October 7, 1990
Like Him!
(Philippians 3:12-21)
A missionary couple had sent their son home to complete his schooling in the United States. Their work, the difficulties of travel, and the circumstances of his schooling made it impossible for them to see him for four years. The time came for the couple to return to the United States for a furlough. They looked forward to seeing their son for the first time in four years.
When they came off the ship, the son was waiting for them. They embraced, laughed, rejoiced. The mother looked closely at the son, then at her husband, and said to the husband, “John, look; the boy has grown to look like you.”
That is the goal of the Christian life; growing to be like, to look like, to act like Jesus Christ. Growth in Christ-likeness is the central theme of this passage in Philippians. Paul conveys his message to his friends in Christ in memorable words. Rather than dissecting his phrases, we can learn much about the process by backing away from these verses and seeing them as a whole.
First, Paul emphasizes that growth into the likeness of Christ is not found in legalism. Earlier in this chapter, Paul has rejected the righteousness and the hope of salvation which comes from obedience to the laws. He has accomplished much. Paul was rightly proud of his excelling in the rites of the Hebrew faith. But that was not sufficient. In verse 9, Paul wrote: “… not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith ….”
Second, Paul emphasizes that growth into the likeness of Christ is not found in antinomianism (following no laws). Paul rejects those who live in response to the passions and desires of their lives — those whose god is their personal satisfaction, and who revel in the merely human accomplishment and delights. Some even exult in what should be shameful to them. Their “minds are set on earthly things” (3:19).
Third, Paul focuses on the race toward Christlikeness which is the practice of the godly life. Paul realizes that he is not perfect, that he has not attained the fullness of God’s intention for himself.
When Paul acknowledges that he is not already perfect, he uses a phrase familiar to the various “mystery” religions of the Roman world. There is no thought of moral perfection for those pagans. It is the notion of being transformed to a higher order of being, by the rites of the religious cult.
Paul repudiates such a view of the Christian life by describing it in dynamic terms, in terms of continuing and strenuous striving toward the goal of Christlikeness.
Like Him? Will we really be like Him? The image of God which is in the heart and spirit of humankind grows to fullness with the encouragement of the spirit of Christ the Lord. All will be like Him if they strive in living and reach out to grasp the goal of Christlike existence. (HCP)
October 14, 1990
Reconciliation and Community in Christ
(Philippians 4:1-9)
“I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord.” What a story we could create from this single sentence. We do not know the whole story. We have these names only here in the New Testament. What is happening?
Two of the women, leaders of the church, have disagreed. It may have been over a theological issue, or some doctrinal disagreement. It may have been a disagreement about who was to lead the church in some task and responsibility. It may have been over a matter of church discipline, or a style of worship at Philippi.
We simply do not know but it is a serious disagreement. It is serious enough for Paul to beg them to agree, to settle their difference, and to overcome the possibility of fracturing the community of faith.
One does not work long in any congregation without realizing the immense danger of such disagreements. Time can pass and the original disagreement be almost forgetten but the antagonism is still there. The lack of love infects the families of each, and then the entire church.
There are some insights in these nine verses that may provide a clue as to how Paul expects these two women in Philippi to come to some agreement.
“… they have labored side by side with me in the gospel…” (4:3). Working together can provide a common experience that lifts one over the disagreements of human nature. Youth go from their church to a distant place to work with their hands in rebuilding a home for those in need. Working together, those young people discover a new friendship with one another.
Many years ago, a community worker helped me to understand that one of the quickest ways to make a friend out of an adversary was to sincerely ask the help of that person. Being needed — working together — breaks down walls of hostility and disagreement. Some object to the labor of fund-raising projects in a church. And, frankly, most groups could provide more funds with direct stewardship of their resources. However, the benefit of church members working together is a benefit that cannot be measured in the dollars which the project may provide.
“… in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (4:6). Paul refers to more than personal and individual devotion and piety. The words that he uses are the words commonly referring to corporate and community worship among the Philippians and the early Christians. Overcoming disagreements is enhanced when persons worship and pray together as a part of the church.
I had to work with a most disagreeable young lady in the young adult class in one church. I was ready to club her more than once. I secretly wished that she would leave the group. In my frustration, I began to pray for her privately, and worship with the group when she was present. The experience of turning in praise of God together provided the setting in which our differences were overcome and overshadowed by the reality of God’s grace in both our lives.
“Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (4:8).
These are common, everyday virtues that would have been applauded by most of the cultured and civilized people of Paul’s day. Few would disagree with them. But, cast into the center of the Christian community, they do take on a new meaning. And, in the context of the plea to Euodia and Syntyche, there is the reality that living for God together brings persons into a new community of friendship and peace.
