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. >

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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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s review that story quickly …

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

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

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

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

18 “Which ones?” he inquired.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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