The Small Faith that is Huge

Remember the rhyme from elementary school to help you remember the year of the discovery of America?… “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. He had three ships and left from Spain; He sailed through sunshine, wind and rain…”

And of course, a part of the story was to know that though he was outfitted by Spain and sailed under that flag, he was from Italy. And where I come from in New Jersey – Christopher Columbus was the patron saint of the large Italian community there, with a large statue (1892, 400th anniversary) in town of him holding a globe in his hands. And then, no more than a mile away, but on the other side of the Delaware River in Easton, PA is another Columbus statue put there by the Italian community of that city around 1930. So, he’s kind of a big deal in the Lehigh Valley!

You may also recall that his hometown is Genoa, Italy, which is located on the northwest coast not terribly far from France. Apart from Columbus, you may have never heard of Genoa, that is, until two weeks ago. The collapse of a 650-foot section of the Morandi Bridge sent more than 30 vehicles plunging about 160 feet upon the houses and streets below. A part of the A10 motorway, the primary road along the coast, is surely a bridge Diana and I went over in 2013 when we travelled through that region.

For the most part – other than a few people who are creeped out by the Chesapeake Bay Bridge – we don’t lack any faith that bridges are going to hold us and be safe to cross. The 43 people who were killed in the Genoa collapse had sufficient faith so as to be confidently on the bridge, but the object of their faith was faulty at the very worst moment.

So how would you feel about walking across one of the several glass bottom bridges in China?  I really, really think I would like to do this! Yes, it could be frightening, but not so terribly as in a picture I showed in church. A particular fellow was so frightened that he was on his back with two girls dragging his frightened carcass off the span. I guess we would have to say that his faith faltered!  But he was entirely secure, unlike the folks in Italy.

So here’s the point: Tremendous faith in a weak object may prove ultimately deadly, whereas small amounts of faith in a strong object is entirely safe.  It is sort of like walking on ice. If your faith is strong but the ice is thin, you’re going to get wet. But even if your faith is weak while the ice is thick, you’re going to be safe (though you might slip and have to be dragged to shore by a couple of girls!).

If you understand these illustrations and apply them to your life, you don’t have to read any further. We often use the phrase when skeptical about something, “Man, I don’t have enough faith to trust in that!”  And it is natural to think that it is the amount of faith that we have that makes the difference, when in fact our greater need is to place our faith in the right object. And that is God himself and his faithful word and promises.

So our summary idea today is this: We tend to believe we should muster up huge amounts of faith, whereas small faith in the right object is what counts.

And thinking this way is what we might term “counterintuitive

There are two primary passages in the gospels from which our thoughts emanate today, both of these being occasions where Christ spoke of the power of even a small amount of faith placed in the appropriate place.

Luke 17:5-6 – The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

He replied, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it will obey you.

In the context of this passage, Jesus had said some difficult things to the disciples about how his followers should live. He had just taught them about forgiveness – one of the most difficult tasks for everyone – saying that they should forgive others even seven times in a day if they are repentant. And so they say, “Increase our faith!”

But Jesus says it is not about the size of faith. A true faith, even if small but placed truly in God, is able to do great things. The illustration is of the smallest of seeds contrasted with the biggest/toughest of trees – the Mulberry tree – being known for its deep roots.

And the other passage is from the book of Matthew, also chapter 17 …  

Matthew 17:14 – When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”

17 “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” 18 Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment.

19 Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

20 He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.”

A mustard seed is similar in size to a sesame seed, so their “little” faith must have indeed been miniscule.

When we truly believe in God’s promises and act in accord with his will, anything is possible. But our proclivity is to not really believe, but rather to be overwhelmed by the scope or size of something, or to not really trust God but to rather continue with our own efforts. And that is very silly, considering God’s greatness and sovereign power.

So don’t fear stepping out boldly in faith, even if you struggle with its size. There is no reason to fear when that faith is placed in God. Yep, that’s counterintuitive for sure. But that’s God’s way, and it’s the way to true satisfaction and fulfillment.

