Tuesday, August 30, 2011

New Testament Lesson #35 "Be Ye Reconciled to God"

2 Corinthians

EPISTLES OF PAUL

Although our King James Bible was published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you will note on the backside of the title page (in the original 1989 printing), that it was actually printed under direction of Cambridge University Press in England, which holds the rights to the King James Translation.  When the church finished this edition with its cross-references to other LDS scriptures, and with its chapter headings written by the LDS scripture committee (principally Bruce R. McConkie), Cambridge suggested they include a Bible dictionary.  The LDS Church did not have a one prepared, so Cambridge offered theirs, and gave the committee permission to edit it to align it with our doctrine.  So we have the generosity and research of the fine Bible scholars at Cambridge University to thank for our dictionary, which is only included in the English language version of our scriptures.  (Versions translated into other languages have a merged dictionary and topical guide called "The Guide to the Scriptures," which is also available in English, but only online.  Here is a link.)  (Gary Poll, BYU Education Week Lecture, August 2011)

Cambridge University

There is an excellent and comprehensive section on the Pauline Epistles on pgs. 743-750 of the Bible Dictionary.  An outline of each epistle is included, key doctrinal points, and some historical background.  The Cambridge scholars divided the epistles into four groups and gave us a chronological order:
  1. Thessalonians, written A.D. 50-51 during Paul's first visit to Europe.
  2. Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, written A.D. 55, 57 from various locations of his ministry.
  3. Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, Philemon, Hebrews, written A.D. 60, 62 while Paul was in captivity in Rome.
  4. Titus, Timothy, written A.D. 64, 65, known as the Pastoral Epistles, dealing with management of the church.  Titus and 1 Timothy were written while Paul was enjoying freedom and visiting friends.  When 2 Timothy was written, Paul was once again in prison and facing his impending death.
We are now studying the second set of epistles and the same problem keeps coming up in all of them, a problem which was never satisfactorily resolved and which eventually led to the fracture of the church and its fall into apostacy.  (Gaye Strathern, BYU Education Week Lecture, August 2011)

Knowing that the New Testament was written, not just for the primitive church, but also for the latter-day church (see a previous post for more on this), we must study this problem and ask ourselves whether we are facing the same, and what we can do about it.

GOVERNING OURSELVES; COMFORTING OTHERS

Joseph Smith said, when asked how he managed the church, "I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves" (quoted by John Taylor in The Millennial Star, 13:339).  This, of course, is the ideal relationship between members of the church and their leaders.  The difficulty arises when church members prefer to govern others, which we generally do.

You may recall how many times this problem came up among the most intimate of Jesus's disciples.  Martha complained that Mary was listening at the Savior's knee while Martha did all the cooking and serving.  The Lord responded, not by saying one sister had chosen better than the other, but by reprimanding Martha for "being careful and troubled over many things," the main item of which, taken in context, was the "good" thing that her sister had chosen to do at the moment.  (See "Mary vs. Martha" in a previous post.)  Peter questioned why John would be allowed to live until Christ came.  His own request was to join the Lord in heaven quickly at the end of his life.  Jesus didn't say one request was better than the other, but answered, "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?  Follow thou me [in the path I have laid out for thee]" (John 21:22).

It is a mistake that mortals perpetually make:  comparing and competing with each other, when we should be encouraging and empowering each other.

This problem is evident in the second set of epistles as Paul worked to reconcile the Judaizers and the Gentiles.  (See a previous post for more on this.)  The Jerusalem Council (a special meeting of the church leaders) 15 years earlier proclaimed "the Jewish members free to continue the practice of the law of Moses if they cared to do so.  The council did not say that the Gentiles could not or must not practice the Law of Moses, but only that they need not do so for salvation." (Robert J. Matthews, "The Jerusalem Council," The Apostle Paul: His Life and Testimony, p. 107).  It was up to the individual to decided what was best for himself.  He wrote to the Jews, encouraging them to accept the Gentiles living outside the Law of Moses.  He wrote to the Gentiles, encouraging them to allow the Jews to live the Law as they were used to.

To the strong Gentile members in Rome, he advised, "Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. [In other words, welcome new members and returning members to your congregation, but don't argue with them about personal opinions.]  "For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. [In keeping with the vision Peter had received, declaring no animals unclean, one person would eat anything, while in order to not risk any possibility of breaking the Law of Moses, another person would be a vegetarian.]  Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him" (Rom. 14:1-3).  Who hath God received?  Both of them.  The issue is now one of culture, and it does not matter to God.