Ed and I disagreed about many issues. He and I argued long and hard over doctrinal disagreements, interpretations of the Scripture, the importance of certain actions of the church. But, as much as we disagreed over those issues, we both recognized that the other was striving diligently to live a life worthy of the calling of our God. We respected the opinions and ideas because we could see that each of us was attempting to live for Christ daily.
Not only can one imagine the causes and the disruptions of the disagreements between Euodia and Syntyche, one can easily picture the unity which could have been created at Philippi by their laboring together in the church, by their praying and worshipping together in the church, and by their both striving to live a Christian life in the same community. (HCP)
October 21, 1990
All Things Considered
(Matthew 22:15-22)
I believe that our nation is in the midst of very bad — and worsening — times. Of course, this is no new condition. American history has been frequently punctuated by one crisis after another. To date, she has successfully negotiated every difficult passage.
What is a Christian expected to do when his or her homeland is in trouble? The debate about the relationship of Christianity and American society has intensified in recent years. Everyone is involved: historians and theologians, politicians and preachers, Christians, non-Christians, and anti-Christians.
In this kind of situation, it is helpful to remember that the question of Christianity and society is by no means a new one. It has been an enduring problem through the centuries. Because no single Christian solution for this struggle has been found, it is not likely to soon go away.
What has been discovered is this: Christian answers to the problems of human society are one thing; Christ’s answers are frequently another.
For instance, look at the text. Jesus was near the end of His public ministry. The Pharisees still had not been able to find any just cause to “hang Him.” So they set a trap.
A rather strange delegation was enlisted to visit Jesus. Among them were Pharisees who, besides being Jesus’ most persistent antagonists, were also staunch opponents to the powers in office at that time. Along with them were Herodians. They were Jews, but they worked for the current administration. Thus, they had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
Clearly, the Pharisees would be incensed if Jesus seemed too sympathetic to the Romans. The Herodians would be irked if He did not appear loyal to the government. Regardless of His response to the riddle they proposed, Jesus would be trapped.
The question: is it lawful to pay taxes? The answer Jesus gave provides a profound perspective from which any Christian can examine his or her relationship to society. He asked for a coin — exactly like one which would be used in paying taxes.
On the coin was a picture of Caesar — the Roman emperor. It was a symbol of Roman power. Whoever carried one in his possession indicated that he or she willingly accepted and submitted to the rule of the Romans.
As He held the coin in His hand, Jesus said:
Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. (21:11).
As Jesus saw it, there was both a legal and moral obligation to pay taxes. The word “render” means “to give back.” Therefore, payment of the tax was simply giving back to the emperor that to which he was entitled. The payment of taxes by a Jewish subject was his contribution to the maintenance of the Roman empire — including its army, and the peace which the army preserved.
The army was the oppressive power over the Jewish nation. Yet the people did benefit from peace. They might not like the Roman rule but they were free to conduct their business, maintain the Temple, and live without threat from outside invasion.
As long as the demands of Caesar did not conflict with an individual’s duty to God, obedience to the civil authorities was morally and legally required. As long as it remains possible to render to God that which God expects, it is right to give to the government that which is its due.
Thirty years later, Paul echoed the Lord’s teaching. It had not changed. He wrote to the Christians who lived in Rome, the seat of the emperor’s power:
… you pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay all of them their dues, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. (13:6-7).
In His response, Jesus spoke to all sides of the issue regarding the appropriate relationship to the society in which we live. To the Pharisees, he affirmed the moral duty of obeying even a foreign — and oppressive — government. Jewish government — nor even our own — is not the only legitimate and divinely sanctioned form of civil authority.
To the Herodians, Jesus emphasized the limitations which belong to all governments. They are never to exalt themselves to the position of expecting unqualified obedience. God is the only One who can demand total, undivided, unqualified allegiance (11:36-40). Any government which requires this loyalty is elevating itself to the position reserved for God alone. And this represents power in its basest form.
Jesus’ teaching points to two imminent dangers which continue to trouble even the contemporary Christian mind. Allow me to label them “the Pharisaical threat” and “the Herodian threat.”
By “Pharisaical threat,” I am referring specifically to the situation in the text. Often we equate the Pharisees with the worst forms of pretending, hiding behind masks, and playing at religion. In fact, “Pharisee” is a common synonym for the hypocrite.
The text demonstrates the double standard by which the Pharisees lived. Those who were known for their devotion to the Law were the same ones who, when appropriate, saw themselves to be above certain laws — especially Roman laws.
On more than one occasion in the New Testament record, the Pharisees demonstrated their utter disgust toward the Roman tax laws and their enforcers — specifically, the army and the tax collectors. In this episode, had Jesus opposed the Roman tax law — even though He would have played into the hands of the scheme hatched by the Pharisees — He would still have added fuel to the white-hot revolutionary fires which they were fanning.
