Gifted, Graced, Growing

Please read Romans 12:1-8.

God's Gifts_final (2)

Image by James Best, (C) 2020,

https://www.behance.net/gallery/90621713/Sermon-Illustrations-2020

God gives us all we need to grow in His grace.

      We need to begin by sharing some alarming information.  But first, a reminder of the Bible’s teaching that we are in this together:

If one part [of the Body of Christ] suffers, every part suffers with it. 1 Corinthians 12:26,  “The world has become less tolerant and less safe for Christians. Based on current statistics, every day around the world …

  • 8 Christians are killed for their faith.
  • 23 Christians are raped or sexually harassed.
  • 25 Churches are targeted and attacked.
  • 10 Christians are unjustly arrested or imprisoned for their faith.

Every week around the world …

  • 186 church buildings are attacked.
  • 276 Christian homes are burned or destroyed.

The total numbers reveal a more than a 1,000% increase in acts of persecution in 2019 over 2018.”

Violence Against Christians Surges; More Than 1,000% Increase in Attacks on Churches Since 2018

The point is this: the enemy is active and organized in its opposition to the truth of Jesus Christ. God created the church to be a body, a movement of people whose ambition is to shine the light of Jesus into a dark world.  We haven’t time to waste on lesser things.

CONTEXT – Bible teacher A.M. Hunter said there are two sides to the Gospel; the believing side and the “behaving side.”  A living faith is growing in knowing and doing.  Paul wrote a doxology (11:33-36) and then followed it up with a call to worship God by sacrifice.  In this way, Paul illustrated both the believing and behaving sides of faith.

  1. God gives gracious gifts.

One act of grace is God’s gift of revelation: it is gracious of God to reveal Himself to us.  In Romans 12:3, Paul reported that God gave him insight into the nature of humility and faith (3). This teaching came from God: FOR BY THE GRACE GIVEN ME I SAY TO EVERY ONE OF YOU.

The specific truth revealed on this occasion is found in the phrase, DO NOT THINK OF YOURSELF MORE HIGHLY THAN YOU OUGHT, for that is pride. Doubt is not the opposite of faith; pride is the opposite of faith!  As we learned in Bible Study recently, “EGO” is an acronym for “Edging God Out.” There is only room for one on the throne of our life; it must be God who sits there.

INSTEAD, Paul wrote, THINK OF YOURSELF WITH SOBER JUDGMENT, for that is humility.  Humility is an accurate self-understanding.  Faith allows us to see ourselves from God’s perspective and thereby to by humble.

Here’s a news flash!  We don’t create faith or even increase it: faith is something God gives us, as Paul wrote, IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE MEASURE OF FAITH GOD HAS GIVEN YOU.  Let me give you two New Testament examples of people who understood faith to be God’s gift.

– In Luke 17:5, Jesus’ disciples said to Him, “INCREASE OUR FAITH!”  There is no exertion of will to believe here, just a plea for more faith.

– In Mark 9:24 Jesus challenged the demoniac boy’s father to believe in order to see his son delivered.  In desperation the man cried out, “I DO BELIEVE! HELP ME OVERCOME MY UNBELIEF!”  He accurately understood faith to be something Jesus gives.

Part of humility is to avoid comparing ourselves with others.  Based on His knowledge of us, God gives each of us a MEASURE OF FAITH that is best for us.  We can pray for more faith, but we can’t create it, not with all the willpower in the world.

God created the Church for our benefit and gives abilities to serve in shared ministry (4-6).  We do not belong to ourselves, but to each other.  The problem is that pride gets in the way.  Pride feeds selfishness and is contrary to fellowship in the church.

Proud people try to support their pride by citing things like amount or length of service, education, or recognition, as if they are trying to work around grace. Any time someone has to build themselves up in a bid to get your attention you can be sure that it is pride – not love – that is at work in them.  Be wary of your own words.

A cure for pride is to think of one’s self WITH SOBER JUDGMENT. This requires a view of self that is informed by Scripture.

  1. God wants us to use His gifts.

Our best response to God’s grace is to worship Him (1). In the Old Testament, worship involved the sacrifice of animals to atone for one’s sin.  In the New Testament, worship still involves sacrifice, but not the killing of an animal, but the spiritual sacrifice of the worshiper, a LIVING SACRIFICE.

This is what Jesus meant when He said the greatest commandment is loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind (Matthew 22:37).  The SACRIFICE of which Paul speaks is all of our personality must be poured into our life-long service to Christ.

Paul wrote that this kind of self-sacrifice is SPIRITUAL, “reasonable” or “true” worship.  This echoes Jesus’ teaching in John 4:24, that God the Father accepts worship that is spiritual and true.

God wants us to be transformed (2), growing in the faith He’s given.  One force opposing spiritual maturity is the devil or Satan.  He’s a liar, tempter and accuser, wielding distraction to achieve destruction.  Another force opposing spiritual maturity is the WORLD (aka “this age”).  The material world has a lot of influence because we temporarily live in it.  Part of the work of spiritual maturity is distancing ourselves from the world’s temptations and ties.

The institutions of this world want our loyalty and our resources.  The world wants conformity.  We’re to keep in line, not rock the boat, not defy their illusionary powers.  However, as God’s people, all we are and all we have belongs to God.  He calls us to transformation, becoming less worldly and more heavenly.  Our priority with our resources is using them to make Earth more heavenly.

The means of transformation Paul gives here is renewal of our minds.  Transformation is also something God gives, but there are things we can do to open our minds to renewal: prayer, study of God’s word, good works done in love, and obeying his commands.  The effect of this transformation is gaining wisdom to discern God’s will.  God’s will is always the best choice because it is GOOD, PERFECT, and PLEASING.

In general, we know that we are being transformed if selfishness is being replaced by godliness.  This is the spirit in which John the Baptist spoke of Jesus in John 3:30, “He must increase, I must decrease.”

God wants us to use our Spiritual Gifts (6-8).  We don’t have space to elaborate on the Gifts in this article.  It is enough for us to note that they are Gifts from God and therefore not a source of pride or competition in a church.  God gives as He wills, knowing up perfectly and working His will in us.

God gives us all we need to grow in His grace.

      I read this week that an egotist is someone who’s ME-DEEP in everything!  Part of God’s amazing grace is that He delivers us from a self-centered life.  He saves us from the burden of having to be right all the time.  He demonstrates forgiveness that renders perfectionism obsolete.  And on top of all that, He places us in a “forever family” that loves and supports us unconditionally.

When you think about it, the Bible has an awful lot to say against pride.  It has a lot to recommend depending on God rather than self.  All of that takes the pressure off and allows us to experience rest in Jesus Christ.

Here’s a practical experiment for you to try.  Whether you’re having a conversation in person, online, or on the phone, try to avoid first person pronouns.  Don’t use words like “I” and “me” and observe the conversation impartially.  When you don’t use those words, how often does the conversation turn to you?  Notice how much more you’ll have to listen and how much more responsive the other person becomes.  It’s a good feeling: you may want to make a habit of it!

 

RESOURCE:

Zondervan Bible Commentary, Romans, Leslie C. Allen.

Paul: Mystery Man

Summertime Sermon Series: Return to Ephesus (Part 9)

The Apostle PaulPlease read Ephesians 3:1-13.

CONTEXT = FOR THIS REASON refers back to the previous section, which taught us that unity in the church is not a luxury; it is a necessity.  Unity is given to us as an act of grace through the Holy Spirit.  For our part, we are to maintain that unity by acting in accord with one another and avoiding sins of the tongue and all other sins that cause discord.

It’s a little surprising Paul used the word MYSTERY so frequently in this passage.  It was a term that was much-abused by “mystery religions” of his day, cults that prospered around the ancient world, and probably in Ephesus especially.  People involved in the mystery religions claimed to know something that nobody else knew.  To join the group, you had to be taught their secrets, their mysteries.

When we started this series last summer we learned there were a number of occult groups like this in Ephesus.  The people in Ephesus were infamous for their fascination with magic and the occult.  I believe Paul used this word deliberately, choosing to confront the false teachers by using a word they misused to deceive people.  We have already seen how Paul’s enemies reacted to his brave practice of telling the truth; they incited a riot!

Paul revealed the MYSTERY OF CHRIST to the Gentiles.

  1. Paul’s qualifications to reveal the MYSTERY.

He was a PRISONER OF CHRIST JESUS (verse one).  Politically and physically, it would be more technically correct to say Paul was a prisoner of Caesar.  He wrote this letter in AD 61 or 62, while he was imprisoned in Rome, awaiting an audience with Caesar.

Spiritually speaking, Paul was a “prisoner” of Jesus in the sense that he was dedicated to doing the will of Christ.  This expression is meant to remind the reader that Caesar could do his worst, but Paul belonged to Jesus, who ultimately decided Paul’s actions and outcome.

