Signing Up for Persecution and Suffering

Once upon a time there was a boy named Andy, who came from a poor family and difficult home situation. He didn’t have memories of abuse particularly, more rather of loneliness and neglect. And this eventuated in his residence for several years in a children’s home. That too was an experience of loneliness and the lack of a real family.

So it was quite a joy for Andy to learn when was in second grade that he had been chosen for adoption just out of the blue. And not only was he going to go to a real home with a real family, it turned out that it was the Baxter family that was adopting him. This was the ultimate family in town with the ultimate mansion house on a beautifully landscaped property just beyond the city limits.

A part of Andy’s excitement was his expectation that he would no longer have to suffer the occasional teasing and abuse at the hands of those who mocked his poverty and living condition. He was indeed, as they say, “movin’ on up!”

But even so, he determined to not pay back those who had abused him, but to rather be expressively kind toward them. It was going to be great!  He was now set up for his best possible life!

However, he was surprised to find out before long that he actually had more social interaction problems than he experienced previously. Some of the other boys who had been friends were now distancing themselves from him. They expressed resentment toward his new life, particularly disliking Andy’s kindly words toward them about how they too might hope to have better lives. And a couple of them, when they caught Andy alone in an isolated place on the playground, would actually hit and slap him, mocking him and calling him horrible names. And even when the teachers did see some of these things happening, it seemed to Andy that they almost acted like they were happy to see the new rich kid get smacked around a bit.

And beyond that, the living situation at home was not quite what he anticipated it would be like. The love of his new parents was certain, but he was surprised at how life in the big house and in the new family was not as carefree and easy as expected. In fact, though his new father could certainly afford to supply every convenience for Andy’s happiness, Andy was shocked to find that he had a rather substantial list of chores to accomplish. As well, he thought his father would march down the hill to the school and use his power and influence to stop the abusive treatment he was now getting from his peers. Instead, dad simply gave him advice and perspectives about how he might handle these situations with grace and character.

All in all, Andy was profoundly grateful for his new family, yet at the same time, he was surprised that many of his life complications had actually increased rather than being perfectly solved.

Andy’s experience, versus his expectations, is what we might call “counterintuitive” by definition: counter to what intuition would lead one to expect, something not easily understood in an instinctive, unconscious way. And this is of course the title of our summer series.

Here is a big idea to guide us today: Though we may think that being persecuted for our faith is extraordinary, it is rather the daily experience that should actually be expected.

When we come to faith and trust in Christ, we join the true winning team, and the creator God of the universe is now our Father through our adoption. We’re like the boy “Andy.”  We expect that NOW everything is going to go well in this life, because God is for us!  And it is often not long before we realize that we have indeed – even while being profoundly grateful for the eternal salvation – now entered into an entirely new world of problems and complications. New people dislike us and who we are, and Dad doesn’t seem to come to our rescue as quickly as we might expect; rather he gives us wise advice on how to live with our “new normal.”

So how do we deal with suffering in our lives, with even hostility and persecution for our faith values system?  Let’s turn today to an assortment of passages written by Peter and James – Scriptures written to first century believers who were suffering because of their new faith in Christ and identification with Jesus and the Church.

The first thing we will see today from these passages is this …

  1. Realize that suffering, hostility and persecution are normal Christian experiences. (1 Peter 4:12)

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

The issue here is one of calibration. I don’t know about you, but when I am having a life experience where things are not going well, I find myself trying to understand how my level of suffering or concern fits within a bigger context.

For example, when recovering for a surgery, the immediate medication makes it more than bearable. But about 24 hours later, everything has changed.  So my pattern has been to call my nurse friend Linda Ellis, seeking to understand if my horrific pain is normal or not. If this is the way it should be, well, I’ll just have to bear it (and that’s how it has been).

For another example, when in college and taking tests, there were times I was surprised at how difficult an exam was … beyond my expectation. So I would question others for their evaluation, hoping they all thought it was even worse than I did.  I want to find out if it is normal or not.

You get the picture. There is comfort in knowing that something is the normal expectation of things. And suffering and persecution is the normal experience in the Christian life. It is, to use the golf illustration, par for the course, totally normal.

Jesus said to the disciples, “You will be hated by everyone because of me” … “you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.” … “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” … “Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.”

It is natural that the world – under the control of the Evil One – will hate the follower of Christ. The truth that the believer stands for, lives by and espouses is a standard that exposes the sin and emptiness of the unbeliever. And they don’t like the exposure, feeling guilt and judgment simply by being in the presence of eternal truth or the people of the truth. So it is all very normal and to be expected to experience opposition.

  1. Rejoice in the midst of suffering and opposition, trusting God anew. (1 Peter 4:13-16)

Yes, this is also counterintuitive – to actually find pleasure in the position of suffering.

It is sort of like coming out of the Super Bowl wearing the jersey of your team that just won the game, but finding yourself in a crowd on the sidewalk with all the angry people of the losing team. You might not like the uncomfortable situation, but there is still a resident pleasure within you of being identified with the winning team.

1 Peter 4:12-16 – Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13 But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed. 14 If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. 15 If you suffer, it should not be as a murderer or thief or any other kind of criminal, or even as a meddler. 16 However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.

The “fiery ordeal” – Peter could have meant this very, very literally. About this time was the persecution under Nero, with Christians being covered with tar and burned, as Nero used this despised element of society to blame for the big fire that burned Rome. Possibly this practice might go empire-wide?  Maybe that is reading too much into a mere metaphor, but the persecution was real and pervasive.

“Rejoice” … this shows identification with Christ. You really are part of the family, the fellowship, which is what the word “participate” means. It is the common Greek word “koinonia.”

“Overjoyed” – at the coming of Christ. Suffering gives us more reason to look forward to the “apocalypse”… the word used here (more later on that concept).

“Blessed in insults” … “glory rests” … Those with a Jewish background would particularly read these verses and think of the Old Testament accounts of God’s presence descending and being around them as a cloud. The idea is to know of the presence of the Lord around you, even when the worst things are happening and you are in the target zone of the enemy.

The natural response to persecution (like having property confiscated) would be to respond in kind and fight back. So Peter tells them to not be found doing such things as “murder” (physically taking matters into one’s hands), or be a “criminal” (like stealing back from those who stole from you), or as a “meddler” (an odd, rare word, picturing a gossipy activity, like doing things to learn the business of others in order to set them up to fail).

No, bear the name “Christian”.  This is one of only 3 times the word is used in the Bible. Likely, the earliest usage of the term in that culture was completely “derisive.”  Rather, God’s people should hear that name used of them as something that led them to praising God.

  1. Endure difficult times with patience and trust (James 5:7-11)

We are currently the society with the least need to be patient about many things. Imagine going back to life without cell phones and computers. In that scenario, if you are home late in the evening and desperately need a piece of information, but you don’t have the books or reference material in the house to get the answer, there was a time when you would need to get to the library or wait until the morning. Now we can just get the answer in a matter of seconds at any time of the day and in most any place.

Though we may have certain concerns about the execution of full justice in America, we do live in a time and place where the gravest of injustices are not allowed to stand and perpetuate. Certainly not like the scattered Jewish believers to whom James wrote in the first century. Most of them were poor, being taken advantage by the rich. They were abused because of their faith, by both their own Jewish brethren who saw them as traitors and by the Romans in the secular Greek culture. They had to endure much, and thus James encourages them to be patient …

James 5:7 – Be patient, then, brothers and sisters, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. 8 You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. 9 Don’t grumble against one another, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

James 5:10 – Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.

