Review: Living in the Light (Piper)

by on May.12, 2016, under Book, Review

Few authors are as consistent in their message over a long period of time as John Piper. For nearly 4 decades, Piper has been working out a theology that emphasises the glory of God with laser focus and crystal clarity. His latest offering, Walking in the Light, is no exception.

In this work, Piper identifies three areas of human existence – money, sex, and power – that can be used to either uphold or detract from God’s glory. He works this out in the terms of Romans 1:23, with each holding potential for an exchange of the glory of God for a lie. Where God is most valued, he will never be exchanged for things of lesser value such as influence, a salary, a spouse etc. Thus, they can be used in service of God. However, where they are valued more highly than God, an exchange is made, with something perceived to be lesser value (God) exchanged for something perceived to be of greater value (sex, money, power).

The key, then, to appropriate appreciation of power, sex, and money lies in properly appreciating the glory and worth of God, particularly as appreciated in the person and work of Christ. Piper uses the analogy of a solar system set up to orbit around the moon rather than around the sun; the solution is to restore the sun (the Son!) to the centre, live in ‘the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor. 4:6).

Piper’s analysis seems sound, and it is refreshing to have an approach that does not flee too quickly to labelling everything ‘idolatry’ (even though that is what it is), but dwells on the implications of that (God is neither valued nor glorified). I highly recommend this short book to Christians at all stages of their journey.

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The Most Provocative Word (John 1:1-18)

by on Apr.15, 2015, under Sermon

‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’ (14)

The lights dim and the buzz dissipates into stillness. Amidst hushed anticipation, the gathered gloom gives birth to a lone figure, striding purposefully towards her post. Having secured attention, evidenced by swelling applause from behind her and watchful readiness in front, she takes her place and, after the slightest of pauses, signals commencement.

The music that follows is not the feature; this is understood, for the curtains are not yet open. Yet it is of one piece with the show, and none can doubt it, for it is a tapestry of themes that are to come. This is known as the overture, and it is deliberately designed to set the scene for the play that is about to commence. The audience is introduced to the musical motifs that are so closely entwined with the plot as to be indistinguishable: the hero’s theme; the sinister tones of the villain’s refrain; the lovers’ duet; the haunting strains of loss. Before an actor so much as appears on stage, we are already familiar with the musical anchor points ahead of us. They are never explained; it is only if you know what is to come that it ‘makes sense’.

John opens his gospel in the same sort of fashion. In these first 18 verses, we are exposed to many of the mega themes that will come up over and over again throughout the rest of his message, such as light, darkness, life, rebirth, witness and revelation. Yet there is one thread woven all the way through this overture, like an instrument that plays the same riff in the midst of all the other themes, contributing to each and binding them all together. What’s more, this specific instrument doesn’t actually play again throughout the rest of the show! It is important, then, that we appreciate its contribution now whilst it plays. You can read through John’s Gospel to appreciate the other important themes, but this morning we want to focus on ‘the Word’.

‘The Word…’

John begins:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (1)

More than any other creature on earth, human beings love to communicate with one another; words are the way we do it. Some of us communicate with many words, some with few. We write them down, type them out, whisper them and shout them. We constantly invent technologies to allow us to communicate over greater distances more efficiently and effectively: the loud speaker; the radio; the telephone; video; the internet… and the list goes on! Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are just the latest in a long line of products that tap into our desire to, in words and pictures, communicate ourselves to one another. Can you imagine what those sites would be like if we took the words away?

We also use words to explain our actions. Who hasn’t heard a child launch in to a long and complicated explanation of exactly how they ended up where they did? In the absence of such explanation their actions may seem inexplicable; once explained they often do show a degree of logic, albeit not always sound! Their words give us a fuller picture of what was going on from their perspective.

We also use words to teach and to learn; I’m using them right now! We express important ideas and concepts that we need to convey using our words. When we go to school, a large part of our education is in learning the right phrases and terms to accurately express ourselves. We take complicated concepts like algebra, art and assonance and condense them down to a single representative word or phrase. We then use these words as a shorthand that allows us to build up even more complicated and interesting ideas, and the process repeats.

We choose our words carefully, because unless we do so they may be misunderstood, or may convey a message other than – or even contrary to – the one we intended.

We can sum these three ideas up – expressing ourselves, explaining our actions, and instructing others – using the word ‘revelation’. Some things cannot be discovered or found; they must be revealed.

God uses words for all of these purposes as well. First and foremost, God reveals himself to us through his Word. He speaks to Adam&Eve, Noah, Abraham, Jacob and so on. To each one he shares a little bit more of his essence, who he is. We can infer some things about God based on his creation, but without his words we are unable to understand what makes him tick, who he is.

Who God is defines what God does. If we do not know his character, we cannot possibly understand what drives his actions. Take the story of the Flood in Genesis 6. A massive flood comes and wipes out the population of the Earth, excepting only 8 people; this is a tragedy by anyone’s standards. It is only when we hear God’s words about this event that we realise that God is a holy and just God, who cannot abide evil. Yet he is also a merciful God, who gives grace to those whom he chooses.

Of course, God also uses words for our instruction. Perhaps the most famous example of this is found in Exodus 20; it is the rare person who has not at least heard of the 10 Commandments. These are a series of explicit instructions that outline how God’s people are to act; at the same time, they further reveal God’s character and show what is important to him. They are what distinguished the people of Israel from all other nations, for God had revealed himself particularly to them.

In addition to the aspects of revelation we have already mentioned, God’s words have one more important characteristic: they accomplish his will. Think back to Genesis 1&2. God speaks the word – ‘light’ – and there is light. He speaks again and the waters separate from the sky, then recede to reveal dry land… and so on. It is God’s word that is the vehicle for his will. We can not do this. Occasionally I test this. I lie in bed after I wake up and say ‘up’. You might be surprised that often this has no measurable result at all; when it does, it usually only serves to make my wife grumpy enough to kick me out of bed!

God’s words are valuable to us beyond measure. We are fortunate to have God’s words written down for us. As I sit at my desk and write this, I can count 11 different translations of God’s word within arm’s reach. From these, from what God has said, I can learn something about who God is.

At the time of Jesus’ birth, no prophet had arisen to speak God’s word for some 400 years. Many Jews felt that they were living out the words of Amos’ prophecy:

I’ll send a famine through the whole country. It won’t be food or water that’s lacking, but my Word. – Amos 8:11

They longed for a return of God’s word, but what they got was not what they expected. For John speaks not of God’s words, but of his Word. This Word is a person in his own right, for though he “was with God” and indeed “was God”, he can nevertheless be spoken of as distinct from God. John speaks of a revelation greater than that given through Moses. And just in case we have no idea what he is talking about, John makes it clear:

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ (17).

‘… became flesh…’

Jesus combines all of these aspects of revelation in his person, works and words. He is the new and better – indeed the final and complete – revelation of God. He expresses God’s character in his own character, for he is God. When Jesus shows compassion, it is because his Father is compassionate; when Jesus is angry, we know that the Father is angry. Similarly, Jesus explains to us why God does what he does. He teaches us the response that God desires. And ultimately he accomplishes God’s purposes in the way that no other can. John summarises this at the end of today’s passage:

No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. (18)

The fact that God the Son can be called ‘the Word’ tells us that it is God’s very nature to reveal himself. We are not capable of comprehending God in his entirety, for we are finite and he is infinite. But if a persons’ word is the means by which he reveals what he is thinking, Jesus is God’s thought spoken in such a way that men and women can understand it.

God is not to be thought of as aloof or indifferent. He reveals himself. But he reveals himself as he chooses. He is sovereign in revelation as in all else.

There is an important question to be answered here: if God has expressed himself fully and finally in Jesus, why do we need the rest of the Bible? Perhaps the New Testament is OK, for at least it is talking about Jesus, but why should I read the Old Testament? The answer is at the same time both simple and profound. The Bible as a whole gives us the vocabulary to understand Jesus. Let me see if I can explain.

In a couple of years, Jonny Miller will be of an age to properly appreciate his first Bledisloe Cup match. Let’s say that he sits down by himself in front of the television to watch it. Unless his indoctrination has already commenced, chances are good he won’t be able to make much of the game. If you asked him about it afterwards, he might be able to tell you that some of the people wore yellow and some black, that the yellow people were cheering at the end and the black ones looked sad… but that would probably be extent of it. If he sat down with his Dad, however, who explained what a try is, a lineout, a scrum, a drop-goal and so on, he would be starting to develop the vocabulary with which to understand and explain the game. As his knowledge and experience increased he would be able to grasp the more complicated aspects of the game, and the words associated with them – rules governing who is offside, what merits a penalty, tactics etc. Eventually he would reach a point where he could describe in detail all the events taking place on the field, and appreciate a Wallaby victory in all its glory! (Come to think of it, if this particular fantasy did actually come about, he might learn some vocabulary of a different sort!)

Is it any wonder that God, preparing the greatest event in history, wanted us to have the words and concepts with which to appreciate it? So we find that both the Old and New Testaments are riddled with ideas which we can use to understand Jesus. They are important ideas in their own right, and certainly had meaning and value to their original audience; but in addition to that role they also provide a context for catching some small portion of Jesus’ purpose, words and works. The themes and motifs presented in the Old Testament overture arrive full force in Jesus himself and are recognisable because we have already heard them in miniature. So we can say that Jesus is the new and better Adam, who faced his temptation in the garden yet remained without sin; he is the new and better Abel, killed because the sacrifice he brought was more acceptable than his brother, whose blood cries out, not for vengeance, but for forgiveness; the new and better Joseph, sent ahead by God to make preparation for the salvation of his people; the new and better Moses, through whom come ‘grace and truth’ not just ‘law’. I could keep going like this all day – but I won’t, because to do that would be to miss out on the rest of what John has to say to us. But before I leave this subject let me say that if you have no idea what I am talking about, let encourage you to make some time to spend reading through the Old Testament; don’t settle for an infant’s perspective on the most important event the world has seen or will ever see.