< We’ll be back with weekday devotionals after the next series begins on Sunday, September 16th.  It will be a five-week look at our identity as believers. >

The Unseen Enemy (Ephesians 6:10-20)

It was when our three oldest sons were still quite young, and we had a baby as well. It was overnight from a Saturday evening / Sunday morning. About 3:00 in the morning, suddenly everything in the house seemed to jump at the same time. The baby began crying and our oldest son was in his bedroom throwing up on the floor. The dog was freaking out barking.  Diana went to deal with our sick son while I got the baby. This was in the month of March, and I could feel a cold wind blowing through the house. Going downstairs with the baby, I found that the door to the house was blown wide open, though I was sure I had locked it earlier. Closing it, I returned to settle the baby while Diana cleaned up the other mess.

After getting back to bed ourselves, Diana said what I was already thinking and praying about. It was a demonic event. She said that our son told her that “Satan was in the room, and every time he came closer to the bed, I threw up again.”

Triggering my awareness of the nature of things was the realization that the sermon theme for later that Sunday morning was on dealing with the reality of the Kingdom of Darkness. Praying out loud to rebuke any authority the demonic realm had, instant peace came over our household.

That is part “A” of the story.

Part “B” involves what happened earlier in the evening. We had an all-church fellowship at the church. While it was happening, the church phone rang (this was long before cell phones) and I answered it. It was a woman inquiring about our service times and details, saying that she and her husband would be attending the next morning. She further confided that she was a Christian, though her husband was an unbeliever; and she wanted to let me know that this might be a one-time opportunity for him to come. It was her hope that I had a uniquely evangelistic message in store, so she was not encouraged to hear that it was about Satan and the demonic realm. They did continue to both come to the church, though I remembered little about his spiritual condition, merely that he made some friends and seemed to enjoy being there. As a military guy, before long they had to move to a new place.

Part “C” – Diana’s mother, along with her sister and our brother-in-law, live in Yakima, Washington State. They are involved in a church there and were serving as hosts in a ministry to welcome new attenders. On one occasion, as some new people were sharing their story, a couple recounted how they lived in New Jersey over 20 years prior, the husband saying that he was an unbeliever who resisted going to church. At last, he gave in, and he told the story that the first day he attended, he trusted in Christ – this forever changing his life. Finding out the church was in Phillipsburg, NJ, my sister-in-law asked who was the pastor … yes, her brother-in-law, me!  I never knew of his conversion that day, until hearing this story.

So, you think there might have been some spiritual warfare going on in the non-material world that weekend in New Jersey?  I have only ever had a few of these sorts of situations of which I was keenly aware, though I surely presume – accurately – that they are very common, though out of sight and distinct knowledge.

The Scriptures do teach us that spiritual warfare is a reality. We tend to think that our major problems and difficulties in life are the things we can see and that we wrestle with daily. Yet the true and bigger enemy – the source of so many of our problems and the instigating and agitating force behind it all – is the dark world of Satan and his demonic legions who are at war against us as members of the Kingdom of Light.

And thinking this way is certainly another example of something that is “counterintuitive.”

Here is a summary idea today as we turn to Ephesians chapter six: Though it may seem that our fight is against flesh and blood, the real battle is an unseen spiritual conflict.

There are many churches and denominations that have a very great emphasis upon the spiritual warfare component, and we might think of the more Pentecostal churches in particular, as well as many African-American congregations. And I see this in the black churches with whom we’ve entered into ministry partnership in the past year.

They have a category of servants called “armor bearers,” … men who often stand along the walls while the service is ongoing. This harkens back to the Old Testament times of kings who went to war, and they see the pastor as “at war” spiritually. Some of these churches have “flaggers,” … people who wave colorful flags with Christian symbols during the worship session. This too has Old Testament allusions to banners and warfare, with the thought also being that this confuses the demonic enemies that may be present. And much of the communications and prayers during the service reference powers of spiritual darkness.

Are these folks over-emphasizing this element, as compared to our more academic and teaching modalities, thus giving Satan more credit and attention than he deserves?  I think there is truth in that. But I also think that we are as guilty on the other end of being insufficiently cognizant of the grand picture of true realities beyond the visible world – hence we are guilty of perhaps being too self-sufficient and independent of trusting God.

The Apostle Paul acutely knew that spiritual warfare was very real. As we turn to Ephesians we recall that this is one of Paul’s prison epistles. He is literally writing while chained to a Roman soldier. And surrounded by soldiers, he is able to see the elements of armor and think about how the Christian soldier is to be also outfitted.