He gives three illustrations of patience…

  1. The farmer – Here is a guy who plants his seed and waits a long time for it to bring about a crop to sell. Much can go wrong all along the way. The early season and late season rains (the situation in Palestine) may not come, or may be too copious. Much can go awry before the crop is harvested, but he remains patient and hopeful.
  2. The prophets – So many of the well-known prophets of the Old Testament suffered terribly while simply serving as a mouthpiece for God. It was very unjust. For example, Jeremiah was put in stocks, thrown into prison and lowered into a dungeon, but demonstrated persistent faithfulness. These prophets were a model to follow. The Greek work for “example” is actually the first word in the sentence in this instance (word order in Greek is not as strict as in English, and a way of emphasizing something was to make that word first in a phrase). The term pictures a representative figure of something or someone, particularly to be imitated – a “poster child,” we might say. This same Greek word is used in John 13:15 in the account of Jesus having washed the disciples’ feet, saying, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
  3. Job – Though we have the common phrase “the patience of Job,” he was not actually a great example of that. But he was a wonderful example of endurance, and he gained back twice of all he lost.

It has been the healthy experience of God’s people over the centuries to endure persecution and opposition with patience. That models the faith that we have, and it demonstrates it to be real and unshakeable.

But it is more than just passively sitting back and taking whatever is dished out. In the midst of displaying patience, we may also actively do the following …

  1. Model the example of Christ who met hostility with kindness and service. (1 Peter 3:8-18)

Peter wrote to the suffering recipients of his letter to encourage them about how to behave in an oft-hostile culture where they were out of step with the world around them.

8 Finally, all of you, be like-minded, be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble. 9 Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing. 10 For, “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech. 11 They must turn from evil and do good; they must seek peace and pursue it. 12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” [from Psalm 34:12-16]

13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.” [from Isaiah 8:12] 15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord.

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. 17 For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.

So Peter speaks first of the oneness of mind and attitude that they should have with each other in the family of faith. And beyond that, as they lived in kindness and grace with each other, to also extend that to the world around them, even when it was undeserved (or deserving of just the opposite).

This would give them the approval of God, a generally disarmed response from others, and a clear conscience and spotless record if falsely accused and slandered.

This would also mean that they would be following the model of Jesus Christ. He was the righteous, innocent one who took the sins of the guilty upon himself to bring us to God. As it says in Romans 5:8, Christ did this for us WHILE WE WERE YET SINNERS!

So extending consistent kindness and service to others, deserving or not, is not beyond a reasonable pattern of life for those who have received the grace that we have received from Christ.

  1. Never forget the big picture and the end game. (James 1:12)

James 1:12 – Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

So, why should we wait patiently for justice in unfair circumstances? The answer is the soon coming of the perfect Judge. He will set all matters straight. And the picture presented by James in chapter 5 is that He is standing at the door!  Imagine the judge about to come out of his chambers, with his hand on the doorknob – that is what we should remember when treated wrongly. That is who we should primarily look to.

We may have a chance to live out these truths more and more. Christians are becoming increasingly the target of hate groups, both around the world and even in our own country. Reviled by the popular culture, devout Christians are even mocked at the very moment when 26 of them are gunned down in a church, because they were praying at the time – obviously stupid to be trusting in God when their prayers were in the process of being ignored.

More difficult times may indeed be just ahead, but remember that the Judge is at the door.

So persecution and suffering are normal … worthy of our rejoicing … to be endured with trust … responded to with Christlike service … always recalling the bigger picture of God’s work.

But again, why does God allow it?  Just as with the story of the adopted parents of Andy teaching him by not solving all his problems, God permits the residue of a fallen and sinful world to fall upon his own in order to teach them responsible trust in Him. Though He could by His power solve all our problems, we would never really grow in faith and dependence.

When is it that you have most grown in your life?  Is it from the times of blessing when all is going well, or is it from times of pain, suffering, opposition and even persecution for your faith?  Yes, God’s grace is greatest when our need is the greatest; that is when we most grow, in the storms of life.

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The Direction of Defilement (Matt. 15:1-20)

It was during our poverty years (well, sorta poor … when in grad school in Texas) that Diana and I went out to a very nice Dallas restaurant called “Baby Doe’s Matchless Mine” (not making that up – check it out online). Thinking about the timing of it, I’m guessing it might have been for our third wedding anniversary(?).

I ordered some sort of shrimp item, which tasted really great, as I recall. But even before leaving the restaurant, I was noticing some tightening of my throat and a queasy feeling. By the time we got home, I had swelling and hives. This clearly called for a trip to the emergency room.

Arriving at the ER, I was greeted by one of my fellow students – a friend from my neighborhood who often commuted to the seminary with a group of us who lived in the same neighborhood. He worked in the ER as a sort of greeter/assistant. By this point, I was REALLY sick, and I expressed this sadly by barfing all over my buddy. I was diagnosed with a shellfish allergy, given some Benadryl and was good as new in a short time (apart from being terribly embarrassed). I’ve only had a couple mild reactions since them, but I’m always cautious with shrimp particularly.

What we take into our bodies can make us sick, no doubt. But most of the time we find that experience to be so unpleasant that we take strides and precautions to not have that happen again. So yes, what goes in can defile us; but what comes out of our mouths in words, and beyond that in attitudes and actions of life, represents a greater defilement, according to Jesus (this might even be called “counterintuitive”). And we may not find ourselves as likely to correct that pattern.

The occasion of Jesus making this counterintuitive statement relates to an episode with the Pharisees – a delegation of them sent to check up on this Jesus character and entrap him in some condemnatory violation of law. Here is the best they could come up with …

Matthew 15:1 – Then some Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, 2 “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

Wow! That’s it? That’s all you got… not washing hands?

This was a big deal ritual. However, it was not something that went back to Moses at all. Rather, it was what would be called “Rabbinic” teachings – specific applications of more general Mosaic writings, usually magnifying something by multiplied amounts and coming up with an elaborate law that was overbearing. This washing involved not only hands, but utensils, plates and cups and everything else imaginable. There was no need to do these things, hence Jesus and the disciples did not.

Jesus goes to the heart of their hypocrisy …

3 Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition? 4 For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ 5 But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’ 6 they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

8 “‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. 9 They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’[from Isaiah 29:13]”

It was a very big deal in Jewish teaching to honor and care for parents. But these Pharisees were intentionally not getting the job done by the means of a trick device – calling something that would be beneficial to carry out the honoring parents command, but was rather kept to themselves by declaring it as “devoted to God.”  It was a way to hold onto material things by giving a false spiritual pretext. They were therefore breaking the Law in a way that was far beyond some silly washing of hands.

Jesus turns to talk to his crowd of followers, and he utters the key phrase of our title today …

10 Jesus called the crowd to him and said, “Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.”

12 Then the disciples came to him and asked, “Do you know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this?”

Pharisees, then and now, don’t like to be confronted with their own “stuff.”  They were offended, with the disciples amusingly not sure that Jesus had picked up on the irritation of the religious leadership crowd …

13 He replied, “Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be pulled up by the roots. 14 Leave them; they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.”