Paul was a PRISONER for the sake of the GENTILES (v. 1).  This phrase gives us a “big picture” view of Paul’s incarceration.  Even though his imprisonment can be traced back to his situation in Jerusalem and his decision to appeal his case to the emperor, it was for the sake of the Gentile churches that God allowed it to happen.  Paul’s unwavering commitment to serve God in the Gentile churches was part of the reason he was imprisoned.

Paul’s qualification to be the “mystery man” was based on God’s grace, not on his own merit.  Paul explained this in verses seven and eight.  Paul was an apostle and an administrator of the MYSTERY THROUGH GOD’S GRACE GIVEN ME THROUGH THE WORKING OF HIS POWER (v. 7).  We are obviously operating under GRACE when we’re doing something we are not personally qualified to do.  God gets the glory when His power is most evident.  This is the way Paul understood his ministry – God’s strength substituting for his weakness.  In 2 Corinthians 12:9, he wrote from God’s perspective, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Think about it.  Why should we bumble along in our own strength when our Creator offers HIS?!!

This was Paul’ humbling experience; ALTHOUGH I AM LESS THAN THE LEAST OF ALL GOD’S PEOPLE, THIS GRACE WAS GIVEN ME (v. 8).  Though he had achieved so much, Paul had the faith and the good sense to give all the glory to God.  An understanding of how GRACE operates precludes all pride.  People who have received grace don’t waste time reciting their religious “pedigree.”  They thank God instead.

This is NOT Paul trying to impress anyone with false humility.  It is a recollection of his past – how he used to persecute the Church – as otherwise making him unfit for service.  Apart from GRACE, Paul would not have been so successful in making disciples and planting churches.

All of this was for the Ephesians.  For their sake, on their behalf, he received an ADMINISTRATION OF GOD’S GRACE (v. 2).  This is how ministry works: God’s grace empowers some of His people to serve Him by serving God’s church.  GRACE is always God-centered; it is given, not earned.  In fact, the most obvious examples of GRACE are gifts the recipient could not otherwise possess. The ADMINISTRATION to which Paul refers is the work of making God’s offer of salvation by GRACE known to those outside the Church and the maturing of those inside.  When you read ADMINISTRATION, think “application:” God wants us to apply His truth to our daily living.

God’s purpose in showing GRACE to Paul was to equip him to be an Apostle to the Gentiles.  Paul describes his message with two phrases: TO PREACH TO THE GENTILES THE UNSEARCHABLE RICHES OF CHRIST (v. 8).  Though a Jew himself (in fact, a “Jew’s Jew,” see Philippians 3:3-8), Paul’s ministry was to non-Jews; TO THE GENTILES.

The word UNSEARCHABLE refers to the limitless generosity of God.  He makes rain fall on the just and unjust alike (Matthew 5:45), a symbol of how salvation is offered to all people, whether we think they deserve it or not

The aim of Paul’s teaching was TO MAKE PLAIN TO EVERYONE THE ADMINISTRATION OF THIS MYSTERY (9).  When you think about it, making something UNSEARCHABLE become PLAIN TO EVERYONE is a tall order!  Attempting it without relying on God’s power would be ridiculous, illogical.

As he speaks about his preaching and his ministry in other letters, Paul consistently downplayed any strengths or gifts he brought to proclaiming the Gospel.  His ambition was to make the truth PLAIN.  Anyone who preaches while depending on technique, charisma, intelligence, or any other human power is preaching something other than Christ.

  1. What Paul revealed about the MYSTERY.

The content and true understanding of the MYSTERY had been MADE KNOWN to Paul by REVELATION, the personal witness of Jesus Christ (v. 3).  I believe Paul is referring here to his conversion experience on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and what he learned subsequent to that.

It was a MYSTERY because had not been MADE KNOWN TO MEN IN OTHER [previous] GENERATIONS (v. 5).  Here Paul seems to divide human history into two epochs: “BC” (Before Christ) and “AD” (After His Death and Resurrection).  (Of course, these are not the abbreviations we use.)

In the BC time, God’s plan to save humanity from sin had been hinted at, revealed in part, but not fully explained.  All through that part of history, God had promised salvation and was working to bring it to pass, but had not revealed it fully to all people.

Repeating this truth in a slightly different way, Paul wrote in verse nine, IN AGES PAST WAS KEPT HIDDEN IN GOD, WHO CREATED ALL THINGS.  KEPT HIDDEN = the Bible is a “Progressive Revelation;” as time passed, God revealed more about Himself and about His plan for humanity.  As we read from Genesis through to Revelation, we progress in our understanding of what God was saying.  We understand the Old Testament as we read it in light of what God revealed in the New Testament.  Both parts of the Bible are inextricably linked.  Because the fullness of God’s revelation did not enter into human history until the person of Jesus Christ, what appeared before was partial and predictive.  It was not the whole story but the foundation for what was to come.

Paul reminds us that God CREATED ALL THINGS to reinforce this point: God is in charge.  All of history is moving in the direction He wills.  God is working all circumstances to the end He has planned.

He was given insight into THE MYSTERY OF CHRIST (v. 4).  Paul is not setting himself up as anything special, a holder of secrets.  He is not a priest in a “mystery religion.”  Instead, he set mystery religions on their head by doing the opposite; he shared the insights he’s been given with the widest possible audience, making God’s plan known to everyone.  For example, read 1:17, where Paul prayed for all people to know God better.

God’s MYSTERY had been REVEALED BY THE SPIRIT TO GOD’S HOLY APOSTLES AND PROPHETS (v. 5).  Paul lived in the “AD” time of divine history.  In Jesus, the fullness of God’s plan for salvation had been revealed and accomplished.  The major revelation came in the person of Jesus, but God also announced it through the HOLY APOSTLES AND PROPHETS, the people tasked with leading the Church.

According to God’s plan, the Church is to be His means of revealing His MANIFOLD WISDOM TO THE RULERS AND AUTHORITIES IN THE HEAVENLY REALMS (v. 10).  Often we’re guilty of thinking too small.  We fuss over details and ignore the fact that our shared ministry is part of God’s plan to save the world.  Case in point: Paul’s mention of RULERS AND AUTHORITIES IN THE HEAVENLY REALMS means that our ministries have eternal consequences.  Spiritual forces beyond our control are affected by whether we are doing our jobs or not.  Think about that: no pressure!

If we weren’t living by GRACE, if we were instead asked to do this on our own strength, such a notion would be intimidating.  However, as we have repeatedly noted, God gives us GRACE to do these things.  This means there is no room for intimidation or distraction by petty, worldly things.

To further establish the centrality of Jesus in the revelation of the MYSTERY, Pal revealed in verse eleven that God completed His ETERNAL PURPOSE IN CHRIST JESUS OUR LORD.  The word ACCOMPLISHED means “realized, achieved.”  The passage makes it clear that God made His plan before creation, completed His plan in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and will one day bring it to a complete close when Jesus comes again.

Take a deep breath and let that sink in: you and I are partners with each other and with Jesus Christ.  All of creation is in its last days.  Everything we do has eternal significance.  The powers of heaven and hell are waiting with bated breath.  What we say and do MATTERS!

Here we come to it at last.  What we’ve all been waiting to find out.  What is the MYSTERY?  The MYSTERY is the formation of a single people of God.  Clinton E. Arnold wrote, “God’s people will now be identified by their togetherness in a multiethnic loving group endowed by the Spirit of God rather than circumcision, ritual purity, and bloody sacrifices.”  The distinction of Jew and Gentile is void.

This is what Paul meant by the phrase THROUGH THE GOSPEL THE GENTILES ARE…HEIRS, MEMBERS, and SHARERS with Israel, all in verse six.  When at one time God set apart a nation for Himself, now He has set apart a people, called out from all the nations of the Earth.

– HEIRS TOGETHER WITH ISRAEL = In 1:14 Paul stated the Gentiles were, along with the Jews, inheritors of the Holy Spirit.  He used this word picture again in 5:5.  It is a thread running through the letter.  Nationality no longer determines a person’s membership in God’s family.  Now it is faith in Christ that make one an heir.

– MEMBERS OF ONE BODY = Paul made up an entirely new Greek word (susoma) to say “with one body.”  Paul frequently described the Church as the Body of Christ in this letter (1:23; 4:4, 12, 16; 5:23, 30).  In Corinthians, he used this figure of speech to emphasize how different parts (people of different nations) form one body (the Church).

– SHARERS TOGETHER IN THE PROMISE IN CHRIST JESUS = What Paul had in mind was the Holy Spirit, whom he referred to as “the Holy Spirit of promise” in 1:17.  In John 14 Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to His followers as the chief sign of salvation and the most important means of following Jesus’ teachings.  In Galatians 3:7, 26-29, Paul wrote how believing Gentiles are part of the fulfillment o/t promises God made to Abraham.

