Happy to Live, Happier to Die (Philippians 1:12-26)

As with other devotionals prior to this one on weeks that I have presented the sermon, this post is essentially a transcript of the message. Those who attended and heard the content may find it to have value in reinforcing the concepts covered, whereas the 50% or so of those on vacation each summer Sunday may find this to keep them in the flow of this Counterintuitive series.

Many of you may likely recall Frank Minirth from Christian radio of the past, particularly the Minirth/Meier Clinic broadcast. Frank was an internationally-known psychiatrist, author, and radio personality. His successful medical practice was distinguished by integrating Christian principles into mental healthcare. He was the author or co-author of over 100 books, including the best-sellers Happiness Is a Choice, Love Is a Choice, and How to Beat Burnout.

When I was at Dallas Theological Seminary over 35 years ago, Frank was an adjunct professor whom I sat under for a couple of classes relative to Christian counselling. (No, I’m not a counsellor!)  A native of Arkansas, Frank was sometimes a bit difficult to understand, even in the neighboring state of Texas with its own peculiar twang.

One day he was praying to begin the class session, and he finished his prayer by saying, “… and so Lord, help us to die, in Jesus name, Amen.”  All of the guys around me looked at each other and whispered, “What did he just say?  Help us to DIE?”  And finally, one of the guys said, “Oh, that’s just his accent; he said, ‘Help us TODAY!’”  And we all cracked up laughing, causing the famed psychiatrist at the front to quietly psychoanalyze why this unruly group of students in the back of the room was laughing at his prayer!

Dying is not something we would like a lot of help getting accomplished! But the Scriptures often speak very positively about death. And that is a surprise. Being content about dying 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.

A summary thought to lead into today’s topic is this: We want to cling to life in this world and grasp onto it for as long as possible, yet the better world and greater life is yet to come by being with the Lord.

This dying thing – I’m pretty sure this is something everyone thinks about a lot more than most anyone admits, particularly as one ages. But the Scriptures tell us to not fear this at all, rather it is something to anticipate positively. Yet, in the meantime, there is work to be done for the spread of the gospel through us and the gifts we’ve been given, as we work together to build the Kingdom.

This is an attitude that is very different than what is the mindset of the person of this world who does not have the eternal comfort of a relationship with Christ. This was very evident in an article that came out this past week, being referenced by a number of media personalities.

The article was published on the cutting-edge website called “Medium.com”.  Written by professor and technological futurist Douglas Rushkoff, it was entitled “How Tech’s Richest Plan to Save Themselves after the Apocalypse.”

The author was given the equivalent of one-half year’s professorial salary to come speak to a group of Silicon Valley people at an elite location on the future of technology. But upon getting there, he found out that he was actually being paid by a group of only five extremely wealthy hedge-fund managers to answer their personal questions about their fears of the future.

The group was concerned about the demise of the planet due to climate issues and other manmade calamitous possibilities, asking about where and how they could best survive a doomsday scenario they are rather sure is inevitably going to happen. Where would the best location be for a compound – Alaska, or Australia? But then, how could they manage their compound successfully relative to the outside world?

The author wrote … “They knew armed guards would be required to protect their compounds from the angry mobs. But how would they pay the guards once money was worthless? What would stop the guards from choosing their own leader? The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers – if that technology could be developed in time.”

Truly these elitists – men who are the most materially successful of all on the planet – are yet bankrupt and empty when it comes to the reality of true life. They are literally “godless.”  And therefore, their solutions could come only from the material world, hoping that the morally neutral world of technology could save them, even at the expense of all others.

Truly, this is hopelessness at its highest level. It is the ultimate end of the road for the human mind in a sinfully fallen and lost world. But even we who know Christ and have the intellectual certainty of eternal hope, we too – being human – have an aversion to death. And on one hand, rightly so – it is the great enemy. Yet there is a perspective we should have that is bigger … transcendent … we might even say “counterintuitive” to the natural way of thinking.

The Apostle Paul especially had this way of thinking, this mindset that is so “other worldly” and beyond the normative flesh and mind. And we see this thinking particularly well-stated in his letter to the Philippians.

As always when turning to Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, we remind ourselves that this is a “prison epistle.”  Paul is penning these words while literally being chained personally to a Roman guard. In the first chapter, after Paul’s warm greeting of affection for the recipients, expressing his confidence in God’s good work in their lives and lifting a prayer for them, he begins to reflect on his own circumstances in verse 12 …

And the first thing we will see today from this passage is this …

  1. Bad Circumstances Can Have Positive Outcomes (12-14)

To the most common question asked between people – “How are you?” – we have often answered or heard the response, “Oh, not bad I suppose, under the circumstances.”  Another of my seminary professors – the late, well-known conference and radio speaker Howie Hendricks – was famous for mocking that answer by saying, “Under the circumstances? What are you doing down there?”