‘… and made his dwelling among us.’

But whilst Jesus’ ministry bore many similarities to Old Testament people and events, he also brought a unique twist.

What was new in John’s day was the fact that this Word “became flesh and dwelt [that is, remained] among us” (John 1:14). Rather than coming and going as he had in the days of Abraham and Moses and the prophets, the divine Messenger had now taken on human flesh and remained among men.

Jesus is the full, final and permanent revelatory Word of God. All that we need and are able to understand of God, we find present in Jesus Christ. He is God’s Word to you… and to me, and to us.

He is also what I have chosen to call a ‘provocative’ word, a word that demands a response.

Perhaps you are thinking that you are interested in knowing and hearing more from God, but now is just not a good time. Maybe tomorrow, or next week when it is more convenient? But there are some words that require a response:

  • ’Hello.’
  • ‘How are you?’
  • ‘My name is Tim.’
  • ‘Can I say something crazy?’

What kind of relationship would develop if you didn’t respond to any of these? ‘Um, can we talk about it next week?’ Chances of things developing seem pretty slim.

John points out very clearly that there are only two responses to this Word. On the one hand, it is possible to ignore him and even reject him; we know that many do. ‘He was in the world, but though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him’ (10-11). What a tragedy! Imagine that, instead of Jono explaining the game it is now the inventor of Rugby; what a shame it would be if Jonny decided to ignore him or reject him, because he could have no better opportunity of understanding it than that! Or, to shift the illustration, let’s say you were trying to act in one of Shakespeare’s plays and by some freak occurrence of time and space the author appeared to you and wanted to explain your part to you. Would you ignore him? Take this situation and multiply its magnitude many millions of times, and you might be starting to get close to the enormity of what John records: the Author of Life wrote himself into history in order to communicate with his creation.

It is far better, it seems to me, to take advantage of this unprecedented contact with the Author, to build a positive relationship with him. According to John, ‘to all who received him, to those who believed on his name, he gave the right to be children of God’ (12). This is important: in fact, it is what John has been leading up to. The reason Jesus, God’s Word, became flesh, was in order that we might become children of God. It is for this that ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling amongst us’ (14).

How does this relationship come about? According to John, it is ‘to those who received’ the Word that God gives the right to be children of God. How then do you receive Jesus? The first thing is to be sure that we are receiving the right person… and not some other pretending to be him. What’s more, our relationship must be founded on who he has revealed himself to be. Imagine I introduced myself to you as Tim, but you persisted in calling me Ralph, because that’s how you prefer to think of me; or that I told you I couldn’t stand eggs and the next week you serve me up omelette for dinner. Our relationship would not be going good places! This may seem obvious, but it is often overlooked as we choose to receive the Jesus of our imagination rather than the Jesus revealed to us in Scripture. If you do that, you end up worshiping an imaginary God; if, instead, you commit yourself to seeking out the God of the Bible, he will not hide himself from you. After all, ‘the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ (14) for this very reason. ‘No one has seen the Father, but God, the One and Only, has made him known’ (18).

Read your Bible, and ask that God would reveal his Son to you through it; then ask that he would reveal himself to you through Jesus his Son.

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The Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1-20)

by on Apr.14, 2015, under Sermon

In the time they had been with him, Jesus’ disciples had witnessed some extraordinary things. This man, Jesus, had brought a new kind of teaching, a teaching ‘with authority’ (1:27); he had cast out demons; he had healed Peter’s mother-in-law, a paralytic and many others who were sick. Mark records the reaction of the crowds:

This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:12)

But there was also a growing opposition. More and more, Jesus was coming into conflict with the teachers of the law, the Pharisees. This all came to a head in the latter part of chapter 3. The Pharisees came together to accuse Jesus of being in league with Satan. They were so persuasive that even Jesus’ own family were convinced that, at the least, Jesus must be out of his mind (3:21).

I can only imagine that this would have been troubling for Jesus’ disciples. The Pharisees were respected members of the community, who were charged with teaching God’s word. Can you imagine if all the doctors in the community came together to tell you that the medicine that had healed you was poison; or if the police told you that the man you were hanging out with was a charlatan and a fraud? You might be starting to get a picture of how conflicted the disciples would have been. On the one hand, Jesus had called them, was their teacher and friend; they knew that following him was the right thing to do. But wasn’t it the Pharisees’ job to know about religious things? They said that Jesus was not sent by God but by the devil. And if not even Jesus’ own family believed in him… ? If Jesus was really a messenger from God, a reliable teacher and prophet, then why was there such opposition?

It is in this context that Jesus teaches this parable of the sower. And it is for this reason that I believe Jesus intends for his disciples to identify Jesus (and ultimately themselves as well, as they follow in their master’s footsteps) as the sower in this parable. So this morning we will largely focus on the role of the sower under three headings: (1) the sower goes out to sow; (2) the sower sows generously, in spite of opposition; and (3) the sower sows expecting a great harvest.

The sower goes out to sow

The first point to be made about the work of the sower is found in v. 3.

A farmer went out to sow his seed. (Mark 4:3)

The NIV translators have chosen to use the word ‘farmer’ here, though this obscures the fact that the noun is closely related to the verb ‘to sow’.1 For this reason, I prefer the ESV translation of this verse, which says, ‘A sower went out to sow.’ Though a farmer has many tasks – watering, harvesting, dealing with pests etc. – right now he is a sower. His job is to sow. That is his sole focus at this time. The time for harvesting will come later, but right now he must sow the seed for otherwise there will be no harvest.

This is consistent with Jesus’ own life and ministry. According to his own interpretation, the seed to be sown is ‘the word’ – the word of God. Wherever he went, he was always proclaiming the kingdom of God.

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)

He spoke with the authority of God, exercising command over sicknesses of body and spirit. He corrected the false teaching of God’s law, helping people to hear God’s word afresh. At the end of this chapter, Jesus will command the storm to still, and it will obey him.

But speaking God’s word was not Jesus’ responsibility alone. In chapter 6, Jesus will send the Twelve out to preach the word of God, to exercise authority over evil spirits and heal the sick. They will call people to repentance and will pronounce a curse on those who do not welcome them. Even now, Jesus is preparing them for that task, warning them that not everyone will respond to their message positively.

Friends, if you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, you are a sower of God’s word. You have your own field to sow: your family; your work; your soccer team; your friendships; your neighbours; your club; your mothers’ group; your political party. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, you are called to be a sower who goes out to sow God’s word.

This is not limited to simple gospel presentations, though these will have their place. Perhaps your friend is having problems disciplining her children; or a colleague is dealing with conflict in the workplace. Maybe your neighbour has suffered great tragedy or your team-mate has broken up with his girlfriend. God’s wisdom has relevance to all of these circumstances, so why not sow it? And sow into the lives of those who are Christians as well, for we all need it.

Are you genuinely sowing God’s word into your life, and those around you? If not, ask God to show you by his Spirit how and where to begin today. For the sower must go out to sow if there is to be a harvest. It may seem obvious, but the role of a sower is to sow. If you are a disciple of Jesus, you are a sower and you too must sow God’s word.

The sower sows generously

As I read through Jesus’ parable, I am struck by how seemingly indiscriminate the sower is in where he sows his seed. Some falls on the path, some on rocky places, some on shallow soil. Surely the sower ought to know his field, and only sow in the places likely to yield a crop?

This is a farmer who is determined to sow right to the edges of his field. Every inch of fertile land must be planted, so that the maximum possible crop is achieved. He is not concerned about some seed being lost, because he has plenty of seed. If he doesn’t plant it, it will just sit in his barn and rot; it is only by planting the seed that he will see a harvest. So he sows generously, all over his land.

I hope that we have the same generosity in the way we sow the word of God. But I see two potential barriers.

Firstly, perhaps we do not have the ‘seed’ to sow. Where does that seed come from? It is the harvest of God’s word as sown and grown in our own lives. Perhaps you identify not so much with the sower as with the path. You feel like you’ve been walked all over for so long, there is not really room in you for God or his word. And so you will leave here this morning having rejected his command – perhaps not for the first time – to ‘listen’ (v. 3) and to ‘hear’ (v. 9). Or perhaps, like the rocky places, you hear God’s word and it excites you; the shallow but warm layer of soil on top of the rock allows for rapid growth. But there is still that rocky core, that part of your heart and mind where God and his word are not welcome – your pride, your relationships, your money, your sexuality, your identity. And when God’s word addresses those things your will choose them over him. Maybe you’re quite happy for God to do what he will with you, so long as it fits into your schedule, your ambitions, your desires, your plan. And so you find you have little or no grain, because all of your time and energy is being invested in secondary things.
If this sounds like you don’t despair, because there is hope… but it does not lie with you. Soil cannot change itself. Cry out to Jesus, asking him to deal with whatever prevents you from hearing and obeying God’s word. He can do it – just look at the Apostle Paul.

Ananias balked when he was called to go and sow the word of God into Paul’s life. He said,

“I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” (Acts 9:13-14).

If ever there was soil that was rocky path, it was Paul! Yet the Lord responded with the astonishing claim that Paul was his ‘chosen instrument to carry [his] name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel’ (Acts 9:15)! And talk about about a harvest! For Paul became one of the greatest evangelists of all time, yielding a great crop of God’s word in his life and ministry.

Though the process is not always comfortable – imagine how soil feels being plowed! – if you ask him Jesus can and will make you into the kind of soil that produces a crop ‘thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times’ (v. 8) what was sown. Then, not only will you be able to enjoy your own fruitfulness, but you will have plenty of seed to sow into others around you as well.