God did not plant faith and life in the Pharisees, and the time would come when they would be pulled up like weeds. There is no more helpless mental picture imaginable than that of a blind person leading another blind person. And speaking of those who did not understand things clearly, Peter speaks up on behalf of the 12 …

15 Peter said, “Explain the parable to us.”

16 “Are you still so dull?” Jesus asked them. 17 “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? 18 But the things that come out of a person’s mouth come from the heart, and these defile them. 19 For out of the heart come evil thoughts—murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. 20 These are what defile a person; but eating with unwashed hands does not defile them.”

Food is (to put it delicately) here today and gone tomorrow. But what someone says and ultimately does reveals the condition of a person’s heart. When it lacks God’s truth and true faith, it is what condemns the lost soul by giving visible evidence of what resides truly within.

When a person who claims to be a follower of Christ does not speak and act in accord with such, it demonstrates defilement. When an alleged follower does not have time for things of an eternal nature, it reveals an emptiness and inner vacuum. But when a person looks away from serving self to serving others, this is evidence of the life of Christ within.

Yet it should all be consistent, as James would write not too many years after the time of Jesus …

James 3:9-12 — With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers and sisters, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

The Contentment of Serving (Matthew 20:20-28, Matthew 23:1-12)

An author named Ronald Kessler has written two highly entertaining books about information obtained through hundreds of interviews with former Secret Service agents assigned to U.S. Presidents from Nixon through Obama, as well as unsuccessful presidential candidates they served.

The titles are: In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect and The First Family Detail: Secret Service Agents Reveal the Hidden Lives of the Presidents.

One book review says, “With fly-on-the-wall perspective, he captures the drama and tension that characterize agents’ lives and reveals what they have seen, providing startling, previously untold stories about the presidents … as well as about their families, Cabinet officers, and White House aides.”

Another summary review writes, “As in a play, presidents, vice presidents, and presidential candidates perform on stage for the public and the media. What the nation’s leaders are really like and what goes on behind the scenes remains hidden. Secret Service agents have a front row seat on their private lives and those of their wives and children.”

It is easy to imagine that this is a work with stories all over the spectrum, from good to bad. Without doubt, at this level of life, one really does lose a tremendous amount of privacy and freedom.

Drawing the protective detail for one particular wife of a former President (whom I’ll not reveal) was seen among the agents as being given a form of punishment as the worst assignment in the Secret Service, due to her endlessly nasty and condescending treatment of all around her. On the other hand, one other first family treated the agents as if they were family, demonstrating care and interest in their personal lives.

There is something very corrupting about achieving high levels of power and authority in the eyes of this world. It is very difficult in our current context to listen to even a few minutes of the news without grave concern about high level corruption and dysfunction that may imperil our country.

In my own handful of years involved in political activism, I would summarize them as a time of meeting some of the very best and the very worst people – on the national, state and local levels.

  • The worst were those who were always posturing for position or for the next election cycle. They never, ever dropped out of campaigning mode. Governing was the busy work that had to be done to just get on to the next public appearance that fed their internal gratification monster.
  • The best were those who genuinely saw positions of prominence as a way to serve others. They believed they could do it well and flesh out a values system for the good of all, but if it did not work out for them to have a certain position, they were fine with serving and pursuing other life endeavors.

I’m afraid that the former too often outnumber the latter in our public systems, and maybe even in the world of faith and religion. This makes sense; it is the natural way of the world and of the fallen nature of man. In a word, we might say that seeking personal aggrandizement and positions of honor is intuitive; whereas seeking to be lowly and a servant of others is COUNTERINTUITIVE.

Here is a big idea to guide us today: We would think that the ultimate life of ease would involve being constantly served by others, when in fact, true contentment comes from serving others.

What is it that makes a person truly happy at a soul level, down at the core of one’s being?

  • We might picture being on a yacht or living in the Caribbean at one of those resort types of places with docks and canopies, where everyone is extraordinarily beautiful and always carrying a drink of some sort, even when soaking in a heart-shaped tub.
  • We might think it is having a penthouse office suite with three layers of secretaries and executive staff for anyone to get through to even meet with us. Everyone else does the work and just brings you multiple good proposals to choose between to run the corporation or the government.

But really? Does that satisfy? After a while along the water, you’d get bored with relaxing and just want to go do something or see something different … even shop at Walmart!  And with the latter situation, there is no way to escape the worry that perhaps something is going wrong out of sight that will cause the whole empire to collapse, perhaps by someone gunning for you!

Maybe you’ve had experiences where you look back in life and remember the core-level satisfaction that surprisingly came to you when you did something very unusual – like that time you took off a week to do a missions project with a relief agency.

Maybe you realize that though you’re not dissatisfied at work, you actually have greater anticipation for the upcoming Saturday where you’re getting together with some others to do a food distribution project in a public housing development.

Maybe you’re even a bit surprised at yourself at the joy you find in writing a check each month to send toward the support of a youth outreach ministry, or to the sending agency of a missionary working in a third-world country.  (Or to serving in the church!)

Yes, it’s all counterintuitive, but it’s also being like Christ to serve others rather than to be served and to be in authority. And that is the teaching of Jesus that we look at today, alternating between tow passages in Matthew’s gospel: 20 and 23.

  1. It is the natural desire of the flesh to seek prominence and self-centered aggrandizement and fulfillment.

Indeed, it is the natural tendency of our self-preservationist, self-centered flesh to be very oriented toward seeing our own success. And this is nothing new, it was happening regularly within the inner circle of Christ’s followers.

Matthew 20:20 –  Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him.

21 “What is it you want?” he asked.

She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.”

These sons, these two disciples, are James and John, known from their calling to follow Jesus as the “sons of Zebedee.”  So here is the wife of Zebedee coming to Christ with a special request. Women were especially listened to in this sort of context within that culture.

Isn’t this just like a mom thing to do?!  I could certainly picture my mother doing something like this, as she did it all the time when I was growing up and getting more involved in music. I thought I was being “discovered” by these community choral group directors, only to find out eventually that mom put them up to asking me to get involved.

But a “momma bear incident” is not actually what is happening. We know from the other gospels that James and John were themselves behind this. Earlier, Christ had said the 12 would have “thrones” in the kingdom, so they wanted the two closest to Christ – those of greatest honor, like at a dinner table.

Matthew 20:22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”

“We can,” they answered.

23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

Have you ever had someone ask you a question about something you know in detail, and you realize they don’t understand enough about it to intelligently consider what they’re pondering?  That is what is happening here.

Following Christ involves the issue of the cross, the great offense to the world. These disciples would suffer, as Jesus well knew. James would be the first to be martyred early in the church era, occasioning the scattering of Christ’s disciples out of Jerusalem. John would live the longest, though he too would suffer by being exiled later in life.

But the entire issue of thrones in the Kingdom was not for Christ to determine; that was for the Father to grant. There will be a Kingdom; there will be rewards for those who are faithful servants, that is certain.

And here now is proof that James and John were behind this questioning by their momma …

Matthew 20:24 – When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.

The other 10 were not angry at the mom! They knew what was going on. And they were ticked off!  The word for indignant is a very, very strong Greek term. Jesus was said to be indignant when children were being prevented from coming to him. The religious leaders were indignant when they saw how popular Jesus was in the Temple.

So the disciples here were surely up in the faces of James and John. The disciples are seen on quite a few occasions having a sort of “sibling rivalry,” even at the last supper.

Yes, it is natural in the sinful world to want prominence. Recall where sin came from originally and about the thinking of Satan. He said that he wanted to be like God – top prominence!  He deceived Adam and Eve into believing that God was holding out something on them.  At the temptations of Christ, he offered Jesus the kingdoms of the world if only he would worship him.  Satan is called the prince and power of the air, the ruler of this world. For him, it is all about power and prominence and self, and so it is for us when we yield to the natural desires of the flesh.