"Paul outlines his position regarding the tension between those who scrupulously observe religiously grounded regulations governing dietary matters and special days (the weak) and those who insist on their freedom in Christ to ignore those regulations (the strong).  Weak in faith or conviction is clearly not the self-designation of a group but an epithet used by its opponents, the strong, to whom this exhortation is addressed" (Harper-Collins Study Bible). 

With strong words he condemned such comparing, counseling, and criticizing:  "Who art thou that judgest another man's [i.e., God's] servant?  to his own master he standeth or falleth. [Each man is accountable before his God for himself.]  Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand" (Rom. 14:4).  Christ's atonement is what saves us individually, as we individually keep our covenants with him, live by the Spirit, and help each other along the way with charity.

Second Corinthians, written to a different group but dealing with the same issue, opens with Paul's salutation, followed by his vision of how the saints ought to be knit together in love.  "Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort; who comforteth us in all our tribulation, that we may be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God" (2 Cor. 1:3-4).

What we need in order to live in unity without so much concern regarding detailed rules is a deep trust in the Lord and a confident ability to comprehend the spirit of the law.  "Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God; who also hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit; for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" (2 Cor. 3:5-6).  Simply following regulations without thought as to their purpose is not acceptable, particularly now that Christ has fulfilled the law, making it merely a tradition to keep it.  "In these doubtful things [or differences of opinions] every one not only may, but must, walk according to the light that God hath given him" (Matthew Henry's Commentary on the New Testament, p. 204).

JUDGERS AND DESPISERS IN THE LATTER-DAY CHURCH

(The following comparison comes from a BYU Education Week lecture given by Michael Wilcox, August 2011.)

Okay, so we don't really have much of a problem with people arguing about whether to live the Law of Moses in the church today, so is this really relevant to us? 

It most certainly is.  We have our absolute commandments, the principles of the gospel, that we must keep.  We have essential covenants that we must qualify to make.  Every member of the church should be doing his best to keep the ten commandments, exercise faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, keep or work towards making temple covenants, and renewing all covenants at the sacrament table regularly.  These are some of the essentials.  Some commandments can only be obeyed one way:  tithing, for example.  It's always 10%.  Alcohol consumption, for another example, should always be zero.

But many of the ideas about how a Latter-day Saint ought to live are matters of culture, upbringing, or personal opinion.  In these matters, the decisions about what to do in day-to-day life are up to, not the preference of the individual or the dictates of the culture but the guidance of the Spirit. 
  • One person may feel that it is okay to drink a cola drink, and another may abhor the idea. 
  • One person may eat a diet heavy in meat, while another feels that he should severely restrict meat. 
  • Each individual must seek the advice of the Spirit as to how to keep the Sabbath day holy.  A grocery store owner may feel it is in keeping with the Sabbath to close his store on Sunday, and the Brethren certainly encourage that.  But a doctor may feel that if he were not available to his patients on the Sabbath, he would not be serving his neighbor. 
  • One person may feel that knee-length shorts are fine to wear with temple garments; another may think the knee should never be uncovered. 
  • One family may have a child every year, another may have only one or two, and another may not be able to have any at all. 
You get the idea.  It is easy to become a judger or a despiser.

But every observance not specifically noted in the temple recommend interview is up to the individual to decide for himself, based upon the guidance of the Spirit.  That guidance may change and increase as he progresses along the path to perfection in Christ.  If our church leaders advise one way, even in such a small matter as to whether to wear hose to church or a white shirt to bless the sacrament, we would be very wise to prayerfully follow their counsel.  But as to how to judge one another, it's easy: if you don't have stewardship over that person, you don't judge--you love.

Tattoos:  Get Used to Them

Matters of dress and appearance often divide us because they are so obvious.  While the Brethren wisely advise against such permanent ornaments as tattoos, and we would certainly want to counsel our youth accordingly, about 40% of young adults in America today have tattoos and the number is rising.  Rather than being a statement about a particular wild lifestyle, tattoos have become a common fashion trend.  Of course, God wants all those young people to join the church or return to the church.  Whether they do, do not, or cannot remove their tattoos, our goal must be to have the temples filled with these young people.  If we make a judgment as to a person's lifestyle or worthiness based on something that is only skin-deep, rather than getting to know the heart underneath, we become what Paul refered to as "judgers" and we give that person reason to become a "despiser."  We lock each other up in the prison walls of bigotry, where no spiritual progress can be made.

But if we follow the Spirit's counsel in the conduct of our own lives, while allowing others the same according to their own spiritual progression, we are free to love all.  For "where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.  [This is the liberty to progress towards perfection and become like God.]  But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass [or mirror] the glory of the Lord [we realize that everyone bears the reflection of the Divine nature], are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord" (2 Cor. 3:17-18).  We must see in everyone, no matter their outward appearance or demeanor, the child of God within.