Indeed, the letter of Paul to the Philippians could be subtitled, “Living Life Above the Circumstances.”

Philippians 1:12 – Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. 13 As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14 And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.

Everyone knew that Paul was not a prisoner because he was a criminal; rather, it was because of his outspoken witness for Christ. And so, it would be logical for the Philippians to have a concern that Paul would be very discouraged by this turn of events, sending Pastor Epaphroditis and a financial gift. After all, is it not terribly discouraging when you do something good and out of genuinely kind intention, only to be falsely accused in a public way – perhaps with others believing the errant story about you?

But Paul was not discouraged, quite the contrary. He says that the circumstances had eventuated toward greater good in terms of the advance of the gospel.

At this time, Paul is not specifically in a prison. Actually, he is in his own quarters, though having a Roman Praetorian Guard fastened to him. We can surely imagine the conversations. It is rather clear from all we know of the life of the Apostle Paul that he did not lack for being anything but a chatty fellow!  So, who was really the prisoner?

The result was that conversations with these guards on their shifts resulted in many of them, along with those of their extended relationships, coming to a saving faith in Christ. Though Paul was unable to go out to the crowds, God was not limited in bringing the crowds to him!

An additional positive impact and effect was that this obvious work of God’s grace through him was encouraging the local believers in Rome to also be confident in God’s power to work through them in proclaiming the gospel. The church there was growing and expanding. There was a multiplication principle at work. This was amazing!

And the lesson for us is clear. Though it is natural to believe that bad circumstances thwart the larger purposes of our lives, God is able to use them bigger … because HE is bigger! He is ABOVE the circumstances.

But it’s true. Think of the people – many of whom we’ve known in this body in recent years – who went through difficult circumstances, even the valley of the shadow of death. But it was in those times where their lives and their faith most shone brightly!  Through those times, God was most evident, and they were oddly most content and at peace. We might even say that it was all rather counterintuitive as to what might be expected!

But here now is why life circumstances don’t get the believer in Christ down and out …

  1. The Advance of the Kingdom is Bigger than our Circumstances (15-18)

Many of you who are close to me know and have heard me say that there is nothing much in life that gives me more joy than to be working outside on my country property – cutting grass, trimming trees, fighting back to reclaim the forest behind my house where my family of foxes lives. I say that, but honestly, after a day or two of that work, I’m ready to get out again and see people and be involved somehow in something that has greater impact and purpose.

We all need to think about living for something that is bigger than ourselves. And that something is the gospel message of the Kingdom of God, as Paul writes …

Philippians 1:15 – It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. 16 The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. 18 But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

Paul speaks here of the various factions of those who were preaching the gospel. He can’t be speaking here about the Judaizers who promoted the works salvation stuff of depending upon the Old Testament keeping of the Law – something that Paul called “another Gospel.”  Here it would seem that the message is not substantially different, though the motivations of those doing it were questionable. Some of them were likely able to gain more of a following by drawing people toward them and away from that jailbird named Paul.

This was annoying, at least. But Paul steps back from it by saying, But what does it matter?  … Christ is preached. Paul is maintaining here the bigger picture. So, this sort of thing happened then, and it happens today. I’ve lived to see it – the building of personal kingdoms around eternal truth. Yep, it’s annoying. But here now I’ve learned more in my 60s (easier than in my 30s) to just overlook the motivations more and more and have the bigger picture in mind.

And that is the takeaway point for all of us. There is something that is SO MUCH bigger than ourselves and our lives. The message of the gospel is more important than anything else. And when we are sold out to that, other things tend to fall into place, and we can depend upon God’s goodness to give us a sufficiency of living. Here the is a major takeaway point for us today …

“Our contentment in life is inextricably tied to our commitment to gospel participation.”  ….. to having our priorities aligned with God’s top priority.

But you might say, “Yeah, but… but… but… sometimes people are really committed to truth and yet it doesn’t work out so well for them personally. Like, people are daily martyred in places around the world because of their faith. And yes, some people are powerful testimonies in their dying days, but… but… they’re like very, very dead right now!”  Here’s the divine perspective on that …

  1. Living or Dying; It’s All a Win-Win Situation (18-26)

Unlike Paul’s second letter to Timothy where he knows the end of his life is near, here to the Philippians there is a more positive tone. Paul really believes he is going to be released, though it is not a certainty … as we read …

Philippians 1:18 – Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and God’s provision of the Spirit of Jesus Christ what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. 20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that through my being with you again your boasting in Christ Jesus will abound on account of me. 

I love all sorts of sports (even soccer, but only just a little bit). But, a sport I’ve never felt any measure of calling to get involved in is that of mountain climbing. I really don’t mind heights, but are you kidding me? There is no way that hanging by your fingernails on the side of a mountain makes any sense at all! That truly is treacherous!

However, there are a lot of similarities between the venture of journeying through life and the venture of mountaineering. Look at what this advertisement says, coming from a company marketing mountain climbing equipment…

“Mountaineering can be fun, and relatively safe. Much depends on your level of expertise, partner, and choice of route. There are some potential objective hazards over which you have no control, such as weather, falling rock, and unseasonably late snow. What can stack the cards in your favor, however, is arming yourself with the right gear. It’s true, mountain climbing has become easier in the past decade, with sport-specific technology producing lighter, more efficient equipment. Lightweight helmets, mountaineering axes, and harnesses shave pounds off the weight of traditional gear, making it easier to feel like a climber rather than a pack mule.”

Let me see if I can rewrite the above advertisement in different words… about living life …

“The journey of life can be fun, and relatively safe. Much depends upon your level of experience in walking with your partner – Jesus Christ – and the route you take in terms of the priorities of your life. There are some potential objective hazards over which you have no control, such as diseases, natural disasters, and unexpected events. What can stack the cards in your favor, however, is arming yourself with the Word of God. It is true, the journey of life has become potentially easier given the abundance of resources available in recent years. With lightweight tech devices, podcasts, study Bibles, and audio and video resources that ease the burdens of understanding the weighty truths of Scripture, it is easier for the believer to feel like a real champion in this life instead of a mere survivor.”

It is good for us to rightly calibrate our expectations for the inevitable sorrows and circumstances of life, even of losing one’s life. I fear that too many of us as Christians fail to have an appropriate balance in this regard, viewing life rather in terms that are too negative and too much expecting that everything should always go swimmingly well for us.

Yes, there is great reason for joy in this world – our excitement at the prospect of living in this world as an ambassador of the King of Kings. And beyond that, even with the worst thing that can happen, we can see it as the best thing, to personally live in the Kingdom.

You’ve got to love the perspective of the Apostle Paul… Philippians 1:21 – For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.

So what do you do with a person like this? He is happy to live, because that means the joy of a life lived with God. But if the worst thing that could happen, happens – death… that is even better yet!  Because, to die means being with the Lord! That is a great perspective. Win-win!

And Peter also has the same great idea… “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8,9)  He rightly notes that we are even now, here in this fallen world, beginning to receive the joy of all that comes from the salvation of our souls.

It may be counterintuitive, but that’s how truth is in a dark and fallen world.

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The Way to be Truly Great (Matthew 18:1-5)

Imagine if a person who was 20 feet tall and 950 pounds came along and picked you up, face-to-face, under the arms, and threw you another 10 feet into the air!  He’d then catch you over his head and swing you under his legs before tossing you back up into space, this time pretending he was going to drop you.

What?  You wouldn’t giggle and laugh all the way through that experience?  You’re so lame!  Even a toddler laughs when having the same experience, so why would you be concerned?

But that’s the point. Children have an amazingly simple faith and trust component with those whom they know to follow. And that train of thinking in counterintuitive to the adult mind. We could summarize it this way: The world’s system is to fight to the top and establish one’s greatness by extraordinary effort. Jesus says the model of greatness is to be like a child in our trust.

In Matthew 18 we come across another of a number of passages where the disciples are at least all thinking, if not outright arguing, about who is going to be greatest in the Kingdom. All of Christ’s talk about his suffering and the opposition that will lead him to the cross does not stick with them and mentally register at all. They’re thinking about greatness, not simply following and serving. Here’s the exchange …

Matthew 18:1 – At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

2 He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. 3 And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

Whereas children can at times have self-centered concerns and expressions, they really are remarkable – as compared to adults – in terms of their dependent followership. They wake up ready to be fed, and to be led, before they’re put back to bed. Their eyes are on the parent, looking to follow and go where the parent takes them. In this, they are a good model of discipleship.

I distinctly remember one particular day as a pre-school child, shopping with my mom in a Woolworth’s store (you remember them, right?) at the 25th Street Shopping Center in Easton, PA.  I somehow got separated and could not find her. I panicked. A store clerk took me by the hand and went aisle to aisle, asking all the women if they were my mother. Eventually, we found her; and she was so surprised that I went through such a panic. She wasn’t going to leave me behind!  And politely she scolded me that I needed to keep my eye on her more actively.

So too, we need to keep our eyes on Christ, recognizing our dependence upon him. We should walk and travel with him, serving with and for him as opportunity presents. This results ultimately in reward and benefit in the eternal Kingdom. But whatever ranking we have there is not our concern, being faithful in the next steps is what should occupy our thoughts and deeds … like a child. It is rather simple.

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.

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.