An important benefit of this revelation is the confidence we can have in prayer and in trials.  (This is our KEY VERSE on this Religious Liberty Sunday.)  In verse twelve the inspired apostle wrote, THROUGH FAITH IN HIM WE MAY APPROACH GOD WITH FREEDOM AND CONFIDENCE.  The greatest expression of FREEDOM is the ability to pray to God.  Prayer is the practice that brings all this GRACE to bear on our daily lives.  Without prayer, none of these Kingdom of God things get accomplished.  With prayer, the resources of heaven are put at our disposal!

The word CONFIDENCE in the Greek pictures a citizen rising at a meeting to speak his mind to an issue.  Or think of a friendly relationship you have where you can speak candidly without fear of being rejected.  Having that FREEDOM means we treasure it and would never abuse it.  We have that feeling out of gratitude, not fear that it might be taken away.

Notice this verse says twice IN HIM, making clear the source of this FREEDOM and CONFIDENCE is Jesus Christ.  In the Progressive Revelation of the Bible, this is closeness to God that previous generations did NOT enjoy.  We are very privileged God put us in this time and place!

The Ephesians did not need to be DISCOURAGED BECAUSE OF Paul’s SUFFERINGS FOR YOU, WHICH were for their GLORY (13).  Paul presented all this theology in its grand scope and concluded by making it completely personal in verse.  This is to be our practice every time we sermonize and study the Bible.  Learning factoids is fruitless if we do not take it personally. We must apply (administrate, as above) the truth.

In this case, Paul does not want his Ephesian friends to feel badly about his imprisonment.  Instead, he wants them to be consoled, knowing that his SUFFERINGS serve two important purposes in the plan of God.

First, it serves the purpose of enabling Paul to write this letter.  If he had not been imprisoned, he would not have had the time to devote to it.  In this way, God used Paul’s SUFFERINGS to benefit the believers in Ephesus.  By the way, at the time of this writing, Paul had been imprisoned 3 or 4 years!  Discouragement would have been a real possibility for those who cared for Paul and looked on.

Second, his SUFFERINGS brought about GLORY.  Remember GLORY is the presence of God somehow manifest in human experience.  Sometimes His presence was manifest in brilliant light, sometimes in dark clouds.  But in every circumstance, the GLORY of God blessed His people, drawing them into deeper fellowship with Him.

Interestingly, Jews of Paul’s day believed that the plan of God required a certain amount of suffering be experienced before God’s plan would come into consummation.  He may have been thinking of this when he wrote that his SUFFERING was “for” the Ephesians.  This belief is implied in Colossians 1:24; Romans 8:17-18; 2 Corinthians 4:17; 2 Timothy 2:10).

Paul revealed the MYSTERY OF CHRIST to the Gentiles.

          This passage gives us a perspective on Paul’s ministry as an Apostle to the Gentiles.  It is his perspective.  His imprisonment provided opportunity to reflect on all God had done during His ministry, understanding the source and measuring its impact.

Because of GRACE, the MYSTERY has been solved.  Because we have FREEDOM and the CONFIDENCE that a loving relationship bestows, we can pray with authority.  Because God is in control, we do not have to be DISCOURAGED.  Just the opposite; we should be encouraged beyond doubt and fear to have an adventurous and joyous experience of faith in our daily living.  Who needs Sherlock Holmes?  We have Mystery Man Paul explaining the will and work of God in providing us with salvation.

 

RESOURCE:

Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament – Ephesians, Clinton E. Arnold

 

 

Labor Disputes

denarius

Please read Matthew 20:1-16 in your preferred version of the Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.

The first to cry “foul” are people who feel they have suffered loss.  You rarely hear people complain because they benefited unfairly.

For example, in one of last Sunday’s football games, a player for the LA Rams committed a foul against a player for the NO Saints.  But the referees did not call a foul.  Saints players and fans are outraged at the “no call” play and believe it cost their team the victory and a chance to play in the Super Bowl.

Imagine for a moment if the offending player called a time out, gathered the officials around him, and asked them to call a foul.  What if he pointed to the giant screen in the stadium and confessed?  What if he said, “See, there I am cheating.  I wish you’d go ahead and call a foul on me.  It’s not fair I should get away with such an obvious foul”?

How do you think his teammates would have reacted?  The other team’s players and fans?  Some would no doubt object to such a generous, selfless act because winning would me more important to them.

God’s grace is not going to fit your idea of “fair.”

  1. Setting the stage: context.

Much of chapter nineteen is about who goes to heaven.  The rich young man was concerned about what he had to do to get ETERNAL LIFE (v. 16).  Jesus’ response was tailored to this individual.  He told him to go and sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor.  The man was prepared to do anything BUT that: HE WENT AWAY SAD (v. 22). Jesus reflected on how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven (v. 23-24).

The disciples were stunned (v. 25); they assumed the rich were blessed by God & that’s why they were rich.  Peter wasn’t really listening.  He was thinking that if the rich young man could get into heaven by donating his wealth, he could too (v. 27).  After all, that’s just what he had done!

There are two keys to what Jesus taught.  One is in 19:26 where Jesus said, “WITH MAN THIS IS IMPOSSIBLE, BUT WITH GOD ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE.”  The other is in 19:30 and 20:16 as “book ends.”  These verses identify the one main point of the parable: “THE LAST WILL BE FIRST, AND THE FIRST WILL BE LAST.”  This is Jesus’ teaching: no one earns eternal life; God gives it.  This point will be applied when James and John’s mother’s requests Jesus make her boys His left and right hand men (20:20-28).

  1. Reading the program notes: The one main point.

The emphasis in all of scripture is always on what God has done for us.  He chose us.  He sent His Son Jesus to die for us.  He forgives our sins.

The point of this parable is that salvation is God’s gift.  It is never about our deservedness.  We can never qualify ourselves.

  1. Watching the play: plot points.

It is essential that we identify God with the LANDOWNER.  He goes out and calls people to have ETERNAL LIFE.  Notice the workers do not seek Him out, nor do they apply for a job or show him a resume; all of this event is at the LANDOWNER’s initiative and depends on His resources.

In v. 2 we see the LANDOWNER and the WORKERS agreed to a specific wage: one DENARIUS.  This was the usual rate of pay for a day’s work.  This is a very typical scene in Jesus’ time; land owners kept costs down by hiring day laborers.  Jesus’ parables often start with an everyday circumstance, then got to something surprising and that is certainly how this parable unfolds.

Every three hours the LANDOWNER went to the marketplace to hire more workers (vs. 3-5). The later workers agree to work for WHATEVER IS RIGHT, not for a specific amount.  This will be an important detail later when the workers are paid.

Verses 6-7 give us the first clue about the generosity of the LANDOWNER.  He went out a fifth time that day to hire more laborers.  It is near the end of the day.  A more practical employer would not have bothered, as he would not get any more than a couple hours’ work out of t latecomers.  Moreover, day laborers were usually down and out people.  When the LANDOWNER asks why they’ve been standing around all day, their reply is only half of the truth; “NO ONE HAS HIRED US.”  Inquiring minds want to know why no one made them an offer!  They did not have a regular job for a reason.  The ones still hanging around the marketplace at that time of day were likely to be “the worst of the worst.”  The youngest and healthiest workers of the bunch would’ve been hired earlier in the day: the workers still hanging about the ELEVENTH HOUR were the “leftovers.”  Knowing all this about him makes the LANDOWNER seem even more generous.

The tale becomes more curious in verse eight, when the LANDOWNER pays off the workers beginning with those who were hired last.  This would make no sense if this had been an actual event.  Instead, it is a plot device that serves what Jesus taught in 19:30 and 20:16.  It makes sense only in that light.

The tension builds in verses nine and ten as the workers are paid.  Naturally, the men hired first thing in the morning are expecting extra payment as they see the LANDOWNER’s generosity toward those who were hired later in the day; the latecomers were paid a full day’s wage even though they didn’t work a full day.  That is undeniably generous.

Vs. 10-12 = The all-day laborers are naturally upset when they get exactly the same pay as the latecomers.  “YOU HAVE MADE THEM EQUAL TO US,” they complained.    “Foul!  Not fair!” they protest.

In verses 13-15 the LANDOWNER’s answer does not justify his actions to the bellyachers.  He simply affirms his right to do as he pleases.  He calls them FRIEND & reminds them they were hired to work all day for a denarius.  What’s fair is that all the workers agreed to work for a wage that was RIGHT. Legally, none of them have a right to bellyache.

The LANDOWNER rightly exposed the real motive of the complainers.  They were not trying to right a wrong or insist on what was fair, they were simply ENVIOUS.  The LANDOWNER was GENEROUS, not unfair.

