Judge and Jury

On March 26, 2000 at 8:32 a.m., Seattle’s famed Kingdome—home of the Seahawks, the Mariners, and at times, the Sonics—was blown to kingdom come. Working for the Seattle office of Turner Construction Co., the Maryland based Controlled Demolition Incorporated (CDI) was hired to do the job of imploding the 125,000-ton structure that had marked Seattle’s skyline for almost twenty-five years. The remarkable thing about the event was the extreme measures taken to ensure no one was hurt. CDI had experience with over 7,000 demolitions and knew how to protect people. Engineers checked and rechecked the structure. The authorities evacuated several blocks around the Kingdome. Safety measures were in place to allow the countdown to stop at any time if there was concern about safety. All workers were individually accounted for by radio before the explosives were detonated. A large public address system was used to announce the final countdown. In short, CDI took every reasonable measure, and then some, to warn people of the impending danger.

The Bible teaches a final judgment and destruction for this sinful world. Like the engineers who blew up the Kingdome, our heavenly Father has spared no expense to make sure everyone can “get out” safely. He especially warns us of judgment in the first three chapters of Romans. In 1:18-32, Paul dealt with humankind’s unrighteousness in fifteen verses. In 2:1-3:8, he deals with our self-righteous in a whopping thirty-seven verses. Paul spills over twice as much ink on the self-righteousness because they are the most difficult people to persuade of their sin. The apostle’s point is that all men need salvation either because of blatant disobedience or counterfeit obedience. In 2:1-16, he confronts those who think their works can justify them before God. He will make it clear that the self-righteous person is as guilty before God as the unrighteous person. He states: Excuses for sin will not be excused. In this text Paul answers the question: How does God judge people? He then provides three ways: God judges according to truth, works, and light.

1. God Judges According To Truth (2:1-5).
Paul insists that the self-righteous person is guilty before God. Now if you’ve never judged anyone, you’re welcome to stop reading right now. But I suspect you’ve judged at least one person on one occasion, so keep reading. Paul begins in 2:1 with these penetrating words: “Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you5 who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.” After hearing about the blatant idolatry, immorality, and wickedness of the pagan unbeliever (1:18-32), some of Paul’s readers must have become smug with pride. However, he abruptly cuts them down to size. He uses the word “therefore” (dio) to connect the overt sinner of 1:21-32 with the covert sinner who judges another (2:1-5). Paul also clearly implies that God’s wrath in 1:18-20 will fall upon the moralist. The word “excuse” (anapologetos) is the same word used in 1:20 where Paul writes that the wicked are “without excuse” because of God’s witness in creation. Interestingly, Paul’s focus moves from “them/they” to “you/yourself” (six times in 2:1). He points the finger at the moralist and says, “You are guilty!” While the moralist may not indulge in gross manifestations of sin as some do, all people have impure thoughts, motives, and attitudes. So even “nice sinners” who pass judgment stand condemned.

We are quick to notice the grain of pepper in someone else’s teeth but slow to deal with the burrito in our own. Jesus’ words are fitting: “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Matt 7:3-5). We need to stop being oblivious to our own sin and deal with our junk before we approach another person. This may be as simple as changing pronouns. Like Paul in 2:1 we need to stop using “them/they” and “he/she.” Instead, we must first address me, myself, and I.

Tragically, we can all be self-righteous to one degree or another. We judge both ourselves and others poorly. We defend ourselves and find it difficult to believe that God’s judgment will touch us. Yet, we judge others severely and assume that they deserve God’s judgment. Have you ever noticed how we like to “rename” our sins? We do that by ascribing the worst motives to others, while using other phrases to let ourselves off the hook. Ray Pritchard provides the following examples: If you do it, you’re a liar; I merely “stretch the truth.” If you do it, you’re cheating; I am “bending the rules.” You lose your temper; I have righteous anger. You’re a jerk; I’m having a bad day. You have a critical spirit; I bluntly tell the truth. You gossip; I share prayer requests. You curse and swear; I let off steam. You’re pushy; I’m intensely goal-oriented. You’re greedy; I’m simply taking care of business. You’re a hypochondriac; but I’m really sick. You stink; I merely have an “earthy aroma.” Are we a sad bunch or what? We need to be reminded that excuses for sin will not be excused.

Paul further convicts us in 2:2: “And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things.” Paul is saying that deep down we know within the core of our being that judging others is sinful, and God will judge us for inappropriately judging others. Can I prove this? Yes, I can. What’s the most often quoted Bible verse in the world? John 3:16? Nope. It’s Matt 7:1a: “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” The reason that this verse is so frequently quoted by believers and unbelievers alike is twofold: (1) We don’t want to be reminded of our sinfulness. (2) We are aware of God’s judgment. Yet, this verse is taken out of context. This verse doesn’t mean that we can’t judge sin. On the contrary, we’re commanded to judge sin. Jesus teaches us in this verse that we need to deal with our own sin before we point out a brother or sister’s sin. When it comes right down to it, the only positive thing that we really accomplish by our self-righteous illegitimate judgment of others is to demonstrate our awareness of God’s holy and righteous standards. If we will leave judgment in God’s capable hands we express our faith. He is the sovereign judge who judges “rightly.” Let’s give God His job back and ask Him to help us be perfectly content to allow Him to judge people instead of trying to do His job for Him.

In 2:3-4, Paul asks a rhetorical question that expects a resounding “NO!” “But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” When Paul really wants to get down to business he uses the phrase “O man!” (He uses this same phrase in the Greek text of 2:1.) It is his way of getting into his reader’s grill and going eye-to-eye, nose-to-nose. He has to be in our face because there’s a perverse tendency in the human heart to imagine that somehow divine punishment will pass us by. We’re so permeated with a sense of being “special” that we find it easy to rationalize that judgment can’t happen to us. Yet, God’s kindness, tolerance, and patience is not an opportunity to sin; it’s a call to repent! Repentance is simply a change of mind or attitude that should lead to a change of feet. It means we examine our own mind and heart first before we judge anyone else. Paul concludes 2:4 by emphasizing kindness for the second time. As important as God’s wrath is Paul sees God’s kindness as the primary impetus to bring about repentance.

In my parenting, I am prone to be a disciplinarian when necessary. I have felt that every offense needs to be punished. This may have worked well with my children up to age ten or so, but the authoritarian approach is not always as effective anymore. Instead, I have discovered that kindness cultivates obedience. When I heap love and grace upon my children they seem to be more responsive to my discipline. I became persuaded of this reality from my experience as a Dad. More importantly, when I reflected on how God treats me, I realized He overwhelms me with His kindness, tolerance, and patience. If He treated me as I deserve I would be a bloodied corpse. Instead, He pours out grace day after day. Am I suggesting we chuck discipline? Not on your life! But I am saying we need to have a better understanding of how God treats us. Honestly, I am astounded at times by how rebellious and sinful I can be. My prayer has been: “Lord, remind me of how utterly wicked I can be so that I have a great appreciation for you and a deeper empathy for my children and others.” There are times when only God’s kindness (and our kindness) can break through a hard heart. Hence, when I talk to unbelievers, I talk about sin, righteousness, and judgment, but I also woo them with God’s kindness. To always speak of hellfire and judgment is not a balanced treatment of God. It is both kindness and wrath.
Paul concludes this section with a disturbing verse: “But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (2:5). Paul really goes after the moralist in this verse. He indicates that a stubborn and unrepentant heart leads to “storing up” (lit. “treasuring”) wrath. Whether this wrath is God’s present wrath, His Tribulation wrath, or His future wrath is debated. However, it seems evident that there’s a shift from God’s present wrath in chapter 1 to His future wrath in chapter 2 (see esp. 2:16). In either case, the moralist is being challenged to repent ASAP . . . before it’s too late!

You may have noticed in 2:2-5 there is a repeated emphasis upon God’s judgment. Yet many people in our culture balk at the notion of God’s judgment. Such individuals just want to focus on God’s love, mercy, compassion, and grace. While these attributes are certainly important, we must not neglect God’s holiness, wrath, righteousness, and justice. Upon closer examination, it is easy to see why that makes no sense at all. How loving is a God who ignores wrong-doing? How loving would God be if He looked at the Holocaust and said, “Oh, we’ll just ignore what happened there?” How righteous and good would God be if He saw the outright rebellion of men and did nothing? How could we call God just if He never addressed wrong? Do we consider parents who refuse to discipline their children loving? Or do we see them as weak and neglecting their responsibility? Do we see employers who overlook the disrespectful and lazy work of some workers as loving? Or do we feel they are being unfair to the rest of the workers? If our government responded to terrorist activity by saying, “Oh well; these things happen!” would we say our government was showing love or weakness? The answer to these scenarios is obvious. We respect individuals who execute grace and truth (see Jesus in John 1:14).

There are times when God’s love and kindness must be tough. This principle applies to us as well. We all want justice for the world, but we each carry within us a standard of righteousness based on our own perceived goodness. Furthermore, we will tolerate only as much evil in the world as we can accept within ourselves. When we feel resentment towards God for not eradicating evil in the world, we forget that eliminating all evil would mean the end of us too. Yet, if we genuinely care to eradicate evil from the world, we must look at our own sin. We must recognize that God doesn’t grade on a one to ten scale as we do. In light of His awesome holiness, it doesn’t matter whether our sin is in the form of an act, a word, or a thought; it’s still exceedingly sinful. As believers we must repent of our sin and then challenge moralist unbelievers to recognize their sin and turn to the Savior who has paid for their sin. Excuses for sin will not be excused.
[The first way that God judges is according to truth. Now we will see that . . .]
2. God Judges According To Works (2:6-11).
Paul argues that God will judge impartially according to a perfect standard. To put it simply: God only accepts perfect tens. Paul writes, “[He] who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. There will be tribulation and distress for every soul of man who does evil, of the Jew first and also of the Greek, but glory and honor and peace to everyone who does good, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For there is no partiality with God.” Paul is not talking about salvation in this section. He is not showing us how we are saved, because we are not saved by works. He is showing us why we are lost. This section is about God giving humankind what we deserve. But with all the emphasis in the Bible on faith, why is humankind judged according to works? Although we can be saved on the basis of faith, if we reject God’s offer, we are condemned on the basis of works (cf. Rev 20:11-15). This is a crucial distinction. When a person rejects the righteousness which God has provided as a free gift in Jesus Christ, in effect, he chooses to establish his own righteousness, and this can only be judged on a performance basis.

Remember that 2:1-16 is a paragraph which must be interpreted in its immediate context as well as its thought unit (1:18-3:20). Paul has been arguing that the moralist is under God’s condemnation because, though he condemns other sinners, he practices the same (types of) sin in his own life (2:1-5). Thus, he argues in 2:6 (quoting Ps 62 and Prov 24:12) that God pays such unbelievers back according to their works. According to 2:7, those who by perseverance continue in doing good and those who seek for glory and honor and immortality will receive eternal life. Paul means exactly what he says: Any person who shows up at the judgment matching the description of 2:7 will receive eternal life. But if someone did, it wouldn’t be salvation. A person who could do that wouldn’t need to be saved; he would just be getting what he deserved. He would be rewarded according to his works. And Paul is careful to say, “To those who by perseverance continue” to do such things . . . day after day after day. If you take a day off, you miss it. And the best of us take a day off. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory God” (3:23). Since the moralist’s deeds are evil he earns wrath and indignation just like the hedonist (1:18-32). The theological point of the whole is that God is no respecter of persons (2:11) and that all have sinned (2:12). If people lived up to the light they had (natural revelation for the Gentiles, special revelation for the Jews, cf. 10:5) then they would be right with God. However, the summary of 3:9-18, 23 shows that none ever have, nor can they! Hence, we are condemned sinners in need of a Savior. This section serves as an indictment. Humanity is being hauled before God’s bar of justice, and the standards of judgment are the issue. No one gets eternal life on the basis of their works because no one perfectly obeys. Therefore, the only method of justification is by faith alone (see 3:21-26). In other words, no one fits 2:7.

Ultimately, there are only two religions in the world—do good (400 varieties in the world) or have good done to you (Christianity). Today, will you believe in Christ’s perfect person and work? Assurance can only be found in Him.

In 2:8-10, Paul uses the term “Greek” to refer to Gentiles. He then makes it clear that the Jews (the religious) will experience “tribulation and distress” first and foremost. The reason is obvious. Jews are more accountable than Greeks because they knew more and had the privilege of knowing God’s will before anyone else. To whom much is given much is required (Luke 12:48). Verse 11 gives the reason, “For there is no partiality with God.” The word “partiality” (prosopolempsia) literally means “to receive (a person’s) face.” God does not deal with a person on the basis of his “face” (surface considerations such as nationality, race, color of skin, wealth, etc.). God looks deeper than the surface. This verse is the point of the whole argument: Since God isn’t partial, His children should be careful not to exercise partiality. Instead, we are called to call sin “SIN” and look to the perfect One who offers salvation.
[Make no mistake, God will judge according to truth and works. Finally. . .]
3. God Judges According To Light (2:12-16).
Paul explains that no one will be judged for the light they did not receive; everyone will be judged for light they did receive. However, more knowledge brings more responsibility and greater accountability. In these five verses, the word “law” is used eleven times. Clearly, that is what is on Paul’s mind: the law of God and how God holds humanity accountable to it. He explains: “For all who have sinned without the Law will also perish without the Law, and all who have sinned under the Law will be judged by the Law; for it is not the hearers of the Law who are just before God, but the doers of the Law will be justified. For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus” (2:12-16). These five verses are all one long, complex sentence. If you will notice, 2:13 begins with a parenthesis, and the parenthetical section doesn’t end until the end of 2:15. (To see this, read 2:12 and then go directly to 2:16). Verse 12 is clear that humankind is guilty before God whether they have the Law or not. All men are judged and condemned. Paul’s point, simply stated is this: Ignorance of the Law will not save the Gentile; possession of the Law will not save the Jew. Both are condemned before God the righteous Judge. In 2:13, he states that if one is seeking to justify himself by the Law he must be a doer of the Law. In 2:14-15, we learn that Gentiles will be judged according to the moral law. Paul says that when Gentiles instinctively follow God’s Law, they’re revealing that they know that Law.