As Paul concludes his letter to the Ephesians, let’s think about the pictures he gives them as to how they are to stand and contend in the spiritual battle we face…

  1. We are to take an active role in the conflict. (10-12)

This is not a spectator sport and not a fake conflict. It is real and you’re on the battlefield. There is no success in denial, and certainly no success in curling up in a ball. There is a battle to be fought, though there is every resource for confidence and success.

Ephesians 6:10 – Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.

You are in the battle, so get yourself outfitted for success. Yes, this is real; and there is a need to take it seriously, as the enemy is very organized and active. Yet, there is no need to fear. Satan wants you to be afraid and to paralyze you into inaction. He would like you to be a spiritual hypochondriac.

We could compare it to germs seeking to get into your body, looking for a dirty and exposed area in which to enter and grow. But the best thing to do is to stay healthy and fit. And even if there is a sickness, you take action to deal with it and move on.

Our resident strength is in the Lord – verse 10. There are three very cool Greek words here – strength, power, might – that speak of both a residual strength and a resourceful power to overcome anything.

Verse 11 – Get dressed and get fully prepared. The enemy is sooner or later going to be coming at you with his “schemes” (methodias in Greek).  Paul said in 2 Corinthians 2:11 – For we are not unaware of his schemes. In professional baseball of our day, teams deploy a wide variety of defensive shifts – moving players dramatically to parts of the field as never seen before. This is because a whole series of metrics have informed teams as to the exact patterns as to where a batter hits the ball most frequently. They are “familiar with his schemes … his methods” and are therefore defensively prepared. And this is how we can be relative to the long history of Satan’s career.

Verse 12 – We face an organized enemy. We know there are ranks and layers of the kingdom of darkness – the one-third of angels who rebelled against God in following Satan. These are real beings, not just forces of evil in some generic sense. And though these powers may use the material world for their purposes, ultimately the struggle is a spiritual one. We may think it is evil people or sinful places and things, but ultimately behind any of that is a greater spiritual reality. It is easy to forget that … to discount that and merely see the conflict as material or physical.

  1. Our spiritual armor outfits us for a defensive struggle (13)

The elements of the full armor of God – known as the panoply – are almost completely defensive in nature.

Ephesians 6:13 – Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.

Again, note that there is no doubt that a day of conflict will come; but again also, you can be successful as fully outfitted in defensive posture. This army is not an outfit where you get to be in the army but never get to the battle lines. It is not a situation where people above you – like pastors and missionaries and church elders and the sort – fight the battle on the front lines. No, the front lines ARE going to come to you.

But don’t be undone, you are outfitted well to ward off the attacks of Satan and his spiritual mafia.

Three times it says to STAND. Actually, the first of these – you may be able to stand your ground – is a compound word, whereas the next two times are the simple word for standing firm. You may recall from childhood memory with the KJV that it says to “withstand in the evil day.”  And that is actually a good translation. In Greek, the word is anthistemi … and you can maybe hear the English word “antihistamine,” which you know is a drug to fight off/resist/withstand reactions from something like an allergy attack.

So it means to absorb an attack, and at the end to be seen standing, not knocked down or out. And here now we see some details about this armor …

  1. Three armor elements come to us at the time of salvation. (14-15)

It is great to know that we have resources that come with enlistment in the Lord’s army, we don’t have to find our own …

Ephesians 6:14 – Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace.

The pieces of armor are mentioned in the order of which they would be put on by soldier, surely witnessed by Paul on hundreds of occasions.

The first piece is the belt of truth. This belt around the waist was for the purpose of the preparation for which all other pieces would be connected. It was indispensable. Nothing would work without it; the pieces would fall off and not be useful.

And so it is when truth is absent. We see this in our world today. When every truth is equal and anyone can have whatever truth they want … this simply does not work.

So there needs to be an objective foundation.

The second piece is the breastplate of righteousness. As with the previous item, commentators do not believe it to be speaking of objective truth and imputed righteousness, but rather truthfulness and righteousness in living. Well … yes … but where does this come from other than the truth of the Word of God and the character of righteousness that come from relationship with Christ?

Even if arrows, or the blow of a sword, were to get past outer defenses held in one’s hands, here this breastplate shields the soldier from ultimate penetration … for example, the arrows of accusation from the Evil One.