The second barrier to sowing generously is when we try to economise on our sowing. We measure out God’s word based on who we think will respond positively and who will not. But that’s not our job. Unlike an actual farmer, our supply of seed is unlimited. Our job is to sow, and to sow generously, all the way to the edges of the field assigned to us. God by his Holy Spirit will determine the response, yielding a crop oftentimes in surprising places – such as the Apostle Paul!

So the sower sows generously, even knowing that some of the seed will be lost (such as that on the path) or will bear meagre fruit at best (such as that on the shallow, rocky soil or the seed amongst the thorns).

Are you sowing God’s word generously? Or are you hampered by your lack of seed or your attempts to economise? Ask the Lord to grant you the seed to sow and the generosity to sow it. For the sower must sow generously if the harvest is to be plentiful.

Excursus: Why different kinds of soils?

But does this really tell us why there is such opposition to Jesus’ work and words? After all, God is sovereign over all the earth; why doesn’t he make all of the soil fertile? This is an important question, and not really answered in the parable itself. Instead, Jesus addresses this concern in the preface to his explanation:
When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that, “‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’” (Mark 4:10–12)

This is a troubling explanation, because it seems to suggest Jesus uses parables as an instrument for preventing understanding. In other words, he speaks in parables to ensure that some do not understand his message, and so do not repent and seek forgiveness. Can this be right?

To understand, we must consider the original context for the words that Jesus quotes from Isaiah 6. There, Isaiah has a vision of the Lord God seated on his throne. Confronted with absolute holiness, he becomes painfully aware of both his own sins and those of his nation (Isa. 6:5). God graciously deals with Isaiah’s sinfulness (Isa. 6:6-7), but that still leaves a sinful nation to deal with, and Isaiah is to be instrumental in accomplishing God’s purpose in this regard, “Here am I. Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8).

We don’t know what Isaiah expected, but surely it was not what follows:

He said, “Go and tell this people: “‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” (Isaiah 6:9–10)

Isaiah, by his prophetic ministry, was to bring about a hardness of heart in the people of Judah. Can you imagine having this message preached at your commissioning? ‘Go, and preach the word; your preaching will make them hard-hearted, deaf and blind, so that they will neither repent nor be saved.’ That is a hard calling in anyone’s book.

Why such a harsh message? The first five chapters of Isaiah leading up to this passage detail the repeated failings of God’s people. Though they have every reason to love and trust God, they have rebelled, turned their backs on him and forgotten him.2 Their worship of God has descended into meaningless ritual3 instead of the justice and righteousness that God requires.4 They ought to be the unique people of God, a light to the world showing how God ought to be worshiped;5 but instead they are no different from the nations around them.6 God, through Isaiah (and many other prophets) has called them to repentance but they have refused. And so, he enters into judgment.

Part of this judgment is that Judah shall become deaf and blind to God’s word. But why does God preclude the possibility of repentance? Why must Isaiah,

Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed. (Isaiah 6:10)

Doesn’t God want them to repent?

I don’t claim to have a comprehensive answer to this question. But I do think we glimpse his purpose when we remember that the judgments pronounced by Isaiah (and other prophets) culminate in the exile. And the exile was the ultimate demonstration that ‘the system’ was not working – nor would it ever. Let me explain.

A little over six years ago, Katrie and I were eagerly anticipating the arrival of our first child. We wanted a natural delivery, because we had been taught that anything else was second best. Except there was a problem: the baby had not turned around, and was in a breech position. Apparently this complicates natural birth, so we were strongly advised to consider delivery by Caesarean section. Our obstetrician explained that it was OK to wait for a time and see if the baby turned, but only for a time. And so we waited the full time allotted, before reluctantly proceeding with the Caesarean. We were glad we did! Because as the doctor delivered Aedan to us, he showed us that the umbilical cord had become wrapped around his neck – three and a half times! Our plan was never going to work. And, though it might have seemed unfair for the obstetrician to impose a time limit, in the providence of God that was exactly what needed to happen.

I believe God was doing something similar with Judah. The covenants under which Judah lived – the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, the Davidic covenant – had enabled a long cycle of disobedience, judgment, repentance and disobedience again. Those covenants by themselves were not sufficient to accomplish God’s purposes because they didn’t address his people’s sinfulness. That plan was never going to work, and Judah needed to see it. A new people was required, descended not from sinful Abraham but from the sinless son of God. A new law was required, written not on tablets of stone but on the hearts of men and women.7 A new king was required, one not only after God’s own heart8 but the very expression of his heart.9 The Lord hardened Judah’s heart in order to accomplish his greater purpose and make way for what Jeremiah would call a ‘new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah’ (Jer. 31:31).

And that purpose is also evident in Mark’s gospel. For the growing opposition to Jesus would culminate, not in another exile, but in the crucifixion of the Son of God. The new covenant was proclaimed in the blood of Jesus, poured out for us;10 but that would not have happened if not for the hardness of heart precipitated by Jesus’ teaching. As Jesus taught that he had authority to forgive sins, some rejoiced but others found it intolerable blasphemy.11 As he healed, particularly on the Sabbath, the crowds saw God’s power at work but the Pharisees saw a threat to their authority and plotted to kill him.12 So even though he knew that sowing the word of God would produce hardness of heart in some, he also knew that even that hardness of heart would ultimately serve God’s purpose and plan.

We, too, must sow the word of God in spite of opposition. It is a hard thing to know that speaking God’s word may be the cause of hardening and judgment in our family, our friends, our colleagues. Yet it may also be the means by which God brings them to repentance and faith, and it is that hope that helps us to go out and sow day after day. Which brings us to our final point.

The sower sows in hope of a great harvest

After receiving his commission, Isaiah is understandably distressed:

Then I said, “For how long, O Lord?” (Isaiah 6:11)

We can imagine Isaiah’s thinking: ‘Maybe it is just temporary. One year? Five years? Twenty? How long before you redeem your people, O Lord? How long before you allow them to repent and be healed? How long must I proclaim this curse upon my nation?’

The Lord’s answer is not encouraging:

And he answered: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the LORD has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.” (Isaiah 6:11–13)

The judgment of God on Judah was to be thorough. Even if ninety percent of the land were wiped out, that is still not enough! But, as so often when God pronounces judgment, there is also hope. For even though Israel is like a tree that has been cut down, yet there will still be a ‘holy seed’ that will be a ‘stump’ that contains the possibility of regrowth. The desolation and destruction will not be complete.

In Jesus’ parable, however, there is even more cause to be hopeful; he speaks of a crop thirty, sixty and even a hundred times what was sown. While Jesus’ ministry parallels Isaiah’s in many ways, in this he is quite different. Isaiah saw only the possibility of regrowth long after the judgment he proclaimed; Jesus saw a great harvest that would grow from his preaching of God’s word. The exile had done its job of preparing the soil, and now it was ready for planting.

We ought to have the same expectation as we sow the word of God into the lives of those around us – and indeed in our own life! Jesus says elsewhere,

The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field. (Luke 10:2)

It is not the harvest that is in doubt; it is the workers! So in the very next verse he appoints seventy-two of his disciples and says, ‘Go!’ (Luke 10:3). Though the image has changed from sowing to harvesting, the need for workers is constant.

The disciples were doubting Jesus and his ministry because of the opposition that it aroused. They had their eyes on the seed that was lost, but failed to appreciate the tremendous harvest that was in front of them. Friends, let’s not make the same mistake. Don’t doubt because of opposition, but believe in the great harvest… and sow!


Endnotes

  1. ἐξῆλθεν ὁ σπείρων σπεῖραι. cf. the more general γεωργός in Matt. 21:33 || Luke 20:9.
  2. Isa. 1:2-4.
  3. Isa. 1:11-15.
  4. Isa. 1:16-17.
  5. Isa. 2:3-6.
  6. Isa. 2:6-8.
  7. Jer. 31:33.
  8. 1 Sam. 13:14.
  9. John 1:1-18.
  10. Luke 22:20.
  11. Mark 2:6.
  12. Mark 3:6.
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Review: Honest Evangelism (Tice)

by on Apr.12, 2015, under Review

Tice, Rico. Honest Evangelism: How to Talk About Jesus Even When it’s Tough. The Good Book Company, 2014.

This short volume may best be thought of as an encouragement to do evangelism. Tice freely acknowledges that evangelism is hard (an acknowledgment that contributes the ‘honest’ in the book’s title). I was personally challenged by Tice’s approach to 1 Peter 3:15. For many years, I have been one of those with a ‘passive’ approach to evangelism, based largely on this verse. Yet Tice correctly points out that 1 Peter sets out a context of Christians suffering for being Christians. We ought to be prepared to share the gospel even in the face of opposition and suffering.

Yet, he says, opposition is only half the story, for there is also a hunger for the gospel.

We must be honest about the hostility, or we’ll have wrong expectations and give up on evangelism. But we must also be excited about the hunger, or we’ll have no expectations at all, and never start evangelism.
Chapter 1

That hunger ought to motivate us. But the hunger must also exist within us – a desire for Jesus as our greatest love.

So for as long as Jesus is not my greatest love, I will keep quiet about him in order to serve my greatest love, my idol. I will keep quiet about him because I am afraid of losing my greatest love, my idol.
Chapter 3

Having outlined some of the motivations for why Christians ought to evangelise, Tice devotes the balance of the book to practical discussions of how to evangelise. He explores the content and presentation of the gospel, giving many practical tips on how to communicate with clarity and honesty. These chapters will prove helpful to newcomers to the work of evangelism. At times, however, I found the material sacrificing depth for the sake of clarity. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but some footnotes highlighting related resources might have been helpful. For example chapter 7 gives a cursory overview of issues of contextualisation, and it would have been good to see this developed further (how do I work out how to approach my culture?) or at least some pointers on other resources which could be used to go further. Similarly, some of the mnemonic schemes (Identity/Mission/Call, Character/Conviction/Competence/Courage) could have been fleshed out a bit further, particularly with respect to how they are grounded in Scripture.