This explains why, in almost every culture, it’s considered wrong to steal and murder. This also explains why a man with no knowledge of the Bible will know it’s wrong to commit adultery. Let me say something very important. Every human being lives according to a law, a standard of performance. For some, this is a vague standard. These people say, “I have lived a good life. I’ve never killed anyone!” Others will point to the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, or the Golden Rule. Each of these represents very good precepts for life. However, what most people don’t know is that God will hold them to their standard but will require 100% conformity to that law. In fact, God requires nothing short of absolute perfection. For those who have trusted in Jesus Christ as Savior, the free gift of Christ’s perfection is placed in their accounts. However, those who don’t receive Jesus as Savior face eternal condemnation for their sins.

If we’ve sinned even one time in word, thought, or deed, we’re eternally disconnected from God. In other words, we must do it all according to the Law, and we can make no mistakes to be justified. We must be perfect to please God.

Paul concludes our passage in 2:16 by stating that God will not only judge people’s actions, but their secrets as well. Are you ready to give an account of your secrets? I know I’m not! It’s scary enough to think about giving an account of my works or lack thereof. But my secrets? OH MY! In that day of accounting, the most “excused” sin will come into the light. Excuses for sin will not be excused. If you’re a believer, confess your sin to God right now. If you’re an unbeliever, repent of your self-righteous attitude and believe in Jesus as your Savior. This section begins in 2:1 with man in the seat of judgment and end in 2:16 with God on the throne of judgment. In 2:1 man is condemned by his own judgment; in 2:2-16 he is condemned by God’s judgment. The riveting point is: We ought to let God be God. Jesus is the just Judge who is also the perfect Savior. Let us cling to His cross and evade the present and future judgment that God will bring upon the self-righteous.

Did you know that judgment day is not far away? Romans 2 teaches that God’s future judgment will be according to truth, works, and light. Are you ready to face that judgment? Are you ready to stand before a holy and righteous God? God has leveled the Gentile and Jew and condemned every person who has ever lived or will ever live under sin. He has demolished us into dust and sprinkled us at the foot of the cross. It’s there that we must acknowledge our sin and trust in Jesus Christ alone.

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Building your faith

In this day of increasing gas prices, drivers are looking for every advantage. One of the most overlooked strategies is keeping tires properly inflated. A group of Carnegie Mellon University students determined that the average driver could save $432 annually (when gas is $3 per gallon) by keeping tires at the recommended pressure. Tires usually lose air pressure v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. If your car’s engine has a problem, you notice it immediately. But you can still drive on under-inflated tires—just not very efficiently. Likewise, we lose “efficiency” in the Christian life the same way tires lose air pressure: very slowly. When we finally are stopped dead in our tracks by sin or failure, it’s not because of a blowout. It’s because we failed to perform daily spiritual maintenance: prayer, worship, Bible study, self-denial, service, and obedience. Over months or years we can grow so spiritually inefficient that we fail to notice. Have you checked your spiritual air pressure lately? Are you operating for the Lord at peak efficiency? Be warned: Failing to perform daily maintenance can ultimately leave you stranded.

 

So how can we ensure that our faith won’t leave us stranded? How can we have a “pumped-up” faith that will go the distance? How can we help other believers grow spiritually? These questions are answered in 1 Thessalonians 3 where Paul states, “Afflictions are not accidents—they are appointments.” In these thirteen verses, Paul shares two strategies to build ourselves and others up in the faith.

 

  1. Prepare God’s people to endure trials (3:1-8).

In this first section, we discover that the way to prepare others to endure trials is to strengthen them in the faith. Paul begins with these words: “Therefore when we could endure it no longer, we thought it best to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s fellow worker in the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith” (3:1-2). Now this passage presupposes that we understand the circumstances surrounding Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica, so allow me to summarize those circumstances. Paul arrived in the Greek city of Thessalonica after he and his coworker Silas had received a terrible beating and been imprisoned in the city of Philippi. During their short time in Thessalonica, Paul, Silas, and Timothy led several of the Thessalonians to faith in Jesus and this new nucleus of believers formed a church. But soon trouble started, and Paul, Silas, and Timothy were forced to run for their lives and Paul and Silas were forbidden from entering Thessalonica again. So the three ministers traveled to the cities of Berea and Athens. It was while they were in Athens that Paul’s concern for the Thessalonian Christians reached its peak, so he sent Timothy back to the city to find out how things were. For some reason the city ban against Paul and Silas didn’t apply to Timothy. Timothy had a Greek father and probably looked Greek. He would, therefore, have attracted no special attention in a Greek city, whereas Paul was immediately recognizable as a Jew (cf. Acts 16:20). It is also likely that because of his youth the authorities didn’t notice him.

 

Now, let’s get into the text. The word “therefore” that opens this chapter refers back to 2:17-20, where Paul expressed his great love for the Thessalonian believers. It is because of this love that he cannot abandon them when they need spiritual help. The verb translated “left behind” (kataleipo) is an intense and picturesque term that is used of a child leaving his parents (Eph 5:31) or the death of one’s spouse (Mark 12:19). In 2:17, Paul said that he felt “orphaned” from his friends in Thessalonica, and the Greek word can also mean “bereaved.” To leave these new believers was like an experience of bereavement. This is a good lesson for us today. Paul so loved the Thessalonian believers that he would have risked his own life to return to them. Paul so loved the saints at Philippi that he was willing to stay out of heaven in order to encourage them (Phil 1:22-26). He wanted to give of himself and his resources for them, as a parent provides for his or her children. Paul had a passion for these new believers.

 

Do you have this type of earnest desire for new believers? Do you long to see other believers and help them grow in their faith? What new believers have you recently invested in?

 

In 3:2, we find two keys to this chapter. The first key word in this chapter is “faith” (3:2, 5, 6, 7, 10). Another key word is “strengthen/establish” (sterizo, 3:2, 13). Paul’s problem is that he is separated from the Thessalonian Christians by distance and circumstances. He is in Athens with no phone, FAX, email, or teleconferencing, incapable of meeting the spiritual needs of his Thessalonian friends. So he empowered Timothy with the confidence to minister. Notice how Paul describes young Timothy in 3:2: “our brother and God’s fellow worker.” Timothy is a brother in Christ, a follower of Jesus, related to every other Christian, as a brother. But he’s also called “God’s fellow worker.” This is a remarkable phrase—that any person besides Jesus Himself could be described as God’s fellow worker. Now some Bible versions have the phrase “God’s minister” (KJV) instead of “God’s fellow worker” or “God’s coworker,” because some scholars found the idea of God having coworkers a far too bold word to be applied to Timothy.

 

But the original word here is sunergos, where we get our English word synergy from. Paul seems to be saying that God’s partnership with Timothy provides synergy. What’s even more amazing is that it’s likely that Timothy was in his early to mid 20s when Paul wrote this. Most scholars take this to mean Timothy was in his 30s, and it’s likely that 1 Timothy was written somewhere around 67 AD. This puts Timothy in his early to mid 20s during his mission in Thessalonica.

 

Timothy was a young and inexperienced ministry intern, yet here Paul empowers him to be an extension of God to the Thessalonians. Timothy’s mission is to strengthen and encourage the Thessalonians in their faith. Notice again that word “faith.” Paul is most interested in the faith of these believers, not their comfort, welfare, or prosperity. The word “strengthen” is a building term that means to cause a structure to become more secure. Think of retrofitting a freeway overpass, that’s what this word describes. When used to describe our faith it means “to cause someone to become stronger in the sense of firmer and unchanging in attitude or belief.” The word “encourage” here basically describes a coach who comes alongside a person to help them take the next step. Paul wanted Timothy to strengthen and encourage the Thessalonians so they wouldn’t waver when problems and suffering came upon them.

 

Verse 2 should be an encouragement to all college students and young adults. If God can use Timothy to affect an entire church, he can use you as well.

 

In 3:3-4, Paul reveals his purpose in sending Timothy to strengthen and encourage the Thessalonian believers: “so that no one would be disturbed by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we have been destined for this. For indeed when we were with you, we kept telling you in advance that we were going to suffer affliction; and so it came to pass, as you know.” Several insights on affliction and trials come directly out of these two verses:

 

  • Trials will come. No sooner had the Thessalonians trusted in Jesus when the bottom seemed to fall out of their lives. This is true in the life of every Christian. The truth is, if you aren’t presently in a trial you are either headed out of a trial or right now preparing to head into a trial. The word “afflictions” (thlipsis) has the idea of being “under the thumb” because of pressure from above. The “afflictions” that Paul is referring to are the sufferings the Thessalonians experienced at the hands of their countrymen because of their faith and stand for the Lord Jesus as mentioned back in 2:14. Some of us will face this type of affliction from our family members, coworkers, neighbors, and classmates. We may also face other trials such as terminal illness, loss of job, robbery, imprisonment, death of a loved one, or divorce. This is a part of life. Regardless of how we may try, we can’t avoid afflictions. We can’t play hide-and-go-seek or peek-a-boo. They are part and parcel of every believer’s experience. Afflictions are not accidents—they are appointments.

 

  • Trials can rock Christians. Many believers turn their back on God as a result of trials. One of the chief reasons for this is that many new believers have not been told the truth about Christianity. Instead, they have been told that being a Christian is all about health, wealth, and prosperity. However, the truth is that the Christian life is not one big spiritual Disneyland. At times it is difficult and disappointing. This is why Paul told these brand new Christians time and time again that they would face trials. When I was growing up, my dad would always tell me, “Growing up is no fun.” At the time I didn’t really believe him, nor could I really understand, but I sure do now! In the same way, we must warn new believers that Christianity is not for wimps. We must tell them that “every rose has its thorn.” I respect people who will tell me the “straight-up” truth. I don’t want others to pull the punch and try to be mamsy-pamsy. I don’t want to have reality sugarcoated. I want to be adequately prepared so that when trials come I will stand firm. Yet, I also want to have a heart of compassion, concern, and care so that when (not if) trials do come upon others, I come alongside them to provide comfort. Afflictions are not accidents—they are appointments.

 

  • Trials come from God. Paul says that we have been “destined” for afflictions. The phrase “we were destined” comes from a verb that means “to put or to place.” The verb is a perfect tense and passive voice, which is a very strong way of saying “these hard times were placed here by God.” Paul wants to reassure his friends that the troubles they’re going through aren’t arbitrary accidents, blind acts of fate, or the result of bad karma, but that suffering is the crown of being a follower of Jesus.

 

These trials didn’t happen by accident. In fact, this is the opposite of chance or circumstance. Affliction is God’s appointment for us. God places affliction strategically in our lives for our personal growth. This is God’s destiny for us and comes by His divine design. You may say, “I don’t like these side-effects of Christianity.” Sorry, this is just one of the by-products of being a believer. A disciple is someone under discipline. God appoints trials into our lives so that we will become more disciplined in the things of God. Although God is with us through all of our trials, He is not always in a hurry to pull us out of our tribulations. The reason is because suffering is the quickest path to spiritual maturity. Afflictions are not accidents—they are appointments.

 

In 3:5, Paul explains the reason behind the reason he sent Timothy to strengthen and encourage the Thessalonian church: “For this reason, when I could endure it no longer, I also sent to find out about your faith, for fear that the tempter might have tempted you, and our labor would be in vain.” In this verse, Paul once again demonstrates his pastoral heart. He is concerned about the Thessalonians and desperately wants to hear how they are doing in their faith. The reason that he is so anxious to learn of their spiritual progress is because he is all too aware of “the tempter.” Did you know that Satan has a “ministry?” That’s right…he’s a step up on many Christians. Satan’s special “ministry” is to attack Christians. Satan loves to attack new Christians. If he can sidetrack or defeat new believers from the get-go, he has won. Even though he can’t take away a believer’s salvation, he can render Christians ineffective. And he has done this countless times. This is one of his specialties! Satan also loves to tempt mature believers to fall away during hard times. How does the devil tempt us in hard times?

First, he tempts us to doubt God’s goodness. He whispers in our ear that God has forgotten us, that He doesn’t care, and that He isn’t good.

Second, Satan tempts us to retaliate against others with anger and resentment. This is one of his favorite tools when the hard times involve problems with friends and family members.