The third item is footwear of peace. Roman footwear was made for action and stability. They were outfitted with hobnails for traction. One of the great treasures of salvation is the sense of peace that comes with it. We know in the gospel message that we are right with God. We have the ability to have peace also with others and we know that this truth ultimately prevails. So this keeps us from being knocked off our feet, even in times of difficulty and spiritual conflict. As Paul also wrote to the Corinthians at the end of his discourse on the resurrection… Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

   4. Three additional elements are needed to assure victorious conflict. (16-17)

It is good to know that there is more we can do to help in the day of battle. These are items to be picked up and used especially when attacks arise…

Ephesians 6:16 – In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

The first is the shield of faith. The Roman shield was about 2.5 feet wide and 4 feet high, made of wood and overlaid with linen and leather so as to catch the enemy’s arrows and extinguish the fire. This is a shield of faith, speaking of our trust in God. When the flaming arrows of doubt, temptation, fear, disappointment, selfishness or accusation hit the truth, the truth is able to extinguish them from burning us. Again, growing in faith and understanding of God will expand the effectiveness of our shield.  It is also interesting to know that the Romans had a way of interlocking their shields together – this being a beautiful picture of our mutual strength in the army and family of faith, the church.

The second additional element is the helmet of salvation. The idea is that this provides a critical defense. Knowing we are saved and cannot be destroyed by the enemy is like the helmet that protected the soldier in conflict. Just as a soldier would be exposed without it, we are not safe without taking daily with us this saving truth into spiritual battle. Our minds need to be right and safe – focused upon the truth of salvation; because right thoughts lead to right attitudes which lead to right actions which lead to right habits.

Finally, the last element is the sword of the spirit. This is the only offensive item that is listed, though it is seen as a tool to also be used defensively. Here it is not speaking about the written word (the logos) but rather the spoken word (rhema). As the Spirit of God leads to speak the truth of God’s word, it is an effective defensive tool. The most amazing illustration we have of this is the pattern that we observe in Matthew 4 as to how Christ dealt with Satan’s attacks by the speaking of God’s word. (Of course, to be able to speak it, one has to know it.)

But at those moments of Christ’s temptations, we also know that – like every other moment in his earthly life – they were infused with prayerful dependence …

  1. Prayer is the surrounding element for successful empowerment. (18-20)

The element that surrounds everything with connection is that of prayer, yet it is so often the forgotten element …

Ephesians 6:18 – And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. 19 Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Prayer is both the easiest thing both to do and the easiest thing to forget or ignore doing.

It should be done in the Spirit – the HS enables us to have that conduit of connection to God and enables us to pray with diligence.

And it should be consistent and continuous – be alert and always keep on praying – which iterally means “in all persistence” … meaning to not let down.

On all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests – This speaks of all sorts of prayers – in personal need, spiritual conflict, on behalf of others, seeking wisdom, whatever.

As he finishes, Paul asks for their prayers for him in his unique circumstances. He will be going before Roman authorities who see him as an enemy of the state. The Jews saw him as a heretic. Paul seeks clarity in proclaiming the mystery of the gospel – this new thing that had come to the world through Jesus Christ. He wants to have both clarity and boldness, and these are assets at all times!

And finally, again, we see how Paul had the bigger, spiritual battle picture in mind – seeing himself as an ambassador, though even now in chains.

Indeed, prayer sustained Paul and sustains us as warriors in a vast spiritual conflict that is often beyond our sights.

We’re in an army, where there is a common saying that “an army marches on its stomach.”  A good general needs to be aware of his lines of supply, and it is a never-ending burden of command. At times, especially in wars such as the American Civil War, armies would sometimes “outmarch their line of supply.”  And then they had to “live off the land” which put them in very perilous conditions.  That pretty much is what was happening at Antietam with the Confederate Army. What we do is trust God in dependence upon his resources through prayer, not “outmarching” that source of supply.

There surely would have been a lot less stress in my life as an athlete in earlier years and then as a high school coach in latter years if I knew before the game or the race that there was no possibility that my team could lose!

And that is how it is through our connection to Christ and the army of the Kingdom of Light. The struggle is real, the enemy hates us, we are targets. But there is nothing to ultimately fear. The way to be hurt in the conflict is to ignore it or to fight it with the strength of alleged independence, and that never works.