  1. This world is full of examples of people who seek and gain prominence and who are “pedestalized” for their “achievements.”

Matthew 20:25 – Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.

Yes, this is nothing new; it is not something that is merely the outworking of our hedonistic, modern culture. It has always been this way for vast numbers of people in secular leadership. Over the years, some have done this with military powers and dictatorships. Others have done it in more subtle ways of wielding power and influence.

The phrase lord it over them is a single Greek word – actually a compound with 15 letters, a very strong word. And then comes also another single word with 16 letters that the NIV translates exercise authority over them. It could be translated with our modern phrase of “throw their weight around.”

So it is almost universal that this is how those in power operate. Apart from God, this is the natural course. And it is thus so very, very rare to find someone in high position who operates out of a base of authority other than power … like a base of desiring to serve.

Over to Matthew 23, Jesus will illustrate with some common examples of self-seeking prominence within the Jewish context …

Matthew 23:1-4 … Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: 2 “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3 So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. 4 They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

This is prominence achieved through hypocritical speech.

The Pharisees were famous for their ability to say one thing, but do little follow-up. They taught often of the failures of others, but were in reality the best models of worthlessness.

The world is now, as it has always been, filled with great talkers – those who can give a great speech to large crowds, but who do not themselves privately do what they say.

  • Perhaps “exhibit A” is the tele-evangelist – the one who gets his thousands of followers to send in their “seed” for a great harvest in their lives, while he himself is enriched by the seeds while living an extravagant lifestyle.
  • We’ve written much about the political world today, but they’ve earned it. While taxing one-half of the masses and “preaching” of sacrificially supporting the other one-half, they themselves never take cuts to their compensation. It is shocking to see how so many of them have been entrenched in power for so long and have become fantastically wealthy through their places of influence.

Matthew 23:5-7 …“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6 they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7 they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

This is prominence achieved through visual appearance.

Phylacteries – these are boxes with Scriptures in them – a physical and visible outworking of that Deuteronomy 6 passage about binding God’s words to oneself. This was not a literal command, though not specifically a wrong thing; and like all else, the Pharisees took it to an entirely new level.

Tassels on their garments long … Again, not something wrong, but something done in more ornate fashion by the Pharisees.

Places of honor – they were always cognizant of being seen with important people in important public places.  They would be seen at any big public event. And they would have had impressive “Linked-In” accounts!  Some people find great meaning in thinking about who it is that they know and how they work to develop important relationships.

And the rabbis really liked their titles…

Matthew 23:8-10 – “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. 9 And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah.

This is prominence achieved through grandiose titles.

Rabbi – this was an especially prominent title that set the holder up in the nation of Israel as at the very top. But, they should rather think about the one Teacher.

Father – not a title used of the religious leaders, but is probably a word that emphasized their propensity toward identification with the lineage of teachers of the Law dating back to Moses.

Instructor – similar to the first word, it is saying that “yes” there is authority, but it is not in the human person but in the word of the Messiah, which is the word of God.

Some people like to throw around titles. I have known religious world people who like to use the word “Doctor” in their name, only to find out it was an honorary degree. I’ve always been creeped out by titles, especially “reverend” … so don’t do that to me!  “Pastor” is only a little bit better, and I put up with it because it speaks of a spiritual gift. Just call me “Randy” or “Dude.”

There is a human tendency to reference the connections one has with well-known people of authority, gaining for yourself some points by dropping their names.

So there are plenteous examples of the intuitive way to achieve prominence. We’ve seen it through power (as with the Gentile world leaders), and through speech, dress and titles (as seen in the Jewish world). And all of these things remain common today with those who get to the pedestals of recognition in this world.

But there is a better way, a counterintuitive way …

  1. True greatness is to follow the model of Christ by intentionally being a servant to others, especially those less-advantaged.

Matthew 23:11 – The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

That just seems crazy, doesn’t it?  It won’t work. You won’t get to the top this way, out of sight! You’ve gotta fight to get there. But as one of my all-time favorite phrases says, “Some people climb the ladder of success, only to get to the top and find out it was leaning against the wrong building.”

Living like Christ really is counterintuitive. Looking back again in Matthew 20, this concept and lesson was fleshed out more specifically in Christ’s words in that passage …

Matthew 20:25 – Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 – Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The word “servant” is diakonos, from which we get “deacon,” but also the word “minister.” So it is very odd that this word has come over time to represent power and honor.  Think of the British political system where one of great authority is called “The Minister of ____ .”  And it can be that way in church circles with the use of the term.

To be sure that the teaching concept was not lost, Jesus goes beyond “servant” to the word “slave.”  It is not just that those who want to be great should serve others, perhaps like a low-level, hired worker, they were to think of themselves as a “slave.”  This was a vice in the ancient world, and it shows the extent to which Christ’s teachings were revolutionary, counterintuitive even!

And the most upside-down thing – the ultimate illustration – is the sacrifice of Christ as a ransom to pay the redemption price. This would conjure up immediately the sacrificial system – the innocent lamb having its throat slit and its blood applied to the altar as a covering for sin.

This is a teaching argument from the greater to the lesser. If the ultimate Teacher/Messiah would model service by giving his life as a redeeming sacrifice for guilty sinners who put him on the cross, how much more appropriate it is for those recipient followers to be quick to be servants of all other people. Let that sink in. Let that thought be resident in you when you think that helping someone, or serving in some situation, is beneath you, or to benefit someone who is not deserving of the kindness. Wow.

So, can we really believe that this will work in the modern world? We might get stepped on when doing this. Yep! But it’s all good, if that happens.

Hey, if you achieve at a high level, we’ve already talked about how fleeting and transitory and unsatisfying it turns out to be. And beyond that, when living a lifestyle of service, the rewards to be gained are more likely to be in the next world – which is better yet.

Truly, those folks who are high-powered achievers through worldly means may be honored to some degree. But those who were known to be servants, they are the ones most warmly remembered. And beyond that, they are the ones who will be most rewarded in the place where it really counts. We can serve others, trusting God with the results, believing this is the counterintuitive route to true contentment.

Finishing First by Finishing Last (Matthew 19:16-30)

I know it is difficult to believe that the overly-competitive pastor of the church wrote a topic into the summer series like this one! But remember this – the main theme verse of the Bible still stands… 1 Cor. 9:24 – Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.  (I’m kidding … maybe.)

Here are two big ideas that go along with our theme for this week. The way to really win in life, and to win as well for eternity, is …

  1. to prioritize other people more than oneself
  2. to prioritize God’s Kingdom more than our material world

Accomplishing both of these ideals is counterintuitive to our instincts, demanding that we have a bottom line faith and trust in God and his care for us.

Our title today of finishing first by finishing last comes from Matthew 19:30. This is the finale verse in a teaching section following the story of a rich young man who walked away from a conversation with Jesus, being very sad – sad because he was unwilling to give up his riches for the Kingdom. The verse says … But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

Let’s review that story quickly …

Matthew 19:16 Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

The picture we get here is of a troubled fellow who is uncertain of his position in the kingdom of God. And of course, Jesus would be able to see and know what truly constituted the central issue in his life and the condition of his heart.

17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

Understand here that Jesus is not saying that one works his way to heaven by his good deeds, but rather that the keeping of good deeds (such as in the commandments) is an indicator of the condition of one’s heart and soul.