AMBASSADORS FOR CHRIST

The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible makes it a little easier to understand the next few verses.  (You may want your class to read along in the KJV while you read the NRSV.)

"Therefore, since it is by God's mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.  We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God's word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God. 

"And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.  In their case the god of this world [Satan] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.  For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor. 4:1-5). 

Then, these beautiful words about what it means to be a missionary or a member missionary from the King James Version: "For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ."  If we are "judgers" or "despisers" we may miss seeing this light, because "we have this treasure in earthen vessels [unpolished human beings], that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us" (2 Cor. 4:6-7).

Because of the fallen state we are in, as "earthen vessels," and the "darkness" that surrounds our "light," "we are troubled [afflicted] on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; always bearing about in the body [that earthen vessel] the dying of the Lord Jesus [the power of his Atonement], that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body [that others may see Jesus Christ through our actions] (2 Cor. 4:8-10).

"He died for all, that they which live should not henceforth live unto themselves, but unto him which died for them, and rose again...Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us; we pray in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God." (2 Cor. 5:15, 20).

So, as Christ died for us, we must live for him.  And what exactly is involved?  Paul gives us an enormous list by which to measure ourselves, and none of it has to do with outward observances.
  1. "Giving no offence in any thing, that the ministry be not blamed..."  First off, we must be accutely aware that although we must not judge others, our own conduct may give offence to someone else and cause them to harbor resentment against the church.
  2. "But in all things approving ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities [hardships], in distresses [calamities], in stripes [beatings], in imprisonments, in tumults [riots], in labours, in watchings [sleepless nights], in fastings [hunger]..."  Nothing that happens to us should free us from the obligation to be a light to others, an example of the believers.
  3. "By pureness, by knowledge, by longsuffering, by kindness, by the Holy Ghost, by love unfeigned..."  Wait!  Where have we read this before?  In D&C 121:41-42.  It is the doctrine of the Priesthood (yes, it applies to women, too--we are all part of the Priesthood, men actively, women passively), "which greatly enlarges our souls without hypocrisy and without guile" and which will show others that our "faithfulness [to them] is stronger than the bonds of death" (v. 44). 
  4. "By the word of truth, by the power of God, by the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left..."  The armour of God is described in Eph. 6:13-17 and includes working only with truth ("loins girt about" refers to tying up one's long robes in order to get to work), protecting one's life from the attacks of temptations by godly living (breastplate of righteousness), an expectation to share the gospel (feet shod with the gospel of peace), an active defense of faith which can meet any angle of attack (shield of faith), an eternal vision (helmet of salvation), and the weapon of the word of God, even his daily and hourly personal direction to you as well as the revelations given to the church through the prophets (sword of the Spirit).
  5. "By honour and dishonour, by evil report and good report, as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known..."  It doesn't matter what the world thinks of the believers, whether it admires them one day or despises them another day.
  6. "As dying, and behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed..."  We may come close, but if our mission is not complete, we will not be taken.
  7. "As sorrowful, yet alway[s] rejoicing..."  We may be surrounded by troubles and sadnesses, or the sorrow of sin, but through repentance and hope in Christ, we can and will be filled with joy.
  8. "As poor, yet making many rich..."  Of course, the gospel is the greatest treasure there can be.
  9. "As having nothing [in the way of material blessings], and yet possessing all things [the things of eternal significance].  (2 Cor. 6:3-10)
THE IMPORTANCE OF THORNS

Being "earthen vessels" with "light shining in our hearts" makes for an interesting paradox:  We see perfection and glory and eternity, but we must live in imperfection and trouble and mortality.  This paradox is the subject of Chapter 12.

Paul wrote of the amazing vision he had in which he was "caught up to the third heaven."  (Scholars agree that he was writing about himself.)  One would think that such a person who beheld such a vision would be glorious himself.  Paul said, "For [if] I would desire to glory, I shall not be a fool; for I will say the truth: but now I forbear, lest any man should think of me above that which he seeth me to be, or that he heareth of me" (2 Cor. 12:6).  It is true that a recount of his vision would be glorious, but if he told it, he would be viewed as being much holier than anyone else (a good reason to keep any glorious spiritual experiences to ourselves, except at the prompting of the Spirit). 

"And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure" (2 Cor. 12:7).  Even the greatest of apostles is not meant to live on earth wrinkle-free.



The gorgeous Barbara Bush Rose in my backyard
is incredibly thorny.