Third, Satan tempts us to give in to despair and discouragement. Satan will tempt us to say, do, or think anything that will get us off track spiritually.

 

Remember this simple principle: Satan tempts us to get the worst out of us; God tests us to get the best of us. In this context, Paul is fearful that Satan may cause his labor to be “in vain.” Paul knew that no labor in the Lord is in vain (1 Cor 15:58). We have the Lord’s promise that He will reward us for faithful labors. But Paul also knew, because of the workings of Satan, some of his labor could be annulled or tarnished as to its effect on the lives of others. This is why he was so concerned about their faith and took steps to protect his labor.

 

In 3:6-8, Paul rejoices when he hears that the Thessalonians are withstanding persecution. He shares his reaction to this news with them to encourage them to persevere as their afflictions continued. “But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us good news of your faith and love, and that you always think kindly of us, longing to see us just as we also long to see you, for this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith; for now we really live, if you stand firm in the Lord.” The phrase translated “brought us good news” (euaggelizo) is the exact equivalent of “preaching the good news of the gospel.” In fact, this is the only place in the New Testament where this verb is used in the general sense of bringing good news rather than of preaching the gospel.

 

Paul’s use of this verb here shows his depth of feeling on hearing news of the Thessalonian Christians. The report from Timothy was, to Paul, like hearing the gospel. Paul most likely uses this word because through our lives we have the opportunity to influence unbelievers favorably on behalf of the gospel (cf. 1:6; 2:13). Timothy reported that the new believers were manifesting “faith and love.” There’s that word “faith” again. It is “faith” and “love” in that order. You cannot have “love” unless you first have “faith.” It is one thing to believe in Jesus as Savior, but in order for there to be fruitfulness, there needs to be ongoing persistent faith.

 

Paul also exclaims that the church is standing firm in spite of persecution. They did not believe the lies that Satan had told about Paul, but they still held him in the highest esteem in love. Furthermore, their lives brought comfort to the apostles. This leads Paul to say “now we really live.” We often use the phrase “Get a life!” when we regard someone’s pursuits as insignificant. Yet, here Paul discusses “getting a life” in an unusual way.” Spiritually speaking, Paul is given a new lease on life…a new surge of energy, a new zest for living the Christian life. Afflictions are not accidents—they are appointments.

[How can we help other believers grow spiritually? First, prepare God’s people to endure trials. A second way to help others grow spiritually is…]

  1. Pray God’s people prepare for future judgment (3:9-13).

In these remaining five verses, we will learn how to pray that God’s people have a good showing at the judgment seat of Christ. These verses disclose three specific requests that we can pray today for other believers.

 

  • Pray for God’s passionate heart (3:9-10).In 3:9-10 Paul writes, “For what thanks can we render to God for you in return for all the joy with which we rejoice before our God on your account, as we night and day keep praying most earnestly that we may see your face, and may complete what is lacking in your faith?”

 

As always, Paul is vertically focused. He wants to express thanks to God for “all the joy” that the Thessalonians have brought him. This gratitude and joy motivated Paul to pray “night and day,” a phrase that reflects the Jewish reckoning of time where the day begins at dusk. It simply means that Paul prayed consistently at various times of the day. Verse 10 also says that he prayed “most earnestly”…blood, sweat, and tears type of prayer. He did so because he wanted to see these believers again and “complete” what was lacking in their faith.

 

The word “complete” (katartizo) is a Greek word that means “to fit together, restore, repair, equip.” It was used of setting bones and repairing fishing nets. The phrase “complete what is lacking in your faith” refers to “things still needed.” The rest of 1 Thessalonians tells us what Paul found lacking in their faith. Some of the issues related to moral concerns (4:1-8), others to doctrinal issues (4:13-5:11), and still others touched the daily life of the church (5:12-22).

 

This brings up an important truth: We never arrive in our Christian lives. Room for improvement is the largest room in the world. Even the apostle Paul continually sought to press on in his spiritual growth. In Rom 1:17 he explains that as believers we must grow from “faith to faith.” In other words, the whole of the Christian life is built upon faith. Are you living the adventuresome life of faith? Have you grown complacent and satisfied with where you are in your growth? If so, why not ask the Lord to give you an earnest desire to mature? And as you pray, recognize that afflictions are not accidents—they are appointments.

 

Pray for God’s sovereign direction (3:11). Paul prays, “Now may our God and Father Himself and Jesus our Lord direct our way to you.” Paul may have been reflecting on Prov 16:9: “The mind of man plans his way, but the LORD directs his steps.” In 2:18, Paul describes how Satan “hindered” his path so he now intentionally prays for God’s direction. Who sets your ministry direction? Do you go to God with what you want to do for Him or do you ask Him what He wants you to do? Do you pray for the Lord’s clear and specific direction in your ministry? Do you pray for the Lord’s direction in our church? Do you pray that the Lord will speak to the leadership? Do you invite the Lord to give direction to every area of your life? Or, if you’re honest, would you have to admit that there are some areas that you do not invite the Lord to direct?

 

  • Pray for God’s supernatural love (3:12). Paul’s second request is, “May the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you.” Times of suffering can be times of selfishness. Persecuted people often become very self-centered and demanding.

 

What life does to us depends on what life finds in us; and nothing reveals the true inner man like the furnace of affliction. Some people build walls in times of trial and shut themselves off. Others build bridges and draw closer to the Lord and His people. Our growing faith in God ought to result in a growing love for others (cf. 1 Pet 4:8). You cannot grow to maturity in Christ unless you learn how to love other Christians. And this requires a supernatural love from God. He alone must give us love for one another.

 

The most spiritual people are not those who know the Word the best; the most spiritual people are those who love God and others the best. We need to change how we esteem Christians. God intends that the love Christians have for one another be a witness to the world (John 13:34-35; 17:23).

 

The goal and purpose of these three prayers is given in 3:13: “…so that He [i.e., the Holy Spirit]may establish your hearts without blame in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints [i.e., believers who have died and gone to be with Christ in spirit form, whose bodies will be resurrected when He comes (see 4:16)]. Earlier Paul has made ‘our Lord Jesus’ the judge at this scene (1Thess 2:19). This is no contradiction.

 

The unity of the Father and Son, just seen in v. 11, allows a joint judgeship. The bema of Christ (2Cor 5:10) is also the bema of God (Rom 14:10), because Christ in his present session is with the Father in his heavenly throne (Rev 3:21; cf. Rom 8:34; Heb 1:3; 10:12). This hearing will take place at the future ‘visit’ (en te parousia, “in the coming”) of the Lord Jesus (cf. 2:19). For the Thessalonians Paul prays for a favorable verdict at that time. Again, Paul anticipates the judgment seat of Christ (cf. 2:19; 5:23). He says that submission to God’s passion, direction, and love gets us ready for the judgment seat of Christ! Paul wants us to be prepared to stand before Jesus Christ one day, with confidence. He yearns for the Lord to “establish” us as practically righteous, before Christ returns. This should be our heart cry and our deep desire for every believer.

 

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but very few Christians have a passionate longing for Christ’s return. We may yearn for it when overwhelmed by pain, sorrow, or disappointment, but once life returns to normal we are quite happy to remain on planet earth.

 

There is a new exercise routine that calls for 3 cardio workouts a week of 15 minutes. The workout routine consists of intervals of 2 minutes of intensity and 1 minute of ease. This workout shocks your body and burns fat. It is intense and effective. I have tried it several times and it is flat-out brutal!

This metaphor is also true in the spiritual realm. If you and I want to build a rock-hard faith we will have to increase our intensity. Faith is like a muscle—you’ve got to use it or you’ll lose it. Sometimes you’ve got to push yourself to the limit. You’ve got to work those muscles to failure. You’ve got to shock your body into growth. If I sincerely believed that Jesus was going to return today (heart, soul, mind, and will), I would work out with a renewed intensity. I would also stop and enjoy the breaks that God gives. I would understand that God has a purpose in all of the afflictions I face and I must depend upon Him.

Another sermon on the mouth

Whenever I go to the airport to pick someone up, I park outside of the arrival terminal. My goal is always the same: to avoid paying to park my car. So I wait as long as I can near the curb of the airline pickup area. While waiting I listen for a recording over the loudspeaker, “The white zone is for loading and unloading only. No parking.” Now, mind you, I am waiting to load up; however, if my passengers are delayed and I am waiting at the curb too long, a police officer usually approaches my car and asks me to move on. Being the law-abiding citizen that I am, I oblige him. However, I must confess that I have been known to make the loop at the airport and begin this vicious cycle all over again.

Can I be honest? I wish there were some way to announce over a loudspeaker system outside every church, “The worship zone is for learning, listening, and changing only. No parking! Be alert! Listen carefully. Truth will be deposited in your head that is designed to change your life.” But chances are good that even if a loudspeaker made such an announcement, the same thing would occur—folks would still “park” and turn a deaf ear to the recording and give pastoral police officers the runaround.

 

In Ecclesiastes 5:1-9, Solomon pens some convicting words. He is going to sober us up. He may even make us feel badly. Now, I hope that you don’t come to church to be made to feel happy.

The Bible isn’t a book about happiness; it is a book about holiness.

This means sometimes the Bible will say things that you and I don’t like. Yet, if our goal is to become progressively holy, we will welcome the hard words of Scripture. For hard words make soft people and soft words make hard people.  In these nine verses, Solomon shares two prohibitions that will enable us to exercise holiness and worship the right God in the right way. He wants us to see that God seeks an open heart and a closed mouth.

 

This passage seems to be an interlude in the book of Ecclesiastes. So far in the book, Solomon has been focused on the horizontal, but now he focuses in on the vertical. This chapter presents something of an interlude. Up to this point, Solomon has been merely giving his observations. But now he gives a series of exhortations. So far, he has only showed us the way the world IS. Now he tells us what we are to DO on the basis of how the world is. (1) Before worship (5:1a); (2) during worship (5:1b-3); and (3) after worship (5:4-9).

 

  1. Don’t be rash with your words (5:1-3).

In these first three verses, Solomon challenges his readers to prepare their hearts, minds, and mouths for worship. The idea is: before we worship, we must check our mental attitude and motive. In 5:1 Solomon writes, “Guard your steps as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil.” This verse is rather meaty because it encapsulates two important issues: our preparation for worship and our participation in worship.

The first emphasis is upon our preparation for worship. In 5:1, Solomon’s first words are a command to “guard your steps.” This is a common expression in our culture. When you exit a bus, the bus driver will say, “Please watch your step.” When you are getting off a plane, a flight attendant will generally stand at the cockpit door and tell you, “Thank you for flying with us and please watch your step.” When someone tells you to watch your step they are warning you of a potential danger just ahead that you had better pay very close attention to. When you were growing up, was there ever a time when you became angry and spoke rash and disrespectful words to your parents? What was their response? If your parents were like my parents, you probably heard these words: “Watch your step,  or be careful what you say, young man (or young woman).”

 

Solomon warns you to “guard your step as you go to the house of God.” This seems out of the ordinary to our modern culture. We have warnings about sin, temptation, and unbelief, but a warning about how to worship seems unusual to our ears. Our problem is that we do not take worship seriously enough. We tend to think that as long as we are worshiping the Lord, it does not really matter how we worship. But the Scriptures teach otherwise. So sacred was God’s house that the Lord said to Moses in Leviticus 15:31: “Thus you shall keep the sons of Israel separated from their uncleanness, so that they will not die in their uncleanness by their defiling My tabernacle that is among them.” God at times actually took the lives of those who failed to come to His house in the right way, as a warning to the whole nation that they were dealing with a holy God.

 

Consider how an outsider would see the church. They might see people eating and drinking in church. They might see people talking during the worship service, coming in late, and going in and out during worship. It may seem so irreverent. So which worship culture is correct—the formal Catholic or Orthodox Church or the informal Protestant church? The answer is both can be right! Now please don’t misunderstand what I am trying to say. I recognize that in the church age there is nothing hallowed about a building. The Bible tells us that you and I are temples of the Holy Spirit. However, when the church gathers for the purpose of worship, there ought to be a sense of God’s holiness and abiding presence.

 

Did you ever speak to your children about the practice of folding our hands and closing our eyes when we pray. The principle is to show respect for God and be free from distraction. We can’t put away some of the distractions that are in front of us so it can be helpful to close our eyes in prayer and in worship. Likewise, God wants us to enter into worship prepared and focused. Men are good at preparing. They’ll stay up late Friday night getting ready for Saturday’s fishing trip. They’ll spend hours organizing a basement workshop before beginning a project. They’ll devote a week preparing for a tailgate party at the football stadium. And they’ll study catalogs all summer looking for the perfect fall hunting jacket. The men of the Old Testament were charged by God with certain preparations as well—preparations for worship. At the first Passover, men were to select a perfect lamb, slaughter it, put its blood on the doorpost, roast the meat, and make sure the house was cleansed of leaven. Do men—or women—spend as much time preparing for worship today?

What kinds of preparation should be made?

Go to bed early and wake up early.

Meditate on Scripture.

Pray with your kids before church. Teach them the importance of service.

Talk about the Lord on your way to the church. This Saturday, try to keep Sunday in mind. Try to give it the kind of preparation that will make it a day to remember. God seeks an open heart and a closed mouth.

