How Well the Apostles Know Us!
Have you read a book where the author clearly “gets” what it’s like to be human?
Think of a novel filled with the delicate dance of dialogue, conversations that sound exactly like the strained exchanges that you’ve had with other people.
Or a story’s characters who participate in exciting events—or experience mundane moments—in ways that ring so true to real life.
Or how an author reveals a character’s innermost and sometimes disturbing thoughts, ruminations that are at once relatable and resonant.
Reading a book where the author shows deep insight into the human condition is a pleasure. But such reading can also prick our conscience: “That’s exactly the proud way that I would justify myself… That’s just how I would brush off an irritating person...” It can be uncomfortable. But it means that we just might read with a readiness to be changed.
The writers of the New Testament have such insight into our character. They write with an incisiveness that cuts to the readers’ hearts. It is our conviction that the power and wisdom of the apostolic words are a product of the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. And yet it’s surely also a result of the apostles’ close attentiveness to the behaviour of human beings like you and me.
Let me share a handful of texts that I take to be revealing of this apostolic intuition.
We know the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians as the great “love chapter.” It is replete with challenging directives for people who struggle to love. But verse 5 (NIV) stands out as particularly apt:
Love keeps no record of wrongs.
Because that is exactly what we tend to do. We remember the specific ways that our spouse has failed us over the years. We keep a running record of how our church leadership disappoints us. We recall exactly how our schoolmate hurt us back in 2008. Not only do we remember it, but we replay it in our mind and let it twist our treatment of the offender. Can you relate to the assiduous record-keeping of the sinner? I know that I can. But it should not be this way: “Love keeps no record of wrongs.”
In 1 Peter 4, the apostle outlines the Christian’s new way of life. A practical way to show Christian love is opening your home to other people. We know this, but Peter’s words show a good understanding of our typical response: “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (v. 9).
Those last two words are a penetrating addition. How well Peter knows us! We’ll show hospitality, but we won’t like it. We grumble, because other people are awkward. The house will have to be cleaned. And what are we going to eat? In Scripture, hospitality is more than having your friends over for drinks, but it is hosting the new visitors to the congregation, or your nonbelieving neighbour, or the prickly brother in the next pew. Can you really show hospitality without grumbling?
When our kids were younger, we sometimes quoted Philippians 2:14, “Do everything without complaining or disputing” (NKJV). We trotted out that text when chores needed doing and the chorus of complaints had begun.
But this text is relevant to more than cleaning the toilet or emptying the dishwasher. It is a most perceptive instruction because our response to many tasks (in the home, at work, or in the church) is exactly this: to complain or dispute. “Why is it always me that has to help out? Can’t these people ever take care of themselves?” But God would have us be children of peace and do everything without complaining.
An insightful word for us who are preachers is 2 Timothy 2:24, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” That’s a whole constellation of challenging words, but particularly the last phrase pricks my conscience. When you’re in a public position like being a pastor, resentment is real. Some people will always voice critical comments. Some never express gratitude. It’s natural then, to become indignant: “This is the thanks I get?” But resentment is not the path for the Lord’s servant. Instead, “Be kind to everyone.”
Or what about Romans 12:9? There Paul exhorts,
Let love be without hypocrisy.
How well Paul knows us! He knows that it’s too easy to be two-faced. We can act perfectly loving to someone and speak politely in the church lobby. Meanwhile, we quietly dislike them, gossip about their failings, and would do little to help if they were in need. How hard it can be to love sincerely!
In the same chapter, Paul shares wisdom about interpersonal conflict. Our relationships can become so complicated that we have no idea how to make things better. Healthy interactions with some people are very hard. She always resurrects your past wrongs. He quickly adopts a harsh tone of voice. And the fact is, they’ve done deeply hurtful things against you.
So how fitting is Romans 12:18, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with everyone.” Paul knows you can’t control another person’s actions or words. Neither can you change what happened in the past. But there is something that does “depend on you,” and that is your choice in this moment to show Christ-like love, to reach out to the estranged, to be gracious in conflict. We wish he didn’t lay that responsibility at our door, but there it is: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live peaceably with everyone.”
There are many examples where the authors of Scripture show how profoundly they understand the human condition. We could reflect especially on the teachings of Jesus, about whom it was said, “He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person” (John 2:25).
What is in each person? We have deceitful hearts. We cling to excuses. We avoid responsibility. We forget the good and remember the bad. Jesus lays bare our weaknesses, yet He is changing us from the inside out.
And in grace He speaks into our lives, his Word, says Hebrews, which is “sharper than any double-edged sword,” one that “penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
Let this Word penetrate you today. Let it judge all of your thoughts and attitudes, and then let it give you real hope in Christ.