So join the fight, taking up the full armor of God. You can’t lose!

The Inside Trumps the Outside (2 Corinthians 4)

It was many years ago … many years!!  It was around the time I was at the end of high school and going into college – so, like age 18 or 19.  There was a particular girl that I had come to know through working at both a Christian camp in South Jersey and a Bible conference center at the Jersey shore. She really was a wonderful young woman in every way, particularly with a passionate heart for people who did not know Christ as Savior. We were very good friends, off and on and over a distance, this being at a time of life where communication was pretty much by letters through the mail. Somewhere in that time she sent me her high school picture, and in remarks on the back she included a Bible reference … 1 Corinthians 4:18. And I got my Bible, turned to this reference and noted that it says … Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you.

Hmmm… what did this mean? Was it a cryptic get-lost message?  Arrogant?  So, she thinks I’m arrogant and does not want to ever see me again?  Is that what she thinks of me?  Wow!  After a time of consideration, I thought that perhaps she just maybe put the wrong reference, as even then I knew that there was a 2 Corinthians with at least four chapters. So, I checked to see what Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth had to say for 4:18, and here it is … So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Now that sounds a lot better, and I’m sure (I think) that is what she meant to reference! (But even there, I think her message was, “You’re temporary!”  And I was indeed.)

Fixing our eyes on things eternal, that is not the way of this world is it?  It’s not even the way of the Christian world. How do we measure success? Surely it has to do with numbers and metrics. The biggest churches are surely the best, and the mega-church pastors are absolutely the ones who will have the largest mansions in heaven on “Divinity Drive” just down the street from the throne of God.

I know I’ve wrestled with this line of thought many times. Though the average church is probably about 25% the size and scope of what we have here, I wrestle with the inner accusation that we never became a larger mega-church because it is my fault for failing too often as the pastor. And some have indeed suggested to me that this is in fact the truth. Yet I know that guys leading larger churches have the same struggle, worrying even that all the apparent success might not be God’s work. When is big enough, big enough?  Where does faithfulness in the vineyard, wherever you’re placed, factor in?  Or is that just an excuse to have not done bigger and better?

But it’s not just pastors and churches who struggle this way. I think most Christian folk at one time or another question if they’ve done what they should have done, looking at results in their lives. Have they given enough time to serving God and His work in churches or other Christian endeavors? Have they given enough of their resources?  Would they have been blessed more in material ways if they had been more generous in their time and resources?  How well is their faith values system being passed on to the next generations in their family?

And so often it comes back to metrics – the outside appearance of things. Should there not be greater rewards and successes than what can be seen?  Is this now, in the latter chapters of life and looking back, all that it adds up to?  What chances are there of getting to the other side and hearing any version whatsoever of “Well done, good and faithful servant?”

The Christian life is difficult. It is not just bad enough that we have the inner enemy of self-accusation fueled by the arch enemy of God. There is the very real opposition that we see in the world around us. The systems of the world, the measurements of success as the world measures such things … all of this is often contrary to true spiritual measurement. Our true metrics are, in a phrase, “out of this world.”  And we need to grow to understand and think this way – that what is on the spiritual inside trumps in measurement over the visible world’s outside.

And thinking this way is what we might term “counterintuitive.”

Here is a summary idea today as we turn to 2 Corinthians 4 … We are jars of clay. Though we are dying daily on the outside, we are growing in life on the inside day by day.

The Apostle Paul surely had to wrestle with some of this sort of painful thinking and grim analysis as well. Ministry life was not easy for him, as we are aware of his many challenges, persecutions, imprisonments and opponents (Jews, Romans, and even Christian people in the church). And particularly in the opening chapters of the 2nd letter to the Corinthians he finds it necessary to defend his life and ministry…

2 Corinthians 4:1 – Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2 Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

Thinking through these verses, let’s look at some of the items that Paul faced as discouragements while doing ministry in this material world …