The point, however, is this: there is still a mentality which has the capacity to conveniently see itself as above the law, while at the same time, pretending to represent the law. For instance, when former Senator Gary Hart announced his withdrawal from the 1988 Democratic presidential race after his reported relationship with Donna Rice, he unbelievably asserted: “I made a big mistake, but not a bad mistake.”
Gary Hart is not one person in isolation, however. Tragically, he may be more representative of our society than we wish to admit.
In fact, the entire episode reveals the wedge we have allowed to be driven between personal and public life. For Hart, the mistake was poor scheduling rather than adultery. Tragically, masses defended his statement, saying that there ought to be no relationship between a leader’s private life and his public service. From my perspective, such an attitude reveals a dangerous form of moral retardation.
There is a growing tendency to look the other way, and to side-step legal, as well as basic moral considerations for the sake of expediency.
The cover story of the February 23, 1987, issue of U.S. News and World Report focused on “Lying in America.” It gave startling proof that we have become a nation of liars. A litany of ethical abuses was presented, including a rash of revelations about hyped and falsified scientific research.
It referred to a January 1987 study accusing forty-seven scientists at Harvard and Emory University medical schools of producing misleading papers. A House subcommittee estimated that, in 1986, one out of every three working Americans is hired with educational or career credentials that have been altered in some way.
A U.S. News-Cable News Network poll suggests that more than half the American people think persons are less honest than they were ten years ago. Seven out of ten say they are dissatisfied with current standards of honesty — the largest proportion since 1973, at the height of the Watergate scandal.
What are we teaching our childen about morality when we help them hatch the lies that enable them to ignore commitments they have made, or avoid responsibilities someone else is depending upon them to keep?
The threat is about to consume us all. We worship the God of truth, justice, integrity, and compassion. His laws reflect His nature. Yet, even we who are known for our devotion to this God are the same ones who, when circumstances or desires require it, openly violate His Law.
The second threat — equally dangerous — is what I have called “the Herodian threat.” There is a growing tendency to utterly dismantle the limitations of governmental authority. Presidents, their cabinet members, and presidential advisors can be found guilty of breaking the law of the land and immediately the cry goes out for pardon and exoneration! What has happened to us?
Our sin is that one most soundly condemned by the Hebrew prophets — the sin of idolatry. Our English word “idolatry” comes from two Greek words meaning “idol” or “image” (eidolon) and “service” or “worship” (latreia). Idolatry, then, is the service or worship of an idol or image.
We may understand it to mean the worship of a false god. An idol either takes the place of the god it represents or is a rival for the allegiance we are to reserve for the one true God. This is not old-fashioned, primitive stuff. The New Testament talks particularly about the idolatry of money, the idolatry of the law, and the idolatry of oppressive political power — three “idols” as attractive today as they were in biblical times.
I am personally afraid that our own national government authority is increasingly taking on the characteristics of the idol. Our government and its leaders appear to me less and less amenable to internal criticism and more and more immune from public accountability.
These two reasons alone are excellent bases for challenging governmental decrees, in the very name of God. Whenever Caesar begins to act more and more like god — a false god, to be sure — the need for discrimination between God and Caesar takes a quantum leap.
According to Jesus, even the law has its limits. Our government has not been given absolute power — neither by our own Constitution nor by the Sovereign God Himself. Kings and potentates, presidents and chief executive officers, dictators and patriots alike are accountable to a Higher Power.
Christian responsibility means giving Caesar that which is due him. But it also means that we never let our loyalty to Caesar come between us and God who holds us all accountable! (GCR)
October 28, 1990
A Book You Can’t Put Down
(Ruth 2:1-13)
Occasionally you start reading one of those books so captivating you just can’t seem to put it down. I wish that I knew the secret to turning out novels like that! I would flood the market with best-sellers.
While I may not be able to produce attention grabbing novels, I love a captivating story. I guess that is why I have always loved the book of Ruth.
I. The book of Ruth is a love story.
We must all be incurable romantics — we are captivated by the drama of a love story. This is the story of Ruth’s love for Mahlon, her first husband. It is the story of Ruth and Boaz. But primarily this is the story of the love between Ruth and Naomi. These two women were drawn together through the tragic deaths of their husbands.
II. The book of Ruth is a tragedy.
Naomi seems to be the center of the story at this point. Naomi left Israel with her husband and two sons looking for relief from the drought in Judea. While in the land of Moab, she lost her husband and both sons. When she returned to Bethlehem, she cried out to her old friends: “No longer call me Naomi (blessed), call me Mara (bitter) instead.”
This book is a vivid reminder of the tragedies which frequent our lives and reek havoc with our ordered world.
