A special trait with which humans are created is the ability to ask thoughtful questions about how we should live. The questions focus on what are right and wrong actions. We ask questions like these: How should we treat our neighbor, spouse, or children? Should a person accept or decline a bribe? What responsibility do we have to those who are less fortunate?
What are the influences which contribute to how we come to a conclusion? To simply say, "Let your conscience be your guide" is a poor response, since an individual's conscience can be deadened or seared. This results in truth being twisted or completely disregarded.
There are a variety of factors which contribute to an individual's moral principles, including tradition, family loyalty, self-satisfaction, and peer pressure, to name just a few. Without having a solid moral philosophy or ethical foundation, a person cannot chart a standard course for living. She or he will consistently oscillate due to the lack of a precise system or set of principles by which to live.
One of the benefits of being a Christian is our not having to wander in the mist of possibilities. Our ethics are to be based on the truths and principles found in the Bible, which contains specific directives and commands concerning certain life situations and human relationships. The Bible contains principles and guidelines enabling us to make tough decisions, especially in the example of Jesus and His teachings.
The challenge for Christians is whether or not we will take the time to know God's Word so our personal convictions can be shaped in such a manner to be acceptable to our heavenly Father. He doesn't accept ignorance of His Word as an excuse for sinful actions. We must continually check our witness to the world. How can we talk about the transforming power of salvation if we live no differently than unbelievers?
Today's lesson provides a review of various sources which should be a part of developing our ethics.
I. THE HOLY SCRIPTURES (Ps. 19:7-14; Mic. 6:8; Rom. 7:7, 12; 2 Tim. 3:16-17)
A. The Source of Guidance (Ps. 19:7-14; Mic. 6:8; Rom. 7:7, 12)
(Psalms 19:12-14 is not included in the printed text.)
Psalm 19:7. The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.
8. The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes.
9. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
10. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
11. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward.
Micah 6:8. He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?
Romans 7:7. What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.
12. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy and just and good.
How do you perceive the Bible, both the Old and New Testament? It appears there is a wide variance among believers. Some treat the Bible as a book of wise suggestions that will make their life better. Others treat it as a crisis intervention manual when in trouble and needing answers. Neither of these approaches provide a basis for developing Christian ethics that will guide day-by-day, regardless of the situation.
This first part of our lesson uses three portions of Scripture to emphasize how we are to see and use the Bible. It is a source of guidance enabling us to not only know right and wrong but to develop a godly conscience.
The first portion of Psalm 19 declares God as the Creator of all. His glorious creation continues to speak of Him. Then, in verse 7, we see an abrupt change. The writer moves from God's creation to His law. In a variety of descriptives it can be seen why a person should live obediently to the Scriptures.
In verse 7 God's law nurtures life. "Converting the soul" means it enables a person to overcome the sins which hinder and even destroy spiritually and physically. It brings understanding of what to believe and how to live to those who are "simple" - whose maturity level is childlike.
In verse 8 the law of the Lord is shown to bring joy. It enlightens one's understanding, thus enabling a person to see clearly the path of God's desires. In verse 9 we see the longevity of God's laws. Those who reverence these words know they are not for a short duration and a constant state of change. As a result, they are to be valued above the most precious metal and seen as sweeter to life than honey to the taste buds (v. 10).
It's no wonder there is "great reward" (v. 11) in obediently following all that God's Word declares. The Scriptures discern our "secret faults" (v. 12) and protect us from "willful sins" (v. 13 NIV). When we see the Lord as the source of salvation and the foundation of life, we will strive to make our words and thoughts harmonize with the law of God (v. 14).
The verse from the prophet Micah (6:8) provides a powerful statement of God's desire for obedience to His law. What we are to do is clearly evident. There are no hidden rules that are suddenly sprung on us. When we are in covenant with God, our lives are to be examples of justice, mercy, and humility. These are the heart attitudes which are to be cultivated and made evident in our lives. Numerous sacrifices and donations are meaningless without these internal values.
Romans 7:7, 12 reminds us of the value of God's Law as presented in the Old Testament. It isn't to be seen as a harsh legalism which beats people down and places a heavy burden on daily living. Rather, the Law clarifies what God sees as sin and that we are to avoid. It provides guidance for living. The Law enables us to overcome evil desires, which result in death.
B. Means of Existence (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
16. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.
17. That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.
The source of the Scripture is the reason for its authority. God, through the empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit, enabled the prophets, apostles, and others to convey His thoughts through the written Word. Though writing during different centuries, though individuals of varied backgrounds, though men of diverse education, they all were enabled to use the right words to convey God's intent. They were not secretaries simply taking divine dictation. Instead, these individuals became vessels used by the Holy Spirit to convey God's truth (see 2 Peter 1:21).