"The exact nature of the thorn is unknown; suggestions include physical or mental illness, spiritual trials, persecution, and opposition by adversaries" (Harper-Collins Study Bible). 

"Much has been written about Paul's 'thorn in the flesh.'  Numerous hypotheses have been advanced by way of identifying the 'thorn,' including stuttering, epilepsy, a shrewish wife, an eye affliction, malaria, some mortal antagonist, or some spiritual weakness" (D. Kelly Ogden & Andrew C. Skinner, New Testament Apostles Testify of Christ, p. 157).

Isn't it interesting that everyone is fascinated by Paul's "thorn"?  Maybe we all want to know if it is one of the same ones we have.  Or maybe it's even worse!  But this curiousity only proves Paul's point:  It is Paul's imperfection that makes us feel that we might be like him, whereas his glorious visions seem completely above us.  Such a great spiritual hero as Paul had a problem which his great faith was not sufficient to solve because it was God's will that he have the problem.  Whatever it was, seemed to "get in the way" of Paul's service and logically ought to have been removed.  But herein is an even greater and yet more down-to-earth lesson in faith than that of great visions: the acceptance of God's will.

"For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.  [Clearly, it was very troublesome.]  And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.  Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong" (2 Cor. 12:8-10).

Sometimes the Lord wants us to use our faith to move mountains, sometimes to climb them, and sometimes to go around them the long way.  It is his choice, not ours.

Another great spiritual leader whose "thorns" really seemed to cause major problems in his ministry was President Spencer W. Kimball.  Wouldn't it have been logical for the Lord to want his future prophet to be able to speak?  Yet he was afflicted with recurring throat cancer.  Those who are old enough remember his gravelly whisper amplified through a miniature personal microphone attached to his eyeglasses, a necessity after having his voicebox removed. 

President Kimball's miniature microphone
can be seen next to his mouth in this photo


Wouldn't it have been logical for the Lord to want his future prophet to be hale and hearty and able to travel the world without any physical impairments?  But Elder Kimball had a heart attack in his early 50s and as his heart continued to fail, his work slowed.  At the age of 77, with a very weak heart, he underwent life-threatening surgery at the hands of now-Elder Russell M. Nelson.  (For the story, click here.)

But the Lord's ways are not our ways, as Elder Kimball discovered long before he became the President of the Church.  "Being human, we would expel from our lives physical pain and mental anguish and assure ourselves of continual ease and comfort, but if we were to close the doors upon sorrow and distress, we might be excluding our greatest friends and benefactors.  Suffering can make saints of people as they learn patience, long-suffering, and self-mastery" (Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle, p. 98).

A PARTING REMINDER

Paul's 2nd letter to the Corinthians was very important to him.  Paul advised the Corinthians to "examine yourselves, whether you be in the faith" (2 Cor. 13:5). As he closed the letter, he stated, "I write these things being absent, lest being present I should use sharpness, according to the power which the Lord hath given me to edification, and not to destruction" (2 Cor. 13:10).  Say what?  He meant that it was better that he send a letter than that he be there in person using his great gift of preaching, because he might speak so harshly that it would not edify them as the Lord would have intended, but discourage them. 

And in order that he might encourage and not destroy, Paul left his readers (both the early Saints and us) with words of encouragement, as he did at the end of every epistle, building us up to hope that we could do what was asked of us.  (We also must always employ this technique when reproving someone over whom we have stewardship.)

"Finally, brethren, farewell. 
  • "Be perfect..." This word in scripture refers to being complete, rather than to being flawless.  Harper-Collins suggests that "put things in order," a related Greek phrase, might be the meaning expressed here.
  • "Be of good comfort..." NRS Version translates this "listen to my appeal."  Either way, allowing God and his word to govern our lives brings us comfort.
  • "Be of one mind, live in peace..."  It is so very important that the saints be united in love!
"...and the God of love and peace shall be with you."

5 comments:

Susan said...

Nancy, please send me a copy of your chart in Word, if possible. Thanks. susanralston@yahoo.com

Anonymous said...

NJ -- your insights are extremely helpful. Please keep up the Good Work. MCR

Anonymous said...

BTW -- I think you mean 2 Cor 3:17-18 and not 1 Cor 3:17-18 at the end of 'Judgers/Despisers' section. MCR

Amber Mitchell said...

Hi Nancy, it looks like many of your references in this lesson should be 2 Corinthians, not 1 Corinthians as noted.

I enjoy your blog every week and thank you for it!!

Nancy W. Jensen said...

Oh, goodness, Amber! Thank you for pointing that out. There were only like 15 errors! Not sure how I made that mistake that many times. I appreciate the editing help. Hopefully I have fixed them all.