Sunday, January 22, 2023

More Where That Comes From

Being transformed into the image of the Son of God does not depend on me.

Thank the Lord for that.

There are things about Christian service that can be learned. Skill sets can be developed. Techniques can be applied. Practice sometimes makes perfect. I could, for instance, wholly apart from the Spirit of God, acquire a greater understanding of Hebrew and Greek through diligent study and as a consequence become a more accurate Bible teacher.

Whether much of eternal value would come from that apart from the Spirit of God is a separate question, but it can certainly be done.

People skills can be learned too. We can be taught to listen more, speak less and say more useful things at more appropriate times. Even a certain amount of self-awareness can be trained in to those that don’t naturally possess it with enough time and effort.

What You Can’t Teach

But you can’t teach genuine affection. At least I don’t think you can. That’s got to come from somewhere else entirely:

“God is my witness, how I yearn for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.”

As an aside, this verse is one of the best reasons not to use the King James today: explaining its linguistic quirks is just too labour-intensive. “I long for you in the bowels of Christ Jesus” simply doesn’t communicate the same thing to most people. Sure, it’s literal, but maybe just a bit too literal. Most modern translators make do with the idea of “affection”, though perhaps “deep affection” would be better. The Greek conveys the idea of a love that comes from deep down inside as opposed to a mere surface affinity or passing fancy.

The Origin of Affection

So here Paul is speaking of loving the Philippian believers in a deep, personal way that originates in Jesus Christ. It is not an affectation. It is not merely natural. His feelings for the Philippians have been divinely transformed. God’s love has been poured into his heart through the Holy Spirit, and it has changed not only what he does but how he feels.

What a relief!

I am grateful to know that my affection for you is not something I have to fake or work up within myself. After all, if our relationship in Christ depended entirely on the intensity of my standard, built-in set of human affections, I might not like you at all. I guarantee many of you would not like me. But unless we go out of our way to stifle the natural work of the Holy Spirit within our hearts, over time we are bound to see with the eye of faith the things that bind us together, and to feel our sense of oneness in Christ because of it. Affection springs out of that in a very uncontrived way, because each genuine believer pulses with common life, the life of Christ himself, and each increasingly values the same character qualities in others.

Looking and Loving

What does the Lord Jesus’ affection look like?

In Mark we read that a man knelt before Jesus and inquired how he might inherit eternal life. “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” This surely was affection on display, don’t you think? If Mark had meant simply that Jesus loved this man in the same way that “God so loved the world”, there would have been no need to note it for us. That sort of love was evident in everything the Lord Jesus did, up to and including his death on the cross.

I think Mark is saying that the Lord Jesus felt something special here.

Perhaps it was the man’s spiritual instincts that drew out the Lord’s feelings. Mark says he “ran up” to the Lord Jesus and “knelt before him”. He was urgent about finding out truth, and recognized it when it stood before him. We don’t read about the Pharisees running up to the Lord and dropping to their knees. The man’s heart was in the right place, and he discerned what was appropriate in approaching the Lord.

Perhaps it was his devotion to the law: “All these I have kept from my youth,” he says. Now we know works in themselves can buy us no credit with God, but works that spring out of a love for God are pleasing to him. The Lord knew the man’s heart, and knew he was not keeping the law as fire insurance or merely to impress others.

Or perhaps it was his sense that mere obedience to the law — even a lifetime of it — is insufficient. He says, “What must I do?” The question surely implies an awareness that all his efforts at law-keeping were failing to impart to him any lasting sense of security. He knew there had to be more.

Loving the Imperfect Object

One thing we can say for sure is that the Lord didn’t feel affection for him because he was perfect. The story ends sadly: the man went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Selling all he had and giving it to the poor seemed like one step too far, in that moment at least. But the fact that this man fell short spiritually in that area did not diminish the Lord’s affection for him.

Likewise, my affection for you comes about through what we have (and what we ought to have) in common and is not diminished simply because I happen to note a few flaws in your current spiritual state.

Do I see in you a love of the truth, a devotion to obedient service, a strong sense of humility in the presence of Christ, an urgency about doing business with God or even an awareness of how short you fall? No matter how different we may be in temperament, culture, maturity or experience, these things will inevitably bind us together.

I’m not there yet, of course. But if my affection is the “affection of Christ Jesus” that Paul talks about, then it originates in a Source that is eternal and overflowing.

There’s plenty more where that comes from.

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