The miracle of the Scriptures is how many writers over a period of some one thousand years produced these sixty-six books in complete harmony of content. Furthermore, the Lord providentially preserved the truth of the Word though transmitted by copyists and translated into scores of languages. If the Word of God were not kept true to its inspired origin, there would be no infallible Scriptures for the multitude of generations who followed the initial writers.
Paul's letter to Timothy not only speaks of the means of existence but also the usage of the Scriptures. God's Word is to be a working document in the lives of believers, providing a foundation of doctrinal truth. It is the source for correcting errors in thought and rebuking sinful actions. It also provides the manual for training believers in righteous living.
Through the Scriptures believers can be the people of God declaring the good news of the Kingdom. The golden text for this lesson, Psalms 119:105, provides a fitting conclusion for this section. The Word of God is "a lamp . . . and a light" for daily living that will take us to our long-term destination.
II. TRADITIONS AND PRACTICES OF THE CHURCH (Acts 15:19-21, 28-31; 2 Thess. 2:15-17)
A. The Development (Acts 15:19-21, 28-31)
(Acts 15:28-31 is not included in the printed text.)
19. Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God:
20. But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood.
21. For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath day.
In our emphasis on the excitement of the fulfillment of the promised Comforter on the Day of Pentecost and the early church's immediate expansion, it is easy to overlook some of its pains of development. Cultural distinctives and past practices do not simply disappear in the euphoria of a new spiritual experience. Jewish practices under the Law were still deeply ingrained as part of religious practice. When Christianity expanded outside of the Jewish community, some serious questions arose. At the forefront is whether Gentile believers would be required to follow Jewish Mosaic law.
Acts 15 is a record of the Jerusalem Council in AD 49. It occurs after Paul and Barnabas return from their first missionary journey and tell of the continued expansion of the Church among Gentiles. Certain brethren traveled to Antioch from Judea and began teaching circumcision as the door to salvation (v. 1). From Paul's correspondence to the Galatians (ch. 2) we see how even Peter oscillated on the issue. However, when the apostles and elders of the church meet, it is Peter who makes a major statement in the discussion.
Peter's argument is both experiential and theological (Acts 15:7-11). He reminds the council of God's directing him to minister to Gentiles and their receiving the Holy Spirit just as they had. This refers to his being sent to the household of Cornelius, the Roman centurion (Acts 15:10). They were well aware of this due to Peter's having explained what took place (Acts 11:1-18). Then Peter points to the theological aspects of salvation. It is by faith all are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus (Acts 15:11). So, if all are equal, why place an unnecessary burden on these Gentile believers (Acts 15:10)?
Paul and Barnabas follow with an accounting of the marvelous miracles which took place in their ministry among the Gentiles (Acts 15:12). There was the healing of a crippled man (Acts 14:8-18) and Paul's being stoned, left for dead but surviving (Acts 14:19-20).
At this point James, head of the Jerusalem church, speaks a summary conclusion (Acts 15:13-18). He suggests that a letter be written from the council to the Gentile churches (Acts 15:19-20), and this is agreed to as a result of the Spirit's leading and the body's concurring (Acts 15:28). Circumcision is not to be a requirement for the Gentile believers. However, they are asked to refrain from certain actions. The newfound salvation in Christ does not allow them to continue in the lax moral practices found in many Gentile communities. They also are asked not to eat meat offered to idols or meat which did not have the blood properly drained. These latter restrictions will allow Jew and Gentile fellowship in a meal.
The important emphasis of this portion of the lesson is the church's placing theology above experience. Theological truth always supersedes individual or corporate experiences.
B. The Value (2 Thess. 2:15-17)
15. Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle.
16. Now our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God, even our Father, which hath loved us, and hath given us everlasting consolation and good hope through grace,
17. Comfort your hearts, and stablish you in every good word and work.
The word tradition raises a wide variety of concepts. Some automatically reject anything that is placed under that heading. They may see it as outdated, old-fashioned, legalistic, or "other-owned." Others see tradition in a positive light in terms of heritage, proven principles, a foundation for the present.