In all, Rico Tice has offered an accessible primer on evangelism that helps us to have correct expectations about both the challenges and joys of the task. I pray that it will be used by the Holy Spirit to prompt and encourage more and more ‘lay’ Christians to share the gospel in their own context.

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Seasons

by on Feb.16, 2015, under Reflection

Our last two family holidays have been road trips to Melbourne and the Sunshine Coast respectively. One of the things I found trickiest whilst driving was remaining alert to changes in speed limits. It is easy to get so used to driving the same speed that you can easily miss the transition from one zone to the next, and end up driving too fast or too slow.

As we walk with Christ, there will come different seasons of ministry for us also. Some of these seasons will be inaugurated by major life events: getting married; starting a new job; illness; the birth of a child; bereavement etc. Others will come on gradually, as you grow in spiritual maturity or your health declines. It is important to be alert to these transitions, whether immediate or gradual, and be prepared to seek and understand God’s call on your life for this season.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven. (Eccl. 3:1)

Jesus had distinct phases in his ministry. There were periods where he was fully engaged in public ministry, addressing crowds, healing the sick, casting out demons and confronting the religious leaders. Yet at other times, he withdrew to pray, to meditate and to spend time focused on his disciples. Jesus was alert to God’s timing, and shaped his ministry accordingly.

Why not take some time this week to assess your commitments in light of the season that you are in? Perhaps you will find that you are ‘driving’ too fast and need to slow down. This can be painful: slowing to 80 or 60km/h after driving for an hour or more at 110km/h is a special kind of hell! Alternately, perhaps it is time for you to stop driving slow in the fast lane and increase your commitment to advancing the Kingdom of God. Either way, ask God to show you your life through his eyes, and how you ought to use the time, energy and resources he has granted you.

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Review: Invitation to Philippians (Sunukijian)

by on Nov.22, 2014, under Review

Sunukjian, Donald R. Invitation to Philippians: Building a Great Church through Humility

Donald Sunukjian is well known to a generation of seminary students for his influential homiletics textbook, Invitation to Biblical Preaching (Kregel Academic&Professional, 2007). The present volume is part of a series intended to complement that book by providing concrete models for the principles presented therein. Let me say straight away that I have not read Invitation to Biblical Preaching , so am not qualified to judge Sunukjian’s success (or otherwise) in achieving this stated aim. Nevertheless, I found there was much to appreciate in this volume.

Invitation to Philippians is constructed as a series of sermon transcripts, lightly edited for presentation in written rather than oral form. This means that much of the original freshness of presentation is retained, and this is helpful for a young preacher trying to get the flavour of Sunukjian’s preaching style. The alert reader will pick up tips on how much and what repetition is required, both within one message and from one week to the next. However, this can also become somewhat tedious, particularly if (as in my case) the book is read within a short space of time. I also found some of his material was heavily contextualised this his (American) context – perfectly reasonable, given that was the context in which he was preaching, but occasionally difficult for a non-American to appreciate.

Sunukjian’s treatment of the text is sensible and solid. Obviously this is a series of sermons, rather than an exhaustive commentary, so his goal is to expound and apply the text. His intention is to model some of the ways a book like Philippians might be preached. In this light, he offers good insights on portions of the text, and some thoughtful challenges, presented with clarity. For me, one of the most valuable parts was seeing how he connected themes from one week to the next, building on the previous message and preparing for the next, though never at the expense of the current text.

Like many Christians, I suppose, Philippians holds a special place in my heart – much as the Philippians themselves did in Paul’s. Thus it is a joy to see this new volume appear expounding this wonderful text. Yet, in the end, I did not feel that the models of preaching presented herein were so compelling that I need to find out more about the method and principles that underpin them.

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Boast in the Lord (2 Cor 10)

by on Oct.16, 2014, under Sermon

I really don’t like job interviews. Is there anything more awkward than trying to present yourself and your experiences to people you don’t know, particularly when it’s for a job you’ve never done before? It’s a fine line to walk between wanting to demonstrate the relevance of your experience and qualifications for the position without coming off as boastful. And it’s not much easier on the other side of the table, interviewing candidates and trying to understand who they are and who they might be when not under the stress of an interview environment; doing your best to understand their experience as they describe it and how that might relate to the position to be filled. And all in the space of an hour or two.

As we work our way through 2 Corinthians 10, there is a very real sense in which Paul is re-applying for his own job. Some people have evidently come to Corinth, people who Paul will sarcastically refer to in the next chapter as ‘super-apostles’ (2 Cor 11:5), and later as ‘false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ’ (2 Cor 11:13). They have made certain claims about themselves, and sought to compare themselves favourably against Paul himself. In this and the following chapters the apostle responds to criticisms made by these outsiders; more than that, though, he seeks to recalibrate the standards by which the Corinthians ought to evaluate the claims of both Paul and the intruders.

Take every thought captive (vv. 1-6)

It seems that one of the criticisms levelled at Paul was that he was ‘timid’ in person, but ‘bold’ when far off (v. 1). Later in the chapter he quotes his opponents as saying, ‘His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing’ (v. 10). Corinth was known as the entertainment capital of Greece, and its 14000-seat theatre was the venue for famous speaking contests;1 so to be accused of being an inferior speaker was obviously intended as an insult. But Paul adjusts their perceptions by reminding them of the ‘meekness and gentleness of Christ’ (v. 1). ‘Meekness’ refers to enduring disgrace, denigration and death at the hand of evildoers.2 Isaiah wrote of Jesus long before his birth, saying,

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
– Isaiah 53:73

The Lord himself said,

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
– Matthew 11:29

This is a picture of meekness, though the world might interpret it as timidity. The difference is that the former springs from strength and purpose whilst the latter is born out of fear.

In the same way, Paul endured maltreatment at the hands of the Corinthians on his last visit to them. Yet they should not expect him to always be as meek; for on his next visit he expects to need to be ‘bold’ toward at least some amongst the Corinthians (v. 2). He does not enjoy confrontation but neither will he shy away from it when required; he promises to punish disobedience when he comes. Again we are reminded of Christ, whose next advent we expect to be very different to his last!

How do you respond to opposition, when you are deprived of honour, rank, possession or goods? What about when you are criticised, particularly when you are criticised for your Christian faith? I think most of us adopt a defensive posture, seeking to preserve our reputations, our friendships, our possessions and so on. But is this ‘meekness’ or ‘timidity’?

According to Paul, there are two worlds and world-views in conflict, and each has its own weapons and tactics. But he is not talking about swords and armour or (in modern terms) tanks and bombs.4 The weapons of this world include charisma and rhetoric, knowledge and logic, reputation and influence, credentials and qualifications, money and power. These are what the world uses to get what it wants and achieve its goals.

But, Paul says, though we live in this world these are not the primary weapons that Christians are called to wield. Instead, we must take up weapons that have ‘divine power to demolish strongholds’ (v. 4). What weapons? Well, ‘divine power’ implies divine origin, that is to say they come from God. And in the end it is not the plural gifts of God that are our weapon, but the singular Gift of God: his Son, Jesus Christ. We are reminded of Paul’s words in his earlier letter to the Corinthians:

Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
– 1 Corinthians 1:22-25

Armed with the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ as Sovereign and Saviour, Christians must ‘demolish strongholds’, that is ‘arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God’ (v. 5). Paul is talking here about patterns of thinking, world-views if you like, that are arranged to either exclude God or diminish his claims on the world. They are the lenses through which people choose to view the world, which distort the way God is perceived. And there are at least as many of these today as there were in Paul’s day. Academics love to identify and classify them, giving them fancy names that end in -ism: pluralism, relativism, modernism, naturalism, scientism, narcissism and so on. All of these obscure the knowledge of God in the world, and so must be opposed by Christians.

But this opposition is not just to reject these patterns of thinking, but to ‘take captive every thought and make it obedient to Christ’ (v. 5). What does this mean? It means that we must understand the prevailing world-views and sift what is true and good from those things that are in opposition to God. For example, the Corinthians placed great value on the techniques of rhetoric and oratory; this was the lens through which they viewed every thought that came their way. Does this mean that Paul was precluded from using these skills? No, of course not. In fact the evidence that survives of his letters and the speeches recorded in Acts suggest that Paul was quite a gifted and persuasive orator and rhetorician. But these skills were not what he relied upon to carry his ministry; rather he had taken them captive and made them obedient to Christ.

What about today? We are surrounded by different world-views and cultures. Our job as Christians is to look at these things through the Jesus lens and judge what can be used and what must be rejected. We must take them captive without ourselves being taken captive. Are you a scientist? It’s use your knowledge and skills to understand and explore God’s world, but don’t fall for the lie that science is all there is. Do you enjoy popular culture? You need to be careful not to let entertainment become your driving goal; but why not use your knowledge of film, literature, art and music as a means of building bridges and sharing the gospel? Those with wealth should feel free to use it, so long as they avoid descending into materialism and greed. I even know people who use statistics to the glory of God, if you can believe it!

‘Take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ’ (v. 5).

Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord (vv. 7-18)

Clearly the Corinthians were not doing this. They were impressed by the credentials offered by the false apostles, and found a corresponding lack in Paul in these areas. As a result, they were being led away from Paul. Over the remainder of this chapter, Paul demonstrates how their evaluation of the false apostles and of Paul himself is still captive to the thoughts of the world. He does this by showing what each party is ‘boasting’ in.