  1. The exhaustion and weariness of it all – we do not lose heart – This is a Greek word (ekkakeo) that spoke of physical weariness to the point of fainting. And so was the ministry effort for Paul. Surely there were times when he pondered if it was worth it all, just as we might ponder our commitment to steadfastness in Christ in an unbelieving and hostile world.
  2. The problems in the church at Corinth – not specifically stated here, but all he is communicating was because these early Christians had been impacted by false teachers and were slow to live out their faith strongly.
  3. False accusations – we do not use deception – Paul was accused by opponents of being in it for his own personal gain. Perhaps this had to do with an offering he was collecting from the churches to take to Jerusalem – having a passion to unite the Jewish and Gentile wings of the early church.
  4. Truthful teaching over nice sounding rhetoric that was easy to hear and accept – nor do we distort the word of God – other teachers made it work easily for the hearers, whereas Paul stood for the hard truth that hit the Corinthians in the face at times.
  5. The opposition to the gospel from those who could not see it – if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light – It takes a work of God in any person’s life for them to have their lost/blind condition thawed sufficiently to even hear the gospel in order to respond. The Evil One is active and thwarting this proclamation … indeed, there is a great enemy of the truth.

All of this put together is enough to make one despair in the active work of living for Christ and being an agent of gospel proclamation. Yet Paul was writing that he was not giving up and not fainting from it all. Though the outside problems were great, there was an inner reality that trumped it and was greater by far.

The rest of the chapter gives the reasoning for his hope and encouragement in the midst of it all. And let us consider his thoughts by pointing out four great truths in this passage. And the first is this …

  1. The Content of the Core Gospel Message (5-6)

That content is the life-giving person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ …

2 Cor. 4:5 – For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

Paul was an interesting character, given his background as a persecutor of followers of Christ. But just as God brought life to a dark world by bringing light into darkness (quoting from Genesis 1), God brought life to Paul through a bright light shining upon him on that road to Damascus. But it was more than a physical light, it was a light that shone into the heart and brought life, as it would for all those who receive the message of truth. And this is the content of the message Paul preached. It was not about him at all; he was now simply a servant of God and of the church – tasked with communicating a message of life.

But it is oft difficult for the messenger to get out of the way of the message. And Paul now gives a picture of what the messenger’s life consists of …

  1. The Content of the Gospel Messenger’s Life (7-12)

The gospel messenger’s life is one that presents with a weak exterior constantly pummeled by difficulties, yet the greater reality is the obvious light of Christ’s life within…

2 Cor. 5:7 – But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.

What do you do with something of great value in your home? With something you want to protect from all harm? Perhaps you have valuable documents, like savings bonds or even physical gold and silver. What would you do to protect it?  You’d probably buy a safe. But you certainly wouldn’t put such things in clay jars!

The most valuable treasure of them all is the gospel. And yet God entrusts it to us (flesh and blood jars of clay) to carry it and communicate it. This is rather counterintuitive for God to do, wouldn’t you think? But what it does is communicate to a watching world that the power cannot be sourced in the human vessel, it has to be from God.

Here’s another way we could actually see this: God most often chooses the biggest losers of them all, humanly speaking, to be his primary bearers of the message of Christ. It essentially says this very thing in Paul’s first letter to these Corinthians:  1:26-27 … Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.  OK… so let’s come right out and identify the biggest loser at TSF?  Yep… this writer!

I remember my first days at Dallas Theological, looking around at the gathering of guys starting seminary studies that would lead toward ministry careers. And it scared me for the future of the church!!  These guys had A LOT of academic credentials from other places, but they were pretty much lost on understanding the Scriptures and how to communicate them, let alone to have many very obvious leadership skills. And the word kinda leaked out during our senior year that the faculty thought our particular class of 1982 was filled with weaklings. Yet, somehow, even as too many dropped out of the race, God has used so many others in powerful ways. There are names most of you would know from Christian media and publication. And many went to all corners of the earth to serve in a myriad of ways to preach the gospel, often in obscurity, but powerfully. And this is because God uses the weakest jars of clay to show the power of his eternal truth.

The passage also speaks of some realities that will be the common experience of those who live actively and intentionally for Christ – be they in what we might call “vocational Christian ministry” or serving elsewhere openly in other avenues of life. It will be the normal experience to have many difficulties (and this was a theme of this series earlier in the summer). Let’s look at some of these descriptive words ….

–           “hard-pressed” on every side … a Greek word that would be used of pressing and crushing grapes … metaphorically saying this WILL happen at every turn for the servant of the Lord.

–           “perplexed” … means to be without resources – to not know what to do our think – to be at a total loss. The word was used in the Gospels to say that the disciples were “perplexed” when Jesus said that one of them would betray him.