A key issue here is the definition of tradition. Most commonly we see it in terms of customs, stories, and beliefs which are handed down from one generation to the next. In the lesson text it refers to unwritten teachings and doctrines of Jesus passed on to succeeding generations until there is an inspired writing of them in books which become the New Testament. Initially, the distinct teachings of Jesus were passed to the believers by the apostles through preaching and teaching, but in time they were written down through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The traditions of the Christian church, regardless of denomination, which are rooted and interpreted through the life example and teachings of Jesus Christ, are just as valuable today as when He lived and ministered here on earth. They are not and will not become outdated. They apply to all peoples of every culture and century. Frequently people are so desirous of a new revelation that they fall into heresy by neglecting the millennia of proven doctrines through which the Church as a whole and individuals have weathered the Enemy's onslaughts. The traditional doctrines and practices as referred to here in 2 Thessalonians provide strength and encouragement, enabling us to live life in Christ to its fullest.
III. PERSONAL CONVICTIONS (Rom. 14:1-12; 1 Cor. 8:1, 9-13)
A. Our Differences (Rom. 14:1-5)
1. Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.
2. For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs.
3. 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.
4. Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.
5. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.
Apparently there were some believers in the Roman church holding to some practices from their past religious beliefs. It centered on what they would drink and eat as well as holding certain days of the week as special observances. The issue at hand then was how to treat those who were weaker in the faith due to holding practices that were not a part of Christian life as taught by Christ.
Paul indicates these individuals were to be accepted as brothers and sisters. They were not to be subjected to critical review or harsh judgment. Neither were they to be considered as second-class Christians. They would be judged by Christ. In their weakness, Christ would enable them to continue in the faith.
Verse 5 declares, "Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind" (NIV). Whatever belief or practice one follows must be the result of having come to a firm conclusion on one's own free will rather than having been coerced to follow a pattern or blindly following someone's belief structure. There is room for some diversity as long as no law or principle of Scripture is disregarded or disobeyed. Here is where Christians must take great care so their individual liberty does not lead to sin.
B. Our Commitment (vv. 6-12)
(Romans 14:6-9 is not included in the printed text.)
10. But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
11. For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.
12. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.
Paul emphasized that while believers are all traveling to the same destination, there will be different attitudes among them about certain things. The one requirement he set before the church was that each man be fully convinced in his own mind (Romans 14:5). It is our responsibility to formulate our own convictions. It is also our responsibility to allow others to reach their own decision about certain things without regarding them as sinners and outcasts. We should not be governed by convention or superstition, but by conviction.
In our judging of others, we need to remember God will be judging us. This is the most important consideration. If our motives are consistent with the directives of Scripture, then we have nothing to fear. If our lifestyle and attitudes toward others align with the Word of God, we can live confidently before our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Here is a question when different opinions arise: Do I want others to change their lifestyle to honor God or to be like me?
Our commitment to Christ must be complete. He to whom God has given a name which is above every other name deserves the full measure of our devotion. Yielded to Him, we become capable of great usefulness and development. Without Him, the light we offer to the world will flicker and fail.
C. Our Responsibility (1 Cor. 8:1, 9-13)
1. Now as touching things offered unto idols, we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffeth up, but charity edifieth.
9. But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.
12. But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their conscience, ye sin against Christ.
This last section on personal convictions may appear restrictive to some. And it is. But here is where we once again need to see the total picture of Christian ethics. The setting for this passage is the practice of Gentiles offering meat to their gods and then taking the remainder to sell or to eat for themselves. Some believers thought eating this meat was the same as participating in pagan worship. Others saw it simply as food untainted by another's previous action.
It is to these latter individuals that a heavy responsibility is given. Rather than wound a fellow believer by participating in what they saw as a non-issue, Paul asks them to refrain. This is far more than a personal practice; it has distinct spiritual implications. To wound a fellow believer or cause him or her to sin is to sin against Christ himself. This places a whole new dimension on one's ethical standards!
Personal convictions are excellent guidelines when biblically based. However, we must not forget the breadth of principles which the Scriptures provide.
Simply accepting Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord does not automatically provide us with a system of ethics. We rely on the Holy Scriptures for the basis of all our belief and practices. The historical, orthodox practices and traditions of the Church further the basis. Then there is the dimensions of our personal convictions which bring us back again to our commitment to Christ and responsibility to other believers.
GOLDEN TEXT CHALLENGE
"THY WORD IS A LAMP UNTO MY FEET, AND A LIGHT UNTO MY PATH" (Ps. 119:105).
The lamp refers to a small bowl used to hold olive oil in which a wick of twisted thread was lit. It was small enough to be carried in the hand. It is hard for us to comprehend a life without electric lights. But for the ancient Israelite the descent of night meant a world of shadows, darkness, and fear. These little lamps provided much relief to the mystery of the night.
So it is with the Word of God. The darkness of spiritual night is penetrated by the Word of God. Like the ancient lamps, it too is easy to hold and carry. Just as the ancient lamps used oil for burning, so the Word of God is inspired by the Holy Spirit and illuminates our pathway of life.