“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)
Have you ever had a gym membership? I’m amazed at how many workout places there are just in Carleton Place! There’ are traditional gyms with weights and machines as well as places for CrossFit, Gymnastics, Martial Arts, and of course, Zumba. I have had a couple memberships but, as you can tell, I don’t anymore. When I was younger I used to work out with my dad, and then as a student I liked going to the YMCA to play racquetball, but as the studies got harder and my family got bigger I let the gym memberships slide. Now I have a home gym and lots of catching up to do.
Like today, the ancient Greeks and Romans had Gymnasiums that they would join and do very much what we do today – and more. At first it was only for wealthy aristocrats, but eventually they were open to all citizens and became an integral part of all Greek cities. They were sort of like a YMCA. They would exercise, learn skills, and develop their endurance and character. They would learn lessons in wisdom and philosophy – and then learn how to wrestle, swim, run, shoot and more – all in the nude of course. The word Gymnasium comes from the Greek word GUMNOS which means “naked” – so it wasn’t exactly like the YMCA.
Sports and physical development were as popular then as they are now, and more so, which meant the Apostle Paul could hardly help from using it as an illustration in his letters. It was something everyone would understand.
He used it when talking to his younger ministry apprentice Timothy. Listen to how he phrases this: “If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1 Ti 4:6–8).
The words Paul says in our passage today sound as much like the words of an athletic coach as they do a theologian or missionary. They are the kinds of things that coaches and spectators would shout at the runners to cheer them on during their training and competition. “Run for the prize!” “Remember your training!” “Hold yourself to a higher standard!” In fact, if you were going to be a member of these gyms or compete in the events you had to take an oath that you had done at least ten months of training, would promise follow the rules (2 Tim 2:5), live on a strict diet that had no wine or “pleasant foods”, endure the cold and heat, and submit yourself to whatever painful discipline they would prescribe.”
Sports in Ancient Greece
In ancient Greece the sports competitions were even bigger than they are today. Today we follow our favourite teams, players, runners, boxers and fighters with interest – sometimes fanatical interest (which is where the term “Sports fan” comes from) – but it had much deeper meaning back then. The training and competitions were sacred events, dedicated to whatever patron god they worshipped. The stadium was as much like a church today as a sports arena. The race or the boxing match wasn’t merely a test of strength but a trial of excellence, like the Olympics. Today, gym class is scheduled once or twice per week and the kids get short recesses to stretch a couple times a day. In ancient Greece and Rome they considered physical development as equal to scholastic education. And we don’t have a corner on worshipping athletes either. In those days the winners wouldn’t just get crowned with a wreath as a prize, but would be adulated by fans, have songs and poems composed about them, and have busts and statues carved and displayed in front of the stadium.
I’m from Edmonton so I understand exactly what was going on there. They may have had their runners and boxers, but we had Wayne Gretzky. His statue, installed 1989, stood for 27 years outside the Oiler’s arena and was then refurbished and stands outside the new one. It’s a pretty big deal where I’m from. That’s the kind of respect and celebration the winners of the games could expect – Gretzky level fame. So it’s no wonder they trained so hard.
The Christian Life
We’ve just spent the past 4 sermons talking about how to share our faith, but these are not usually the kinds of things we say when we invite our friends to church or tell then what it means to be a Christian. If your friend comes up and asks what it’s like to be a Christian you don’t usually start with, “Well, we have super high standards, are constantly training and educating ourselves, take public vows to live by a certain set of standards, purposefully practice self-denial, endure suffering, and submit ourselves to whatever painful discipline that God prescribes to us. It’s great! You should totally join us!” It would be like trying to convert people to CrossFit or P90X.
But training, discipline, sacrifice, and self-denial are a big part of the Christian life and they are spoken of all over scripture. For our remaining time here I want to take a look at what Paul is saying in these few verses and draw some application out of it, so please turn back with me to verse 24.
It says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it.” This is the continuation of something he’s been talking about for a while. It’s been a little while since we talked about it, but remember the context. At the beginning of chapter 8 we see that in this section Paul is talking about “food offered to idols” and the difficult situation it had created in the church. Some people thought it was ok because of their freedom in Christ while others had a really hard time with their consciences and felt it was not only wrong but a denial of their faith.
Paul addressed this problem by telling those who have no problem with it to bear with those who did and deny themselves for the sake of their brother. He says, “Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” (1 Corinthians 8:12-13)
Then, in Chapter 9 Paul uses himself and the apostles as examples of self-denial that they should follow. He lists some of the things he is allowed to have, even that he has earned because of his work, but has chosen to deny himself for the sake of the gospel. For the sake of being a missionary he has chosen to go without a lot of really good things like food, a liveable wage, and a wife and family. He gave them up so he could serve God full time.