18 “Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, 19 honor your father and mother,’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

So Jesus quickly lists five commands in a row, but seems to intentionally skip the 10th commandment about covetousness, finishing rather with the summary statement from Leviticus 19:18 – about loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

20 “All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

The young man had a guilty sense that not all was well. And when Jesus says “perfect” here – read it as “complete” or “full.”  And Jesus goes to the heart of the matter with this man, and that is his covetousness and hoarding of riches. He was ultimately trusting in them rather than God.

22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

He could not give up his wealth; he could not find the ability to trust God and live in the unseen and the unknown, needing rather to find confidence in what he could hold onto.

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

The more one has, the more one has to lose. And this can add to the complication of trusting in God alone. Material gain can be a mixed blessing for sure.

25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

The disciples are astonished by this because it was the general teaching of the time that the possession of wealth was an evidence of the blessing of God. If those blessed by God’s goodness cannot be right with God, then who can be?  And Jesus says that really nobody can without God’s power and work in their life.

And we can imagine how this is going through the mind of Peter, who says to Jesus …

27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

It was true that the disciples had dropped it all to follow Jesus – business, homes, family … everything.

28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

Jesus says that God can be trusted to be a just and fair accountant for eternity!  At the end, great reward is there for those who do as the disciples did in giving it all up – they specifically being told of a future of honor in the Kingdom.

So, for many of those who may appear to be last, materially speaking, may end up first, spiritually speaking, and at the time that really counts. And that is counterintuitive to our natural way of thinking.

Let’s summarize this today with a single statement: Money and possessions can control you in this world as you allow it to grow destructive roots, or you can control it and build foundations of eternal value.

You can indeed finish first, but you do that by finishing last on purpose – having a heart of generosity for others and for God’s kingdom, all the while trusting God to meet your own needs sufficiently.

Daily Living by Daily Dying (Matthew 16:21-27)

Many of the monuments at the Antietam National Battlefield have symbols upon them. They are not immediately obvious in most cases. The prime exception is in the West Woods area, where you drive into a beautiful tree-lined park setting. Entering between two cement pillars along the Hagerstown Turnpike, many guests will notice and comment upon seeing cloverleaf symbols upon them, as well as on the large obelisk monument in the middle of this park area.

The first guess is that these symbols represent the Irish Brigade – a famous Civil War unit in the Federal Army that indeed fight at Antietam, but not in this location. They entered the battle in the area of the 1897-constructed observation tower.

Rather, the pillars originally supported an iron gate with the inscription “Philadelphia Brigade Park.”  This Union outfit featured four regiments from the Philadelphia area who were a part of the Second Corps of the Federal Army. The cloverleaf symbol (called a trefoil, used also at times in history to depict the Trinity), was the chosen emblem of the Second Corps of the army. A circle was the First Corps, for example, and an iron cross depicted the Sixth Corps. Varied colors then also depicted the divisions within a corps – a red symbol always being the first division of said corps, white for the second, blue for the third.

These symbols were called “corps badges” and were devised by General Hooker in the spring of 1863. But, but … Antietam was in 1862!  Correct!  These badges were on uniforms, hats, flags, etc., and became symbols of great pride. And even though not yet invented at the time of the September, 1862 Battle of Antietam, they adorn many of the monuments put there by veterans who returned decades later to recall the sacrifices of their fallen brothers and comrades.

Many of us take pride in varied symbols, be they of a favorite sports team, business association or line of clothing. It is all about identity. Being associated with the symbol and what it represents says something about our values without even a word being spoken.

We all like to be a part of a winning outfit. And surely there was a lot of personal excitement in being called to be one of Jesus’ disciples … to drop the fishing enterprise and follow the Messiah around the country and be a part of the preaching, the miracles, the crowds, etc.  Cool!

But likely the disciples did not anticipate the opposition that was profoundly present at so many places. It was disconcerting for sure that the “deep state” religious leaders in Israel were so routinely opposed to Jesus and the message of the Kingdom. Much of this looked rather dangerous even. Violence was narrowly averted on several occasions (like when the hometown folks in Galilee in Luke 4 took Jesus up to a cliff to toss him over the edge!).

As the time for Christ’s final work was approaching, Jesus began to rather explicitly tell the 12 exactly what was going to be his upcoming experience …

Matthew 16:21 – From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.

How could this be? This is not at all what the disciples signed up for when agreeing to drop their nets and go fishing for men. Jesus – the Messiah (as in the previous paragraph Peter was applauded for hitting the nail on the head with this declaration) – was surely not going to be killed!!  And Peter says so to Christ …

22 Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”

23 Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”

For sure, Peter had the wrong picture, not that he was the only one. He was simply the one most willing to verbalize what the others were likely also thinking. The mission of the Kingdom, the work of the Messiah – all of this was to be a grand success of righteousness prevailing.

And truth does prevail; God does reign victorious. The Kingdom will be perfectly established. But, as in war, there is a price to be paid and battles to be won. There is an evil system to be defeated. To expect nothing but victories is to not understand the nature of the conflict.

24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. 26 What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? 27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

This is counterintuitive thinking for sure. To be a part of the winning outfit eternally, we must give up the natural expectation as to what constitutes victory and security. The natural self says to fight for gain in this world and prioritize self. But the true disciple does not view success in life in this manner. Rather, the guiding principle is to follow Christ whatever the cost, even knowing that the cost could be the loss of everything material. Though it may seem that Jesus is turning the world upside-down, in fact he is turning it right-side up. But the world will not receive that.

Again, not recognizing the work of Christ for what it is, the masses of people will hate the symbol of this work of Christ – the cross. Nothing was more despised and dreadful in the Roman world. Emblematic of the worst death possible for the worst people possible, it was the last of things to find one’s personal identity by open identity with it.

Yet the calling of the gospel is to be willing take up the cross, as Christ did – to bear the shame and reproach of it all. Be counterintuitive. Embrace the conflict, because the appearance of loss is turned ultimately to greatest of victories. In what is perhaps the ultimate summary statement about faith in Christ, Paul writes …

Galatians 2:20 – I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

This may seem like daily dying, but it is daily living.

Loving Your Enemies (Matthew 5:43-48)

Yesterday was one of those sermons that I did not feel good about, once it was done. I feared it maybe had too much of a “just love, love, love people no matter what and let them walk all over you” kind of feel to it. Yes, there are times when you have to make a stand for something that is right, but even then, there is a right way to stand for what is right, right?

Talking about stuff that is counterintuitive is sort of counterintuitive as well. But let me share some of the main thoughts again, perhaps with some additional twists.

As I said, the past week was a bit strange with my wife being gone with our business family on a trade show trip to Wisconsin. She’ll soon be home, which is really a good thing since I can’t figure out why all the appliances other than the refrigerator have stopped working at the same time. The dishwasher isn’t loading and washing the dishes, the stove isn’t cooking anything, and I’m sure I’ve not heard the washing machine running at all this past week!

Speaking of home appliances, is my understanding that the most efficient way to heat your home in the winter is not how you might think … to turn off the heat completely overnight, and then fully heat the house again in the morning. It is actually (as I understand it) better to turn down the heat, but not exceptionally far, rather than allow the house to entirely cool for 6-8 hours. As objects in the home cool, they become a “sink of coldness” that causes more energy demand to heat up everything than if not allowed to get so cold.