It is difficult at this distance to reconstruct exactly what the outsiders saying; we are ‘hearing’ only one side of the conversation and must guess what the other side was. Nevertheless it seems clear that they boasted that they ‘belonged to Christ’ in some significant manner, and perhaps that Paul and/or the Corinthians did not. But Paul is emphatic that he, too, belongs to Christ as much as anyone. More than that, he reminds the Corinthians that he had been given authority by Christ to act as his apostle to the Gentiles.5 So far as the Gentile Corinthians were concerned then, Paul ought to have been considered the one who belonged to Christ. ‘Implicit throughout 2 Corinthians is Paul’s assumption that he is their apostle, whose authority is to be acknowledged by them’.6

The apostle also points out that his authority has been granted for the purpose of building them up (v. 8). The implication is that whatever the opponents were doing was having the opposite effect, that is tearing them down. The Corinthians ought to look at the results of the different ‘ministries’ being conducted amongst them. On the one hand, the teaching of the intruders seems to have led to division and strife; on the other hand, Paul’s efforts have been directed towards unity and reconciliation. It is this goal that has shaped both his letters and his conduct whilst visiting the Corinthians in person.

How do you decide if someone or something is good? In recent years there has been a massive growth in internet reviews. It is very common for people to research online before committing to a purchase, whether it be for a television, car, book, computer, vacuum cleaner or whatever. They will read tens, perhaps hundreds of reviews written by people they have never and will never meet. Similarly when we employ someone it is common practice to seek references from previous employers to ensure that the reality matches the resume.

It seems that the newcomers had arrived with letters of commendation. Back in chapter 3, Paul wrote,

Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everybody. You show that you are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.
– 2 Cor 3:1-3

We don’t know who might have written such letters for these false apostles, but it is clear that Paul does not set much store by them. In fact, he says they are effectively letters where the intruders commended themselves. Would you employ someone who wrote their own reference?

Or perhaps they wrote letters of commendation for one another. When academics publish a paper in a journal, they usually have it reviewed by other people working in the same field to check the plausibility and accuracy of their content. This is generally a pretty good system for ensuring high quality publications. However it is not foolproof. For example, recently a journal retracted some 60 articles because they discovered that a peer-review ‘ring’ had been formed where reviewers exchanged favourable reviews. In one case, a single reviewer had set up multiple aliases and ended up reviewing his own work.7

The point is that commendation and comparison are not definitive. What is required is an objective standard, particularly when choosing church leaders. Some weeks ago we joined together as a church in commissioning several people into roles as elders and deacons. As part of that, Dr. Boyce told us on what basis the elders had chosen to appoint them. He did not read letters of recommendation or affirmation, though doubtless the elders had received many. He did not tell us about his personal experiences with them. He did not list the things they have done and are doing to serve the church. Rather, he read from 1 Timothy 3, where Paul outlines the qualifications required of overseers and deacons. In the judgment of the elders, and with the affirmation of the church, those people meet the required standard and so we commissioned them to their respective roles.

From verse 13 onwards, Paul starts to argue that there must be ‘proper limits’ on boasting. Firstly, one’s personal sphere of work ought to constrain the boundaries of boasting. If Paul is going to boast, it will be in the mission field that is assigned to him rather than in an area where somebody else is working. We know from the book of Acts that Paul was guided by the Holy Spirit on his missionary journeys and did not leave a field of work unless he was led to another place.8

Paul was glad of the help of others in his work, such as Apollos and Titus who had also ministered in Corinth. He had no problem with someone else building on the foundation he had laid.9 And he was not the sort of person to put down those who were preaching the same gospel as he, even if he did not agree with their motivations.10 But in this case the interlopers seem intent on undermining his authority and message by their boasting and this is not acceptable. Certainly this should give us pause before moving in and setting up shop in an area where there is an established and effective gospel ministry.11 Far better to spend our efforts and resources on reaching people who would not otherwise hear about Christ, than be in competition. ‘[R]eal expansion of the church comes, not by poaching or moving van evangelism, but by proclaiming the gospel in areas and among people where the Lord Jesus Christ is not known’.12

Further, we ought to be looking forward rather than back. Boasting is bound up with the past, but the truly effective servants of God keep looking to the future.13 Paul is committed to the church in Corinth, but he also has his mind on Rome (Acts 19:21b; Rom 1:11) and on Spain and the western Mediterranean. By contrast, the false apostles are set on taking over what Paul has already done.

Finally, ‘Let him who boasts boast in the Lord’ (v. 17). Paul has previously quoted this verse from Jeremiah 9:23 in his first surviving letter to Corinth (1 Cor 1:31), arguing there that all the different things the church might want to boast of – worldly wisdom, rhetoric, wealth and power – must first be subjected to the humiliation of the cross. Here his aim is slightly different.

He wants to warn the church against those who ‘commend themselves,’ but are not commended by the Lord; and he wants to prepare the way for one of his own most powerful pieces of writing, the ‘boasting’ in chapter 11 which will show them, once and for all, what it means to have one’s whole life reshaped around the Messiah and his cross. Is it boasting you want? he asks. Then boasting you shall have; but don’t expect it to look like what you imagined. ‘In the Lord’, after all, everything has been turned upside down and inside out. That’s what must happen to boasting as well.14

It seems that the newcomers were legitimating their ‘ministry’ in Corinth by ‘commending’ themselves, by ‘boasting’ of their achievements and ‘classifying’ and ‘contrasting’ their strengths with Paul’s perceived weaknesses. They have letters of commendation that Paul lacks. Their speech is powerful and persuasive, where Paul is ‘unskilled’. They are men of divine power, performing the ‘signs of an apostle’ (2 Cor 12:12) where Paul was unable even to heal himself (2 Cor 12:7-9). He is inferior and they are superior.15 But this is viewing the situation through the eyes of the world. When observed through the Jesus lens the reality is much different. It was Paul’s ministry that had borne fruit in bringing the Corinthian church into existence. It was Paul who was building them up rather than tearing them down. Paul was the one called to minister to them, who was looking forward to productive Christian ministry amongst them and beyond them. If Paul is being forced to apply for his own job, he has made a pretty compelling case!

But ultimately, Paul was not seeking approval or vindication (let alone employment!) from the Corinthians. Rather his goal was that he should be commended by the Lord. I hope we can say the same.

Bibliography

Barnett, Paul. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1997.

Carson, D. A. From Triumphalism to Maturity : An Exposition of 2 Corinthians 10-13. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1984.

Kistemaker, Simon. Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Accordance electronic ed, Baker New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1997.

Witherington, Ben. Conflict and Community in Corinth : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995.

Wright, N. T. Paul for Everyone : 2 Corinthians. 2nd ed. London: SPCK, 2004.


Endnotes

  1. Ben Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995), 349.
  2. Simon Kistemaker, Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Accordance electronic ed., Baker New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1997), 330.
  3. cf. Acts 8:26ff. where Philip applies this passage to Christ.
  4. D. A. Carson, From Triumphalism to Maturity : An Exposition of 2 Corinthians 10-13 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1984), 57.
  5. Acts 9:15; Gal 1:16.
  6. Paul Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1997), 473.
  7. http://retractionwatch.com/2014/07/08/sage-publications-busts-peer-review-and-citation-ring-60-papers-retracted/
  8. e.g. Acts 16:6-7; 20:22. cf. Kistemaker, 2 Corinthians, 349.
  9. 1 Cor 3:10. Ibid., 350.
  10. Carson, From Triumphalism to Maturity, 92.
  11. Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 492.
  12. Carson, From Triumphalism to Maturity, 96.
  13. Ibid.
  14. N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone : 2 Corinthians, 2nd ed. (London: SPCK, 2004), 111.
  15. Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 39.
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God Loves a Cheerful Giver (2 Cor 8-9)

by on Oct.16, 2014, under Sermon

Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians was a bit of a roller-coaster. Paul has had to encourage, cajole, command, rebuke, instruct, defend and reason his way through a number of issues. This put a great strain on his relationship with the church in Corinth, culminating in a disastrous and ‘painful’ visit to Corinth,1 followed by a severe letter of reprimand. However, at the end of chapter 7 he expresses his great joy at the report Titus brought of their repentance and desire for reconciliation and renewed relationship.2 The severe letter did its job: those who had defied Paul and his authority had been disciplined, and the partnership between Paul and the Corinthians could now resume moving forward.

On the strength of this reconciliation, Paul feels able to once again address an issue close to his heart: the collection for the saints in Jerusalem.

Background: The Collection

Very early on in his ministry, the apostle was witness to a prophecy given to the church in Antioch of a famine that would ‘spread over the entire Roman world’ (Acts 11:28). In response, the church decided to send help for fellow Christians living in Judea, and chose Barnabas and Paul as the messengers who would carry this gift on their behalf.3 In his letter to the Galatians, Paul tells of his meeting with the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, who asked that he ‘should continue to remember the poor, the very thing,’ he says, ‘I was eager to do’ (Gal 2:10). We also know from the first of his surviving letters to the Corinthian church that he had discussed with them a further gift towards the needs of those in Jerusalem:

Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.
– 1 Corinthians 16:1–2

However, it seems that this plan had fallen into disrepair. Perhaps it was the conflict between Paul and the Corinthians. It is also possible that the Corinthians had chosen to allocate their available funds towards other visiting preachers, about whom Paul will have much to say in chapters 11 and 12. Whatever the reason, the apostle seems keen to encourage them to resume their collection.

As so often in his writings, he makes his point by returning to the subject of grace.