–           “persecuted” … here is a Greek word that would be used to describe someone who is chasing another person in a hostile manner … so it’s a running word!  But Paul says, though chased, one is not abandoned and alone.

–           “struck down” … literally means to throw down on the ground … only used 2 other times in the Bible, one of them in Revelation 12 where it describes the demise of Satan being thrown down. But, here it says that one is “not destroyed” even when hitting the deck at times.

Folks, this is part of the deal in knowing and serving Christ. And Paul goes on to say that though these things will happen, they are an asset to the follower of Christ. By having these experiences, one is following in the path of Christ himself who was struck down. Yet through that death came LIFE eternal. Wo we too have that as well as the ability, prior to that time, to live a life that has true meaning. And though sorrows will abound, greater good and greater life for self and others will come through it.

So, there is a message of life … housed within a fragile vessel … but thirdly …

  1. The Content of our Encouragement to Others (13-15)

This encouragement is a specific message that is the most amazing truth ever to be known and told to others …

2 Cor. 4:13 – It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.”[from Ps. 116] Since we have that same spirit of faith, we also believe and therefore speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

The quote of Ps. 116 may be a bit obscure, but it is one where the Psalmist spoke of the anguish of the grave, but later spoke also of his confidence in God to deliver him. And Paul had this same confidence in God’s ultimate, faithful plan for him. He knew it would end well, therefore the sufferings were fully bearable.

Beyond that, all of his sufferings and all of his teachings in the midst of trials were benefitting not only the Corinthians, but people everywhere God enabled him to minister.

The results of Paul’s ministry were a mixed bag of successes filled with many difficulties and setbacks. Though he could point to many who trusted Christ and churches planted and beginning to grow, there were no shortages of difficulties and conflicts. There were other teachers with poor motives who led some astray. And everywhere there was persecution and obstacles. Yet the gospel was going forward, and he believed he could trust God to multiply his efforts according to God’s power and plans. In this was satisfaction, even in the face of sadness and challenges.

So, there is a message of life … housed within a fragile vessel … that message giving eternal life that makes all the difference for the believer … and then …

  1. The Content of our Ultimate Hope (16-18)

Hope … peaceful assurance … there was every reason to have this, IF one also had the proper big picture perspective about the end of the road …

2 Cor. 4:16 – Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

These verses are filled with contrasts …

–           Outward / Inward

–           Wasting / Renewing

–           Light / Weighty

–           Temporary / eternal

–           Seen / Unseen

Paul says there is no reason to get discouraged in light of all that happens. The picture is like an hourglass. As the sands diminish in one part of it (the outward, wasting away, light-weight world of temporary troubles that are seen), the sands are building up in the other chamber (the inward, renewing, substantive, eternal world that is currently unseen).

Let me try to picture it this way. Let’s say there is a whole new line of technology coming out – say in the area of phones, or television … being manufactured by entirely new companies. It is wholly different and incomparably better, so much so that the current technology will before long be completely antiquated and worthless. Would you continue to buy that type of phone or TV?  Beyond that, would you invest all of your savings and IRA/401K monies into those old companies. Of course not!

So why would you invest all of your time and energy into things that are merely the stuff of this brief and transitory world?  The word in the final verse for “temporary” is one that pictures something that is a mere flash. Compared to all of eternity, this world is exactly that – a mere flash. Boom! It’s gone!

I am not sure how much more practical the Bible can get than these final verses that tell us to live in a way that is counterintuitive to the way the rest of the world says to function. This world says to grab for all the gusto because you only go around once. But godly wisdom tells us to understand that this world is a mere flash, so have your mind set upon what is the bigger picture of that which is eternal.

So what are the things that are eternal? Building on last week’s message and theme, it is those things that define being on the narrow road while eschewing the stuff that is pervasive on the wide road leading to destruction.

It is caring about the stuff that is eternal, and what is that?  God’s Word and the gospel message, and the souls of people.

–           So we care about the people closest to us, beginning with family and nearest friends … to care where they are at in terms of trust and faith for life and eternity.

–           So we care about the local body of Christ – the church and its work and mission.

–           And we care about the cause of Christ as it intersects with culture, and as the church takes the gospel around the world in missionary endeavors.