III. The book of Ruth is a story of commitment.
This story flows out of the vow of commitment which Ruth made to Naomi. When Naomi decided to return to Judea, she encouraged her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab. She knew the pain one could experience in a foreign land.
Oprah remained in Moab, but Ruth decided to make the journey with Naomi. Her vow of commitment to Naomi is frequently used in wedding ceremonies today. Ruth provides a healthy example of the kind of commitment needed within modern families.
IV. The book of Ruth is an
Old Testament conversion story.
Ruth chose to leave the worship of the gods of Moab and to become a follower of Yahweh. When Boaz first recognized Ruth in his fields, he gave this blessing to her: “May the Lord reward your work, and your wages be full from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge.” Boaz recognized Ruth’s faith choice.
When we read the book of Ruth, our tendency is to jump to the end of the story. Perhaps we need to focus today on the two key events in these first two chapters which “set up” the rest of the book.
A key to this story is Ruth’s commitment to Naomi and her God. Ruth made a crucial decision which influenced the rest of her life. We should not underestimate the effect faith decisions have on the rest of our lives.
The second key event occurred in the barley field of Boaz. When Boaz encouraged Ruth to remain with his workers throughout the harvest, Ruth was mystified. “Why are you doing this for me, a foreigner?” Boaz explained that he had heard of her dedication and love to Naomi.
Ruth probably thought that her life was insignificant, that her actions did not matter. Yet, her actions were carefully observed by the people around her.
Our lives have lasting influence on the people around us. They notice the ways in which we honor our commitments to others and to God. (WTP)
November 4, 1990
Better Than Seven Sons
(Ruth 4:7-17)
The Old Testament bears witness to a variety of attitudes toward the role, value, and function of women in Israelite culture. Our text for today is a part of one of the few Old Testament books which has a woman as the central character.
This text contains the startling announcement that Ruth is more valuable to Naomi than seven sons. Why would the townswomen make this incredible statement? Perhaps the rest of the story will give some clues.
When Naomi and Ruth returned to Bethlehem, they arrived at the beginning of the barley harvest. All too quickly the harvests came to an end. Now, how would they feed themselves?
This immediate problem did not cause Naomi to forget the fact that she had no heir. Her husband’s name was about to be extinguished in Israel. It was time for the men of Israel to face up to their responsibility to her dead husband. She would force the issue. Naomi counseled Ruth to dress up for a meeting with Boaz. Her plan would call for courage and boldness as Ruth made a risky proposal.
Naomi’s suggestion was indeed risky for Ruth. Her reputation and future were at stake. The men took the grain harvest each afternoon to the threshing floor to winnow. This process separated the grain from the chaff. Later in the night the men would celebrate the harvest of the day with a supper to be followed by drinking. The men would spend the night at the threshing floor to protect the grain from thieves.
Naomi directed Ruth to observe the place where Boaz slept. After everyone was asleep she was to silently enter the threshing floor and sleep at Boaz’ feet. Obediently Ruth follows her mother-in-law’s instruction. She must have been afraid as she acted out this strange ritual. What would he think of her? Would he assume that she was a common prostitute? Silently she awaited his response.
Boaz awoke from his sleep at midnight to find a woman at his feet Startled, he asked, “Who in the world are you?” “Ruth, your maidservant,” she responded; “Spread your skirt over me for you are my near kinsman.” This strange saying carried the equivalent of our colloquial ‘marry me.’
The scene is set for his response. Will he marry her or not? Will they live happily ever after? Life never seems to be so simple, does it? When it appears that every obstacle to happiness is removed, a new one presents itself.
Boaz gives Ruth a ‘good news-bad news’ answer. He has previously recognized her commitment to Naomi. He now recognizes her covenant loyalty to the community. Rather than running after the young men in the village, she has chosen to claim him as kinsman-redeemer and thereby perpetuate the family name of Elimelech.
The bad news is that there is a near kinsman who is more closely related to her father-in-law. He must be given the right of first refusal. Boaz pledges to settle the issue the next morning.
Early the next morning Ruth returns to Naomi and recounts the events of the previous night. Naomi counsels patience. Boaz will not rest until he has settled the matter. At this point the story is unresolved. Will this couple finally get together? Will their joint resolve be frustrated by a third party? Will either one have a say in the final decision?
The ancient custom of the near kinsman is rooted in a concern for the perpetuation of family identity. It was also a protection against land barons attempting to control more land than they actually needed. The near kinsman was responsible for purchasing the land of a relative who fell into poverty so that it would remain in the family. The near kinsman was also responsible to take the widow of a relative to raise up heirs for the dead relative. This practice was to insure the perpetuation of family lineages.
Boaz went to the gate of the city and awaited the arrival of the near kinsman. When he appeared, Boaz called him into a meeting before the elders of the city. “Will you purchase the land of Elimelech our kinsman?” The kinsman was eager to increase his holdings. Here was land for which there was no owner to whom to revert in the Year of Jubilee. That kind of land was almost impossible to acquire. “Of course I’ll take it,” he replies.
Boaz than adds the crucial statement, “You know that when you buy this land, you also are redeeming the responsibility of raising up an heir to Elimelech by Ruth the Moabite.”
The near kinsman recognizes the consequences of this matter. He will acquire the property of Elimelech, but the land will pass to the child that he must raise by Ruth. He will be no better off by purchasing this land. It will cost him money in the long run. Immediately he changes his mind.
“Boaz, you buy the land. I’m not able to redeem it,” he responds. Boaz joyfully calls the elders sitting at the gate as witnesses to this agreement. The elders pronounce a wedding benediction upon Boaz and Ruth.
The blessing focuses on some prominent women in Boaz’ genealogy. May Ruth be as fruitful as Rachel and Leah, the mothers of the patriarchs. They also remember another woman in Israel’s history. Tamar also took the initiative and forced a man to honor his covenant responsibility.
The story is finally resolved. Boaz takes Ruth to be his wife. She conceives and bears the son Obed. The women of the city rejoice with Naomi over the birth of Obed. The memory of Elimelech would not be destroyed. God had provided a near kinsman. The women praise Ruth. They say to Naomi, “She’s better than seven sons.” Heresy!
From ancient times ‘seven sons’ was a proverbial idiom for the perfect family. Seven — sacred, perfect, complete. Sons — God’s blessing, inheritance, perpetuity. A woman being the perfect blessing? Ruth characterizes covenant faithfulness — to Naomi, to the lineage of Elimelech. Ruth characterizes initiative — a willingness to take action when others neglect responsibility. Ruth demonstrates courage — the resolve to do the right thing, even when she may be misunderstood.
The book of Ruth is about God’s providence. Providentially Naomi moved to Judah in the time of grain harvest, Ruth ‘happened’ to glean in Boaz’ field, Boaz recognized the initiative and character of Ruth, the nearest kinsman chose not to redeem the inheritance. Coincidence? No, providence.
The book of Ruth is about God’s sovereignty. I’m surprised that nationalistic Jews accepted this book into their canon. It is the surprising story of the inclusion of a Moabite woman into the royal genealogy.
God’s love is broader than the confines of Israel. Nationalistic jealousies cannot limit the boundaries of God’s love. God’s choice of instruments will not be limited to men or by men. God can and will choose the instruments of service. Tamar and Ruth demonstrate a covenant faithfulness that transcends that of their male counterparts. Ruth truly is ‘better than seven sons.’ (WTP)
November 11, 1990
In God We Hope
(1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)
All Christians anticipate the second coming of Christ, but to the people of Thessalonica it presented a problem. They were as thrilled as anybody else; however, in their enthusiasm they were a bit hesitant.
What was going to happen to Brother Sychelittus or Sister Naomi who had so recently died? Would they share in the glory of the day which they thought was so soon to come: Resurrection Day? These early Christians were plowing new theological ground and this was a real concern.
They turned to an expert who they believed had the answer, their friend Paul. The Scripture deals here with those who have fallen asleep. The Thessalonians knew exactly that their hope was in God, and so do the people of God in the 1990’s.
I. God’s People Live in Hope.
When we think about living it conjures up the ideas of being energetic, of enduring, of remaining alive, not dead. Christians understand that concept because Christ brings real living into life.
Prior to our conversion, we had a vague idea of life. Paul describes it in 1 Corinthians 13:12 as looking into the ancients’ mirrors of metal, somewhat out of focus. As Christ comes into the heart of an individual we begin to see life clearly for the first time. We begin to live in hope because of Jesus.
The ideal is that we live in the abundance of life because of the Savior now abiding in us. A good definition might be that we have more than enough of whatever quantity. For God’s people live in hope that includes more than enough love, hope, trust, thirst for knowledge, peace of mind and heart, compassion, and other attitudes of the heart.
Contrast that to the carnal world’s idea of abundance, meaning more material gain, more applause from men, more power to do evil, more world or personal real estate, more money, more glamorous faces and bodies, more of whatever makes us …. Satan’s servants! The Christian, in comparison, wants more of whatever it takes to make us like Christ!
Spirit-filled believers must live above the level of mediocrity of life. Christians must aim higher and go farther than the world we live in or else we have lost at life! Satan will do everything in his power to defeat the believer.
I read the story of a sick lady in England many years ago. While in her sick bed one spring day, she saw two birds building their nest in a bush near her window. There those birds would have baby birds flying around the nest. The lady looked at that window and said: “Oh, birds, build higher!” Later, a cat had been busy about that bush and all that was left of that bird brood was a handful of feathers!
Many of us are like that nest of birds. We need to build our lives higher. We need to go to Jesus. He is the only hope we have in life!
II. God’s People Die in Hope.
Death is not something that we bring up very often in passing conversation. We avoid it like the plague! Next time you are at a dinner with friends, ask them what they think about death, dying, and all that it associated with it. You will probably be eating by yourself.
Death stops all the natural processes of life. It steals our loved ones, destroys relationships that we have built over the years, and crushes the joy of being with the departed loved ones. We have to admit that death is cruel!
The world sees no hope after death. Most people live as if there is no future tomorrow. Heaven is an idea, not a place. Whether we admit it or not, death has no real meaning for most people. Not so with the Christian, for in death there is hope for the future.
I like what the old Scotsman said while dying. He was asked what he thought of death, and his reply was: “It matters little to me whether I live or die. If I die I will be with Jesus, and if I live Jesus will live with me.”
The Christian doesn’t wish for death, but neither is he afraid of death, for he knows the next step!
III. God’s People Rise in Hope.
The Christian knows that the next step after death is eternal life with Jesus. Those of us who have come to an experience with Christ know all the verses that talk about the resurrection. We anticipate that time, being aware of the significance of it all. There is no end for the born-again believer — no eternal death or night!
Our hope is built on the solid rock of resurrection glory and power from the One who has led the way — Jesus.
I read about a little girl who was asked one day if she was afraid to go through the cemetery at night. She replied, “Oh, no, I am not afraid, for my home is just on the other side.” For the Christian, he/she knows that just beyond the cemetery is home. (DGK)
November 18, 1990
The Heavy Burden of a Great Potential
(Matthew 25:14-30)
In an old cartoon strip, Linus mused: “Everyone’s upset because I didn’t make the honor roll. My mother is upset, my father is upset, my teacher is upset, the principal is upset. Good grief! They all say the same thing: they’re disappointed because I have such great potential.” Then Linus sighs, “There’s no heavier burden than a great potential.”
This parable is about how people respond to the burden of potential. It also underscores the Heavenly Father’s personal interest in what we do with what we have been given. The role of God is portrayed by the Master. We may see ourselves in the character of the three servants.
The Master of three servants decided to go away for awhile. He was not deserting them nor abandoning his estate. His leave would be temporary, yet his absence would provide an opportunity for each of the servants to prove their abilities as responsible stewards.
He gave five talents to one; two talents to another; and the third received only one talent. According to Jesus, the gift each received was determined entirely by the ability to manage that gift (25b). Clearly, then, the parable teaches the inequality of opportunity. However, it also emphasizes proportionate responsibility.
In other words, it is only to the measure that a person is gifted that he or she is accountable. God does not “grade on the curve.” That is, His expectations of your performance or mine are neither heightened nor diminished by the performance of another person. Each of us is matched only against our own ability and opportunity. Therefore, be careful not to covet your neighbor’s opportunities for you will then also be accountable for his responsibilities.
This parable also effectively counters the charge that God plays favorites, giving to one a distinct advantage over another. It is undeniably true that some do have more money than most; some more intelligence than others; more friends, more influence, more talent. Yet, whatever advantages may appear to distinguish between us are more than counterbalanced with the realization that accountability is proportionate to advantage.
God is no respecter of persons. No one has been left empty-handed. Everyone of us is in some way talented — and even one talent is no small matter, as you will see.
A child of God should never allow envy, covetousness, or jealousy of another’s apparent advantage to stymie or stunt his or her own participation or productiveness in the service of God. No one has more opportunities of service than they can avail themselves of to the fullest, and everyone has just as many as he or she can use with advantage. Each of us has opportunities precisely fitted to our unique abilities and circumstance — no more, no less.
So, it really ought not be too surprising to learn what the servants in the parable did with the opportunities entrusted to them. Remember: the magnitude of the opportunity represented the proportionate strength of each one’s ability.
The servant who had received five talents demonstrated remarkable, but not unexpected investment skills. He managed his gift so shrewdly that he realized an incredible profit of one hundred percent on his transactions (verse 20). Clearly he was gifted with a unique insight and ability.
Apparently, the servant entrusted with two talents was not quite so astute in entrepreneurial skills. Jesus described the first as having gone “at once and traded with his talents” (verse 16). The other, he described in more restrained terms: “he who had two talents made two talents more” (verse 17).
The tone of the description implies that he was simply a hard worker. If he were a farmer, no doubt, he plodded away at his work, driving himself and his oxen quite hard. If he tended a vineyard, no doubt, he pruned, tied, and gathered diligently, working from sunrise to sunset. By sheer dedication and faithfulness to his opportunity, he made his two talents yield four. Although their abilities differed, each servant enjoyed an identical degree of success. Both realized one hundred percent return on their gifts.
