Ga 5:19-26; Ro 5:3-5; Ac 17:10-12 (K. V.: Ac 17:11)
“Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”
Through Msn. Gideon’s message last week, we were reminded how essential it is to have self-denial and cross-taking in following Jesus. It is like being a spiritual soldier who abstains from petty enjoyment but fulfills his every training duty to be fully commissioned. In following Jesus, there will be an immediate and eternal impact, which is salvation and glory. In continuation to this topic, today, we would like to add another important aspect in discipleship: character formation. It is like following Jesus internally. May God mold us into Christ-like characters so as to be blessed and rewarded within and without.
I. Building a Christ-like Character (Ga 5:19-26)
In the Bible, the term, “character,” appears only seven times, four in the OT, three in the NT. Interestingly, all four references in the OT refer to “virtue (hayil)” of godly women (such as that of Ruth), while three references in the NT have all different Greek words, such as “eugenes (Ac 17:11, noble-minded),” “docume (Ro 5:4, approved, tried character),” and “ethos (1Co 15:33, moral habits and manners).” What is the definition of “character”? According to Dictionary.com, it is defined as “the features and traits that form the individual nature of some person or thing.” So, it is safe to say that one’s character truly distinguishes one from others. Surely even the twins do not have the same character. Now where does this character come from? There is a phrase, “like father, like son.” We give credit to our parents for the character we have received. Similarly, since we were created by God in His image, we give credit to God for spiritual and moral character. Nevertheless, due to sin, this character of ours has been obscured. Hence, we can categorically say we are born with God-resembling and yet weakened character inherited from God.
From the early age, God has had a strong desire for us to have a right character. When God talked to Abraham with the news of the future birth of his son, he shared his vision that he and his descendants would be a great and powerful nation. In explaining about such a nation, God said that the people in that nation would keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just (Ge 18:19). God was so much concerned about their character than their external blessings. This concept of having a right character echoes when God explained to his people about his vision for his people that they would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Ex 19:6). God wanted and still wants his people to have a holy character.
What can be an example of a right and holy character? The best example is found in Christ. The Christ-character is the ultimate goal of our life. As Paul exhorted to the Ephesian believers, we are to “become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). So building Christ-like character is a tireless journey and yet plays an important part in discipleship as we all want to follow Jesus in every possible way. When I was in college, my semiconductor professor was not shy about sharing his strong inner desire to be a great character like Einstein, eventually becoming a Nobel Prize winner. Once he proudly shared that he visited Princeton University and trotted the same alleys where Einstein trotted and pondered like Einstein pondered. He really wanted to be like Einstein. Although he did not get a Nobel Prize, at least he became the president of my alma mater with the similar hair-do of Einstein.
Our character is meant to be built up or nourished as it is obscured or weakened. Paul talks about what it is like to have a natural character in Ga 5:19-21a. There, we can see traits of an ungodly character, which is often called flesh. With this flesh, which does not seek holiness, we may be susceptible to sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery. With no desire to be close to the holy God, our fearful and empty character may seek idolatry and witchcraft. Then the relationship with others is broken with hatred, discord and jealousy. We become uncontrollable, being angry like a volcano with fits of rage. We become selfish, making friends with only those who are same-minded, thus causing dissensions and factions. After being envious of others, we may end up being murderers (in KJV, after envy, there is a trait called, murder). The problem with this type of character is that we cannot inherit the kingdom of God.
In the next two verses (Ga 5:22-23), Paul now enumerates nine Christ-like character traits. This is an ideal of the noblest character. Those traits can be categorized into three groups, where three items form one group. The first group includes love, joy, and peace. The Spirit actively works to generate all of these and yet we can point out that the source of the first group is our relationship with God. Surely, the love of God and the joy that He gives us lays the foundation for our inner peace.
The next group has forbearance, kindness and goodness. This group reflects our relationship with others. Forbearance is sometimes called patience or longsuffering. After forming forbearance through adversities, one learns how to be kind and good to others.
The final group has faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The group may be for the attitude toward the unbelieving world.
This is like a triad for the Christian character that stands by itself.
Look at verse 24. Paul proposes one of the ways that we can grow in our Christ-like character. It is a hard way though, because it is a Christ’s way. Just like Jesus Christ was crucified, we crucify our flesh with its passions and desires, so that those passions and sinful desires might die. In verses 25-26, we learn something more how to nourish our character, that is, to keep in step with the Spirit. It is like becoming the best running mate to the Spirit.