Giving is for everyone, so give (2 Cor 8:1-12)

First of all, Paul writes of the grace given to and through the Macedonian church, with whom he is probably staying whilst writing this epistle. While the Corinthians were relatively wealthy as a result of their position on the major trade routes of the Mediterranean, the region of Macedonia had undergone a financial decline over the preceding 2 centuries: the gold mines had been exhausted, and the region had suffered a number of wars and invasions. Both the countryside and the cities were impoverished.4

In spite of their situation – or perhaps because of it – Paul writes that ‘their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity’ (2 Cor 8:2). They did not see their financial lack as an impediment, let alone an excuse. Rather, they were eager, urgently pleading to permitted to share in this collection.
Perhaps they felt compassion on those who were suffering and in need, much as we do today when we hear of droughts, tsunamis, floods, fires or other situations where life and property is imperilled. Australians have an admirable reputation in this regard. For example, in the wake of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, the Australian public donated $5 per Australian, compared to $3 per Briton and only 88 cents per American.5 But the truth is that we are more likely to respond to problems that arise in our own neighbourhood than to those on the other side of the world. So, during the first week of the 2009 Victorian bushfire Australians gave almost $53 million, almost five times what was given in the days after the tsunami.6

So what makes a church in the midst of a poverty-stricken region so eager to contribute to support people so far away?

Paul gives us a clue: ‘they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will’ (2 Cor 8:5). It was more than sympathy that compelled them; it was that they identified with the Lord and with Paul in their mission. They were partners in Paul’s work, and that work included this collection for the saints in Jerusalem. We find confirmation in Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi, a church in the region of Macedonia, where he commends them for sending him aid ‘again and again when [he] was in need’ (Phil 4:16-18).7 It is clear that they were committed not only to the mission, but also to the missionary.

I think we can learn a lot from the example of the Philippian church in particular. They used their scant resources to aid Paul in the mission that the Lord Jesus had called him to. At the time of this letter to the Corinthians, that mission included providing aid to the church in Jerusalem and Judea; at a later time it meant providing personal support to Paul as he ministered in Thessalonica (another church in Macedonia) and still later as he languished under house arrest in Rome. We, too, ought to consider how our gifts might be employed to further the mission to which God calls all Christians. There are many worthwhile ‘causes’ upon which we might expend our resources, but there is only one mission and it must take priority. More than just the mission, though, it is important for all of us to continually support the missionaries who are in the trenches conducting the mission, as the Philippians supported Paul over many years.

I encourage you to take some time this week – today even! – to sit down with your family and work out what you can be doing to serve those who serve others.

The Macedonians gave out of their poverty; but at completely the other end of the spectrum is our Lord Jesus. Paul writes that, ‘though he was rich, yet for [our] sakes he became poor so that [we] through his poverty might become rich’ (2 Cor 8:9). Earlier he wrote that, ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’ (2 Cor 5:21). Can there be any greater contrast? We honour and proclaim that mighty gift by offering our own smaller gifts.

The Macedonians had little and gave much; but Jesus had everything and gave it all for us! You and I, we probably fit somewhere in between these extremes. We are not as poor as the Macedonians, nor as rich as Christ. But God has given the same gift of grace to Macedonians, Corinthians and ‘West Pennians’; all of us, then, ought to respond as the Macedonians did and ‘excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in… love – [and] also excel in this grace of giving’ (2 Cor 8:7).

Giving is for everyone, so give!

Be careful, but not cynical, about your giving (2 Cor 8:13-9:5)

Money was somewhat of a sensitive topic between Paul and the Corinthians. Remarkably, in the whole of these two chapters Paul never once uses any of the Greek words for ‘money’ itself.8 This is probably because he had consistently refused payment for his work as an apostle, and this had become something of a sore point between them.9 So we sense that the apostle is being very careful to address potential misunderstandings and false impressions.

First, he anticipates an objection that the Jerusalemites are to be made rich at the Corinthians’ expense (2 Cor 8:13-15). This is not the case; rather, he says, the goal is for equality. To illustrate the kind of equality he has in mind, he quotes from Exodus 16, where the Israelites were sustained in the desert by God’s miraculous provision of manna, ‘bread from heaven’.

> The Israelites did as they were told; some gathered much, some little. And when they measured it by the omer, he who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little. Each one gathered as much as he needed.
– Exodus 16:17–18

Only twice in Scripture do we find a complete absence of poverty amongst God’s people.10 The first time is when the Israelites were brought up out of Egypt, and God sustained them by providing food, clothes and other necessities. There were neither rich nor poor, for though some tried to gather much, and some only gathered a little, each one found that they had as much as they needed and no more. Under the Old Covenant, it seems, equality was enforced by God.

We find something similar in the early days of the church in Jerusalem. Luke writes the rather startling statement that, ‘There were no needy persons among them’ (Acts 4:34). This was because from time to time the rich would sell their property and present the proceeds to the apostles for distribution amongst the poor.11 Under the New Covenant equality is voluntary, joyous and generous.12 It is this kind of giving that Paul exhorts the Corinthians to emulate.

Having addressed the suspicion that he might be playing favourites, siphoning off money from the Corinthians to support the favoured parent church in Jerusalem, Paul must also contend with the accusation that he will use the money to line his own pocket. We can imagine the cynical sneers offered up by troublemakers in Corinth: ‘He claims not to want our money, but now he asks for it supposedly for someone else.’

To address this concern, Paul emphasises how careful he is being that he not only do the right thing but be seen to do the right thing with this money. ‘We want to avoid any criticism,’ he says, ‘ of the way we administer this liberal gift. For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men’ (2 Cor 8:20-21). Elsewhere he warns his readers to avoid even the appearance of evil,13 and he follows his own advice here.14

This is an important lesson for us as a church. We as a church are entrusted with significant resources to be used for gospel ministry. Part of that responsibility is to ensure that we are both careful and transparent about the way those resources are employed. Perhaps second only to sexual sin, financial mismanagement is one of the biggest ministry killers out there today. And it need not be actual fraudulent activity; just the appearance of mishandling of resources can be extremely damaging to a church. So we keep accounts; we have money handling procedures; we budget and we track our spending. All these things help us to show that we are doing the right thing ‘not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men’. In this way we disarm much of the suspicion that surrounds us. In the end, however, if it comes to a choice between doing what is right in the eyes of men and in the eyes of the Lord, we must choose to do what is right before God.

From another perspective, however, perhaps we ourselves are cynical. Doubtless we have all engaged at some time in similar distrust. For instance, I’m sure many of us have wondered who profits out of this televangelist, that healing ministry or the other megachurch. And perhaps such doubts are warranted at times. We should certainly be careful in the way we allocate our resources, taking time to find out how they will be used and so on. This is part of our responsibility as stewards of what God has given us.

The problem arises when we allow our cynicism to undermine our desire to give as the Corinthians apparently did. When I first came to Sydney for uni, I used to occasionally travel home for weekends. As I waited for the bus at Eddy Avenue, I would often be approached by people looking for a handout, some loose change to help them catch a bus home, or get something to eat or whatever. Worldly-wise and street smart as only a 17 year old country boy can be, I ‘knew’ that their story was really a mask for some other objective such as alcohol, drugs or cigarettes. And so I developed an acute ability to spot them at a distance, keep my head down to avoid making eye contact and keep on walking. Doubtless my suspicions were correct about some, and perhaps many of those who approached me; but what about those in genuine need? My skepticism became a mask, a wall, an excuse to avoid having to give of my time, let alone my money. In the same way, the Corinthians had given in to their suspicions and allowed distrust to kill off their initial enthusiasm for this project. Let us avoid making the same mistake.

Be careful, but not cynical, about the way you give.

We are in the service of the great giver, so give generously (2 Cor 9:6-15)

In the final section of this morning’s text, Paul outlines the many blessings that flow from giving, and exhorts the Corinthians to give cheerfully and generously. He does this by developing the image of a farmer sowing seed.

It is axiomatic that the size of the harvest is proportional to the amount of seed sown. So, if the farmer sows only a little seed, he should only expect a small crop; if he sows a large amount of seed he should expect a large crop. Paul is encouraging the Corinthians to be liberal in their gift to the Judean church.

But the word used, ‘generously’, is not only about the quantity sown, but also the attitude of the sower. We know this because in verse 5, it is translated ‘generous gift’ (NIV) and is contrasted with a gift ‘grudgingly given,’ which is clearly about the heart of the givers. Paul also elaborates this point by saying that each should give what they have decided to give, rather than what they feel compelled to give (2 Cor 9:7). In other words, it is possible to give a large gift and yet not be ‘generous’ if it is given grudgingly. And even a small gift given cheerfully should be considered ‘generous.’ Remember the words Paul wrote back in chapter 8: ‘For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have’ (2 Cor 8:12).

Paul also points out that the Corinthians ought to have confidence to give generously: ‘God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work’ (2 Cor 9:8). In a sense, the farmer loses what he has scattered, taking the risk of adverse weather, disease and insects; but as he sows he trusts that the one ‘who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase [their] store of seed and enlarge the harvest of [their] righteousness’ (2 Cor 9:10). If we find ourselves unwilling to give, we must ask whether we have the same trust in the one who provides us with all that we need.

We serve a God who has given generously. He has given us life and breath; sun and rain; family and friends. As the apostle James wrote,

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.
– James 1:17-18

We honour this giving God by giving in turn to others.

In crop farming the farmer keeps back a portion of each harvest to replant for the next year’s crop. If they don’t, if they instead sell or consume the entire crop, the next year there will be neither planting nor harvesting. I believe this is what Paul has in mind when he writes, ‘You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion’ (2 Cor 9:11). He does not say, ‘Sow generously and you will be made rich,’ but ‘Sow generously and you will be made rich so that you can sow generously again.’ We must remember this as we consider how to deploy the riches that God has given us to steward, neither consuming all for our own immediate gratification nor planting all. Instead, we must find a wise balance of the two.

Doing this results in two things. Firstly, it is a practical way in which we can ‘supply the needs of God’s people’ (2 Cor 9:12). But just as importantly it results in ‘many expressions of thanks to God’ (2 Cor 9:12). As people witness Christians giving generously they see in miniature the God who gives generously. As one commentator writes:

When Jesus, for the sake of us all, became poor, we became rich; now, when people who follow him are ready to put their resources at his disposal, the world and the church may benefit, not only from the actual money but from the fact that when the Jesus-pattern of dying and rising, of riches-to-poverty-to-riches, is acted out, the power of the gospel is let loose afresh in the world, and the results will be incalculable.15

We are in the service of a great giver, so let us give generously.

Conclusion

In summary, then, the Apostle Paul teaches the Corinthians (and, by extension, us):

  • Giving is for everyone, from the poorest of the poor, to the Lord of all creation, so give;
  • Be careful but not cynical about your giving;
  • Give generously for we serve the one who gives us all things.

The Corinthians had shown a promising start: Paul writes that they were ‘the first not only to give but to have the desire to do so’ (2 Cor 8:10). But something went wrong. Paul urges them to renew their enthusiasm and complete the collection.

There is a saying: ‘Hard work often pays off over time; but procrastination always pays off now!’ What is it that makes us want to put off work until the last possible moment? Why do we leave things half done? And why are we so easily deflected and distracted from our intentions and commitments? I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but it is clear that there comes a time when we must make good on our promises.

For the Corinthians it was a financial commitment, and it may be for you as well; but it could be something else entirely. Have you promised to pray for someone or something? Pray. Has the Lord convicted you of sin that you need to repent of? Repent. Perhaps the temple that is your body is in need of repair? Fix it. Is there broken relationship? Reconcile. Is God calling you to walk with him into some new service, adventure or mission field? Go.

Do you have unfinished business with the Lord this morning?

Bibliography

Barnett, Paul. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1997.

Kistemaker, Simon. Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Accordance electronic ed, Baker New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1997.

Wright, N. T. Paul for Everyone : 2 Corinthians. 2nd ed. London: SPCK, 2004.


Endnotes

  1. 2 Cor 2:1.
  2. 2 Cor 7:8-9.
  3. Acts 11:29.
  4. Simon Kistemaker, Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Accordance electronic ed., Baker New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1997), 272-3.
  5. http://mccrindle.com.au/ResearchSummaries/PoG-MR-RS.pdf
  6. http://www.smh.com.au/national/donations-exceed-tsunami-collection-20090211-84r3.html
  7. Ibid., 271.
  8. N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone : 2 Corinthians, 2nd ed. (London: SPCK, 2004), 85.
  9. 1 Cor 9:1-18; 2 Cor 11:7-11.
  10. Kistemaker, 2 Corinthians, 318.
  11. Acts 4:32-35.
  12. Paul Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1997), 415.
  13. 1 Thess 5:22.
  14. Kistemaker, 2 Corinthians, 295.
  15. Wright, Paul for Everyone : 2 Corinthians, 91.
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God provides according to our needs

by on Sep.06, 2014, under Reflection

In Matthew 20:1-16 Jesus tells of a vineyard owner who employs people at different times during the day to come and work in his vineyard. At the end of the day, he calls all the workers in, starting with those he employed last and working back to those who had worked the full day, paying each a denarius (a day’s wages).

Those who had been hired first grumbled that they who had ‘borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day’ (v. 12) were being paid the same as those who had only worked one hour in the cool of the evening. They believed that they ought to be paid in proportion to their labours: those who worked few hours should be paid little; those who worked many hours should be paid much.

But the vineyard owner had a different perspective. Behind each worker he saw a family in need of support, and he knew that a fraction of a denarius would not be enough for the daily needs of a family. And so he paid them in proportion to their need, rather than their efforts.1

Isn’t it easy to fall into the labourers’ envious way of thinking? We look at those around us and ask ourselves whether they ‘deserve’ the things (good or bad) they receive from God. But our Father sees their need and meets it, just as he meets ours.

And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. (2 Cor 9:8)


Endnotes

  1. Kistemaker, Simon. The Parables of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1980, 78.
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Beyond Sinai to Zion (Hebrews 12)

by on Dec.07, 2013, under Sermon

With a physique like mine, it will come as no surprise to you when I tell you that I am not a distance runner. In my school years, however, I was required to run in a cross-country event each year. The first time I did it, I set off with good intentions and boundless optimism, sure I was going to be the first across the line. The second year, I commenced the race with the modest ambition of being somewhere in the middle, and surviving to tell the tale. By my high school years, if I couldn’t find some excuse to avoid cross-country day, my goal was to walk the first lap as slowly as I could in hopes of being lapped by enough of the front-runners that I could follow them across the line and avoid doing a second lap! My optimism from the first year had wilted in the face of weariness. Frankly, I didn’t really care about the result, so there was no point in running. I had no goal, no commitment.

As we’ve read through this letter to the Hebrews, it is clear that the apostle is writing to a people not unlike myself. They had started out with good intentions. But, little by little, that enthusiasm had been chipped away. In chapter 3 and 4 in particular, the writer compares them to the Israelites in the desert, tired and hot and hungry, wishing they were back in Egypt. Suffering and persecution had taken their toll, and they now thought fond thoughts of their life before Christ, a life of relative comfort and ease. Their memory of why they set out on this journey had faded, leaving them with a whole lot of pain and no clear idea of its purpose.

Above all, they felt weary. As Tim told us some weeks ago, this letter is written to people who are weary. People like you and me. So, as he brings this epistle to a close, our writer once again marshals his arguments and encouragements, begging the people to keep going, keep running – or walking, or crawling! – the path set before them. Our job this morning is to grasp his solutions to spiritual weariness.

The first solution to spiritual weariness is faith, which we covered in detail last week. It is foundational to all the other solutions. At the end of chapter 10 we read:

You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. For in just a very little while, “He who is coming will come and will not delay. But my righteous one will live by faith. And if he shrinks back, I will not be pleased with him.” (Heb 10:36–38)

Here are two clearly distinct alternatives. The righteous, we are told, will live by faith. This is pleasing to God. On the other hand, those who shrink back displease God, and will not receive what he has promised. He then expands on this in chapter 11, listing some of the many Old Testament saints who lived lives of faith, trusting in the promises of God and not shrinking back. Even though they did not receive the things promised, by faith ‘they saw them and welcomed them from a distance’ (Heb 11:13). These saints stand as a ‘cloud of witnesses’ – witnesses in the sense that they give evidence of God’s faithfulness to them. We need to hear their testimony, and take it onboard as encouragement to us to trust God as they did.

In light of this testimony, we ought to embrace the second cure for spiritual weariness, which is to ‘throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles’. This is common sense, right? When you run a race, you do not carry any unnecessary weight and you make sure your shoelaces are done up tight so that you don’t trip and fall. For Christians, there are two categories of things to be considered here. The obvious one is sin. Sin is like running a race with your shoelaces tied together; you are bound to fall and be hurt at some point. If you are not a Christian, this is your situation. The first step for you is to turn to Jesus, for he is the only one able to deal with sin.

If you are a Christian, but you are struggling in your day-to-day walk with Jesus, perhaps you need to sit down and review your life: are you entangled in sin? Ask God to reveal to you that sin, and to give you the strength to throw it off (Heb 12:1).

Less obvious are the things in our life that are not sinful but are hindrances nevertheless. Runners in ancient times used to run naked and barefoot in order to eliminate all weights that would slow them down or tire them out. This is can be an issue for Christians as well. For example, a friend of mine recently gave up coffee because he felt it was an impediment to his relationship with God. Coffee is not sinful. But for my friend, it needed to go because it was ‘slowing him down’. These things will vary from person to person, and you need to consider your own life and circumstances. Combat boots would be strange running shoes for a marathon runner, but essential for a soldier.

So I ask you this morning: what are the weights and hindrances in your life? What is it that stands between you and loving, trusting and believing God? Are there things that you could and should eliminate from your life for the sake of spending more time with God? If you ask him, God will show you what these things are. Abraham had to let go of his son; Jacob had to leave the land he was promised and go down into Egypt; Moses left his privileged position as a prince of Egypt. None of these things was inherently sinful, but all had to be left behind to follow the path set by God.

These are just some of the lessons we can learn from the Old Testament saints. But, inspiring as these giants of faith are, in the end they cannot help us.1 They cannot strengthen us, they cannot equip us, they cannot correct our bad habits, they cannot pick us up when we fall. They have run their portion of the race and handed on the baton to us. Watching athletes run an Olympic marathon may be inspiring, but it will not help you run any better.

But what if you could have one of those athletes to coach you? To run with you, correcting your technique, encouraging you along the way. This is exactly the situation for Christians. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, but it is Jesus who we must look to. He is the ‘author’ – that is, the object and source – of our faith. But he is also the ‘perfecter’ of that same faith – the one who brings us safely to the completion of faith’s goal. Unlike Moses and Joshua, Jesus is capable of bringing his people to journey’s end.2

The apostle outlines how Jesus’ example can help us to understand our own situation, and this is his third solution for spiritual weariness. There are many things that cause us to feel weary: suffering, persecution, disappointment. Jesus has faced all of these and more.3 Jesus has faced the same suffering, temptation and all-around weariness that we face. Indeed he suffered even more than we ever can or will. Jesus was so weary he could sleep in a small fishing boat in the middle of a great storm.4 He was ‘tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin’ (Heb 4:15). He ‘endured the cross’ yet completed the race and ‘sat down at the right hand of the throne of God’ (Heb 12:2).

We are told to, ‘Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men…’. Why? ‘… so that [we] will not grow weary and lose heart.’ (Heb 12:3).

Why do we find opposition and suffering so wearisome? It is because we see it as meaningless. When I was doing my best to avoid the trials of high school cross-country, it was because I couldn’t see the point: I didn’t enjoy it, there was no way I was going to win (short of some extraordinarily brazen cheating!), so why bother? Similarly, Christians sometimes think, “I’m saved now; why can’t God just take me to heaven now? Why do I need to endure the death of my loved one, the persecution of my workmates, the gradual (or sudden) deterioration of my health, financial crisis, relationship breakdown, the loss of my house and possessions? What’s the point?”

Do you sometimes feel like that?

These thoughts reflect a worldview that believes there can be no purpose in suffering. But this is not the biblical worldview. The writer to the Hebrews says that we have,

forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses [us] as sons: “My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” (Heb 12:5-6).

There are two parallel ideas here: discipline and punishment. ‘Discipline’ is about training a child in the right way to live. Parents are expected to model and teach many things, things such as love of God, loving and serving others, respect for authority and so on. They offer encouragement and, where necessary, correction along the way.
God brings many things into our lives as a means of helping us to mature as his children; many of them are unpleasant at the time, but in hindsight these can be some of the greatest growth experiences. Unlike earthly parents, God is always in control of the circumstances, always aware of how much we can handle, always providing the right things at the right time. Further, he always provides us with the resources to deal with these challenges.

‘Punishment’, at least as it appears in this passage, is also directed towards discipline and training. It is not referring here to God’s judicial punishment of sin, because for believers that has already been met in Jesus Christ. Rather, it is talking about punishment of disobedience within the father-child relationship. Disobedience is the greatest impediment to discipline, for it betrays an attitude at odds with teachability.

Suffering and hardship come to all; it is part of life. For the Christian, however, suffering and hardship have meaning because they show God’s commitment to disciplining his sons and daughters.

Jesus knew this. It was ‘for the joy set before him’ that Jesus ‘endured the cross’. We must keep our eyes on Jesus, for God disciplines us to make us like Jesus. By faith, we know that ‘God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness’ (Heb 12:10). By faith, we perceive (though we may not see) the Father’s love and wisdom in our circumstances. His interest is in our holiness rather than our happiness, and this requires discipline at the hands of our loving Father.5 Be encouraged that you have a Father who loves you enough to do this, and your weariness will abate. If you’re keeping score, remembering this is the fourth solution for weariness.

The next section focuses on community issues, as community is weariness solution number five. These are issues that can both cause and result from weariness. ‘Make every effort to live in peace with all men’ (Heb 12:14). There is nothing like being in conflict with people that you see regularly for making you feel weary. And it gets worse the closer you are to the person you are in conflict with – colleagues, friends, fellow believers, family. This is, perhaps, why Jesus commands,

‘if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.’ (Matt 5:23).

Peace within the family, the church, the workplace and the community is important, and should be sought and highly prized.

But it is not peace at all costs, for the second half of the sentence is ‘… and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord’ (Heb 12:14). Where it comes to issues of holiness, of gospel, we cannot compromise, even if it may prove more ‘peaceful’. We cannot compromise on issues of holiness, particularly within the community. We have a responsibility toward one another, as well as to ourselves.

See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. (Heb 12:15-16).

Conflict in community can lead to bitterness and, like the root of a plant, will grow over time into something that causes trouble and undermines holiness. Similarly, sexual immorality can tear families and churches apart, as people take sides.

The writer ends his list of community maladies with the example of the godless Esau. The story comes from Genesis 25:

“Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!”…

Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.”

“Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?””

 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob…
So Esau despised his birthright. (Gen 25:29–34)

Esau gave so little value to the promises of God to his family that he sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a bowl of food. Esau is the antithesis of those saints of chapter 11. By faith, they saw the value of the promises of God and held on to them, but Esau despised future promises for present comfort. Why? Because he was weary.

Brothers and sisters, let us ensure that our weariness does not lead us to treat lightly the promises and blessings of God. God has placed you in a church family; do not allow conflict, bitterness, sexual immorality or godlessness to defile that family. If you believe in Jesus, God has given you the right to be called sons and daughters of God (John 1:12); do not run away from his discipline. The community of the people of God is a tremendous remedy for weariness.

But community is not foolproof, for even whole communities can become weary. Perhaps the most tragic example of this is the people of Israel during the Exodus. God brought them up out of Egypt, in one of the most dramatic stories ever told. He had acted on the behalf to make Pharaoh let them go, and he had rescued them from Pharaoh’s wrath by making a way through the Red Sea. Seven times God’s said to Pharaoh: ‘Let my people go, so that they may worship me’ (7:16; cf. Ex 5:1; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13, 10:3). And if that weren’t convincing enough, they had been led to a mountain ‘burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast’ and ‘a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded’ (Heb 12:18-20). The sight was so terrifying, we are told, that even Moses, God’s appointed leader and spokesman, trembled in fear.

In light of these events, you would think the Israelites would be eager to go and do just as God required of them. But they didn’t. They grew weary:

“When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.”” (Ex 32:1)

All the acts of power they had witnessed first hand, all the terror that the meeting with God in the desert inspired, these things were not enough to compel obedience. We read this and think, ‘How could they?’ But are we any better? All of us tire of obeying the law, following the rules, doing the right thing; the Israelites just tired of it quicker than most. All of us have sinned,6 all of us have done what we ought not, and failed to do what we ought.

Fortunately was not the final destination for the Israelites. They had a mediator, Moses, who spoke up on their behalf, pleading with God to forgive them. As a result, Sinai was only a stopping place along the way to the promised land. Though weariness had led them to worship false gods, God had a solution for their weariness, and that was to meet with and worship him at another mountain, a mountain in the midst of the promised land of rest, Mount Zion.

The comparisons between the two earthly mountains are striking. Sinai is in the middle of a great desert, but Zion is in the heart of the promised land. Jerusalem was built around Zion, with the Temple built upon the mountain itself. God himself dwelt in the temple, where he had only visited Sinai for a time. Zion was also closely associated with God’s anointed king, for it was David who had first wrested the mighty fortress built there out of the hands of God’s enemies and made it a stronghold of the people of God (2 Sam 5:7, 9).7

In the apostle’s eyes, these two mountains represent two different ways of relating to and worshiping God. The first, Sinai, represents worship of God on the basis of the law. It is a place of failure, terror and judgment, where people are revealed for the sinful creatures that they are. It is a place where no one can truly enter into God’s presence except the mediator – for anyone else to touch this mountain results in death. All of us, Christian and non-Christian, must travel via this mountain at some point, whether it be in this life or at our death. We must all come face to face with our failures, our sinfulness, and acknowledge them before God.

If you are not a Christian, Sinai is the only place where you will meet with God. Like it or not, you are camped at the base of this mountain, with only desolate wilderness surrounding you, and hostile enslavement behind you.

The good news is that this need not be your final destination. For Jesus has entered into God’s presence on Sinai, on the basis of his obedience to the law. Like Moses, he has pleaded with God for our forgiveness. He now calls us to follow him into the promised land, ‘to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God’ (Heb 12:22). Jesus is the Son of David who has wrested control of Zion from his enemies and freely invites his people to enter into rest, safety, and joyful assembly in that mighty fortress. He says, ‘Come to me, all you who are weary… and I will give you rest’ (Matt 11:28).

He calls you to follow him.

One way or the other, you must respond. Ignoring the voice of God is a risky business. The Israelites ignored the voice of God – whose first command was to have no other gods – and as a result brought judgment upon themselves. Later, they ignored the voice of God inviting them to enter the promised land and, as a result, the entire generation missed out. So the writer urges you to respond in the affirmative: ‘See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks’ (Heb 12:25).

God has now spoken his final word, not by angels or prophets but by his Son (Heb 1:1-2). Though his blood ought, like Abel’s, to cry out for vengeance, instead it speaks a better word: ‘Father, forgive them’ (Lk 23:34).
And that word has shaken heavens and earth.

But it is a word spoken only ‘once more’. Do not, like Esau, treat lightly the invitation of God by putting off until tomorrow what you should do today; we know that he later regretted his decision bitterly (Heb 12:17). Do not, like the Israelites, look back longingly to Egypt, for God has prepared a place for you. Do not, like the Israelites, let weariness and fear halt you on the verge of the promised land, for God is able to overcome. Do not, like the first recipients of this letter, set up camp at Sinai, trying to live by law instead of grace, for God does not dwell there.

Instead, follow the Son into the promised land, to Mount Zion, to ‘a kingdom that cannot be shaken’. As the apostle puts it,

[L]et us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Heb 12:28-29)

Amen.

Bibliography

Brown, Raymond. The Message of Hebrews : Christ above All, The Bible Speaks Today. Leicester, England ; Downers Grove, Ill., U.S.A.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988.

Ellingworth, Paul, and Eugene A. Nida. A Handbook on the Letter to the Hebrews, Ubs Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies, 1994.

Lloyd-Jones, David Martyn. Spiritual Depression : Its Causes and Cure. London: MarshallPickering, 1998.

Pink, Arthur Walkington. An Exposition of Hebrews. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 2003.


Endnotes

  1. Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews : Christ above All, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England ; Downers Grove, Ill., U.S.A.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 227.
  2. Heb 4:8. cf. Paul Ellingworth and Eugene A. Nida, A Handbook on the Letter to the Hebrews, Ubs Handbook Series (New York: United Bible Societies, 1994).
  3. Here, as elsewhere in Hebrews, the writer uses ‘Jesus’ rather than ‘Christ’ to emphasise his humanness. Brown, The Message of Hebrews : Christ above All, 228.
  4. Luke 8:22-25.
  5. David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression : Its Causes and Cure (London: MarshallPickering, 1998), 235.
  6. Rom 3:23.
  7. Arthur Walkington Pink, An Exposition of Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 2003), 1043.
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