This type of thinking is what we call “counterintuitive” … counter to what intuition would lead one to expect, something not easily understood in an instinctive, unconscious way. As we grow in faith and in the knowledge of the Scriptures, we learn that God’s way often is not the way of our instincts. Love your enemies? That is indeed opposite of our instincts and thereby fits as an appropriate topic for this series.

We think it best to defeat enemies by doubling down in like manner as to what they’ve done to us. Perhaps a best strategy would seem to be that “the best defense is a good offense”… to bury them before they bury you. Or there is the “shot across the bow” strategy – to make a pre-emptive strike or action of warning that they should not be so foolish as to mess with you.

So yes, to resist such intuitive action and actually love an enemy is, in a word, counterintuitive.

And loving an enemy was beyond what was the conventional wisdom and teaching of the Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

When Jesus is quoted in the gospels as saying something like “you have heard it said, but I say to you …” he is speaking of the commonly-heard teaching of the leadership of that era – Jesus often correcting their misinterpretation or misrepresentation of a text. And that is what we have as we turn to Matthew 5 …

Matthew 5:43 – “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

  1. To Be Better

Yes, be better than just loving those who love you or leave you alone; rather, extend kindness beyond that to even those who hate you and treat you poorly.

This text is specifically a response to a misinterpretation of the Old Testament commandment to love your neighbor as your love yourself (Leviticus 19:18 – Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.).

The Pharisees taught that you should love your neighbor, your fellow Jew, but hate those outside of that – implying that this was God’s way of judging them.

But the passage, both then and now, begs the question, “Who is my enemy?”

a. Someone more than just a nice friend or brother.

So Jesus is not just saying here: “I have two commands: one that you love your neighbor and one that you love your enemy.” Rather, his teaching is, “I have one command: love your neighbor, and by that I mean even if your neighbor is an enemy.”

b. Those who persecute you – those who intentionally seek to harm you.

Jesus says to pray for those who persecute you.  In many parts of the world today, Christians are being persecuted for their faith by those who seek to harm them. Today, some will be martyred for their faith. And in many of those settings, those Christians seek to be a blessing to those around them who mean to harm God’s people and eliminate the message of the gospel.

In our context it likely means something much less deleterious, but can feel rather harmful all the same …

… perhaps it is a person at work who seeks to thwart your success to enhance their own position in some fashion.

… perhaps it is a person in the community who resents the places of blessing, success and leadership where God has placed you. Maybe they’d like to see you taken down a peg, even though you’ve done nothing to harm them.

… perhaps it is a neighbor who finds something about your home or lifestyle to be odious to their own convictions or lack of convictions.

Jesus says, “Yes, love them. Love them. If they even seek to kill you, love them. If they take away your job, love them. If they seek to ruin your reputation, love them. If they destroy your home, love them. Love your enemies. Be that kind of person because of the life change that has happened within you.”

Specifically, the exhortation is to pray for them. I have always found it is difficult to sustain hostility toward anyone whom I pray for regularly. Praying takes the steam out of the situation. It humanizes the enemy, and you simply find yourself more and more seeing them through God’s eyes and heart.

c. Those of an opposing belief system and lifestyle – He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

These are people who simply have little in common with your worldview and way of living. You may not think of them as an enemy, nor them of you in such terms; but there is little in common relative to the big questions of life. Likely, they don’t “get” your lifestyle, and perhaps they even find it to be a bit sanctimonious… all that going to church that you do and serving in faith endeavors.

And probably you don’t “get” their lifestyle either – how it is so limited in scope to material things and the stuff merely of this world.

But quietly looking down upon them helps nothing. Feeling superior because you have the confident truth about the issues of life that comes from knowing God does not change anything or project anything that is unique.

But actively praying for them and loving them in varied ways of communication and interest in their lives is the stuff that goes beyond just being nice to people who are nice to you.

So, be better than simply loving those who love you or who are not a problem.

BUT there is a step beyond this …

  1. Be Beyond Better – 5:46-47

Matthew 5:46 – If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

Rightly dealing with enemies in a Godly fashion means more than just letting them alone or being nice to them if they are nice to you someday. It means taking the initiative to specifically love them and connect with them – perhaps by expressing care for them and for needs that they have.

I have imperfectly attempted to do this over the years with people whom I know have opposed my ministry. Extending invitations, praying with them in times of need, sending a note or greeting – it does not always work, nor is it always received warmly. But it almost invariably diffuses the situation.

The passage uses a couple of great illustrations…

Tax collectors – the most odious characters in the Jewish/Roman dominated culture. Even these cheats are nice to people who are nice to them … so only doing that (as the teachers taught) was to be no higher on the ladder of good character.

Pagans – those with no faith whatsoever.  They care for their own people and interact freely with them. “Come on,” Jesus says. “Be better, better beyond that.”

The great American civil rights leader Martin Luther King wrote one of his most moving sermons on the title “Loving your enemies”. He was in jail at the time, imprisoned for daring to suggest that African-Americans should have the same civil rights as other Americans. During his lifetime he had received multiple death threats, he’d been maliciously accused of being a Communist, his house had been bombed, and he was jailed over 20 times. Yet in this sermon he said, “hate multiplies hate…in a descending spiral of violence” and is “just as injurious to the person who hates” as to his victim. But “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend” for it has “creative” and “redemptive” power.  And time has only reinforced his primary teaching.

Going above and beyond in love, even to one who has not earned it or deserves it, can have lifechanging effects.

Again, this sort of love is not easy to do … to be better … to be beyond better.  But we can ratchet that up even another notch from Christ’s teaching … verse 48 …

Matthew 5:48 – Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

  1. Be Best!

What?  Perfect!  Isn’t pretty good, good enough?  Now I’ve got to be perfect?!

Well, the word perfect here could also be translated and carry the sense of the word “complete.”  It does not mean sinlessly perfect, rather it means to be completely mature in being fully like the Father.

This means to have a view of the world and its peoples that is a macro view of creation and life. It is to understand the sinful nature of mankind due to the curse that goes back to Adam and Eve. It is to understand that the natural man has a bent toward selfishness. It is to understand there is no hope apart from God, and what he accomplished through the work of Christ. It is to understand that this fallen world is moving toward completion and toward a new heaven and new earth.

When you understand these things, you have a view such as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5 … So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view… Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation… We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors…

Indeed, everything about this world is entirely changed when you look at it through eternal eyes – when you have a spiritual, macro view of life related to eternity and God’s master plans.

OK… so maybe you’re a little more convinced than you were when you began reading that you need to lighten up on those people who don’t have you on their Christmas card list. Maybe you’re even thinking of being neutral at least, or perhaps nice if the opportunity presents. But perhaps you’re not sure about this “better, beyond better, best” approach. You’re maybe asking the question still, “WHY should I do this?”

Here is an answer for you … Because it was done for you!

Romans 5:9 – Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 11 Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

You see, we were all enemies of God in our sinful condition. We were lost and spiritually dead and upon a path toward death and separation from God in a literal hell that God prepared originally for Satan and his cohort, fallen angelic hosts. Because, in Adam and Eve, we joined that doomed team in rebellion against God, with a curse that comes down to each of us at the moment of conception, not just at birth.

It was while we were spiritually in the condition of enemies of God that God, in grace, sent Jesus to die for us. He did not do it because we did anything to earn it or because we were sweet, good and lovely. Quite the opposite, as the previous paragraph in Romans 5 says … You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

So having been the recipient of grace and love of the highest caliber, can we justly hold on to hatred of those who are even categorically our enemies?  That really does shoot to the heart of it all, doesn’t it?