 

The famous researcher, George Barna, said,Having devoted more than two decades of my life and all of my professional skills to studying and working with ministries of all types, I am now convinced that the greatest hope for the local church lies in raising godly children.” Barna is exactly right! If the family breaks down, the core of society is demolished. It has been said again and again that the church is one generation from extinction. Therefore, it is imperative that we train our children how to worship God and love and serve the church.

 

5:1b alludes to participation in worship. Solomon says, “Draw near to listen…” Solomon has just indicted “Back Row Baptists.” It is so interesting to me that some Christians have to get to church early to make sure that they get that back row or near that back row. Instead of the front rows filling up first and moving backward, we start in the back and move forward. It is like we want to get in the church building but just barely in it. Solomon says draw near to listen. It is not draw near to sing louder. It is not draw near so that you can pray longer. It is not draw near so you can be closer to your friends so you can talk throughout the service together. No, it is draw near so that you can listen.

The “sacrifice of fools” refers to speaking foolishly. Solomon warns us of hearing too little and talking too much. The word “listen” carries double force: “listening with the intention of obeying.” God wants us to hear from Him. He seeks an open heart and a closed mouth. Thus, if you have walked out of church not hearing from God then you have not worshiped. You have attended church but you have not worshiped. You can check off your obligation card “I did it” but you did not worship. Worship can only occur when you hear from God. Today, will you make every effort to hear from God? Will you open up your heart and close your mouth?

 

Now that we’ve walked the walk, we have to talk the talk. We must talk cautiously to the Lord as well as walk cautiously before Him. In 5:2 Solomon writes, “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.” When I was growing up, my mother would say, “Watch your tone of voice!” She wanted to remind me that my parents were in authority over me and I needed to respect them. Likewise, God is saying, “Believer, you need to remember who your Father is.” It is unwise to hastily and impulsively give God a piece of your mind. First of all, you will be giving God a piece of your mind that you can ill afford to lose. Second, Solomon declares that “God is in heaven and you are on the earth.” Many people assume Solomon is saying that God is way up there in heaven and we are way down here on earth, so we’d better listen well.

 

In actuality, this is a statement of perspective, not distance. God is in the realm of the infinite. He alone hears the inaudible. He alone sees the invisible. That’s the reason we are to be calm and quiet. What a putdown; what a blow to our egos! In five simple words—“you are on the earth”—the author shoots down any chance for us to think “more highly of [ourselves] than [we] ought to think” (Rom 12:3). What we consider to be great (i.e., “the earth”) Solomon and God conceive as being not merely small, but insignificant (in comparison to heaven). We are merely on earth—an average-sized planet in our relatively small solar system, but a planet that few humans have circumnavigated and even fewer have been able to leave for brief ventures into (near, not deep) space.

 

Solomon wants you and me to understand that God is not your “next door neighbor,” He’s not the “big man upstairs.” He’s the infinite, eternal, unchangeable God who is full of wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. Yes, He’s also a faithful friend and a caring Father, but He’s always more than that too. He expects us to take Him seriously as the chief authority in our lives.

Since we can’t understand everything, we should be careful about what we say to God. Do you know why? In 5:3 Solomon writes, “For the dream comes through much effort and the voice of a fool through many words.” Just as hard work produces sleep and dreams, so a fool produces many words and much pontificating. In contrast, Solomon says that men of effort are known for their dreams. They work hard and they are silent. Can you say to God that you are mixed up and need some answers? Certainly. God wants us to be honest with Him. But He also wants us to be careful how we approach Him. You have to watch your tone of voice. We may ask why but not with anger or disrespect. There can be no accusations as though God were not in control or bitterness as though we sit in judgment over Him. God is free to do what He wants, whenever He wants. Remember, He is God. God seeks an open heart and a closed mouth.

[Why should you not be rash with your words? Because God is God and you are not. Solomon now shares a second prohibition.]

 

  1. Don’t be foolish with your words (5:4-9).

Solomon warns us against foolish speech and making foolish commitments. In 5:4 he writes, “When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow!” Solomon says that if you make a vow to God, then you’d better do what you said you would do. He begins with the assumption that at some point or another most people will make a vow to God (“when you…”). Yet, he follows up this assumption with a prohibition: “do not be late in paying it.” He then concludes 5:4 with a short, direct command: “Pay what you vow!” This short sentence is literally translated, “WHAT YOU VOWED, pay [it]!” The emphasis is upon the vow. Solomon, in essence, labels the person “a fool” who fails to pay his vow on time. Think about this. People make vows all the time. People are baptized. People become members of a church. Parents dedicate their children. Spouses commit their lives to one another. People make commitments to read God’s Word and to maintain their purity. Yet, all of us have broken vows that we have made before God and others. Maybe you have even said, “God, if you get me out of this mess I promise that I am going to stop this or start that or serve you with my life. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but God remembers these vows and holds us to them. (New year’s resolutions vs. vows)

 

Therefore, Solomon’s suggestion in 5:5-6 is, “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger of God that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands?” Solomon says, “It would be better for us to keep quiet and not utter anything rash or foolish.” This is why I challenge people who are contemplating marriage and church membership. I want to make sure they understand what they are committing to. Please listen carefully: I believe that there are many Christians today who are experiencing God’s judgment in their lives because of their refusal to follow through with their commitments to Him. That judgment may not come in the form of physical ailments and death, though it certainly can. It may instead come by means of God destroying the work of our hands. That is, God may take our goals and aspirations and efforts to succeed and just turn those things into dust. Or He may allow us to prosper but make us miserable in our prosperity.

 

Eccl. 5:4 (NASB) “When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it, for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow!” Num. 30:2 (NASB) “If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” Deut. 23:21 (NASB) “When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the LORD your God will surely require it of you.”

 

In 5:7 Solomon writes, “For in many dreams and in many words there is emptiness. Rather, fear God.” Solomon returns to the idea of dreams. His conclusion is that dreams and words can be nothing but emptiness—hebel. Thus, he tells us to fear God. To fear God is to stand in awe of Him. It is not to quake into oblivion or to become comatose. It is to acknowledge His worth. It is to respond to Him with obedience and gratitude. God seeks an open heart and a closed mouth.

 

Solomon closes out this section in 5:8-9 with an exhortation for us to watch what we think in reference to humans. “If you see oppression of the poor and denial of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be shocked at the sight; for one official watches over another official, and there are higher officials over them. After all, a king who cultivates the field is an advantage to the land.” These are peculiar verses that don’t seem to fit in this chapter. Yet, it seems best to place these verses with 5:1-7 instead of with 5:10-20. What, if any, connections are there between the two sets of verses? In what way(s) are we to compare our relationship to earthly rulers with how we are to act in the presence of God? It seems that Solomon is suggesting that we would not be so foolish as to chatter boldly before imperfect but powerful government leaders about problems we encounter. If not, then why do we chatter incessantly before the all-powerful God? He is sovereign and is in complete control.

 

While we search for excellence in many areas of living, let us not forget to pursue it also in our worship by paying attention, paying our vows, and paying respect. It might be easy to conclude from this message that a Christian should pray silent and short prayers, should never make public commitments, and should cower in absolute fear of God. But to come to that conclusion would be to miss the whole point. Rather, what we should do is to be sincere when we speak, to think through our commitments before we make them, and to never lose our reverence and awe for God.

Getting what we paid for

My wife and I are very careful about how we spend our money. Some call us cheap, others call us frugal; I like to call us shrewd stewards of the Lord’s resources. Yet, over time I have noticed something rather discouraging. In my attempt to save money, I buy inexpensive items that quickly break down or fall apart. Whenever this happens, I tend to say, “You get what you pay for!”

However, this worn-out cliché does not always prove true. Occasionally, I buy brand-name goods that fall apart while the el cheapo merchandise lives on. It’s rather frustrating and unpredictable. Hence, I’ve learned that you don’t always get what you pay for. This is true in other areas of life as well. Hollywood can spend millions of dollars seeking to produce the latest and greatest movie, only to watch the movie bomb in the box office. At the same time, a small-time producer can spend peanuts producing a flick only to see it become the latest rage. In the world of sports, it is all too common to see an athlete sign a ridiculously lucrative contract only to be injured or have a sub-par season. Simultaneously, a rookie can sign the league minimum and have an explosive year. You can’t always judge a movie by its budget or an athlete by his salary. Furthermore, you can’t judge a servant of Christ by his pay or lack thereof.

Take the apostle Paul, for example. He chose not to receive payment from the church at Corinth. Instead, he established a church in this sin-hardened city at his own expense. He served them freely so that the gospel would have an open door to travel through. Paul’s personal sacrifices brought about great results for God’s kingdom. Likewise, we have been called to have a godly work ethic as ministers of the gospel. Some of us will be paid, others will serve as volunteers. Yet, we are all called to represent Christ and to offer Him our lives. We will learn that proclaiming Christ demands paying a price. In 1 Cor 9:1-23, Paul is going to share with us an autobiographical sketch of his ministry. In doing so, he will exhort us to follow his example. First, Paul will argue that…

  1. We must relinquish our individual rights(9:1-14). Paul builds a lengthy argument for ministers being paid. I know what you’re thinking: I picked the wrong day to come to church. Well, believe me when I say, this is as awkward for me as it is you…probably more so. Nevertheless, I will proclaim God’s Word as faithfully as I can. In 9:1, Paul begins by reminding the Corinthians of his apostolic identity. “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?” Paul’s four rhetorical questions all expect a positive answer, and they become increasingly specific. Certainly he enjoyed the liberty that every other believer had. Moreover, he possessed the rights and privileges of an apostle. The proof of his apostleship was twofold. He had seen the risen Christ (Acts 1:21-22) on the Damascus road (Acts 22:14-15; 26:15-18), and he had founded the church in Corinth, which was apostolic work (cf. Rom 15:15-21).

In 9:2, Paul continues, “If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” Although some may have doubted Paul’s apostleship, that should not be the case with the Corinthians. They themselves were the proof that he was an apostle. If the Corinthians deny Paul’s apostleship they deny their own existence. Paul, therefore, takes the opportunity to work that issue into his discussion at this point, hoping he can nip it in the bud. He explains that the Corinthians are the “seal” of his apostleship. A seal in the ancient world was a warm blob of wax into which a signet ring was pressed to seal a letter or package. It was an assurance that the contents had not been opened; it showed who owned the contents; and it showed the genuineness of the contents, that it was sent by the right person. Paul is saying that the Corinthians are his work in the Lord.

If you are a Christian, it is critical that you have your own “seal” of people you have impacted and influenced for eternity. Like Paul, our goal must be to see lost people trust in Jesus Christ and then grow to maturity in Him. In light of eternity, nothing else will matter.

In 9:3-14, Paul shares his apostolic rights to make his living from the gospel. His argument is based on a barrage of rhetorical questions. This seems to be Paul’s way of going for the jugular in a natural and persuasive way. By using this device, he presents rationale for his financial support. Yet, in the end, Paul will conclude that it is best for him to forgo these rights in Corinth (9:12b). But in the present discussion of receiving support for his ministry, how could accepting money from his converts hinder the progress of the gospel? There are several possible answers to this question: (1) Some people might not believe the gospel if they knew it would lead to financial obligations. (2) Others might see a contradiction between Christ’s grace being free but becoming a Christian not being free. (3) Paul perhaps did not want to become a “slave” to a patron donor who supported his ministry and who could then control the content of his preaching (“money is power”). (4) Paul wished to dissociate himself from other religious hucksters in the ancient world, some of whom made a good living from flowery rhetorical appeal.

 

Paul lives what he preached: proclaiming Christ demands paying a price. Unfortunately, the Corinthians assumed that “you get what you pay for.” Since Paul was serving for free, some questioned his credentials. In Corinth, orators, teachers, and philosophers were well paid. It was unthinkable that someone like Paul would not receive a paycheck. So Paul builds an air-tight case for remuneration and then insists that he will not make use of his rights. For Paul, proclaiming Christ demands paying a price.

In 9:3-4, Paul writes, “My defense to those who examine me is this: Do we not have a right to eat and drink?” In the context, “the right to eat and drink” is a figurative reference to financial support. It means to “eat and drink” at the expense of others. Six different times the word “right” is used in this chapter. It’s a very central issue. Paul is saying that he had a legitimate right to receive financial support from the people to whom he ministered.

Paul continues his argument in 9:5-6 by raising two other issues: “Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working?” All of these questions expect a positive answer. Paul states that apostles have the right to be married and to cease to work.

Now, in 9:7-14, Paul is going to give five reasons why he has the right to be supported by the churches to whom he ministered, why he shouldn’t have to work at a trade to earn a living, so he can devote his energy to study, prayer, preaching, and teaching. He begins with an appeal to common sense in three illustrations from everyday experience in the workplace. “Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock?” Paul is pointing out that soldiers don’t fight all day and then go to civilian jobs at night so that they can pay for their food, lodging, clothing, and armaments. No, the government provides all the necessary resources for them to function as a soldier. Paul makes the same point about farmers. You don’t plant a vineyard or cultivate crops for somebody for free, and then take a night job to subsidize the farming work. You expect that if you work hard in the vineyard or on the farm, you’ll be paid, perhaps in kind with some portion of the crops. He makes the same point about shepherds who care for flocks or sheep owned by other people. At least they have the right to have some of the milk. In the same way, a Christian worker has a right to expect benefits from his labor.

In 9:8-10, Paul uses the Scriptures to back up his point. Paul writes, “I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MUZZLE THE OX WHILE HE IS THRESHING.’ God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops.” Paul demonstrates a most unusual use of God’s Word. Quoting the Old Testament law regarding the treatment of oxen, he noted that Deut 25:4 commanded God’s people not to muzzle the ox while it was in the process of threshing. Instead, God commanded that the ox be allowed to eat the grain. If God cared so much about the animals who served His people, how much more must He care for the people who serve them?

If something is true on a lower scale, it is certainly true on a more important, higher scale. In other words, if mere animals are given the right to eat as they are working in the fields, certainly human beings made in the image of God have that same right. In fact, God is more concerned about getting across a principle for human beings in this text than He is about getting across a principle for animals.

Several times Paul asserts that the Old Testament was written as an example for New Testament believers (cf. 10:6, 11; Rom 4:23-24; 15:4). This is an important reminder that the Old Testament is of great benefit to each and every one of us. We should read it frequently and look for opportunities to study and preach from it. Perhaps the price that you need to pay in proclaiming Christ is to spend some time studying the Old Testament. After all, the Old Testament makes up ¾ of your Bible. In order to proclaim Christ, we must be familiar with His Bible and that of the apostle Paul.

In 9:11-12, Paul appeals to the inherent fairness of it. He argues, “If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ.” Spiritual things are intrinsically more important than physical things. The former will last forever whereas the latter are only temporary. Consequently, those who benefit from spiritual ministry should physically support those who minister to them (cf. Gal 6:6). In spite of this spiritual principle, Paul surrenders his rights because proclaiming Christ demands paying a price.

Now, in 9:13, Paul makes a reference to Old Testament Jewish history and custom pertaining to the temple: “Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share from the altar?” This refers to Old Testament priests and Levites. The concept of paying God’s servants is not a New Testament notion; rather, it goes back to the Old Testament. Paul saw his gospel ministry as priestly service (cf. Rom 15:16).

Paul closes out his argument in powerful fashion by stating: “So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel” (9:14). Paul explains that the Lord Jesus taught the same right for servants to be paid (Matt 10:10; Luke 10:7). Case closed: full-time vocational servants have the freedom to be paid.

Like Paul, our staff are not asking for a raise. But there is something to think of here: I want our staff to always be free from the distraction of money. I would also suggest that there are other ways we can honor those who serve. An encouraging email, letter, or phone call would mean the world to any of our leaders. There are other creative possibilities as well (e.g., child care, providing services, etc.).

[Having argued vigorously for his right to the Corinthians’ support, Paul now proceeds to argue just as strongly for his right to give up this right. This section gives the reader a window into the apostle’s soul.]

  1. We must fulfill our individual calling(9:15-23). In these nine verses, Paul explains that his passion for lost people and for preaching the gospel consumes him. Consequently, he will go to any and every length to share Christ. In 9:15, Paul writes, “But I have used none of these things [i.e., financial provisions]. And I am not writing these things so that it will be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one.” These are certainly strong words! Paul actually felt it was better to die than to receive any financial support from Corinth and lose out on freely boasting in the free offer of the gospel. This idea of boasting is used in Paul’s Bible—the Old Testament, of glorying in God. So when Paul uses the word “boast” in his writings, he isn’t talking about personal accomplishments. He is talking about what the Lord has done through him in spite of his weakness.

Why is Paul so adamant that he should not be paid for preaching the gospel? If he has the right, why not capitalize on it? He explains his reasoning in 9:16-17 (note the two uses of “for” that begin each verse): “For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me.”

Paul says that he cannot legitimately boast in his ministry of preaching, because God ordered him to do it. He states that he is “under compulsion” (9:16) and has been entrusted with a “stewardship” (9:17). There is an irresistible call of God on his life, and he can’t take any personal credit for doing it. He is a man on fire for God! Hence, Paul says “woe is me if I do not preach the gospel” (9:16). The word “woe” occurs frequently in the Old Testament prophets to denote coming disaster and even divine judgment. Paul felt the weight of severe consequences if he chose to forego preaching for another profession. Since God dramatically called Paul to preach, he had to proclaim the gospel. There was no reward in simply doing what God had called him to do (cf. Luke 17:10).

This leads Paul to raise a question in 9:18: “What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.” Paul’s “reward” is demonstrating love to people by freely preaching the gospel. His highest pay was the privilege of preaching without pay. Of course, Paul also believes that his loving service will be recognized in the future by his Lord (cf. 3:12-14). However, Paul recognizes that we do not get rewarded for our calling in and of itself, only for the manner in which we fulfill it. Thus, Paul sacrificed much and served well so that he might one day be rewarded for his service.

Ultimately, what I want us to see is that Paul’s spirituality is evidenced by his willingness to sacrifice his rights for the sake of the gospel. One such right is that of having a full-time ministry. Let us be very careful not to assume that God’s servants can be more effective by ministering “full-time.” The great apostle Paul chose to serve in “part-time” ministry, for the sake of the gospel. I don’t think anyone would argue that Paul could have been more effective if he had been serving full-time. Likewise, there are many people in our church who could be in full-time ministry, but they are incredibly effective and fruitful in part-time unpaid ministry. Such people never ask to be paid and faithfully serve year in and year out. They have the reward of offering the gospel for free. Additionally, they will be rewarded at the judgment seat of Christ for faithfully serving the Lord. Proclaiming Christ demands paying a price.

[Paul now moves from the subject of giving up his right to financial support to giving up cultural rights.]

In 9:19-22, Paul is going to describe his passion to do whatever it takes to win lost people to Christ. Paul explains, “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, so that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law though not being myself under the Law, so that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, so that I might win those who are without law. the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.” Six times in this paragraph Paul states his desire to reach the lost. He reaches the lost by adapting his methods according to the group he tried to reach. Paul goes after anyone and everyone: (1) Jews; (2) “those who are under the law” probably includes Gentile God-fearers and proselytes to Judaism as well as ethnic Jews; (3) “those who are without law” refers to Gentiles apart from any Jewish influence; and (4) “the weak” most likely refer to Christians with weak consciences. Paul must therefore be using “win” in the broader sense of winning to a more mature form of Christian faith.

Paul’s missionary principle, of course, has practical applications. For missionaries it means learning the local language and customs to make the gospel understandable in the local environment. For those doing inner-city work it means ministering in a way that does not patronize the inner-city mentality. For those in campus ministries it means bringing to college students a message that challenges them in an academic environment and shows that Christianity is not anti-intellectual. The applications of “being all things to all people” are endless. I have known of people who share Christ in bars, homosexual clubs, and Mormon churches. If Christianity is to make a mark in the 21st century, fresh and radical methods will need to be pursued. As Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the third President of the US once said, “In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock.”

Why does Paul go to such great lengths to win lost people? He tells us in 9:23: “I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.” The work of the gospel was the great axis around which everything in Paul’s life revolved. He made it such so he might share in its blessings.

Paul still has in mind what he said in 9:17-18. He is looking for reward. Paul lives in the way he does to become a “fellow partaker” of the gospel. The thought continues the ideas of 9:12-14. He does not “share” the financial blessings of the Corinthians. But he expects to get a “share” in the rewards of the gospel eventually. He might turn down rewards from particular congregations, but he expects that God will compensate him for that which he has lost. To become “a partaker of the gospel” means to receive its ultimate reward: to gain “the prize” that Jesus gives.

 

The designer of the famous yellow smiley face received a mere $45 for his work. Harvey Ball, a Massachusetts commercial artist, created the simple yellow face in 1963 as a morale-boosting campaign for two firms that had recently merged into the State Mutual Life Assurance Companies of America. Because Ball never copyrighted his design, he received no proceeds when the cheery icon appeared countless times worldwide. In 1971 alone, 50 million buttons were sold. After Ball’s death in April 2001, his son, Charles, said in an obituary that his father was never bitter about the small amount of money he earned from the smiley face and never regretted foregoing a copyright. He considered his greatest achievement not his famous logo but the bronze star he received for his heroism during the Battle of Okinawa.

As wonderful as that bronze star is, Jesus Christ promises us eternal reward for faithfully proclaiming Him. One day, we will stand before Him in a glorified body and He will evaluate our lives. My prayer is that when you see Him face-to-face, He looks you in the eyes and smiles a big smile and says, “Well done good and faithful servant.” Whenever you see a smiley face, please remember your life in light of the judgment seat of Christ. Proclaiming Christ demands paying a price.

 

 

Humble by choice

This is a busy time for our high school seniors. Many of them are applying to different colleges and universities. This can be a very competitive process. Consequently, we tell our young people that before they apply to a particular school, they need to find out what the admissions committee is looking for when they evaluate prospective students. Is it grades? Test scores? Personal references? Work experience? Extracurricular activities? Creative ability? All of the above? Whatever it is, you’d better know what it is and you’d better make sure you’ve got what they want before you turn in your application.

What sort of people does God look for when He gets ready to populate heaven? If heaven has an admissions committee, what qualifications do committee members look for? God’s admission committee is different than any other that we have ever considered, for God’s thoughts are not like our thoughts, nor are His ways like our ways (Isa 55:8). What types of people does God choose for His family? God chooses those that have nothing to brag about. In1 Cor 1:26-31, Paul is going to pull the rug out from underneath us and turn our thinking upside down. First, he is going to tell us that…

  1. God’s choice eliminates self-esteem(1:26-29). In 1:26 Paul writes, “For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble.” Paul begins by taking the Corinthians back to their spiritual roots. He reminds them of who they were not when God saved them. The word “consider” is the first imperative in this book. Thus, this is a key verse. Paul commands the Corinthians to consider or contemplate their calling. The word “calling” refers to their position in the world when they first believed in Christ. This issue of calling is important to Paul (cf. 1:1, 2, 9, 24). He believes that in order to become a Christian you must respond to God’s call. Likewise, if you are a Christian today, it is because you have answered God’s call.

Since Paul will have some difficult things to say, he addresses the Corinthians as “brethren” (cf. 1:10). He then shares with his readers “that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble.”

First of all, the Corinthians were not academically elite (“wise”). They were not wise according to a worldly standard. There were some from the educated classes in Corinth, but most of the people in the church were uneducated.

Second, the Corinthians were not political movers and shakers (“mighty”). The word translated “mighty” referred to the ruling class of a society. There were some in the church who were politically involved in the city, but most of the church members in Corinth had no influence in Corinth’s political power structure.

Finally, the Corinthians were not from well-to-do families (“noble”). Not many had what the world calls “good breeding.” By and large, most of them were from the lower ranks of society, including the slave class.

What Paul is saying to the Corinthians is, “You know what sort of people you were when God called you out of sinful darkness into the light of salvation. You know that He didn’t accept you as His child because you were brilliant or wealthy or powerful, because most of you weren’t at all. And those of you whose lives were defined that way were saved in spite of those positions, not because of them. If anything, they were obstacles between you and God’s grace.” The reality is that position and wealth and influence really can be hindrances, keeping people from the sense of need that leads to salvation.

In a sense, Paul holds up a mirror and says, “Take a good look. What do you see?” If the Corinthians were honest, they didn’t see many impressive people. They saw ordinary men and women from unimpressive backgrounds whose lives had been utterly transformed by Jesus Christ. There is an important message here if we care to receive it. God prefers losers. When God calls people to His family, He intentionally chooses those whom the world rejects. He prefers the weak over the strong, the forgotten over the famous, and the nobodies over the somebodies. He starts with the people the world chooses last. He actually prefers to choose the weak instead of the strong.

It’s not as if God intends to take equal numbers from every social class in the world. And it’s definitely not true that God populates the church from the upper classes but sprinkles in a few from the lower classes. The opposite is closer to the truth. God populates His church with the rejects of the world and then sprinkles in a few wealthy and powerful people. He prefers losers. God deliberately chooses the forgotten of the world and He prefers the company of the poor. He loves to save the uneducated, the foolish, the addicted, the broken, the downcast, and the imprisoned. In short, He specializes in saving those whom the world counts as nothing.

Before we move to our final point this morning, I wonder if there might be someone here asking the question, “If God chooses down-and-outers, is there any place for the famous, the wealthy, or the brilliant in the family of God?” The answer is definitely, “Yes!” Notice carefully that 1:26 does not say, “Not any of you were wise, not any were influential, not any were of noble birth,” but rather not many. Thank God for the letter “M.” Thank God for the athletes, musicians, and actors who have become Christians, but God’s Word tells us we should never expect the Church to be filled with such people.

Have you forgotten your calling? Memory can be a blessing or a curse. In the spiritual life, it can be very healthy to remember what life was like before we met Jesus. If you remember where you started, you’ll appreciate much more the grace of God that has brought you to where you are today. Do you remember where you came from? Do you recall what you were doing when God saved you from yourself? God chooses those that have nothing to brag about.[Now that Paul has reminded the Corinthians of who they were not, Paul goes on to inform them of who they were.]

In 1:27-29, Paul transitions with a strong contrast. He writes, “but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, so that no man may boast before God.” Three times in 1:27-28, Paul writes that “God has chosen.” This is the doctrine of sovereign choice—the biblical doctrine of election. These words mean exactly what they seem to mean. If we have a problem with them, the problem does not rest in the Greek text or the English translation. We may not like the idea that God chooses whom He will save, but that’s exactly the meaning of these words. There are no naturally born children of God; all are adopted. They are children by choice, never by accident. Ultimately, we do not become Christians because of an independent decision we have made; rather, even the initial part of our becoming believers comes as a result of an inner call from God, rooted in His love and undeserved grace (cf. also 7:20).

Consider the implication of the text. When the world throws a party, the beautiful people are always invited. They rent a nightclub and hire a security team to keep the ordinary people out. Only the “in crowd” makes it past the rope line. Helicopters circle overhead and the paparazzi strain to a get a picture they can sell to People magazine. It’s all about who shows up and who is wearing what kind of dress, and trying to match this man with that woman. That’s how the world throws a party. But God does it differently. God chooses those that have nothing to brag about.

God chooses people that no one would invite to a party. He includes those who would normally be excluded. He does this so that He can subvert, invert, and convert human values. He shames the wise, He shames the strong, and He “reduces to nothing” (NRSV) the things that are impressive to our world. Why does God do this? God chooses the despised so that no man or woman can boast before Him. God is a jealous God and will not share His glory with anyone (cf. Isa 42:8).

Mensa is an organization whose members have an IQ of 140 or higher. Several years ago, there was a Mensa convention in San Francisco, and several members lunched at a local café. While dining, they discovered that their saltshaker contained pepper and their peppershaker was full of salt. How could they swap the contents of the bottles without spilling, and using only the implements at hand? Clearly this was a job for Mensa! The group debated and presented ideas, and finally came up with a brilliant solution involving a napkin, a straw, and an empty saucer. They called the waitress over to dazzle her with their solution. “Ma’am,” they said, “we couldn’t help but notice that the peppershaker contains salt and the saltshaker pepper.” “Oh,” the waitress interrupted. “Sorry about that.” She unscrewed the caps of both bottles and switched them.

This is how God works! He likes to shame those who are wise and strong. God used trumpets to bring down the walls of Jericho. He reduced Gideon’s army from 32,000 to 300 to rout the armies of Midian (Judges 7:1-25). He used an ox goad in the hand of Shamgar to defeat the Philistines. With the jawbone of a donkey He enabled Samson to defeat a whole army. And Jesus fed over 5,000 with nothing more than a few loaves and fishes.

God does these types of miracles to humble humankind so that no one can take credit for anything! Augustine, when asked what were the three most important virtues, replied, “Humility, humility, humility.” Truly, that is God’s heart for you and me. He wants us to daily recognize that we have nothing to brag about before Him. Rather, we are completely indebted to Him.

[God’s choice eliminates self-esteem…but now we will also see that…]

  1. God’s choice demands Christ-esteem (1:30-31). Paul closes chapter one with these words:“But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, 31so that, just as it is written, ‘LET HIM WHO BOASTS, BOAST IN THE LORD’” (1:30-31). It is “by His doing” (lit. “of Him”) that you are “in Christ Jesus.” He is both the source and the cause of the Corinthians being in Christ. The believer is described here very simply as one who is “in Christ.” You know, you can’t be any closer to something than “in it.” That’s our position as born again believers. God the Father sees you and me as a part of His Son. This is just one of many reasons a believer can’t lose his or her salvation—the believer is one with Christ.

This phrase (“But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus”) explains the previous verses: “If things that were not have now become something, it is due to God alone.” The crucified Christ becomes the manifestation of God’s wisdom, which here refers to God’s long-established plan for the world’s salvation (cf. 1:21; 2:7; Eph 3:10). In Him, believers receive true wisdom: the wisdom of the cross and all its benefits—right standing before God (“righteousness”), moral cleansing (“holiness”), and rescue from slavery to sin (“redemption”). These three words describe the fruit of God’s wisdom in Christ. Let me explain.

We’ve been given God’s righteousness. God is perfectly righteous because He is totally as He should be. He can’t vary from His rightness. And when we trust His Son, He shares His Son’s righteousness with us. He makes us right with Him, right within ourselves, and right with other people.

We’ve received God’s sanctification. We’ve been set apart and made holy, both positionally and practically. This is the daily manifestation of the Christ-like character that has been placed into us. The character of Christ is gradually revealed in us more and more the longer we’re in relationship with Him, as we learn how to handle life according to God’s wisdom. We’ll become more patient, more loving, more insightful, and more courageous. It’s a wonderful lifelong process.

We’ve received God’s redemption. To redeem means to buy something back. God, through Christ, has purchased us from the power of sin. It’s because of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross that we have eternal life. God chooses those that have nothing to brag about.

Paul writes because of these wonderful gifts, we can boast. Christians can properly boast, not in their own achievements, but in the Lord (1:31), as in Jer 9:24, the verse Paul quotes here. This quote interestingly follows a verse that declares, “Let not the wise man boast of his wisdom or the strong man boast of his strength or the rich man boast of his riches” (Jer 9:23). And those are precisely the three categories Paul has enunciated in 1 Cor 1:26.

However, please note that in Jer 9:23 the Lord is Yahweh, but in 1:31 it is Jesus. Paul is saying, “We can boast but we must boast in Christ.” May our boast be not in what we do for Christ but in what Christ does for us. When it comes to salvation we contribute nothing but the sin that makes it necessary to be saved. God does the rest. God chooses whom He pleases, and He does so by choosing those whom the world overlooks. The reason God does what He does is to demonstrate that He alone is the source of our salvation. Thus, if we believe what this passage teaches it will change the way we look at ourselves, and it will change the way we talk about ourselves. Some of us talk so much about ourselves that we hardly talk about the Lord at all. Our real problem is the vast difference between our view and God’s view.

Now, you may be thinking this is a nice sermon, but it further demonstrates that I will never amount to anything. Even though I am chosen by God and included in His plan, I still feel like a nobody. If you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito. I want to assure you that God has you right where He wants you. If you feel average, weak, and foolish, God can use you. Those people that He has used the most are those that have plenty of sin and weakness.

Noah: Rejected from society. Built an ark for 120 years and had no converts.

Abraham: Offered to share his own wife with another man, not once but twice.

Joseph: Ostracized by his dysfunctional family; possesses a prison record.

Moses: A modest and meek man, but poor communicator, even stuttering at times. Murderer.

David: Affair with his neighbor’s wife; murdered her husband to avoid charges.

Elijah: Prone to depression—collapses under pressure.

Jeremiah: Emotionally unstable, alarmist, negative, always lamenting things.

Hosea: Wife became a prostitute.

Peter: Aggressive, hot-tempered fisherman, loose cannon who denied Christ.

Ordinary people of faith can do extraordinary things for God if they eliminate self-esteem and put on Christ esteem.

The art of fruit bearing

My wife Karen enjoys gardening. Over the years, she has planted all kinds of fruits and vegetables. As an observer, I can tell you there is a science and an art to what she does. She must cultivate the soil, plant the seeds, and nurture the crops. Yet, no matter how well Karen does, she can lose a crop to spring rains that rot the seed, slugs or bugs that eat new shoots, and birds that devour everything. She may even lose a crop because of a sudden burst of extreme heat. On account of all of these variables, Karen never knows whether her garden will be fruitful or not.

Do you ever feel this way in your daily life? You work hard at your job, yet there’s no guarantee that you will succeed. You may get demoted or even lose your job. You work hard at being a godly spouse, yet your marriage is mediocre or filled with grief. You work hard at raising godly children, yet your children are lukewarm or even rebellious. You work hard at your ministry, yet you may feel discouraged. You work hard with your finances, yet, your portfolio may still plummet or the American dollar may become worthless. You work hard to stay physically fit, yet there is no guarantee that you’ll be able to keep the weight off or avoid cancer or Parkinson’s. These scenarios can all be incredibly discouraging. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a guarantee of success in your life? Wouldn’t it be great to know that there’s at least one area that you can count on?

In John 15:1-11, Jesus states that if you abide in Him you’ll experience spiritual success. It’s guaranteed! So the only pursuit in your life that is guaranteed, the only area that you can truly count on is your relationship with Jesus Christ. Fortunately, there’s no greater measure of success than to succeed where it matters most. In these eleven verses, Jesus teaches His disciples the spiritual art of fruit bearing, which is the purpose of our earthly existence and the definition of spiritual success. The key to fruit bearing is found in the theme of abiding in Jesus. In this context, “abide” means to stay, remain, or continue with Jesus.

Jesus is in the final evening of His life. He has been sharing with His disciples what matters most to Him. Jesus and His disciples are walking by torch light toward the garden of Gethsemane (cf. 14:31). Jesus most likely leads His disciples into a vineyard outside the city walls. There, Jesus pauses and says, “I am the true vine” (15:1a). Notice He doesn’t say, “I am a true vine.” He says, “I am the true vine.” Jesus is saying there is only one true vine. You can’t choose your vintage. It’s not a wine tasting to see which variety you prefer. Jesus often used a grapevine to describe the nation of Israel. The Old Testament writers also used the term “vine” to describe Israel. But it was used to denote her sinfulness, not her fruitfulness. They were sour grapes. Here, Jesus uses the figure of the vine to remind Israel of her past failures and to indicate that He is the one faithful Israelite—the “true vine.” In contrast to Israel, Jesus is saying: I will be the one true source of rich and deep blessing.

In keeping with the viticulture (i.e., grape growing) metaphor, Jesus rightly assumes that no vine will produce good fruit unless someone competent cares for it. So Jesus states, “My Father is the vinedresser” (15:1b). The original disciples, and you and I, have the world’s greatest vinedresser—God the Father. He’s the one who cares for vines that are connected to Jesus. In John’s gospel, Jesus is never portrayed as independent from His Father; rather, the Father and Son are always cooperating with one another in every activity (cf. 5:19-23). If this is true of Jesus, the Son of God, how much more so should this be true of you and me? In the various areas of your life, are you dependent upon God the Father and God the Son? Who is in control of your family relationships, your ministry, your work, your health, and your finances? Who bears the overall responsibility for their success or failure?

In 15:2a Jesus says, “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit [i.e., have love for other believers], He takes away.” Jesus’ disciples are branches connected to the “true vine” and cared for by the master “vinedresser.” The phrase “in Me” is used sixteen times in John’s gospel. In each case it refers to a life of fellowship or a unity of purpose. In John’s gospel a person “in Me [Christ]” is always a Christian. This also finds support in the fact that the branches of a vine share the life of the vine. Jesus is speaking of a Christian who is in fellowship with Him who is not yet producing fruit. This may refer to a new convert or an immature or struggling believer. In any case, Jesus says that God “takes away” or “cuts off” (NIV) every branch that doesn’t bear fruit. The Greek word translated “takes away” (airo) can also be translated “lifts up.” Since the focus here is fruit bearing, the rendering “lifts up” is preferred.

It is important to understand that Jesus is teaching His disciples in the spring when vinedressers did what He describes in this verse. Even today, if you go to any vineyard, you’ll find grapes tied to poles or posts called trellises. If the vinedresser doesn’t do this the grapes may be stepped on and smashed into grape juice! A good vinedresser will prop the vines up so that they can receive the maximum amount of sunlight possible. The vinedresser does not “cut away” (contrary to the NIV) a vine because it has no fruit but gently lifts it up to sun so it has an opportunity to bear fruit in the future. In the same way, God’s first step is not judgment but encouragement. God encourages new believers. He answers prayers. He performs miracles. He brings someone or something into their lives to lift them up.

Jesus now mentions another type of branch, one that “bears fruit” (15:2b). Jesus explains that God “prunes” this fruit-bearing branch “so that it may bear more fruit.” It is important to recognize that there are two different types of pruning: the spring pruning, which takes place here, is for cleaning purposes. The fall pruning that takes place after the grapes have been harvested will be discussed in 15:6. They are not synonymous. The word for “pruning” used here is kathairo, from which we get the English word “catharsis.” It means to cleanse. As it relates to viticulture, it describes cleansing the branch of insects, diseases, and parasites. This would have been the ancient equivalent of using insecticides, as is done today. This pruning also includes cleaning or pinching off little “sucker shoots” from the branch—sprigs that draw away resources from the production of big, juicy grapes. Left to itself, the branch will favor more leafy growth over more fruit, so the vinedresser has to prune or clean away unnecessary shoots and extraneous growth to promote even greater fruitfulness.

What does this pruning represent in the life of a believer? I believe the bugs, diseases, and unwanted sprigs represent things like bad habits, wrong thinking, unimportant activities, and lesser priorities—anything that distracts us from being completely fruitful, anything that hinders us from loving others to the fullest, the way Christ loved us. As we abide in the Vine, the Vinedresser removes these things from our lives to promote more fruit. Maybe you’re too busy. In fact, maybe your busyness is veiled selfishness. Maybe you’re packing your schedule with socially acceptable things that make you look good, all the while avoiding the harder work of loving others who are difficult to love, like your spouse or your children, or fellow believers in your church family. Maybe your busyness must be pruned. Maybe you’ve got a secret. Maybe you’ve been nursing a secret sin. Maybe it involves substance abuse, or compulsive spending, or pornography on the internet. Maybe it needs to be removed from your life. Maybe it’s a selfish drive for control in your marriage. Perhaps it’s neglect of leadership or running from conflict. Maybe it’s excessive time spent on things that count for nothing. Maybe it’s laziness or a bad attitude. The Vinedresser may want to prune any number of things from your life.