Then, in verse 19, he says, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.” He is totally sold out for the gospel of Jesus, laser focused on living a life where preaching, teaching, and writing about Jesus is everything to him – and there’s nothing to get in the way; cutting everything out of his life that doesn’t line up with the call of Jesus on his life.
He’s like an elite athlete training for years to compete at the highest level. I’ve been long impressed with the Canadian athlete Clara Hughes. She’s an incredible athlete as well as a pretty amazing person. She’s one of only five people to have won medals in both the Summer and Winter Olympics, which she did in both cycling and speed skating. She’s translated her success into a lot of humanitarian organizations helping disadvantaged people and promoting mental health issues.
Now, all that being said, the one thing that impressed me most about her was her legs. Specifically, how different they look when she is competing in different sports or during her off time. If you see her today, her legs are – for lack of a better term – normal sized. When she was cycling her legs were big and strong, but when she’s was in full speed skating mode her legs were – again, for lack of a better term – gigantic. It was incredible to see the transformation and was an incredible reminder to me of what laser focused training can do.
When these athletes are in training for the Olympics everything matters. Every movement, every calorie, every minute of sleep, heartrate, body fat, type of food, amount of water, recreation, everything. Michael Phelps, said that when he was training and winning all his medals for swimming he did three things: slept, swam, and ate 12,000 calories per day. These athletes are single minded in their training and lifestyle.
That’s what Paul is talking about in verse 24. He sees himself as an elite spiritual athlete and sets himself up as the example. He even says in chapter 11, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ. ” (1 Cor 11:1) He didn’t mean this in a prideful way, but as an apostle of Jesus, their pastor, and the one who planted their church, he was their prime example on how to live the Christian life, so he held himself to the highest of standards. He runs the race to obtain the prize, and encourages them to do the same.
Now, what this doesn’t mean is that he felt he needed to do all this in order to earn salvation. He didn’t think Jesus would turn His back on him if he stopped trying so hard. He wasn’t telling them that their place in heaven was at stake if they didn’t try harder. He didn’t say that God would love them more if they accomplished more. He wasn’t saying that their value and worth was tied to what they were able to produce. That goes against so much of what the Bible says about how God sees us. He loved us before we loved Him. He saved us before we asked for it. We were dead in our sins and He traded His Son for us. And there is nothing we can do to make Him love us more.
Now, what the Bible is saying here is that, in light of the love we have received from God in Jesus Christ and the calling that we have been given as Christians who are on a mission in this world, we should take that seriously. God’s love compels us to love others. Jesus’ sacrifice compels us to sacrifice for others. Jesus obedience compels us to be obedient too. Because we know we are saved by grace, not by works, given something we could never earn, simply because we are loved, we are compelled, driven, to show love to Jesus by serving Him and others. Because of the new nature we have been given, where once we were dead in sin and only thinking of how to gratify ourselves, now we have been given new natures that want to honour and serve the One who saved us – the one we call Lord and Saviour.
Christians take this relationship very seriously, but we never think we need to do these things to impress, bribe, or appease God.
Think of it in human terms. As a dad, we work hard our jobs outside and inside the home. We work for 5 days and then take our kids camping or spend the weekend driving them around for their clubs and events, and then turn around and go right back to work. Then when someone asks, “Why do you work so hard? Why put in all the hours? Why do you spend all that time working and then come home and do more?” The answer isn’t simply because we have to… it’s because we love our families.
Grandma invites the whole family over and spends hours and hours shopping, preparing, and serving Christmas dinner. It takes an incredible amount of money, work, time, effort, and then every pot, pan and dish in the house needs to be washed. Why did she do it? Because she’s obligated? No, because it is a joy to serve the ones she loves.
A child spends 2 hours drawing, colouring, gluing, and folding a card for someone. It’s not their birthday or anything, they just wanted to make a card for them. Why? Why make all that mess and take all that time just to give their mom or friend a card? Because of love.
That’s the motivator to run the Christian race with seriousness and dedication: our love for Jesus. But loving someone has consequences, doesn’t it? If I dedicate myself to my wife, it means I cannot have any other woman in that way. My love for my children means that I will have to deny myself certain things for their sake. My love for my church means that I won’t be able to do everything I want to do because of my obligations to them. My love for my friends means that when they need me I will put aside my own life and go to them. Love has consequences.
Love has Consequences
Jesus says something pretty serious two times in Matthew. Listen to these.
Matthew 10:22, “…you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
Now, Matthew 24:9-13, “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end will be saved…”
What did Jesus mean by “enduring to the end”? Love has consequences. Truth has consequences. Belief has consequences. Faith has consequences. Choice has consequences. Following and loving Jesus has consequences. Being a Christian has consequences and those consequences often mirror those of the athlete: high standards, loyal devotion, constant training and education, self-denial, suffering, and sometimes the painful discipline from Jesus, the “author and perfecter of our faith” . In fact, that title for Jesus is set in athletic terms too.