As well, these truths inform us about how we see everything in this world. So we’re not undone by horrible diagnoses or circumstances that are not in the prosperity category. We have a bigger, better, lasting inheritance that makes all the difference.

So, are you living in light of eternal values, or are you too consumed by the stuff that is, honestly, just a flash?

“Choosing the Narrow Path” (Matthew 7:13-14)

It really is our natural proclivity to follow the crowds and be numbered among the majority.

If you arrive early at a game where the gates are yet to be opened and you’re not sure where to exactly go, you probably look to see where most earlier people are gathering and go to that spot.

There’s a sale happening in a store. Where are the best deals? Well, obviously it must be where most folks are encircling.

While travelling down the interstate you come upon a slowdown where a backup has developed. Wanting to get around the complication as quickly as possible, you look ahead to see which lane most cars are moving toward. Surely those ahead of you are able to see the opening and most will choose the better lane to best follow.

It is our nature to make these choices because we believe that the majority of people will indicate the path of wisdom. The crowd can’t be wrong. There is surely a foundational reason why the vast majority of people around us are making the decisions that directs them. Safety is in the numbers, right?

But sometimes you find out that the organizers open a different gate, the best sale was in an isolated corner of the store, and the lane you chose on the highway becomes clogged while the other lane is now rushing by.

Though we see in the Gospels that substantial crowds of people sometimes followed Jesus during his earthly ministry, we also learn that significant percentages of them were not truly interested in his precise teaching. They were there for the goodies and the grab bags, not to embrace the teachings about inner spiritual transformation. Most were still oriented toward the crowds who followed and believed that the Pharisees and religious leadership in Israel were correct. That teaching involved displays of outward righteous, not inner repentance.

This populace teaching about faith is the most common and intuitive content that is at the center of religious systems – it’s about what you do: attending legalistically at prescribed times, praying publicly, giving generously and saying all the right things. And while faith disciplines are commendable and even indispensable, they do not constitute the life-giving substance of a true relationship with God. That comes rather from trust and faith and inner repentance; it is not the product of ritualistic performance.

This mindset is counterintuitive, particularly in a work-rewarded and capitalistic society. Jesus called the intuitive way of achievement through outward righteousness the “broad road” that would lead to destruction, even though followed by the masses. The “narrow gate and path” that leads to life is followed and embraced only by the few who trust in his teaching about a righteousness that comes through faith alone. He said …

Matthew 7:13-14 – “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

Interestingly (but not surprisingly) there is a very similar Old Testament proverb … “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.” (Proverbs 16:25)

As with most situations in life, most people want to be in total charge of driving their spiritual destiny. As with everything else common to us, the question is, “so what do I have to DO to be righteous and in good standing with God?”  And the majority of people are simply not interested in an answer that says that there is NOTHING you can DO, it is about trusting rather in something that has been DONE for you.

And I suppose we could say that there is another broad road being travelled by vast hordes of people. We could call this the “hedonistic highway.”  Rather than being wrongly oriented toward a works-oriented faith system, this mindset has eschewed faith and religion altogether. It is the embracing of a pleasure-centered “you only go around once in life, so grab for all the gusto” ideology of indulgence. Life is about happiness and laboring for self-satisfying joy.

I can recall the moment and even take you to the very spot where I made a decision to not go down Hedonistic Highway. As a teenager at a community fair event, my crowd of high school buddies agreed to grab some beer and pick up as many girls as possible to go to a remote location. They went one way, while I turned away by myself to walk home through the darkness. It was lonely on the narrow path inside the small gate, but it was the correct choice.

To follow Christ is to knowingly choose the less-travelled path. It will often put you on the outside looking in, on the lonely road through dry places, and at the corner table on Monday morning in the snack room at work where you hear about the weekend “exploits” of your co-workers.

One of my pastor friends within our Evangelical Free Church association has planted a new church in Pennsylvania named Narrow Road. It might seem at first like an unusual name, but it really is embracing the concept of this teaching, pointing to the life-giving entrance at the narrow front door.

And the church, the family of faith, is a place for us where we may find others journeying on the narrow path. Our numbers will never be what they are on the outside, but they are enough for us to find mutual encouragement and support. It is a wonderful gift.

So don’t be discouraged by your outsider status relative to the broader culture. Rather, embrace the counterintuitive life of following Christ on the narrow path toward life eternal.