The primary focus of the parable, however, is upon the man with the one talent. In fact, the entire story seems to have been told for his sake alone.
He was of a different stripe than the other two. That does not mean to imply that he was a bad man, or drunken, or wasteful, or lacking in a sense of responsibility. If that were the case, he no doubt would have squandered his talent. Neither is there any indication that he was lazy. Hiding money in the ground was the traditional way of saving money in Jesus’ day.
He certainly did not consider himself a failure. His explanation offered no excuse for what he had done with the talent, nor was it an admission of guilt. After all, he had kept what had been given to him, and he had kept it with the utmost, scrupulous care. He was fiscally conservative which, in this case, made him too scrupulous, too cautious!
Back of his decision to do nothing with his opportunity were three faulty assumptions. They are so universally held, it would be worth our while to examine them.
The first faulty assumption was of the Master as demanding, not giving: “Master, I know you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow” (verse 24). In other words, the servant’s concentration focused not upon the opportunity presented him by the Master’s gift but, instead, upon the fact that the Master expected the gift back upon his return. This servant concluded that what the Master required was more than he had given.
There is a brand of Christian faith which emphasizes the doing of certain things and the rendering of certain sacrifices, to the utter neglect of our having received anything from God. The Christian faith is a matter of grace; it is not dependent upon payments of service and sacrifice which we make. That is a doctrine of salvation by works. The Christian faith is entirely established upon the sacrifice He made on our behalf. As the Apostle Paul asked: “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Corinthians 4:7).
We are far too blind to the benefits He pours upon us all every day of our lives. The truth is, He never asks until after He has given. He begins with bestowing, and only after that does He ever ask. His gifts always precede His requirements. He ever sows before He reaps.
Our failures in responsible Christian living are, at bottom, based upon wrong assumptions about God. If we think, like this servant, that God is hard, grudging to give and greedy to get, taking note only of our shortfalls, and making no acknowledgement of our sincere efforts; if we think that God never really takes pleasure in our efforts to do right and to be right; if we think that whatever we try to do in life He will weigh coldly and then scorn; then, we will have no heart to work for Him either.
The truth of the matter is, God is not like that at all. He is not a tyrant, whom we can never please, bent on our punishment and eternal damnation. He is a loving Father and He is altogether love. The gospel is the revelation of His grace and mercy.
If that can ever get through to us, then we will live like the Apostle Paul: “The love of Christ constrains me; because we judge that if one died for all, then all died; and that He died for all, that we who live should not henceforth live unto ourselves, but unto Him who died for us and rose again” (1 Corinthians 4:14-15).
To focus upon His demands only will paralyze us. To focus upon the gift of His Son will free us to live eternally.
The second faulty assumption was the demanding, harsh nature of the Master, “I was afraid and I went and hid your talent in the ground” (verse 25a). I would suspect that this matter of fear is yet the greatest handicap to faithful service to our Master’s cause, especially with regard to tithing.
Many sincerely want to be able to give, to even tithe; but they are afraid, genuinely afraid. Perhaps you have even made a sincere effort once, or several times, to be faithful in your giving, but then your fear just got the best of you. You heard that more layoffs were coming; there was going to be a downturn in the economy; interest rates are going back up, and that affects your mortgage; your friend’s husband got sick and they nearly lost everything before he was able to go back to work; what if you get pregnant? All of these, and a thousand other concerns, are legitimate and real struggles. Maybe it’s not so bad to live like the servant in the parable did: conservatively.
Listen to the Word of God! The Psalmist said: “I have been young, and now am old; yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or his children begging bread” (Psalm 37:25).
Jesus said: “Do not be anxious, saying, what shall we eat? or what shall we drink? or, what shall we wear? … your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be yours” (Matthew 6:31-33).
Hear again the Word of the Lord: “Cast all your anxieties upon Him, for He cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7).
There are few things that so paralyze the energy of the soul as fear. Yet, if your fear overwhelms your life, you will become useless to the kingdom of God. Trust Him; you will find Him trustworthy.
The final faulty assumption this servant made was that his talent was not needed. Yet look at the Master’s response. Fourteen talents had already been returned to him but one was not used! It was allowed to rust. The Master was angry! The rest of the story focuses upon the need for every talent to be used in the divine economy.
This man lacked the imagination to see that every talent is precious. He depreciated not another’s talent, but his own gift. Yet one of the many surprises of the message of Jesus was His constant insistence upon the worth of what to many of us would be called “nothing.” Jesus celebrated the cup of cold water given in His name (Matthew 10:42). He promised reward to those who would feed the hungry, visit the sick and imprisoned, and clothe the naked (Matthew 25:40). He spotlighted the widow’s mite as being the greatest gift given in the Temple on that particular day (Matthew 21:3).
Clearly, that which was important in each case was not the size nor the amount of the gift. The significance was that the gift represented the best desire, the best effort, and the best intention, and that the best was returned to the Master.
Obviously, Jesus’ point in this parable was to teach that life ought to be productive. Certainly, sinful living can destroy a Christian’s fruitfulness. Yet the sobering reminder of this teaching is that neglect and fear may have the same impact.
Linus was right: “The burden of a great potential is unusually heavy.” How are you doing with what you have been given? (GCR)
November 25, 1990
God’s Flock
(Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24)
Most of us have never been shepherds. We rely upon the written or verbal accounts of those who have the experience to relate it to us. Some of these accounts tell us that a shepherd’s job was not easy — especially in the Middle East of more than 2,000 years ago.
Their employment was quite taxing in an open country like Palestine. The shepherd’s contract may have read something like this: “You will rise early in the morning to lead the flock from the fold and march at its head in order to spot where the flock is to pasture. You will stay with the flock all day, taking care that none of the sheep stray away, and if any should elude you and wander away from the rest, you will search diligently until the sheep is found and brought back.
“Sheep need constant watering, and you will seek a stream of running water or a man-made well from which they can drink, no matter how long it takes you to find one. At night, you will bring them back to the fold, and count each one making sure that they pass under the rod and that none are missing. You must guard the entrance of the fold throughout the night hours, so that no wild beasts, or wily thief will steal any of these precious sheep.” Obviously it wasn’t a very easy way to make a living.
The concept of shepherd is used figuratively to represent the relationship of God to His people, as the prophet Ezekiel discusses God’s encounter with Israel.
I. God Owns the Flock.
The preceding verses of the chapter indicate that the other shepherds have botched the job; in this section of our text God indicates He will now take over as “The Shepherd.” His divine sovereignty becomes the key issue.
His sovereignty is seen as His divine right to rule totally. It also is extended to include God’s exercise of this right. He has self-limited Himself in the concept of sovereignty, sufficient enough to allow for you and me to be real free moral agents. He has given us the power to determine our spiritual destinies. He has not imposed this limitation but established it by His own sovereign will.
God could cancel out the gift to us at any time, if He so desired. God absolutely decrees that no man can be saved except through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ. The “whosoever” of John 3:16 is real to us.
Your testimony may be similar to mine. As a young eight-year-old I was sitting in the Highland Crest Church of the Nazarene listening to pastor Tom Foust preaching about God’s love that reaches down to even young children and that God wanted to save me. I made my way to the front of the church and asked Christ to come into my heart; thus started my spiritual journey with Christ. Is it any wonder that the “whosoever” of John 3:16 is vital to me? Are you part of His flock too?
II. God Tends the Flock.
God has taken on the job of tending the sheep of His pasture and not just owning them. He will go out into the highways and the byways of life to rescue the lost. He will feed the flock. He will give particular attention to the weak and frail.
This God of Ezekiel loves people. He is the same God, Father, of our Lord Jesus Christ! There is no difference. There are some who would try and drive a wedge between Yahweh, God of Israel, and the New Testament God but they can’t.
He has given us the example of working with the flock. We, who are His people, need to be tending the flocks around us. Our job is that of a redemptive ministry. There are many who live around us that are hurting, rich and poor alike. Some work and live in a crowd but are so lonely. Who has God given you lately to love and to work with in your corner of the sheep fold?
III. God Protects the Flock.
Part of the job description is that the shepherd will stay awake nights protecting the flock. Wolves and thieves will not get inside, because the shepherd is there watching. God is watching over the sheep of His pasture.
The typology is that He will protect those who are His sheep. There would be those, and still are, who would rob us of our spiritual wellbeing, but as long as God is in charge and we are in the fold we will not be taken. God is the judge of the bleating sheep. He rejects the proud and haughty and accepts the penitent and brokenhearted. The flock will in fact be purified by His protective judgment.
Isn’t it wonderful to know that we are protected by the Creator of the universe? Somebody once wrote that undernearth are the everlasting arms of God. What child of God was ever permitted to fall lower than God’s “underneath”?
Aren’t you excited to be owned, tended, and protected by the Great Shepherd — God? (DGK)
Sermon briefs in this issue are provided by: Derl G. Keefer, Pastor of Three Rivers Church of the Nazarene, Three Rivers, MI: Harold C. Perdue, Development Officer with the Texas Methodist Foundation, Round Rock, TX; William T. Pyle, Assistant Professor of Supervised Ministry, Southeastern Baptist Seminary, Wake Forest, NC: and Gary C. Redding, Pastor of North Augusta Baptist Church, North Augusta, SC.

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