Let’s read that from Hebrews 12:1-2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” , like a crowd of former Olympians watching us compete from the crowd, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…” Why would a runner or boxer or gymnast ever add unnecessary weight to themselves? Why compete in lead shoes? They want to be light and agile so they cut all unnecessary weight so they will have the endurance to last until the end.
And while the crowd of former spiritual Olympians look at us, who are we looking to for inspiration, guidance, training, help, strength and perserverance? It says, “…looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”
His decision to love us had consequences. He endured great suffering and died because He chose to love us. In the same way we look to Jesus, as Paul looks to Jesus, as not only the example of what it means to follow God, but the one from whom we get our strength to endure.
Self-Control in All Things
In verses 25 it gives us one of the consequences of following Jesus, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” It’s the small things that are the difference between winning and losing a race. In the 1992 Women’s 100 Meter race the difference between first place and fifth was 1/10th of a second. In 1988 1000 Meter Canoeing it came down to a photo finish where the winner was ahead by 0.005 seconds or less than a centimetre.  That’s why they obsess over the details. The exact moment to stop exercising and eat the exact right food to have exactly enough to finish the race – but no more or it might slow them down.
“Self-control in all things.” We aren’t running to win a gold medal, but we do have an incredibly high calling. You look at your life and think that you’re doing pretty good – better than most people you know – but that secret sin that you think no one knows about will be what the enemy uses to cripple your mission and deaden your soul. That part of your personality which you know is a problem, but have just decided is part of you now, will be what keeps you from effectively sharing your faith. That habit of unforgiveness, bitterness, being critical, will keep you from being a good disciple maker. That schedule that is always out of control where you have no time for worship, rest, thinking, praying, reading, friends, or Sabbath, will be what kills you.
I’m not saying, and scripture isn’t saying, that God doesn’t love you or that you won’t be saved – what it’s saying is that if you refuse to practice self-control in that area, then you won’t be nearly as spiritually healthy, or hopeful, or happy, or peaceful, or joyful, or productive for the kingdom of God. It will be the wedge that creates space between you and God, the foothold by which Satan can climb on your back.
Train on Purpose
Verse 26 says, “So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air.” Having powerful muscles is pointless if you never use them to lift anything other than weights. Having strong fists and being able to take a punch is pointless if you never enter a fight. Being able to run for hours is pointless unless you use the strength and endurance you are building to actually do something for someone else.
An athlete doesn’t train for the sake of training. They don’t skate in circles and shoot a ten thousand pucks into an empty net because they like skating in circles and scoring pretend goals. A boxer doesn’t shadowbox and hit a punching bag for no reason. They do it so they can live out their purpose. They skate and shoot so that when the time comes they will be able to win the game. They punch bags so they can eventually win the fight.
Firefighters don’t exercise just to stay healthy, but so they have the strength and endurance to save people when it matters. Police and military officers are required to exercise and pass physical endurance tests, not so they will look good in uniform, but so they can enforce the law and help the community.
In the same way Christians don’t merely live, but we live with a purpose. We don’t merely read the Bible, but we read with a purpose. We don’t merely pray, but we pray with a purpose. We sing, serve, correct, deny, give, share, speak, eat, and all the rest with a purpose. Some of that purpose is universal for all believers: We do what we do for the glory of God and to enjoy Him forever. We do what we do to advance the kingdom of God and spread love, justice, and mercy.
But some of that purpose is specific to you. God has given all Christians a special gift and a special purpose to their lives. As Christians we work to find out what that gift is, and then we use that gift to live out that special purpose. Christians are not aimless, but are very purposeful in what we do. And not just in work, but in rest too, right?
You likely know the old story of the young woodcutter who got a job on a logging crew by showing the boss how he could cut down 18 trees in one day. He loved the job and worked hard, but it wasn’t long until he started running into problems. On day three he cut down 15 trees, and then on day five he could only do 10, by the end of the week he was only able to do 5 trees. The foreman said that if he didn’t start cutting more he’d lose his job. He begged the for another chance saying he always comes early, leaves late, and never takes breaks! The foreman asks, “Well, when do you stop to sharpen your axe?” The young man replied, “Well sir, I just can’t do that. I’ve been working way too hard to take the time to do that.”
The point is that as a Christian, even our times of rest are purposeful.
Areas of Influence
Finally in verse 27 it says, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
Think of all the massive sports failures we’ve seen. Pete Rose, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Mike Tyson, Tonya Harding, Michael Vick, Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong… the names are synonymous with the heights of sports and the greats of controversies and collapses.