God’s grace is not going to fit your idea of “fair.”

          Some people interpret this parable as a comparison of people who accept Jesus early in life and those who are saved late in life.  That’s a mistake because the center of the parable is the actions of the LANDOWNER, not the workers.  The main point is about the generosity of the employer.

God is the hero of this parable or it is just a strange little story that’s hard to figure out.  It’s really simple and rather obvious when we put our attention where it belongs; on the LANDOWNER.  Then we see that he was more interested in being generous than in meeting someone’s self-centered notions of what is fair.

This parable contradicts Peter’s very natural but wrong assumption that we can earn our way into heaven.  We like to think that we are somehow very deserving of the eternal life God offers.  We’d like to believe that all these good deeds, the hours of service, have somehow made us worthy.

That’s a worldly and self-serving point of view and something we must unlearn.  We are saved by grace, nothing else.  Grace is God giving us what we don’t deserve (eternal life) and not giving us what we do deserve (eternal death). So whatever notions we have about fairness are likely to be self-serving, not real.

The application of the teaching gets at the motive that powers our work in church or in the community.  Any motive based on earning us something is not a God-centered motive.  We need to do what we do because we love God and His people.  Motives that begin with a love of self should always be suspect.  God has promised heavenly rewards for our good works, but it is still up to Him to decide what those works are and who truly deserves them.

In commenting on this passage, William Barclay wrote, “In the Christian church seniority does not necessarily mean honor.”  We’ve all heard church people – who ought to know better – recite their achievements and investments in the church as reasons for expecting to be heard and heeded.

The Bible does not support that kind of pride.  Either we do things out of love or, like Peter, we do them expecting to rewarded with power and influence.  It’s wrong to think experience or education qualifies us to lord over one another, earning us some kind of status in the church or in heaven.

In those moments we are very far from Jesus, who said His mission was service, not self-service.  In the very next chapter (Matthew 20:28) Jesus said, “THE SON OF MAN DID NOT COME TO BE SERVED, BUT TO SERVE, AND TO GIVE HIS LIFE AS A RANSOM FOR MANY.”  When we go on about our “rights,” and what we “deserve,” we’re grieving the Holy Spirit and are guilty of hypocrisy.  It is better by far to copy the attitude of Jesus; His humility and self-sacrifice.  It is better by far to rely on His AMAZING GRACE than our puny works.

 

RESOURCES:

Message #32

“Our Unfair God,” Ministry magazine (pp. 14-16), Gary Moyer

The Story of God Bible Commentary: Matthew, Rodney Reeves

One OR Done

Please take a moment apart from your busy-ness to read Ephesians 2:11-22 in your Bible. I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.

Unity in the church is not a luxury; it is a necessity.

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One of the best meetings I ever attended was at an elementary school.  The principal had called a meeting to discuss how our community might to meet the needs of a family whose poverty was causing the children to fail in school.  I had been invited to attend because the mother had identified me as her pastor.  I was to bring to the table whatever means our church could offer to support them.

What pleased me so much was the positivity of the meeting.  Without any pretense, compliments and praise and gratitude flowed like a river.  It was contagious; I found myself looking for praise-worthy things so I could join in the fun of being positive.

The other thing that set this meeting above all others was the focus of the group.  We all wanted to help.  School faculty and staff, counselors, social workers, and I were compiling all the forms of assistance we could offer in order to keep t kids in school.

Afterward, I was hit with a pang of jealousy.  It occurred to me that in all the meetings I had attended for church functions, I had never attended as pleasing a meeting.  It was a secular meeting in a secular place, joining people who may have had little or no agreement about God but it shone above all the meetings that supposedly had those advantages.

It may help us to know that God expects us to be in unity and gives us all we need to experience it.  Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus and set forth God’s standard.

  1. Without Christ we are separate from God and from one another.

The Ephesians were Gentiles when Paul wrote these words; GENTILES AND UNCIRCUMCISED, EXCLUDED FROM CITIZENSHIP IN ISRAEL (11-12) but because of Jesus, that distinction no longer mattered.  Where birth, ethnicity, and nationality once divided the saved from the unsaved, Jesus came to save everyone.  Contrast these strong words describing division with Paul’s promise in v. 19 that all who believe in Jesus are FELLOW CITIZENS.

Before Christ, being Gentile meant you were WITHOUT HOPE AND WITHOUT GOD IN THE WORLD (12).  Without Jesus, people have to live in the present without HOPE for the future or God’s grace to forgive their past sins.  To be hopeless and godless is horrible; it ought to frighten us into having faith instead.

  1. Jesus acted to make us one. (He did five things.)

ONE = Jesus sacrificed Himself.  God did it THROUGH THE BLOOD OF CHRIST (13) and THROUGH THE CROSS (16).  Jesus’ death on the cross paid the penalty for every person’s sins.  Since it has been bought at so great a price, we show our gratitude when cherish our unity and protect it, rather than toss it.

TWO = He became OUR PEACE (14+15) and HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE (17).  Unity brings peace and is threatened when the peace is disturbed.  Jesus’ presence gives us peace.

These verses agree with Matthew 5:9; “BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS, FOR THEY WILL BE CALLED SONS OF GOD.”  God’s children are characterized as being peacemakers.  They will make sacrifices and have courage in bringing people together.

THREE = He DESTROYED THE BARRIER, THE DIVIDING WALL OF HOSTILITY (14) and HE PUT TO DEATH THEIR HOSTILITY (16).  On a historical level, this is another way of describing the Jew vs. Gentile dynamic.

On a personal level, we know that unity cannot be found when people have divided into opposing camps.  Unity brings people together, destroying barriers/walls, not putting them up.

FOUR = He abolished IN HIS FLESH THE LAW WITH ITS COMMANDS AND REGULATIONS. (15)  This verse parallels Paul’s earlier teaching about the BLOOD of Jesus and the CROSS: Jesus’ physical death abolished the Law by meeting all its demands.  He was the perfect sacrifice for sin and thereby brought an end to the need for any sacrifice for sin.

As the Law is part of what kept Gentiles and Jews separated (the Jews had it, the Gentiles didn’t), this verse parallels vs. 11+12.  Jesus’ sacrifice made this division inappropriate, bringing us all together in one family and citizens of one kingdom (v. 19).

FIFTH = He IS THE CHIEF CORNERSTONE …IN HIM THE WHOLE BUILDING IS JOINED TOGETHER. (21)  (We will talk about this later.)

  1. Descriptions of our unity.

The first benefit of unity is obvious: unity brings us together!  Paul wrote, YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY HAVE BEEN BROUGHT NEAR. (13+17)  No matter what measure you use to describe the distance, it no longer exists.  The worldly things that ensure separation lose their significance in Jesus and are no longer a reason for keeping us apart.

God’s unity effectively makes us ONE. (14+15)  This verse reminds me of the statements made in the Bible about marriage (see Genesis 2:24 & Mark 10:7); the two persons becoming one.  Ideally in married life, the partners are to think and act as one.  So it should also be in a church. This is Jesus’ PURPOSE: He has worked to make us unified.  We are to receive it, then avoid breaking the unity God gives.

Jesus brought us together so that IN THIS ONE BODY (His) He aimed TO RECONCILE BOTH OF THEM TO GOD. (16)  Unity is both the product of and the means to reconciliation.  Jesus’ greatest purpose is our union with God.  That must happen first. Then, the degree to which to which we have union with God, we will experience unity in our church.

A second benefit of unity is that it empowers our prayers.  In Matthew 18:19 Jesus promised, “I TELL YOU THAT IF TWO OF YOU ON EARTH AGREE ABOUT ANYTHING YOU ASK FOR, IT WILL BE DONE FOR YOU BY MY FATHER IN HEAVEN.”  Here in 2:18, Paul explained how we have that kind of power in prayer: THROUGH HIM WE HAVE ACCESS TO THE FATHER BY ONE SPIRIT. (18)

The word ACCESS refers to prayer.  It is having a means of communicating with a king.  As Romans 8:26-27 teaches, the Holy Spirit facilitates prayer.  Even when we don’t know how to pray, the Spirit makes prayer happen; effective communication with God occurs.

The third benefit to unity is belonging: We are a holy nation, the Kingdom of God.  As Paul expressed it here: YOU ARE NO LONGER FOREIGNERS and ALIENS, BUT FELLOW CITIZENS.  And YOU ARE…FELLOW CITIZENS WITH GOD’S PEOPLE AND MEMBERS OF GOD’S HOUSEHOLD. (19)  CITIZENS have a responsibility to respect one another in civility and keeping the law.  More than that, Christians are GOD’S PEOPLE AND MEMBERS OF GOD’S HOUSEHOLD; having relationships deeper than citizenship.