May God bless our character building efforts so that we may be like Christ more and more.
II. Character Formation and Discipleship (Ro 5:3-5; Ac 17:10-12)
In human history, philosophers had many theories about our character. Some suggested we were born with a good character and yet due to the hard world, it would be tainted. Others maintained that our character was originally evil but with a good educational system, it can be corrected (Xunzi). Still others pointed out it would never be changed. What is the biblical stance on our character, then? According to Paul, our character is tested and to be morphed into a purer and better one through sufferings. Look at verses Ro 5:3-4a. “Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character;” This is like a sword making in which a swordsmith forges a sharpened sword out of raw iron nugget. It would go through a blazing fire to remove impurities. It would forcibly add carbon (like charcoal) to have hardness. It also passes through thousands of beatings to be flexible and is finally sharpened by an abrasive rock.
Many righteous men and women went through a very similar process that made them like that sharpened sword. Job was a good example. He experienced unbearable sufferings that bore him bare losing everything he had: wealth, loved ones including his wife, reputation and even his own health. However, he confessed that when God tested him, he came forth as gold (Job 23:10). During the toughest times, he could possibly do the things that were otherwise not possible, such as deeply meditating on who God is and who he is.
As we go through the difficult times nowadays, we might be in fear and despair. Yet we know that God wants us to be molded into a better character. Let us think about the things that are otherwise not possible. We could prioritize our bond with our family members. We could appreciate the value of the house church ministries. We could pray harder for those who in the tougher situations than we are and support them remotely. In doing so, our character can be matured, being more resilient, more appreciative and more supportive. So not all things were lost. We gained our character.
Paul also points out that character produces hope. Surely, that is the best byproduct of our character forming. Human beings are said to live for 40 days without food, four days without water, and four minutes without air. But we cannot live for four seconds without hope. What is hope? The dictionary says it is a desire accompanied by expectation of fulfillment. As we form our character through sufferings, we possibly meditate on the ultimate matters, such as who God is and who we are. That further leads us to desire something that is eternal, deathless and sinless. In doing so, we come to desire to be with Christ all the more. We may have a moment of doubt and disappointment. But at that very moment, the love of God that was poured out on us would drive out such dark elements as it guarantees the fulfillment of the hope. God’s love is like collateral. Pouring-out possibly also characterizes how Jesus poured out his life like a drink offering. Some people open their hard hearts to this Jesus as if outpouring of water melts or moisturizes the hard and dry ground.
Look at verse Ac 17:10-12. These verses show the significance of having a noble character for discipleship. It was in the middle of Paul’s mission journey. At that time he was sort of discouraged because he was just kicked out of Thessalonica due to the jealous Jews and arrived at Berea not knowing what would happen next. There might be another expulsion. There might be a cold response. Paul, however, was greatly encouraged by the noble Bereans. Their noble character was especially well-shown through their great eagerness in receiving God’s word and their own examination of the Scriptures every day to see if what they heard from Paul was true. Eagerness and truthfulness are two keys in their noble character and they would well-translate into true discipleship. We cannot follow Jesus without fervor. At the same time, we cannot blindly him either. We should have fire in our heart and ice in our head to have a noble character. Because of the noble character, their deep Bible study came to fruition with their spiritual influence impacted other prominent Greek women and men to the faith.
Jonathan Edwards, one of the greatest preachers in his day, did not directly involved discipleship and yet we can say somehow he did so with his family. He and his wife Sara had 11 children and every night they spent one hour in the Bible talk and prayer. Their eagerness and truthfulness in their Bible study did not show the results immediately but his descendants after him up to the five generations show us an astounding result, especially when compared to another man from the same time period known as Max Jukes. For about 150 years, from Jonathan Edwards came 1 vice president, 3 senators, 3 governors, 13 college presidents, almost hundreds of lawyers, doctors, professors and military officers. From one godly man who eagerly and truthfully studied the Bible every night with his family resulted in noble character of 1400.
Max Jukes’ legacy did not fare well because from him came 7 murderers, 60 thieves, 150 other convicts and hundreds of alcohol addicts. And many of them died prematurely.
In conclusion, we learned we have inherited God-resembling but weakened character that is to be built up. So it is our ultimate goal to be like Christ through our nourished character. Christ-like character is well shown in the nine traits of the fruit of the Spirit. We may need to go through sufferings to be purer and better in our character. And the best practice we may start now is to eagerly and truthfully study the Bible regularly. May God bless our discipleship through our character formation.