In 15:3, Jesus reminds His disciples, “You are already clean [katharos, cf. 15:2] because of the word which I have spoken to you.” Jesus is reiterating to His disciples that “the word” He spoke to them in chapters 13-14 cleansed them for fruit bearing. The disciples are spiritual clean, and they are ready to produce fruit. Jesus is optimistically calling them to a task. If you get a new job, you don’t sit down and say, “Ah, I’m so glad that I have a job.” That’s when the work really begins. In the same way you have been made clean to bear fruit.

Jesus continues His emphasis on fruit bearing and shares how to abide in 15:4-5: “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” In 15:4-10, the word “abide” (meno) is used ten times in seven verses. Jesus’ first use of the verb “abide” (15:4) is an imperative. He doesn’t assume that His disciples are abiding, so He commands them to abide. The act of abiding is not true of every believer; it’s also not true of every believer all the time. We can earn a living, raise a family, and practice generosity without abiding. It’s possible to pastor a church or serve without abiding. We must recognize that there’s a difference between work and fruit. It’s possible to perform a lot of work for Christ that isn’t necessarily fruitful. It’s also possible to do many things without Christ. It’s possible to do many things for Christ. However, anything of lasting value can only be done through Christ, by abiding in Him. This is why Jesus says we’re not called upon to produce fruit, but simply to bear it. Bearing fruit is a natural outcome of being in Christ and letting Him live His life through us. Notice the progression from “fruit” (15:2) to “more fruit” (15:2) to “much fruit” (15:5).That’s what God wants from us. A detached branch in the physical or spiritual realm can’t live on its own.

Maybe your life is filled with stress. You’re a teenager living in a dysfunctional home and you can’t seem to find a safe haven. Or you may be a mother up to her eyeballs in children. You need a break, but you can’t seem to find one. Perhaps you’re performance driven and all you want to do is work and perform. Maybe you’re independent and it’s hard for you to rely on anyone. Regardless, if you want fruit that will last for all of eternity, you must abide in Christ. What’s the primary reason unbelievers don’t come to Christ for salvation? They don’t recognize their need. What’s the primary reason believers don’t come to Christ for sanctification? Exactly the same reason—we don’t recognize our need. When we read our Bibles without bothering to ask for God’s enlightenment, we don’t recognize our need. When we make plans and decisions without genuinely waiting to hear from God, we don’t recognize our need. Pray that the Lord will help you to abide in Jesus.

In 15:6, Jesus mentions the consequences of not abiding: “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.” In order to understand what Jesus is getting at here, you have to remember that this entire passage is filled with figures of speech. Jesus has been speaking metaphorically (e.g., vine, branches, fruit), so it’s not necessary to interpret terms like “thrown away,” “fire,” or “burned” as referring to hell. A branch that doesn’t remain attached to the vine withers, and out of necessity, is thrown away.

Grapevines, in contrast to other types of wood, don’t have many uses. Their total value is that they can produce grapes. Vines don’t yield timber from which people can make other things (Ezek 15). They are good for either bearing or burning, but not for building. Similarly, a Christian who loses contact with Christ becomes useless and fruitless. If I offered you a chewed up piece of gum that had been sitting out for several days or weeks, would you chew it? No! If you touched it at all, you would throw it into the nearest wastebasket! It would be dry, hard, and flavorless, not to mention, gross. Jesus is saying the very same thing about believers who don’t abide in Him. Your purpose in life is to bear fruit. It’s not to earn a decent living. It’s not to be a happy. It’s to abide in Christ and bear fruit. As far as God is concerned, there’s no reason for you to live, except to bear fruit. If you’re not fruitful, you are useless to Him. He might as well just take you to heaven right now. But instead of doing that, He brings divine discipline upon useless believers. Fire is a common symbol in the Bible for God’s temporal judgment on His people. God lights a match under us and begins to burn us with fiery trials. His purpose is to draw us back to the vine. He may use depression, loneliness, and financial trouble. We think we’re just unlucky, when in truth, God is the one burning us. God will not let the fire go out until we reattach ourselves to the vine. God takes His relationship with us very seriously, so when we stop abiding or pursuing intimacy with Him, He will do whatever it takes to get our attention, and it could get hot. When I was growing up and I misbehaved, my Dad used to tell me, “I’m going to heat up your backside.” Although it did feel like fire, the point that my father was trying to make was he was going to discipline me.

In addition to temporal judgment, Jesus will judge believers in eternity. John 15:6 and 1 Cor 3:15 both use “fire” in connection with the judgment of believers. Believers who do not abide in Christ or build well on the foundation of Christ will suffer loss of reward at the judgment seat of Christ. Thus, it matters in this life and the life to come whether or not you abide in Christ.

In 15:7-11, we’ll discover four benefits of abiding in Jesus.

  • Perfect prayer (15:7).Jesus says, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Jesus is not offering a blank check for answered prayer. It is conditioned upon abiding in Him. The verb “ask” is an imperative. Jesus is not encouraging us to pray, He is commanding us to pray. The one who abides in Christ and His words will naturally pray the kind of prayer that is in line with God’s will. The context suggests that the prayers should pertain to fruit bearing and glorifying the Father. If you abide, then you can ask! It’s not the other way around. God gives His answers to those Christians who are abiding!

54% of Christian students surveyed confessed to “neglecting important areas of their life” due to spending too much time on social media sites. Not long ago, young people were glued to their computer screens, checking e-mails and online games. Now e-mail is the new snail-mail, and few teenagers bother with it. It’s all about cell phones, texting, tweeting, and instant messaging. Studies show that the average teenager sends and receives over 2,270 text messages a month. What if we had a relationship like that with our Bibles?  If we stayed in touch with God’s Word as frequently and tenaciously as we text and touch base with our friends, we’d have a much healthier spiritual life and a stronger grasp of the Bible. The best texting is studying the biblical text. Today, will you recommit yourself to studying God’s Word and ensuring that you are abiding in Christ? Will you make Jesus the priority that He yearns to be? If so, you may see Him provide you some of the answers and assistance that you’ve been longing for.

  • Proven discipleship (15:8).Jesus says, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be My disciples.” The phrase translated “so prove to be” is only one word—“become” (ginomai). In producing fruit we’re becoming Christ’s disciples to an even greater degree (8:31-32). To glorify God is to show Him off and make Him look good. The “fruit” in this context refers to our love for our brothers and sisters. This is seen in the phrase “by this” in 13:35 and 15:8. We prove to be Jesus’ disciples when we love each other.

Bearing fruit by loving believers is something that you can do the rest of your life. I have always thought golf and tennis are great sports. What I love about both of these sports is that you can play them all of your life. I’ve also observed that many times older folks can spank the younger generation in these sports. I’ve seen seventy-five year old obese men beat younger men at tennis. I know men in their eighties who are still golfing up a storm. It’s not necessarily about raw skill and athletic ability; it’s experience that counts. God wants you to take your spiritual experience in Christ and depend upon Him for everything. He wants your best years to be future. How will you show love to the body of Christ?

  • Unlimited love (15:9-10).Jesus says, “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” Jesus has provided us a visual aid of what it means to abide—He loved the original disciples, and He loves you and me today. Here we come to the best definition of what it means to abide in the Bible—obey Jesus’ commands! There’s no abiding apart from obedience (cf. 14:15, 21, 23).
  • Full joy (15:11). Jesus concludes with these amazing words,“These things I have spoken to you so that My joy may be in you, and that your joy may be made full.” Happiness is the result of happenings; joy is the result of Jesus. Joy is an inner contentment despite one’s outer circumstances. Joy isn’t primarily an emotion, it is a conviction. It is the inner contentment of the soul that is actively responding to Jesus Christ. G.K. Chesterton called this “the gigantic secret of the Christian.” It’s important to see that joy is from Jesus, not something we have to try to drum up ourselves. Someone says, “I can’t find joy.” Jesus says: My joy is available to you, and it will make your joy full. So don’t go looking for joy; look for Jesus. Joy is found in obeying Him and bearing much fruit. If you’ve got “Jesus joy,” notify your face. You may be thinking today: There’s a difference between happiness and joy, so I don’t have to walk around with a happy face. I can just be my miserable self. No, no, no! Jesus joy ought to affect your face and body. Regardless of your circumstances, you can have joy. If Jesus could have joy as He endured the cross (Heb 12:2), you too can have joy in the midst of every circumstance in your life.

Today, Jesus wants you to recommit yourself to abide in Him. He desires a moment by moment relationship with you. Will you submit yourself to Him? Will you say, “Jesus, I’m inadequate, incompetent, inferior, and insufficient for every task. I can’t. You can. Please help!” When you call out to Jesus like this, He shows up in your life in a mighty way.

Do the right thing in the right way

“If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” Typically, this expression means: If you have a great body, don’t hide it under modest attire. Show yourself off for the world to see. If you have a brilliant mind, don’t be humble and unassuming. Expose the genius within. If you have money, spend it so that people know you’re loaded. Perhaps you can see the problems with the notion, “If you’ve got it, flaunt it!” Yet, for some bizarre reason many Christians assume that this expression is valid in the spiritual realm. It’s common for Christians to brag about how much they give, how much they pray, how much they serve, and how spiritual they are. Honestly, we’ve all been guilty of this behavior. It’s easy to be spiritually smug and let pride enter into our lives. We all want to be recognized and appreciated. We all want to impress people with our gifts and devotion. Yet, the Bible is clear that we must seek to impress God alone. This requires a motives check-up. After all, motives matter when it comes to being approved and rewarded by God. This means you must do the right thing in the right way. In Matt 6:1–18, Jesus shares three practices that will enable you to do the right thing in the right way.

1. Give without fanfare (6:1–4). Jesus urges you and me to give with pure motives that please God. He begins in 6:1 with a principle that introduces and summarizes 6:1–18. Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.” The word “beware” always warns of danger ahead, like a bridge being out of order or a road being under water. To refuse to obey such a sign is both foolish and dangerous. Here, Jesus warns you to beware of seeking to impress people. He doesn’t say that you can’t be impressive. Many Christians are impressive people. Jesus is not opposed to public righteousness that is an act of worship (cf. 5:20). We are commanded to be “salt” and “light” (5:13–16). Jesus’ primary concern is with your motives. God looks at the heart (motive) before the hand (action)! If your motives are to hear people “ooh and ah” over your righteousness, you have your reward…but it is on earth, NOT in heaven. Jesus’ words are absolute. He is saying, “Anyone who does a good deed so as to be seen and appreciated by others will lose his or her reward, no matter how ‘good’ and beneficial the deed is. There are absolutely no exceptions!” It is imperative, therefore, that you do the right thing in the right way.

After laying down the overarching principle, in 6:2–4, Jesus focuses on the topic of financial giving. He says in 6:2: “So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.” Jesus says “when” you give. The word “when” is a key word throughout this entire passage. Jesus does not say “if” but “when.” He assumes that His disciples will give…including YOU! This means giving is not optional. Yet, maybe you’re thinking, “I’m barely making ends meet and you want me to give?” Absolutely! You’re never too poor to give. If you’re struggling to get by, give to someone who is struggling more than you. The Lord will meet your needs, especially if you are obedient to give.

The question that Jesus is addressing in this verse and in this entire passage is not “when” but “why.” Why do you do what you do? It is important to see that Jesus does not forbid public giving, but He doesn’t want you to “sound a trumpet.” This is a figurative phrase from which we get our expression “toot your own horn.” In other words, do not give for the purpose of being “honored” by people. When the offering plates are passed, don’t cough loudly just as you’re giving. Don’t slam-dunk your offering into the plate. Don’t give so that your name will be inscribed on a building, on a plaque, on a brick, or in a list of donors for all to see. If you do, that will be your reward. The word translated “in full” (apecho) is a technical term for commercial transactions and means to “receive a sum in full and give a receipt for it.” When you seek to impress people you are not giving but buying, and you get what you paid for. [Take out a receipt.] This receipt shows that I made a purchase at Walmart and received some “food” (if you can call it that). I paid for my food. I received it in full and consumed it. End of story. This is equally true when I seek to impress people instead of God. I am paid in full with no hope of any future reward.

Fortunately, Jesus offers an alternative to giving with fanfare. In 6:3–4 He says: “But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.” Please don’t take this verse literally or else you will have to undergo a lobotomy. This is a hyperbolic phrase that means “give in secret.” Don’t give with your right hand while you wave your left hand in the air. Instead, just drop your check in the offering or send it in the mail, without drawing attention to yourself. Fold the check. Keep the envelope sealed. Give in a spirit of humility and simplicity, as an act of worship. Try giving anonymously sometimes, even if it means that you do not receive a tax deduction. Why? Verse 4 says, “so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” Again, there’s nothing wrong with public giving that is an act of worship. But there’s plenty wrong with giving money to impress people. If you do, it is like taking municipal bonds and cashing them in early. You get accolades, but not nearly what you would if you waited. This is the principle of delayed gratification at work. You will receive your reward later, but from God Himself.
Does this mean that you should never tell anyone what you give and who you give to? No! Acts 2:45 tells of Christians selling possessions and giving to the needy. In 4:36–37, Luke tells us that Barnabas sold a field and brought the money to the feet of the apostles. If Barnabas was looking for status and prestige, his motive was wrong. But it’s certainly false to say that it was wrong for others to be made aware of his gift, because Scripture itself reveals that! Barnabas’ act of generosity was commonly known among the believers and was publicly and permanently recorded in Acts. Numbers 7 lists the names of donors to the tabernacle. 1 Chronicles 29 tells exactly how much the leaders of Israel gave to build the temple. This is recorded in Scripture for our encouragement and motivation. Jesus does not object to the fact that people may know what you give, but that you would give in order to impress people rather than God. We need heroes in the church. We need to know that our friends and leaders are giving. This motivates and challenges us to give even more sacrificially. The key is: why do you give? Do you give to please God or to impress people? When it comes to giving, make sure you do the right thing in the right way. [Jesus urges you to give without fanfare. Why should you give in secret? Because God will reward you. The second practice is…]

2. Pray without pride (6:5–15). Jesus’ teaching on prayer is the centerpiece of the entire Sermon on the Mount. In 6:5–8, Jesus contrasts prideful and humble prayer: “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”

Again, Jesus’ concern is praying to impress others. He is not opposed to long prayers or public prayers except when you are seeking accolades from people. Jesus’ point is: When you pray to impress people, you are paid in full. Instead, pray in secret and receive a reward from God. Perhaps a few questions would help.
Do I pray frequently or more fervently when I am alone with God than when I am in public?
Is my public praying an overflow of my private prayer?
What do I think of when I am praying in public?
Am I looking for “just the right” phrase?
Am I thinking of the worshipers more than of God?
Am I a spectator to my own performance?
Is it possible that the reason more of my prayers are not answered is because I am more concerned about bringing my prayer to men than to God? Do the right thing in the right way.
In 6:9–13, we delve into what is commonly called “The Lord’s Prayer.” I prefer, however, to call this “The model Prayer” since it was designed as a model for Jesus’ disciples. In these five verses, there are a total of six petitions. In 6:9–10, there are three petitions that promote God’s glory; in 6:11–13, there are three petitions that concern our wellbeing. This pattern indicates that we should have more concern for God than we do for ourselves.

Petition 1: God’s person (6:9). Jesus says pray, “Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name.’” Jesus does not say, “Pray this prayer verbatim three times a day.” He says, “Pray, then, in this way.” In other words, our prayers should resemble the categories and content of the Model Prayer—worship and petition. This prayer is the skeleton and we are to add meat to the frame Jesus provides. The word “our” demonstrates that this prayer is for the gathered community, not private prayer. Only fifteen times was God referred to as the Father in the Old Testament. Where it does occur, it is used of the nation Israel or to the king of Israel. Never was God called the Father of an individual or of human beings in general. He was Yahweh and Adonai. In the New Testament, Jesus comes on the scene and emphasizes the fatherhood of God. He expands the intimacy that we can have as we approach God in prayer. However, God is not your pal, your buddy, or the man upstairs—He is your Father who is in heaven! He is high and lifted up and He still expects to be approached with awe. The word “hallowed” means set apart. “Name” refers to personhood and character. “Hallowed be Your name” means, “Show the world who you are!” God wants His name exalted in our lives. You are to set apart God’s name as distinct from other names. You are to honor His name. You are to ask God’s name to be made holy in your life.

Petition 2: God’s program (6:10a). Jesus says pray, “Your kingdom come.” In the New Testament, God’s kingdom is expressed as both a present reality and a future realization. Jesus inaugurated His kingdom during His earthily ministry, but the fulfillment of His kingdom will not be fully realized until He sets His feet down in Jerusalem and rules and reigns. When this occurs, we will experience a theocracy (not a democracy) where Jesus is King. In the meantime, we pray that God’s kingdom will come in our life and eventually to the earth. As we approach each day, “God, may Your kingdom come.” Regardless of what happens, God will bring about His kingdom. You can count on it!

Petition 3: God’s purpose (6:10b). Jesus says pray, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This is a prayer for God’s control of earth and your life as He has of heaven. In heaven, the angels respond to God’s commands perfectly and immediately. God expects this same type of obedience from you. This means that you go into your day saying, “Lord, I want to live this day for You. May Your will be done in my marriage, my family, my work, and my church. Use me to fulfill your will perfectly and immediately. I don’t want to make You look bad. I want to be Your representative.”

Petition 4: God’s provision (6:11). This petition deals with our personal needs. Jesus says pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” This is not just talking about food. “Bread” is a figure of speech, which represents our needs. It’s interesting that twice in this brief sentence we have an emphasis on “today.” “Give us today what we need today.” Jesus only promises you TODAY, not tomorrow, next week, or next year (cf. 6:34). He wants you to live in daily dependency upon Him. After all, you are not guaranteed tomorrow. Jesus wants you to know that you don’t provide for yourself, neither does your company, your spouse, or your family. He alone meets your needs. In this crashing economy it is tempting to be worried about your job, your investments, and your retirement. Now if that is where your confidence lies, be worried. In fact, worry yourself to death because things are bad and they may not get better! But if your confidence is in the Lord to meet your daily needs, you have nothing to worry about.

Petition 5: God’s pardon (6:12, 14–15). This petition deals with our interpersonal relations. In 6:12, Jesus says pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” Jesus assumes that you and I will forgive. In 6:14–15, there is a P.S. to the Model Prayer. Please read these words slowly and soberly. Jesus says, “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” Stop for just a moment and feel the full weight of these words.

In 6:14, Jesus promises forgiveness if you forgive others. In 6:15, He explicitly states that if you do not forgive others, God will not forgive you! What is Jesus saying here? This passage is not about salvation because Jesus’ audience is saved. The issue is fellowship. Notice the phrase “your heavenly Father” (6:14). Jesus’ target audience is in the family. Yet, Jesus is saying that when you refuse to forgive, God withholds fellowship forgiveness. This means you will lack intimacy with God and He will not respond to your prayers. This may sound severe, but remember the underlying ethic in Jesus’ teaching is love—love for your heavenly Father and love for people. God loves you so much that He will allow you to come face to face with your sin. He will confront you with your refusal to forgive by withholding fellowship. This is to bring about deep repentance and restoration of the love between the parties involved. So how should you respond in light of Jesus’ words? I propose three applications.

Remember the debt you have been forgiven. There are five key Greek words in the New Testament for sin. Only one is used in the Model Prayer. It is the word translated “debts” (opheilema, 6:12). This word has to do with a balance owed. That’s why Jesus said, “Forgive us our debts.” Every time you sin, you go into debt to God. You have taken on an obligation you cannot possibly meet. It’s like charging $100,000 to a credit card with a $1,000 limit when you have only a $1 bank balance. Sooner or later, the collection agency is going to come looking for you. Sin makes us overdrawn debtors to God—even if we are already Christians. As a result, our fellowship with God is broken. Only compassion and forgiveness can balance the books. The more aware you are of your great evil the more you will be able to forgive. If you feel that you are not as sinful as the next person, you can’t forgive. However, if you know God’s forgiveness you will forgive, for a forgiven person is a forgiving person.
Today, will you see anew and afresh the enormous debt that you owe God?
Will you choose to see the sin that still pervades your life even though you are a believer?
Will you be broken before God so that you can forgive those who sin against you?

Rely on the Holy Spirit to enable you to forgive. The word “forgive” (aphiemi) literally means “to release, to let go of.” Simply put, forgiveness is letting go of my right to hurt you for hurting me. In the New Testament, the word forgiveness was used primarily to describe the release of someone from a financial obligation. Forgiveness gives up the right to hurt back. When you forgive someone, you are saying, “What that person did to me was wrong. He has hurt me deeply and deserves to pay for his offense. But today I am releasing him of the obligation he has toward me. I am not forgiving him because he has asked to be forgiven or deserves to be forgiven. I am forgiving him because of the tremendous forgiveness God has offered me.” Does biblical forgiveness work like a charm? Not in the sense that you may think. Although I have forgiven various individuals, fleshly thoughts toward these individuals still rear their ugly head. When this occurs, whether it is hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly, my goal is to release my negative emotions to the Lord. Forgiveness does not mean that you will forget, it means you let go of your desire to retaliate. Instead, you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (5:44). Obviously, this requires supernatural empowerment.

Recognize the personal benefit of forgiveness. It is possible to develop a root of bitterness that will defile you and many others (Heb 12:15). If you choose not to forgive, you will be the one who suffers. In the end, those whom you don’t forgive are holding you as a hostage. Stop for just a moment and think about the person or persons that you have chosen not to forgive. [Show a Ziploc bag with a rotten banana.] If I could, I would have you purchase as many bananas as you have enemies. For every enemy, I would then have you write your enemy’s name on a banana and then date it. I would then have you carry this Ziploc with you everywhere—to work, to church, into the shower, to the dining room table, even into your bed. Perhaps your bag would become quite heavy. Lugging this around, paying attention to it all the time and remembering not to leave it in embarrassing places would be a hassle. Over time the bananas become moldy, and smelly. This is what happens when you refuse to forgive. Often, we think of forgiveness as a gift to the other person, but it clearly is a gift to ourselves. Save yourself some grief. Unload your unforgiveness today.

Petition 6: God’s protection (6:13). This final petition deals with our spiritual concerns. Jesus says pray, “And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” If this passage teaches that God leads us into temptation, then doesn’t that contradict James 1:13, that God does not tempt anyone? The word translated “temptation” (peirasmos) can mean “temptation,” “testing,” or “trial.” Prior to the time of the New Testament, this word only meant “testing” or “trial.” The New Revised Standard Version translates this word “trial” in 6:13. If their understanding is correct, Jesus apparently is teaching that we should pray that God would allow us to escape from trials. The idea of escape or deliverance is carried on in 6:13b: “deliver us from evil.” Most English versions read: “deliver us from the evil one” rather than simply “deliver us from evil.” Either translation is possible, but “deliver us from the evil one” is the better translation, particularly since Matt 4:1–11 records the temptation of Jesus by Satan, the evil one.

The point of all of this is that you are incapable of handling spiritual problems on your own. You need God’s help. He alone is capable of handling each and every problem you face. As we come to the conclusion of the Model Prayer in 6:13, the NASB has the final sentence in brackets. Other versions have this sentence in a footnote. Scholars tell us that these words are probably not part of the original prayer taught by Jesus, but that they were added later as a doxology of praise. Although they may not be part of the original, they make a fitting conclusion to the prayer: “For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” Whether inspired or not, these words remind us that God is great and that He is in control. As you reflect on these words, please recognize that when you fail to pray you are basically saying that you can make it on your own. This is the epitome of arrogance. So acknowledge your need and pray without pride.
[Jesus says that you must pray without pride. When you do, He promises that He will reward you. The third and final practice is…]
3. Fast without notice (6:16–18). Jesus hits upon the controversial topic of fasting. In a world of golden arches and pizza temples, this is a hard word. We are gluttons who worship food. Nevertheless, Jesus says, “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” The Pharisees fasted twice a week (Luke 18:12), on Mondays and Thursdays. But when they fasted, they looked miserable and tried to draw attention to themselves. They seemed to say, “Look at me; I’m fasting!” They are like some politicians who ride in helicopters over natural disasters. Their faces are grim and mournful, but it is only a “photo shot.” Jesus says, “Don’t you be like them!” Instead, look to the positive examples in Scripture. Old Testament believers fasted (Neh 9:1–2; Dan 9:2–20). Jesus fasted in preparation for His earthly ministry (4:2) and implied that Christian disciples would fast following His brief ministry (9:15). The early church fasted (Acts 13:2–3; 14:23; 2 Cor 6:5; 11:27).

Yet, fasting is not commanded in any of the New Testament letters. This is likely the case because many godly individuals cannot fast for medical reasons. However, fasting still seems to be assumed, even though it is not commanded. So what exactly is fasting? In Scripture, fasting is typically a time of abstaining from food for the purpose of devoting one’s self and one’s time to the Lord. We should not think of fasting as a way to get something from God. We fast as one means of drawing closer to God. You become keenly aware of your dependence on God when you are very hungry. This is designed to stir us toward God. But be careful of your motives. Do not think things like, “This will help me lose weight or purify my system.” Fasting is to purify the believer’s heart, to spend time focusing on God, to learn to deny the physical in order to grow the spiritual. Fasting is for repentance, for sorrow, for purification. Fasting helps us become more sensitive to God. If you are going to fast make sure that your doctor gives you the freedom to do so. The motive and manner are crucial; the length and frequency are optional. Jesus cares about our motives. This is why He says, “Give without fanfare, pray without pride, and fast without notice.” It has been said, “The secret of religion is religion in secret.” Oswald Chambers (1874–1917) said, “My worth to God in public is what I am in private.” Who are you when no one is looking? That is the ultimate question. Do the right thing in the right way.