I suspect we all have some introspective wrestling to do. Do you have someone like that in your life that you need to connect with this week?

Strength through Weakness (2 Corinthians 12:1-10)

Our opening devotional for the summer “Counterintuitive” series will look at the theme of being strong by being weak. That seems so wrong, doesn’t it?  We would think (being intuitive) that our strength comes from working hard to be strong and aggressive and in charge! And though we are not discrediting responsibility and disciplines in the Christian life, we are highlighting that over and over the Scriptures (and Christ himself) teach us that our strength is not in ourselves. In John 15, what did Jesus say we could do without him?  NOTHING.

There are more than merely a couple passages we could highlight for this theme, but let’s choose Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, Greece … chapter 12 …

2 Corinthians12:1 – I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord.

What we are doing here is beginning in the middle of the story. We need to recall some of the background of this 2nd Corinthian letter to understand what Paul is saying here.

In spite of the proclivity of the Corinthians toward worldly and licentious living, Paul had a great love for this church and its people. He had poured out his heart for them in serving them with his teaching and leadership. But some outside teachers had come into the church, claiming super-apostle authority for themselves and belittling the Apostle Paul’s authority and message.

Exactly who these opponents were is not precisely known, though they claimed themselves to be in the authoritative line of Moses – able to interpret his writings accurately.

Among criticisms of Paul were…

–           He lacked their authority and credentials connected to the church in Jerusalem. They produced some sort of documentation of their greater authority – and though Paul knew this to be very suspect, it was impressive to many of the Corinthians.

–           They said that Paul was very suspect because of his many travels and unusual adventures.

–           They implied that Paul was in this ministry business for personal gains, especially related to offerings being collected for the poor in Judea.

–           Their view of Paul was that he was not personally very impressive – perhaps not in appearance or public posture, especially being critical of his lack of speaking abilities. For an example of this criticism, Paul says in 2 Cor. 11: 5-6 – I do not think I am in the least inferior to those “super-apostles.”  I may indeed be untrained as a speaker, but I do have knowledge. We have made this perfectly clear to you in every way.

So Paul has been put into an unenviable position of having to defend himself and his teaching – not because he needed assurances personally, but because he knew that the truth of the real gospel message was at stake. Therefore, he had to lay out his credentials for the Corinthians to be reminded of – credentials that came from an equal background as his critics, along with an impressive list of incredible experiences that God had sustained him through. Much of the 11th chapter is given to this. So Paul was saying … hey, I’ve got credentials, not just on paper, but from the real life of ministry – presenting the gospel in a world that largely rejects it, just like they rejected Christ.

So in chapter 12, Paul says he must go on “boasting.”  Having given his background credentials, he goes to a second line of authentication – about “visions and revelations,”

Paul really did not believe that his arguing and boasting about credentials was stuff that would build up the church, but he continues by telling them a story from his own experience. Being a bit uncomfortable about boasting about himself, he writes about himself from a third-person sort of view …

12:2 – I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. 3 And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— 4 was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.

This was an experience that Paul had that was very early in his Christian life. He was “caught up” to heaven – the same word in Greek (harpazo) that is used to speak of the rapture of the church.  He calls it both “the third heaven” and “paradise” – words that would speak to that generation of the heavenly realm.

Paul could not honestly say if this was in the material body, or merely a spiritual experience – only God knows. But there he heard and received communications that were for he alone – not something he could share. So this was quite an extraordinary experience.

Paul continues to talk about himself in the third person …

12:5 – I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 6 Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, 7 or because of these surpassingly great revelations.

Paul says he is willing to “boast” about such a thing, not because it is he himself, but because of what Christ had done with such a weak person as Paul had been – knowing of his previous career of hostility to the gospel message.

But Paul continues to show his discomfort with this external game of talking about who had the most spectacular experiences, but he says that if he has to play this game, he’s not a fool, because what he is saying is fully the truth (implying that the claims of his critics were likely to be very suspect).

Yet Paul continues to refrain from going on and on with more details about these “surpassingly great revelations” … as drawing attention to it would draw attention too much to himself, and too much away from the preaching and accomplishments of the gospel.

These revelations were indeed apparently totally amazing and unique. And we can sorta understand that in light of the ministry that God had given Paul. He was really THE main man to make the spread of the gospel happen; it was a huge calling and ministry, along with all of his writings that inform us and all of God’s people over the past 2,000 years! So to keep Paul from ever falling into any measure of self-aggrandizement, God in grace gave something else to the Apostle …

12:7-9 – Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

So what was this thorn in the flesh?  What we can say for sure, beyond the purposes of producing humility and dependence upon God, it was something sourced ultimately in Satan. And though Paul apparently on three occasions went very specifically to the Lord to have this thing removed, we can see that God allowed it to stay in his life so as to produce ultimately greater good and results than would be otherwise achieved.

So again, what was this malady?  Many suggestions have been made about certain physical ailments. We don’t know. But perhaps the two best suggestions might be …

  1. An eye problem – poor vision … also maybe something a bit grotesque?
  2. A speech malady – that would take away from the personal impression – forcing the listener to be impressed more by the content than the presenter.

The answer he got from the Lord is that God’s sustaining grace would be sufficient for him to endure in the midst of the problem, and that God’s power was more evident in the midst of the obvious weakness. Really?  That seems a bit counterintuitive also, but, we have all known people who have great impact in life and communication because of their victory over very obvious limitations.

So Paul’s conclusion was …

12:9-10 … Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul says that here is where real boasting can take place. This thing that appears to be a great loss is actually a great winner!  He had learned that when he was weak, Christ’s power was strongest in and through him. So this was something to be happy about and to be content about having. All the bad things (seemingly) that happened to him were in fact the prime contributors to the good things that happened through him.

So what do we learn from this passage today? Can we list some takeaway points?

  1. Earthly/Worldly Credentials are of Minimal Value. We are drawn to honor strength and beauty. But being impressed with worldly credentials and skills alone is to be merely intuitive, merely instinctual… senses that are of this world alone and not cognizant of the larger picture.
  2. Deficiencies Position Us to Receive Christ’s Sufficiencies. It is true that natural skills and the work of the flesh can take some people rather far, but not far enough. And it is commendable to be responsible and seek to work hard. But at some point, the true work of serving God is a spiritual work that needs spiritual empowerment.
  3. Our Weaknesses are Windows for God’s Power to be Seen. Think of some of the most powerfully-used people we have known. Is it because of his exceptional giftedness and extraordinary abilities that God uses them? More likely it is because they live moment by moment as a window through which God’s power can be seen.

Why does all of this work?  It is because when we recognize our weakness and even embrace our sufferings, we are most like Jesus himself. The Scriptures say that he was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. When we serve others, when we are ridiculed, when we suffer persecution, when we submit to the frailties of life in a fallen world … THEN, we are most like Christ who did all of those things, depending daily upon the Father in prayer in submission and obedience.

In a sentence, here is the big idea of this theme: God allows things to happen to us, so that change can happen in us, so that ministry can happen through us!

And that is counterintuitive, not merely intuitive, not merely instinctual.

The Duty of Mankind (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14)

Solomon wraps up his writing by summarizing his process, the value of his words of wisdom, concluding with an all-encompassing summary statement. If you are going to live wisely, Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.