Put another way, we are God’s temple, the people among whom He dwells.  GOD’S HOUSEHOLD is BUILT ON THE FOUNDATION OF THE  APOSTLES AND PROPHETS. (20)  Paul also referred to A CORNERSTONE in vs. 21, which is the most honored part of a building because it is a symbol of the actual and moral foundations on which the building was built.  In ancient times, it was also the first part of the building erected.

The rest of the building was measured and built around the fixed point of the CORNERSTONE.  In these senses, Jesus is the origin and the most honored part of the church.

In verse 21 Paul wrote that the Church people are A HOLY TEMPLE IN THE LORD.  Similarly, in 1 Peter 2:4-5, Peter described the Church as being made up of LIVING STONES.  Just as it takes many bricks to create a structure, every church is made up of several individual persons coming together.  A stack of bricks is not a building.  It is only when the pieces are put together with Jesus they become a place on earth fit for God.

Paul expressed this truth a third way in verse 22: YOU ARE…A DWELLING IN WHICH GOD LIVES BY HIS SPIRIT.  God created the Church for many different reasons.  However, we must remember that necessity is not one of those reasons.  He does not need a place to live but He wants a people in a place that give evidence to the world that He exists and He loves all people. To be a church we have to do more than maintain physical property; we have to BE the people of God in this place.  We have to cherish and protect the unity God gives us.

You’ve heard the expression “one and done” used in sports.  When teams compete in a single-elimination tournament and are eliminated by losing their first game, we say they were “one and done.”

I want to suggest a variation on that slogan that puts the importance of unity in its biblical perspective.  Based on this passage and others, I say “One OR Done.”  This means that we are ONE as a church or we DONE being a church.  A local body of believers that perpetuates disunity has ceased to be a church and has become something else, something less than what God has commanded.

Unity is a precious gift from God.  It is worth every sacrifice, every effort, every slice of humble pie or crow we have to eat to maintain it.

Unity is a precious gift from God.  It is worth defending against every pretender, peace-breaker, and offender of the cross.

Unity is received, not achieved.  We partner with God when we protect our unity because without it we cannot be a church.

Unity in the church is not a luxury; it is a necessity.

 

RESOURCE USED:

Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Ephesians, Clinton E. Arnold

Lively Former Corpses

no-zombies

(This image saved from http://www.allposters.com.br/-sp/No-Zombies-Allowed-Sign-Plastic-Sign-posters_i9896033_.htm.)

Please read Ephesians 2:1-10 in your Bible.  I used the NIV (1984) to prepare these remarks.

Sin is the cause of the “Walking Dead,” God raises the dead to receive salvation and life.

It’s a free country (at least at the moment) where everyone’s entitled to indulge their interests as they see fit.  However, speaking solely for myself, I don’t understand the popularity of zombies.  What had been for decade a minor sub-genre of horror, zombies have grown in popularity and become big business. For example, in 2011, NBC news estimated Americans spent $5 million on zombie entertainment products.

Money is one numerical way to gauge popularity.  In our time, another way to assess trends and objectively gauge popularity is to track internet searches.  I found some data that is seven years old – a eternity in pop culture – but I found the popularity of the undead has been growing since 2010.  By this measure, West Virginia was the state most interested in zombies, with South Dakota being tenth most interested.

When something becomes this popular, people want to explain why it has become so big.  The most obvious reason for the popularity of zombies is people’s fascination with things that are horrible, gross, and evil.  It’s like going to a hockey game hoping for a fight or a race hoping for a spectacular wreck.

A less obvious reason is that zombies don’t require a lot of thinking or feeling.  Their motivations are simple and the response of the living is simple.  We all want life to be less complicated.  Watching this stuff may require a stout gag reflex, but it won’t challenge your brains too much.

Some internet commentators want to dive more deeply into the zombie phenomenon and see zombies as being symbols of what’s wrong with modern American culture.  Or modern Americans.

Which interests me because today’s Scripture passage employs a symbol not unlike zombies.  Please read that correctly.  I am not attempting to legitimize “zombie culture” or say that it is in any way biblical.  I’m simply pointing out that Paul depicts life without Jesus Christ as dead people walking.

“BC” (Before Christ) persons have a form of life, but have no real life.  They are in bondage to forces beyond their control.  In the real world, people can be saved from zombie-like living, but only God can do it.  In this zombie-like state, they are insensitive to God, blindly pursuing just about any else instead.

  1. We were dead in our sin. (1-5)

We were “dead men walking” in ungodliness. (1+5)  Literally and metaphorically, DEAD means separated from life, which is found only in God (see Colossians 2:13).  In this passage, Paul uses death as a metaphor for a spiritual condition; a person as unconscious and unresponsive to the word and will of God as a dead person is unresponsive to everything.

The words TRANSGRESSIONS and SINS are two words for the same thing: the cause of our spiritual death.  In Romans 5:17 Paul explained this spiritual death is part of the curse of being Adam’s children but in Romans 6:23 he wrote that it’s our own fault because of the sins we chose to commit.  Adam’s sin brought death into the world, but we have condemned ourselves by our own choices to bring it into our personal experience.

We were “under the influence” of three masters.

#1 – We were following the WAYS O/T WORLD (1).  We were under the influence of the culture around us; bowing to peer pressure, fashion, and media without questioning whether the popular thing was the right thing.  The WAYS OF THIS AGE (2) is an equivalent expression.  Both refer to this present time; between the creation of this world and the world to come.  Both terms refer to a culture that has aligned itself against God (see John 15:18-19 and 1 Corinthians 3:19) and antagonizes those who truly want to love and serve Him.

#2 – We were serving Satan. (2)  We were under the influence of our Enemy, Satan, the RULER OF THE KINGDOM OF THE AIR.  He was tempting us and sending trials our way to distract and discourage us.

Paul is in agreement with John’s Gospel that Satan is the RULER of the worldly systems that oppose God (see John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11).  THE AIR describes the sphere of Satan’s influence; it covers the earth but falls short of heaven.  This language reflects Jewish belief that demons flew in the air and the pagan belief that evil spirits flew around.  In both Hebrew and Greek the word for SPIRIT can also be translated as “wind”.  The influence of the spiritual evil ruled by Satan is expressed in NOW AT WORK IN THOSE WHO ARE DISOBEDIENT.

#3 – We were serving selfishness. (3)  We were under the influence of self-centeredness; an orientation typical to humans.  When we are very immature, a certain amount of self-centeredness helps us survive and grow.  But as we mature, we must become God-centered, discarding childish and selfish ways.

Paul used the term SINFUL NATURE (“flesh”) to denote the part of our inner nature that has an appetite for doing wrong.  It is one way self-centredness manifests itself.  It is like a separate entity within a person that constantly tempts and misdirects us away from God and toward sin.

My belief is that the SINFUL NATURE is the part of our inner life that was CRUCIFIED WITH CHRIST (GLS 2:20) and no longer lives.  This extreme selfishness that seeks satisfaction through sin no longer affects the believer because it is dead.  We still struggle with sin because our human nature is with us in the form of our bodies.  Human nature is more oriented to self-centeredness than sin; it is not always encouraging evil actions.  Human nature is more the weakness and limitations imposed by our physical frame than a frequent source of sin.

The result of the influence of the “Three S’s”: we were OBJECTS OF WRATH. (3)  WRATH means two things.

In the short term, it means alienation from God.  Until forgiveness is obtained by repentance, prayer is useless.  God will not tolerate sin and will distance Himself from sinners.

In the long term, God’s WRATH will be poured out on the wicked and unbelieving on Judgment Day.  Their choices will land them in hell.

The phrase LIKE THE REST is meant to take in the entirety of humanity.  All of us are born under a death penalty because we inherited a sin nature from Adam.  God’s unique solution to the problem of sin is Jesus substitutionary sacrifice on the cross and it alone is effective to solve the problem of sin.

  1. We live because God gave us grace. (4-10)

Grace is the answer to the problem of sin.  We can approach our need for grace by asking three questions Paul answered for us.  The first is this, “What did God do for us?”

God the Father MADE US ALIVE WITH CHRIST. (5)  This is the key thought of the passage. This one verb (the Greek word is 14 letters long) supplies the main action for the passage: resurrection.  The change wrought in us by salvation is so dramatic and so complete that it feels like a dead person being raised to life again.  On the one hand, death is an apt symbol for life without Jesus.  Before Christ, we are as lifeless and hopeless as a pile of bones.  On the other hand, with Jesus, we are saved; the bones come to life again: we have hope and a future.

GOD also RAISED US UP WITH CHRIST. (6)  Paul saw the believer as having participated in the crucifixion of Jesus, to the effect of his/her sin nature being killed.  This phrase takes things a step further to say each believer has participated personally in the resurrection of Jesus too.