This was probably Paul’s greatest fear – I know it’s one of mine. He wasn’t training and disciplining and denying himself to try to win God’s approval or earn salvation or impress anyone. He was doing it because he knew his mission was critically important and that it would be the small things that he neglected that would be his undoing. And then not only would he be disqualified, but a lot of people would be hurt. He was given great responsibility and a great mission, so he took it very, very seriously, because the consequences of messing up were so extreme. The words “discipline my body” are literally “I give myself a black eye”!
Now, we’re not apostles, and we don’t have dozens of churches that would be crippled if we mess up, but we all have circles of influence that are affected by our sin – which is what the last 2 chapters have been talking a lot about.
Why do you practice self-control when you drink and spend and say and watch on tv, mom and dad? So I won’t be disqualified as a parent and mess up my kids. Singles, why do you avoid certain places that everyone says are fun? So you won’t disqualify yourself and mess up your future. There are so many examples, right?
Think about the people you have influence over, whether it’s your kids, friends, siblings, coworkers, or church family. Part of the reason you train well and practice self-denial is for their sake. So that when they are hurting, they can come to you because you are trustworthy. So when they are in need you have the capacity to help. So when they are tempted, you can help them. So when you speak to them words of criticism, they will hear because you have a reputation for fairness and love. So when they need advice or a listening ear, they will call you because they know you will keep confidences and speak God’s word to them. It’s not just about you, it’s about those around you too. Let’s close there.
 Jamieson, R., Fausset, A. R., & Brown, D. (1997). Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible (Vol. 2, p. 279). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
 Lange, J. P., Schaff, P., Kling, C. F., & Poor, D. W. (2008). A commentary on the Holy Scriptures: 1 Corinthians (p. 194). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.
The Right Tool
Check out some of these weird tools. Maybe they’re only weird to me. Have any of you used these? Here’s my favourite, which is awesome, and it’s the Stanley #1 Odd Jobs. I absolutely love this guy’s description.
We’ve all used the wrong tool to try to accomplish a task. We are going to hang a picture and can’t find the hammer, so we grab a screwdriver and hope we can use the handle to knock the nail in. We need to turn a ¾” bolt but the only wrench we can find is metric and it’s pretty close, so we try it. Instead of gluing something properly we throw on some tape and hope for the best. But it never quite works, right? The nail is crooked, the bolt gets stripped, the tape doesn’t hold. That’s because we are using the tool to do something it wasn’t designed for.
When God creates a human being He always gives them a purpose. Most people don’t care about God’s intended purpose for their lives but spend their time trying to figure out their own idea – which sometimes gets them part way there but they never feel like they completely fit. But, when Jesus calls someone to Himself and they become His disciple, He doesn’t just save them from their sin and send them on their merry way, but sets within them a desire to live out their God-given purpose. They go from someone who was living for themselves, trying to make themselves happy, and confused about their reason for living, to a Kingdom follower who is now trying to discover why God put them on earth, what will honour Jesus, and how they can glorify God by doing obeying His will for their life.
Sure, we mess up, sin, go the wrong way, and need a lot of grace, but God is always forgiving, rebuking, training, correcting and helping us to find and live out our purpose. The Holy Spirit within us acts like a compass, steering us towards the right and away from the wrong, even giving us spiritual gifts that we didn’t have before in order follow God’s plan for us. And when we hit that groove and finally discover what we were built to do, there’s nothing like it. No matter how hard it is, or how much we have to endure, there is a supernatural power that comes upon us, a hope beyond ourselves, a greater, eternal mission, and a reason and meaning that’s bigger than us – because we are living out our purpose.
Please open up to 1 Corinthians 7:6-40. As I said a couple weeks ago, in 1st Corinthians we see that Paul was asked some important questions about what God wants from believers in regard to human sexuality and marital relationships. There were many in the church that wanted to follow God, but were being super-distracted by all the sin around them and the desires and temptations within them. They wondered if maybe they should just make a rule that all Christians everywhere should just give up on the whole marriage idea altogether because it was so corrupted and distracting, and just simply concentrate on following Jesus. Basically, they wondered if Christians should just become monks and nuns. We covered a lot of the answer last week, but we were left with a lot of other situations that weren’t covered like: What about single people who want to get married? What about the single people that don’t? What about people married to unbelievers? What about divorced people? Can they get remarried? Let’s read the rest of the passage together and we’ll draw out some application:
“Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.
To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single, as I am. But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion.
To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife.
To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy. But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace. For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.
Now concerning the betrothed [another word would be “virgin” or “unmarried”] , I have no command from the Lord, but I give my judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned, and if a betrothed woman marries, she has not sinned. Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that. This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.
I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.
If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed [meaning parents of unmarried children], if his [or her] passions are strong, and it has to be, let him [or her] do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.
A wife is bound to her husband as long as he lives. But if her husband dies, she is free to be married to whom she wishes, only in the Lord. