to get off my chest. Hope you don’t mind! And fair warning – this is a rant regarding preparing a Bible lesson, so it won’t hurt my feelings if you want to stop reading right now.)

In our Sunday morning Bible class at Beltway, we’re getting ready to start a new series for the summer on the Fruit of the Spirit, Gal. 5:22-23. In preparation for that, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about that well known text, but I’m not finding much that’s terribly helpful for the questions I have.

grapes1_0Oh, don’t get me wrong – there’s no shortage of devotional material on the Fruit of the Spirit. One well-known writer interprets the passage based on Jesus’ parable from Matt. 13 on the Sower & the Four Soils. Another wants to turn the Fruit of the Spirit into a commentary on Jesus’ words from John 15 about the vine and the branches and being fruitful. Other guys write about it from a strongly Calvinistic point of view, turning it into nothing more than a sermon against legalism. Now, all of that is fine, but before we look into comparing other scriptures to this text from Galatians, how about if we compare it to the rest of Galatians?

On the other hand, there are some excellent commentaries out there on each of the nine character traits that are listed, complete with excellent word studies on each. These studies describe the attribute being discussed, its background in secular Greek literature, other Biblical references, and so forth. Again, all of that is fine, and will be helpful in understanding the Spiritual characteristics involved, but the question remains, What is this list doing here, and what was Paul’s purpose in writing it?

Even bringing up the subject of Galatians gets people off topic. Mention Galatians, and a lot of NT scholars want to jump to Romans, where Paul supposedly gives a more thorough discussion of the points he raises in Galatians, OR they want to jump to Acts, and examine the alleged discrepancies between the historical timeline Paul presents in Galatians, versus the events as recorded by Luke in Acts. All of which gives me a headache, and none of which helps me answer the basic question: What was Paul’s original purpose in making this list?

I’m pretty sure he wasn’t looking to generate material for us to stick on coffee mugs and bumper stickers.

Here’s what I’ve figured out so far. Paul starts off in this letter by reminding them of his background, and how that his commission as an apostle did NOT come through any human agency, nor was his message and preaching beholden to the other apostles. Rather, in both cases, his authority to act as well as the content of his preaching and teaching, came directly from God. But then, with bluntness that the people of Galatia would have appreciated, he calls them “foolish and stupid” for abandoning the good news that he had brought, and instead, allowing themselves to be hoodwinked into accepting a false gospel that preached that faith in Jesus was not enough for salvation, and that we had to obey works of the law in order to earn God’s approval. In unmistakeable terms, he rebukes them for rejecting the beauty and simplicity of salvation by grace, in favor of the treadmill of a works-based legalism.

Throughout the book, he describes this by listing a number of contrasts – law vs. faith/grace; children of Hagar vs. children of Sarah; human divisiveness vs. the oneness of God; slavery vs. freedom. And the contrast he makes most frequently – and most eloquently – is flesh vs. Spirit. And in this specific case, it is the works of the flesh – uncleanness of all sorts – vs. the Fruit of the Spirit.

In that picture, you have the organic nature of growing fruit contrasted against the ceaseless striving of works; the produce of God’s Spirit, vs. the products of our own efforts; the life-giving and life-affirming qualities that bless others, compared to the selfish and destructive practices of a me-centered existence.

And, not for nothing, we should note that it’s the WORKS – plural – of the flesh versus the FRUIT – singular – of the Spirit. There is only one fruit. We should not speak of the “fruits” of the Spirit. There is one fruit, and it manifests itself in various ways, depending on the specific needs and situation. This is not a buffet, and we mustn’t think we can say, “Well, I’ll have some love and joy, but I don’t want any self-control right now.” If the Spirit is present in our lives – if God is moving within us – then HE will be growing these things within us at the same time. Certainly, our spirits can and should cooperate with His Spirit, and we must be intentional about looking for ways to demonstrate these characteristics, but we don’t become more loving, or more patient, or whatever, simply by trying to counterfeit that quality.

Anyway, that’s a little insight into some of what I’ve been thinking about Galatians and the Fruit of the Spirit. If you’re still with me, thanks for reading. And if my rant hasn’t scared you off, I hope you can join us as we explore each of these aspects of spiritual fruit, and discover how God’s fruit blesses us and those around us.

(The class will meet Sunday mornings at 10:50, during the second service. We meet at Beltway Park Baptist Church, Room A-110, and visitors are always welcome.)

Visiting Israel

(Okay, nothing controversial today, I promise!)

For the last week, I have been remembering a wonderful trip I took, exactly four years ago, to Israel.  It was truly, to use an overworked phrase, a life-changing experience.

I almost didn’t get to go.

Early in the summer of 2008, there was an announcement at Beltway, the church where we attend, about a trip to Israel in February, 2009. The cost would be about $3000.  I didn’t have the $3000 – at the time, I didn’t even have the $100 I needed for the deposit, but I began praying, and asking God if I was supposed to go on this trip, and if so, how was I going to pay for it?

By the time I got my trip deposit together a couple of weeks later, I was told that the trip was full, but that a dozen or so reservations were probably going to be cancelled, so my name was first on the list of “alternates.”  I talked with the trip secretary again a few days later, and she told me that a spot had opened up for me to go.  I gave Pastor David my deposit check the following Sunday at church, and he said he would get me signed up.

The next morning, he sent me an e-mail.  Yes, he said, I was confirmed for the trip.  And what is more, he said, was that “an anonymous friend” had come forward and wanted to pay the cost of the trip – the entire $3000.  To say I was stunned would be a gross understatement.

DSC02433For the next several months, I read the pre-trip material and attended the team meetings.  Finally, the day came for us to load up.  A bus ride to DFW, a flight to Atlanta, a flight to Tel Aviv, and there we were – I was in Israel!

Our first stop was in Akko, on the coast in the far northwest corner of the country.  Akko is a very ancient city, referenced in the Hebrew text of Job 38:11.  In NT times, it was known by the name of Ptolemais – Paul went through it towards the end of his 3rd missionary journey, heading towards Jerusalem – Acts 21:7.  The city was a major port for the Crusaders, conquered by the English King Richard the Lionheart, retaken by the Muslims, and later the site of one of the few defeats ever suffered by Napoleon.

All that to say, it’s kinda historic.

While we were there in that region, we visited several Messianic synagogues where we have friends.  What a blessing to get to meet these precious brothers and sisters and pray with them!  It was a time of wonderful fellowship and mutual encouragement, with worship services sometimes held in three different languages.  Besides Akko, we also visited Haifa and Nazareth.

During some free time one evening, with our bus driver’s help, I was able to get to a train station and ride a passenger train a few miles down the coast, then take another train back.  (You knew part of this story would involve a train ride, right?)

Next we went down the coast to Caesarea, the man-made port city constructed by Herod the Great, then on to Mt. Carmel, to the area where Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest (I Kings 18), then across the country through the Jezreel Valley to Megiddo, and on to our hotel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee.

IMG_2465February 10 was my favorite day in Israel.  We started out driving up to the top of the traditional site where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount.  It was very cloud and misting rain that day, but this picture shows the side of the mountain sloping down to the Sea of Galilee below.  Then it was on to the coastline itself, to the area where it’s believed that Jesus cooked breakfast for the disciples after His resurrection  (John 21), and then He and Peter went for a walk along the beach – “Feed my sheep.”

IMG_2520We went to Jesus’ adopted hometown of Capernaum next.  Words cannot really describe how special this part of the trip was for me.  We know about more miracles per square foot that took place there, than any other place In Israel.  The synagogue leader’s daughter, and the woman with the issue of blood.  The centurion’s servant, and the paralyzed man whose friends lowered him down through the roof.  Peter’s mother-in-law, and a miraculous catch of fish.  And on, and on, and on – yet most of the people did not believe.  (This picture shows David leading us in our morning devo, in a little park just outside the ruins of the synagogue there.)

Something very special and personal happened to me while we were there.  I began to think about all that Jesus did there, and all the stories from the Gospels – inviting Peter and the others to become “fishers of men,” visiting Matthew’s tax collecting booth, teaching in the synagogue, and more.  Capernaum is not a very big place – the entire village would easily fit on the campus of ACU – and all the spots where these things happened were just yards from where I was standing.  Here’s the weird part: it was almost as if I could see the faces of all the Sunday School teachers that I had when I was a kid, and I could almost hearing them telling me those stories again.  And here I was, standing in the midst of where all those things happened.

I had never felt the Spirit of Jesus more keenly than I did in that moment.

communionWe were in Israel for almost two weeks.  We also visited the Jewish fortress of Masada, the oasis at En Gedi (one of King David’s favorite places!), and the Dead Sea.  Of course, we toured Jerusalem, prayed over Holy City from the ancient ramparts, went to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane, and walked the Via Dolorosa.  We saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Gordon’s Calvary, and shared communion outside the Garden Tomb.

It was a great trip, and I’m ready to go back.  There’s some places I want to see again, and lots more places that I want to visit.  For those who say, “Oh, I’d never go – it’s much too dangerous” – not so.  The most dangerous part of the trip was the bus ride on I-20!  If you stay out of the West Bank and Gaza, stay with your tour group, you’ll be fine.

I believe every Christian should go to Israel at least once, if possible.  It will make the Bible come alive in ways you never imagined.  And maybe it will renew your faith to a deeper level than you ever thought possible.

Loving God with My Mind

Several years ago, a mainline American denomination put out a series of publicity posters that I liked very much.  One said, “Just because you’ve been baptized doesn’t mean you’ve been brainwashed.”  Another went, “The only problem with groups that have all the answers, is that they don’t allow any questions.”

My favorite was “Jesus came to take away your sins.  Not your mind.”

Many Christians have seemed confused over the years as to the proper relationship between reason and faith.  Are we supposed to check our brains at the door and “just believe”?  Is science automatically and irreversibly opposed to faith?  Can a thinking person hold on to his or her intellectual integrity AND be a person of faith at the same time?

This was always a topic of special, personal importance to me.  Expressing emotion was difficult for me growing up, but logic – ah, now you’re speaking my language.  As a fan of the original “Star Trek” (insert eye roll here), my favorite character was, of course, Mr. Spock, who was totally cool, totally in control, totally logical.

The problem came when I tried to reconcile my fascination with logic, with what I was learning at church.  I had questions, but learned pretty quick that there are some questions you’re not supposed to ask.  Logically, I should be able to ask a simple question, but it’s not as simple as that.  So you learn to keep your questions to yourself.

(Typical exchange – Me: “How do we know we can trust the Bible? Is it reliable?”  Answer: “Yes, because the Bible says so.”  Not exactly helpful.)

Perhaps without meaning to, pastors have often made the situation worse.  We have our own questions and doubts, which we keep buried deep in our hearts, and whenever we hear or read some skeptic raise the same questions we have, we become even more defensive, and think the answer is to “just believe” more.  As if we could just put enough coats of paint on a broken fence to cover up the break.

We watch some “expert” on the Discovery Channel or History Channel make unproven, unchallenged claims about the Bible, or the life of Jesus, or some other matter of faith, and because we haven’t heard the preacher talk about it, we think there is no answer, that the skeptics have “beaten” faith, or that Christianity must somehow go begging in the marketplace of ideas.

But our God is not the Author of confusion.  He is the Giver of Truth.  ALL truth.  There are answers to these questions, even the tough ones.  (By the way – “Where did Cain get his wife?” is NOT one of the tough questions.  Trust me.)  God is bigger than our questions.  And there is not one question you can come up with that will stump Him.

Rather than commanding us to reject reason, over and over the scripture makes it clear that God has established order and logical thinking, and that these bear witness to Him.  The fact is, Jesus INVITES us to love God with our MINDS – look at Matthew 22:37.  After the resurrection, He appeared to His followers and gave them “many convincing proofs” that He was alive – Acts 1:3.  Peter instructs believers to “always be prepared to give the reason for the hope” that we have – 1 Peter 3:15.

As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5, our purpose is to “demolish arguments” and to “take captive every thought” in order to bring it in submission to Christ.  That DOESN’T mean faith is opposed to logic or reason.  It means that our logic and reason have to be “transformed by the renewing of our MINDS” (Romans 12:2), and in this way, we worship God with our intellect, as surely as we worship Him with our emotion and passion.

Beginning this Sunday, our Investigators class at Beltway will tackle some of these questions.  We’re calling the class, “Spiritual Mythbusters,” after the popular TV show.  You know, on that show, the hosts will state a belief, run experiments, interview experts, gather data, and then pronounce the statement either, “Confirmed,” “Plausible,” or “Busted.”  We hope to follow a similar methodology to examine questions about the existence of God, searching for the authentic Jesus, creation vs. evolution, the historical nature of the resurrection, and more.

I think it’s going to be a fun class, and a useful one, and I hope you can join us.  We are meeting at 9:45 AM in Room A-109.

So until then, my logical friends, Live Long and Prosper.