Process – Having been given the great gift of wisdom, it was the Teacher’s goal to ponder life and speak of its ups and downs in proverbial sayings. Again, these are statements of observation that are generally true, not objective truths in a “Thus saith the Lord” sort of way. These teachings contain truth, and they were written in a method of excellence to find the best words for communication.

Ecclesiastes 12:9 – Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. 10 The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.

Wisdom Words – Solomon asserts that these words will hold life together successfully in the same way that firmly embedded nails hold objects together. He also pictures them as goads –pointed rods used to urge on farm animals – having the value of giving direction and stimulus for wise living. The words are of great value as from one shepherd, meaning from God. Others may wear themselves out by the making and study of endless other books, but there is one final truth from one Divine source.

Ecclesiastes 12:11 – The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. 12 Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.

Summary – Putting it all together, though life will have ups and downs, futility, and injustices, the duty of man is to keep God and His truth as the central focus for duty and obedience. Doing so will bring about a general life of success and reward, for judgment falls upon those who do otherwise.

Ecclesiastes 12:13 – Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.

14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.

Even the wisest man did not see, know and understand everything. There were, as we’ve seen over and over in the past several weeks, many life observations that Solomon could not explain. It is an amazing truth that we are able to have greater understanding than did he, having in our possession and generation within God’s unfolding revelation a more complete understanding of time and eternity.

So if Solomon could rest in God with the unknowns of his experience, surely we can trust our faithful Lord and Savior to work all things together for good and for ultimate justice and righteousness.

We simply need to do what is right as God has instructed, leaving the rest to Him. In that posture is success in life under the sun, even in a crumbling world. Just do it.

<< So this ends the series on Ecclesiastes. Our next sermon series over the summer is called “Counterintuitive: Instinct Busters of Faith” … looking at various biblical themes that are not only surprising but also the opposite of what we would naturally expect or do. Our devotionals will not be daily for this series. Rather there will be one summary devotional on Mondays of each week. >>

Fear God Early in Life (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8)

Life is busy; it has always been this way. In the days before mechanization, people had to walk distances to work if they lived in the city. Or if they lived and worked in farming, the days were long between the demands of morning and evening milking, while also tending to the fields. I recall grandparent stories of both of those scenarios, and while fascinated by many details, I recall being grateful in the extreme that I lived in the modern era (of the early 60s when hearing these accounts).

So we can be thankful that we have so many new devices of the computer/technological era, all of which work together to give us more leisure time, right?  Nope, don’t think so. I’ve never seen people so driven by so many things as in our day. My early ministry years were very simple by comparison, as simply having any sort of meeting or gathering was much easier to schedule. People travelled much less and were very regular in church attendance week to week.

All of the conveniences of the modern era have not made our lives less complex … no, just the opposite. Elucidating all the reasons for this would be an interesting study.

So, with the increased busyness of life, it is a fact that it is easier than ever to put off the things of eternal values.

I know for a fact that many people have great desires to soon make their faith and the fostering of an intimate relationship with God to be a discipline that is just over the next horizon. Once education is completed and the fun of young adult independence has been indulged, then God will become a priority. Next, when marriage is entered, then it will be time to connect with the Lord more specifically. Surely as children come and are growing, that will be the time to bring God also into the family. After the kids are grown and gone and life settles down, church and faith disciplines can be given attention at last. Soon the grave is closer than ever, but never was God a priority, and the following generations evidence that absence particularly.

One is left at last with “ought-to-have” or “Shoulda, coulda, woulda.”  I actually saw a blog by that name that aptly quoted American playwright Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman) who said, “Maybe all we can hope to do is end up with the right regrets.”  Wow!  That’s almost Solomonic!

Indeed, as Solomon turns toward the finish line in this final 12th chapter of Ecclesiastes, the exhortation is clear from the first line, Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come …

The remainder of this thought goes on to give colorful pictures of aging. Remember God before these things happen …

  • the days of diminished joy and darker gloom from accumulated years and decreased vitality.
  • when the arms and legs tremble, the back is stooped, legs are bent and feeble, the teeth are fewer in number, and the eyes fail as light dims.
  • when one cannot sleep well and the sound of birds is no longer heard.
  • when fears develop about heights and venturing out of the house.
  • the hair turns grey and white, movement is torturously slow, and appetites fail.
  • death comes, and the body returns to the dust of the ground.

So when is the time to make God a priority in life if you have not done so? Right now! If you’re more younger than older, that is a bonus for sure – beyond being the way it should be done. If you’re more older than younger, yes, there has been time lost; but there is no sense in losing more time. And yes again, better late than never.

All of this is because life is ________ … you guessed it – “meaningless” or “vain.”  Again, this is the word used throughout that speaks of brevity, literally of a “breath,” of life as a “poof.”

Know God. Walk and talk with him daily. Life, albeit short, does not work without him.

Wise Investment, and Wise Reverence (Ecclesiastes 11:1-10)

One of the key interpretive points of the nearby American Civil War Antietam Battlefield is the contrast in personalities between the two generals: Robert E. Lee for the Confederacy and George B. McClellan for the Union. Though McClellan’s shortcomings are often over-emphasized and lacking in nuance, it is true that his proclivity was to only offer battle and attack when everything was just right. Lee, on the other hand, was one who looked for opportunity to exploit at every moment. More often than not, his aggressiveness worked out well for him (though an unwise attack at Gettysburg was his major undoing).

Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Paralysis by analysis. Solomon would say that you can’t live that way, always fearful to act in the face of some fraction of unknowns. There will always be things that are unknown. If you waited until you were perfectly, financially secure before getting married, you’ll die single. If you wait until the perfect time to begin a family, you’ll never have kids. If you wait for the perfect moment to invest, you’ll never move your cash out of your checking account or from under your pillow. Or, if you’re like me and never can find the perfect time to take a vacation, you’ll never leave Downsville!

Here’s the problem: nothing is perfect in an imperfect world. The only guarantee is that there are no guarantees. Solomon says that trees fall down – maybe this way, maybe that way – but once it falls, there it lays. Employing a farming illustration, he says that the farmer who is always looking at the sky and fretting over the weather in hopes of the perfect day for planting … well, he’ll never get his seed into the ground. And even a gardening dope like me knows that you can’t have a harvest without having a planting.

Essentially, the advice in today’s chapter 11 of Ecclesiastes is to “go for it” in life. Live! Invest! Be active, yet also be wise and trusting God; and in this fashion one may find some success of reward and happiness in this life that is but a breath – a poof!

A way of being wise is to diversify one’s energies and resources. Investing in multiple ventures brings the best prospect of a reward, while mitigating the real possibilities of loss. This timeless principle underlies investing to this day.

But again, things can go wrong. Disasters can happen. Though we can grow to know more about God and His ways, we can never fully know all that God is involved in doing, or when those events will happen.

But there is no future or life worth living in sitting back and cowering in uncertainties. We should move out boldly in life, doing so early in life and enjoying the vigor of earlier years … all the while being mindful that there is a judgment to come. So grasp life, live boldly, be wise, honor God and His truth, and serve in such a way as to be a blessing to others.

Ecclesiastes 11:1 – Ship your grain across the sea; after many days you may receive a return.

2 Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land.

3 If clouds are full of water, they pour rain on the earth. Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie.

4 Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.

5 As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.

6 Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.

7 Light is sweet, and it pleases the eyes to see the sun.

8 However many years anyone may live, let them enjoy them all. But let them remember the days of darkness, for there will be many. Everything to come is meaningless.

9 You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

10 So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are meaningless.