GOD…SEATED US WITH HIM IN THE HEAVENLY REALMS IN CHRIST JESUS. (6)  Here Paul makes it sound as if we’ve already been taken to heaven.  We have to learn not to get too wound up about verb tenses in the Bible.  Instead, we can be excited to know that the benefits of God’s GRACE are not just for the future, but have also redeemed our past and give us a confident future.  We can have experiences of heaven in this earthly life (see 1 Corinthians 15:47-49; 2 Corinthians 12:2-3; Galatians 4:26; Philippians 3:20).

In 1:20 we learned that Jesus was exalted to sit in the place of authority and access; at the RIGHT HAND IN THE HEAVENLY REALMS.   Paul repeated that language here to give the faithful further encouragement; “Heaven?  You are there already, dudes!”  Especially in Ephesus, he wanted the believers to know they were not subject to spiritual evil of any kind; they already enjoyed heavenly authority being in relationship with Jesus Christ.

Lastly, Paul reminded them of their origins; WE ARE GOD’S WORKMANSHIP. (10)  This word could just as easily serve as part of the answer to the next question.  God acted to save us because we are His.  But it is also part of the list of things God has done for us – He created us.  The word WORKMANSHIP could just as easily be translated “creation.”  However, the word also conveys skill, intelligence and achievement in execution, like “masterpiece,” “handiwork,” or “work of art.”

Verse ten is a counterpoint to verse nine: verse nine says we are saved by GRACE, not by WORKS, which would seem to render WORKS unimportant.  Verse ten reveals that WORKS do play an important role in life after salvation.  In fact, they are the very reason God created us.  We were CREATED IN CHRIST JESUS TO DO GOOD WORKS, so a well-spent life was part of God’s plan before the universe was created.  This interpretation is supported by a second phrase that means exactly the same thing: WHICH GOD PREPARED IN ADVANCE FOR US TO DO.

When we consider all of Paul’s teaching, we realize two things about GOOD WORKS.  One, GOOD WORKS is not the same as fulfilling the Law.  Instead, Paul meant for us to do things fulfilling the Law of Love and demonstrating the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) in everyday words and deeds (1 Thessalonians 1:3).  Two, God chose both His people and how His people would behave.  This is what Paul wrote in 1:4; HE CHOSE US IN HIM BEFORE THE CREATION OF THE WORLD TO BE HOLY AND BLAMELESS IN HIS SIGHT.

Paul’s second answer is to this question, “Why would God save such creatures?”  When you take notice the descriptive words in v. 4, GREAT love…RICH mercy…INCOMPARABLE RICHES of grace, it is clear God is generous with His people!

God showed us grace BECAUSE OF HIS GREAT LOVE. (4)  LOVE is the word that best summarizes the character of God in BOTH Old and New Testaments.

His LOVE is unconditional, positive, and always moves us toward greater good and maturity.

We have been offered GRACE because GOD…IS RICH IN MERCY. (4)  The merciful side of God’s nature is explained in Exodus 34:6-7, where we read that God only holds the sinner guilty, not his family.   He forgives sin.

This word was understood by Bible writers to mean “covenant love;” that God is faithful to keep His promise to love us, even when we are unfaithful to our promise to love Him.  GRACE, MERCY, and LOVE have a lot of overlap in Paul’s writings.  There’s no need to create strong differentiations between the three words.  As we saw in chapter one, this passage also underscores the fact that God took the initiative to save us even though we are completely unworthy (see Titus 3:5).

God showered us with GRACE that HE MIGHT SHOW THE INCOMPARABLE RICHES OF HIS GRACE…IN CHRIST JESUS. (7)  God’s purpose is always to draw us to Him.  When the Bible talks about God’s “glory,” that’s what it means.  God’s GRACE brings glory to Him because He is so generous with forgiveness.  His act of creating t human race and then saving us from ourselves is to resound throughout eternity as the greatest deed ever.

God offers GRACE to complete our original purpose: we were CREATED TO DO GOOD WORKS. (10)  GOOD WORKS are not a means to salvation, but a product of salvation, a means of deepening our spiritual maturity, and a proof that our claims to salvation are genuine.  When we do the GOOD WORKS we were created to do, it is for God’s glory and our pleasure.  GOOD WORKS bless everyone!

The third and final question Paul answered in this passage is “How did God do this for us?” Paul’s answer was two-fold.

First, God saved us by His gracious offer of salvation: BY GRACE YOU’VE BEEN SAVED. (5+8)  God deserves to be the focus of our lives, the object of our gratitude because He saved us by His grace, not our merit.  Paul wrote this twice (in verses five and eight) to make sure we don’t miss this essential truth.  GRACE means we are spared the WRATH of God (3) because God has guaranteed our salvation.  Neither this day nor Judgment Day holds any fear for us.

In verse eight Paul provided a little more explanation; God’s GRACE is ours BY FAITH.  Having FAITH does not make us any more deserving; it is the sole means by which we can be saved.  By FAITH we believe GRACE is available and receive it ourselves.  IT IS NOT OF YOURSELVES; IT IS THE GIFT OF GOD can refer either to GRACE or FAITH or both.  Which is interesting; we can’t really even have faith on our own; God supplies that too!

Second, GRACE is God doing for us what is impossible for us to do for ourselves (8-9).  Saving ourselves is not even a possibility: that’s what the phrases THIS IS NOT FROM YOURSELVES…NOT BY WORKS mean.

– Good WORKS won’t save us.

– Keeping God’s law won’t earn eternal life for us.

– Attempting to manipulate spirits by practicing magic (as the pagans of Ephesus did) won’t accomplish a single thing.

– Positive thinking and impulse control have value in this life, but are powerless to save us.

Why is it important for us to recognize that salvation is purely God’s action?  SO THAT NO ONE CAN BOAST means that no one should think they’ve earned or somehow deserve God’s grace or are in any way deserving.  That would be a fatal error, the worst kind of self-deception possible.  To think we can gain heaven on our own two feet would be to deny our need for a Savior and thereby cheat ourselves out of salvation by not seeking and finding true faith.  FAITH gives credit where it’s due and relies on God’s power, not ours.

Sin is the cause of the “Walking Dead,” God raises the dead to receive salvation and life.

God saves us from enslavement to the “Killer S’s” of sin, Satan, and self.  He does this in order to grant us true freedom to live in love; this is true life.  We must acknowledge the truth in order to live and to help others find life.  Part of that truth is that we were in a trap and had no way out that we could employ as an exit.  Jesus is God’s means of leaving the trap and living.

Paul’s message must’ve seemed strange to the people of Ephesus.  They were used to thinking of gods and spirits as beings whom you appeased to avoid their wrath or bribed with sacrifices to manipulate them into giving blessing.  As Paul presented Him, God did not operate in either of those ways.  People today are still surprised to find that God is not what they expected.  Too many reject a caricature of God without having any experience of Him or even of His Church.

Paul taught that sacrifice and praise were grateful responses to God’s prior acts of love and gracious gift of salvation.  His faith is not a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” kind of exercise, but the humble acceptance of a generous gift.  Once accepted, that gift makes all the difference in the way we want to live.

God offers life.  Choose to accept it and celebrate it by doing good.  Let’s be the lively people of God, not the “walking dead.”

 

RESOURCES:

Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Ephesians, Clinton E. Arnold

Love Without Limits

(Please read Matthew 18:21-35 in your favorite version of the Bible.  I have used the NIV to prepare these remarks.)

Those of us of a certain age will recognize the name W.C. Fields, the rest of you will have to google it.  A famous comic actor in the black and white era of motion pictures, Fields played mostly grumpy old men in his movies.  It turns out that off-screen, he was a grumpy old man and a drunken rascal.

W.C. Fields was also a notorious atheist.  That’s why a friend of his was astonished to discover Fields, at the end of his life, reading the Bible.  He asked Fields, “Why in the world are you reading the Bible?  Are you looking for answers?”

The comedian replied, “No, I’m looking for loopholes.”

Looking for loopholes.  That pretty well describes human nature doesn’t it?  We want maximum gain with minimal effort.  We expect to be rewarded above and beyond our lukewarm commitment and selfishly motivated actions.  Justice and mercy are things we want when they benefit us, but are far less concerned about them for the sake of others.  Particularly for people whom we do not happen to like.

The last time I preached on this passage was 20 years ago.  At that time, God was using a peculiar method to teach me about mercy.  God used Woofie to give me daily opportunities to show forgiveness.

Woofie came into our lives as “Wolfie;”  we changed her name to make her sound less aggressive.  The change of name had no effect on her nature, however.

Woofie was the poster dog of the local Humane Society.  Really.  She was a stray who’d been hanging around a cemetery, barely eking out a living, in bad shape when she was caught.  Life on her own did not prepare Woofie to be a house dog.

She loved everyone in the family and hated all other life forms.  She was a barker.  A jumper.  She bolted every chance she could get, so we had to devise an elaborate and strong pulley system to let her outdoors.  One of her favorite tricks was to walk up next to Melanie and bump her with her backside, sending Melanie, then a toddler, sprawling and bawling on the floor.  When we watched a movie and ate popcorn, she would bark angrily if you didn’t frequently flip a kernel her way.

The story has a happy ending.  Woofie lived with us for more than a decade.  She peacefully lay down to sleep one day and never awoke again.

What eventually made the difference was love.  And forgiveness.  Lots and lots of forgiveness of her canine sins.

Now, twenty years later, we find ourselves in a similar situation.  We adopted Rue from the Sioux Falls Humane Society just before Christmas and her list of doggie offenses is growing.  I must be a slow learner to have to go through this again!

  1. The occasion: Peter asked a question.

Rabbis (Jewish teachers) are and were tasked with applying the Law of Moses to everyday life.  When they did so, they tended to use a very legalistic approach.  They taught that a person might be forgiven three times for a repeated sin.  On the fourth occasion, however, no one was required to  forgive something a fourth time.

It’s possible that when Peter offered the number SEVEN, he was surpassing the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees as Jesus had commanded in 5:20. (“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”)  Or Peter may’ve settled on SEVEN since that was seen as “the perfect number,” the number for God.  (Six is the number for man; always one short.)  In either case, Jesus had just been talking about the steps in restoring fellow church members from sin to forgiveness and this sparked Peter’s questioning mind.  He wanted to know if there were any loopholes in this matter of forgiveness and restoration.

In the first part of His answer, Jesus one-ups Peter and adds a second seven.  (In some texts it’s plus seventy, in others, it times seventy.  Since we’re NOT dealing with a legalism here, the difference makes no difference.)  Jesus sometimes uses humor and exaggeration to make His point and I believe that’s what’s happening here.  SEVENTY-SEVEN and 490 are both ridiculous numbers if you intend to make it a law.  Who would have the capacity to keep such a command?  How would keeping an exhaustive count of offenses make anyone feel better or make you more godly?

No, SEVENTY-SEVEN is obviously a metaphor for a limitless number.  Once they’ve had a chuckle over the first part of His answer, Jesus goes on to tell them a story that will justify effectively limitless forgiveness.

  1. The one main point of the parable: “Forgive one another as you have been forgiven by God the Father.”

We will show how Jesus’ parable develops this truth in just a moment.  For now, we note the large strokes.

The KING is God the Father.  Because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, He forgives the massive, impossible-for-us-to-fix debt of our sin.

We are the unforgiving servant when we take out our petty anger on the people around us, who are represented by the FELLOW SERVANT.

The unforgiving servant had no mercy, so he received justice instead; justice in the form of judgment.  The warning in v. 35 could not be clearer: people who are unwilling to forgive will miss out on God’s forgiveness.

  1. The sub-points of the parable:

One: The debt the king forgave was impossible to repay.  In Jesus’ world, it was possible for servants of a KING to amass a debt in the course of their service to the king.  They were tasked with managing their master’s assets and logically their management wasn’t always successful.  In such cases, the master didn’t write a loss off, but held the manager accountable, counting the loss as a debt owed him.  (This system sounds a bit like riding a tiger; choose carefully which end you face!)

Even so, this amount is another purposeful exaggeration: Jesus used an impossibly large amount of money to create the impression that the debt was impossible to repay.  For context, I refer you to a 2010 article by Philip Massey who calculated the debt to require 200,000 YEARS of labor to repay.  The 2010 equivalent, his math said, was $7.04 billion.

– OR, the net worth of Bill Gates.

– OR, more than the national debt… in 1917!!

<Retrieved from http://chimes.biola.edu/story/2010/oct/27/parable-two-debtors/ on 1/6/17.>

The king did the math and realized that even if he sold this man’s entire family into slavery (as he did in v. 25), it would not make a dent in his losses.  His original motive must’ve been to get what he could and make an example of this servant and his horrible mismanagement of the king’s funds.

He orders the servant and all his family and possessions seized for the debt.  Our sympathy may naturally go to the servant, but think about it: if the indebted servant realized the debt was impossible to pay, his pleading with the king to be PATIENT, promising to repay all, was a lie.

Let’s note the character of the KING on the basis of his response to his servant’s plea.  His character is substantiated in v. 27: it was PITY, not the empty promise of repayment that motivated the king to cancel the servant’s debt.  Let there be no doubt this king is a figure symbolizing God the Father.

– Each person’s sin is an insurmountable debt, a problem we can’t fix.

– Not because of our empty promises to be good, or anything else we can do, the debt is cancelled.

– Does this help you understand the incredible seriousness of your sins AND the depth of God’s forgiveness?

– Remember, the money is a metaphor; the actual situation is even more dire, for the wages of sin are DEATH (RMS 6:23).

Two, the debt the servant did not forgive was tiny in comparison.  The modern value of A HUNDRED SILVER COINS would be up to $45,000.  That is a princely sum for most of us, I would guess, but it’s a drop in the bucket compared to $7.04 billion.

This is a third exaggeration, a sum chosen carefully by Jesus.            On the one hand, it is not so small a sum of money that a person could easily forgive the debt and not miss it.  A needy or greedy person would be motivated to insist on repayment.  On the other hand, it is not so large a sum that it compares at all with the debt this servant’s master had JUST CANCELLED.

In v. 29, the second servant’s plea reads almost exactly the same as the plea the unforgiving servant has just made with the king.  Here Jesus is using irony to make sure that we connect the unforgiving servant with the one who owed him money.  The unforgiving servant takes the place of the KING and the second servant takes his place.  Though the debts are very much different, the situation, through the wording, is very much the same.  What is different is the outcome.

It is a terrible, immoral deed that the unforgiving servant does to his peer, throwing him in prison over this comparatively tiny debt after he has been forgiven so much (30).  What he did was as illegal as it was immoral.  According to the law of the land, you could not sell a person into slavery for a debt that was worth less than the person’s life.  In other words, the unforgiving servant was trying to not only recover his debt, but make a profit too.  This detail exposes the unforgiving servant as greedy, not needy.

Three, the king’s justice is an example of God’s justice.  The injustice of the unforgiving servant’s actions was not lost on his peers.  Jesus says they were GREATLY DISTRESSED (31).  Probably at some personal risk, they went to the KING and told him what had happened.  This makes even more sense if the actions of the unforgiving servant are illegal AND immoral.

In vs. 32-34 we are pleased to see that this KING, who was so good-natured as to forgive such a massive debt, also had a good sense of justice.  He was indignant at the unforgiving servant’s actions and rebuked him for his pettiness, his unwillingness to demonstrate the same kind of mercy as he had recently received.

In righteous anger, the KING delivered a just condemnation of the unforgiving servant.  The word translated in the NIV as JAILERS is really too tame a choice of words.  It should read “torturers.”  The justice and mercy of the KING are a stark contrast to the greed and injustice of the unforgiving servant.

Four, let unforgiving folk be warned (35).  God’s justice is perfect; He knows who is guilty and the punishment always fits the crime.

This warning could not be more clear.  Unforgiving people betray the true status of their soul as themselves being unforgiven.  There is a cause and effect relationship between being shown mercy and giving mercy.

This warning could be more serious.  Our eternal destination is at stake.  Just as the unforgiving servant was handed over to the “torturers,” so can an unmerciful person expect only the wrath of God.

This warning could not be any more certain.  The unforgiving servant was exposed and justice was rendered.  He may have gone away from his first encounter thinking he’d fooled the king but his true nature emerged and he was dealt with justly.

Several years ago, on a beautiful spring day a man walked along a country lane to enjoy the sun.  He chanced upon a farmer plowing his field with a mule.  He was having a tough time of it.  The mule was not very responsive.

The visitor waved to the farmer and motioned for him to come over to the fence.  The farmer mopped his sweaty brow as he came over to the fence to greet his friendly visitor.

“Say,” the visitor said, “I’m not one to tell a man how to do his business, but I think that mule would be more cooperative if you’d say ‘Gee’ and ‘Haw’ to him when you wanted him to turn.”

The farmer considered this advice for but a moment and replied, “Reckon that’s so, but that mule kicked me five years ago and I haven’t talked to it since.”

Holding a grudge against people makes about as much sense, doesn’t it?  As this parable makes plain, grudge-holding and all forms of being unforgiving and unmerciful have no place in the life of a follower of Jesus.

Instead, just the opposite is true.  A claim to faith by a person or a church is proven by a character of mercy.  This quality of a fellowship (church) is also necessary to attract and retain new people in a church.

When You’re Rubbed the Wrong Way

Please read Colossians 3:12-17 in your Bible.  I used the NIV for this post.

Successful conflict resolution (peace-making) is the work of all genuine disciples.

The ability to get along with others requires a great deal of effort.  Our natural tendency is to push for our own way, even at the expense of relationships, and that’s where unity dies.  Whether in good times or in bad, it takes intention and effort to get along.

How do we resolve conflicts and settle disagreements before unity is lost.  We learned Wednesday night that God’s word suggests casting lots to decide the winner (see PBS 18:18).

In other cultures, differences were sometimes settled by fatal duels.  As odd as this may sound, there was a time in history when two men attempted to settle their dispute by casting lots AND having a duel!

French novelist and playwright Alexandre Dumas, best known for his novel, The Three Musketeers, once had a heated quarrel with a rising young politician.  It was decided that the only way honor could be satisfied was by a duel.  However, the problem was that both men were excellent shots and they feared a duel might result in both of them being killed.  For this reason, they cast lots to determine which of them would be spared, the loser was to shoot himself.

Dumas lost the drawing.

Pistol in hand, he withdrew in silent dignity to another room, closing the door behind him.  The rest of the group waited in gloomy suspense for the shot that would end his brilliant career.  It rang out at last.

His friends ran to the door and flung it open.  They were shocked to see Dumas standing there unharmed, the smoking pistol in his hand.

“Gentlemen, a most regrettable thing has happened,” he announced.  “I missed.”

Fortunately, God has given us better ways to resolve our differences.  In Jesus Christ we have the ultimate means of getting along with one another, even with people who rub us the wrong way.  Let’s learn about Jesus’ way of peace as we look at Colossians 3:12-17.

  1. Take the high road (12-14).

God chose you to take the high road.  Paul’s teaching about God choosing His people (for example Romans 8:33; 16:13) is always for the purpose of emphasizing grace.  Verse twelve describes our God-given identity in three terms:

– CHOSEN = God chose us to faithfully represent Him in this world & be rewarded in heaven.

– HOLY = to be set apart from the usual, worldly uses to serve God in unusual, spiritual ways.

– DEARLY LOVED refers to the love God has for His children; unconditional love, full of grace.

Verses13-14 describe our God-directed activity

– BEAR WITH EACH OTHER is an important biblical command. See 1 Corinthians 13:5 = [Love] is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Proverbs 12:16 = Fools show their annoyance at once, but the prudent overlook an insult.  Proverbs 19:11 = A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.

– FORGIVE AS THE LORD FORGAVE YOU. Follow His example; forgive and forget.  See Psalm 103:8-12 = THE LORD IS COMPASSIONATE AND GRACIOUS, SLOW TO ANGER, ABOUNDING IN LOVE.  HE WILL NOT ALWAYS ACCUSE, NOR WILL HE HARBOR HIS ANGER FOREVER; HE DOES NOT TREAT US AS OUR SINS DESERVE OR REPAY US ACCORDING TO OUR INIQUITIES.  FOR AS HIGH AS THE HEAVENS ARE ABOVE THE EARTH, SO GREAT IS HIS LOVE FOR THOSE WHO FEAR HIM; AS FAR AS THE EAST IS FROM THE WEST, SO FAR HE HAS REMOVED OUR TRANSGRESSIONS FROM US.

– OVER ALL THESE VIRTUES PUT ON LOVE, WHICH BINDS THEM ALL TOGETHER IN PERFECT UNITY. LOVE “binds” all virtues together because it is the chief virtue.  It is what motivates us be virtuous.  PERFECT UNITY is the outcome.  It is the condition of the fellowship in which people love one another.  See 1 Corinthians 13:13 = AND NOW THESE THREE REMAIN: FAITH, HOPE AND LOVE.  BUT THE GREATEST OF THESE IS LOVE.

Peace cannot be forged if your mind is on “getting even.” Taking the high road sometimes requires letting go of our “rights.”

God has demonstrated the way he wants us to live.  God always acts in holiness and love in perfect balance.  He always does what is best for us.  The entire Bible is a record of the various ways God has demonstrated these attributes.  He calls us to follow His example because He knows then we will truly act in ways that are in our best interests.  When we choose self-interest instead, when we prefer our petty dramas to His high standards, then we’re walking the toxic road of sin.

  1. Actions are more important than feelings (12).

We act differently because we live in our NEW SELF.  In v. 10 Paul wrote about “putting on” our NEW SELF, as if this new life in Christ were a change of clothes.  He continues that image in v. 12.  However, unlike a change of clothes which we can easily see, this improvement of character may be a little more difficult to perceive.  Here’s how we know we’ve made the switch; we know it’s happened when the virtues listed in verse 12 become part of our character.  These virtues closely resemble the Fruits of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23 and there we learn that these marks of godly character are a gift from God by means of the Holy Spirit.

– COMPASSION = is one word made by combining the Greek words for affection and sympathy.

– KINDNESS is a friendly willingness to help the needy.

– HUMILITY involves seeing yourself as God sees you, not falling into the extremes of narcissism or self-loathing.

– GENTLENESS is consideration for others that goes so deep one is willing to waive one’s “rights” to revenge.

– PATIENCE endures trials without exasperation.

It’s genuine because it comes from God.  It’s true that putting on a red hat does not make me a fireman.  Similarly, verse twelve is not about putting on these virtues in a hypocritical way, to make others think we are God’s children.  These are all virtues that come forth through action and we all know actions speak louder than mere words.

  1. Make Christ the center of every conversation (16).

Verse sixteen is not limited to worship though it sounds like it, with the mention of teaching, admonishing, & singing.  It’s really about consistency; if our conversations have a different moral character inside and outside church, what does that say about the genuineness of our faith?  It says, as James taught, that we all struggle with our tongues (see James 3:2).

In the very next chapter Paul wrote, LET YOUR CONVERSATION BE ALWAYS FULL OF GRACE, SEASONED WITH SALT, SO THAT YOU MAY KNOW HOW TO ANSWER EVERYONE. (Colossians 4:6).  This is what Paul meant by LET THE WORD OF CHRIST DWELL IN YOU RICHLY.  THE WORD OF CHRIST doesn’t only mean the Bible, but also the person of Jesus Christ.  The word RICHLY means “having ample room,” or “having great treasure.”  Jesus should dominate our thinking and as He does, He will be expressed more abundantly in what we say and do.

We should ask “WWJD?” and “WWJS?”  S = SAY.  If we would ask ourselves, “What would Jesus say in this instance?”  The act of stopping to think about it would help us avoid sins of the tongue.

  1. Passionately pursue personal peace (15+17).

We’re promised peace the passes UNDERSTANDING.  This is obviously not the kind of peace the world can give, the kind that is more than avoiding conflict or calming fears.

Instead, it is a settled state of mind, a feeling of contentment, and an attitude of patience that is BEYOND UNDERSTANDING because it is from God, not our circumstances.  This kind of PEACE is so profound that it cannot be lost because troubles or trials appear.

Peace is to RULE over us and our relationships.  The word RULE originally meant “to act as an umpire.”  This means every situation that pits Christians against one another must be resolved in a way that leads to PEACE.  There is nothing fake about this; this is the highest-possible-standard PEACE described in verse fifteen.

We are called to PEACE.  We are called to PEACE as much as we are called to salvation: PEACE is the foundation of our relationship with God and our relationships with one another.  If we truly follow Christ we will value this peace much more highly than we will the little things that tend to divide us.  We will prize this PEACE and guard it against self-interest and factions.

This kind of PEACE always produces a grateful response as it directs our attention to God: this response is described in two phrases in verse seventeen.

– WHATEVER YOU DO, WHETHER IN WORD OR DEED, DO IT ALL IN THE NAME OF THE LORD JESUS. In these three different ways Paul expressed one thought; all that you do, do it as a disciple of Jesus should.  (This will logically exclude sinful activities.)  This includes all parts of our daily living but excludes all things that are not of Christ.

– GIVING THANKS TO GOD THE FATHER THROUGH HIM. When you think of this fantastic PEACE God gives, gratitude is the most appropriate response.  Plus, when we express our thankfulness, we direct the attention of others to God.

ENCOURAGEMENT AND ACTION:

  1. YOU ARE LOVED = Loving God leads to loving others
  2. THERE IS HOPE = Home and Church are the training sites for love and the world is the place where we practice love. With God, we can DO THIS!
  3. HOW TO GET STARTED = take the steps of “UNITE.”

U = “U” as in You (in texting language). Unless you seek peace, it will not happen.

N = Note your feelings & own them by talking about them with “I” statements.

I = Inform the other person about your desire for peace.

T = Talk about how to avoid this situation repeating itself in the future.

E = Enjoy a healthier relationship as you put your solutions to work.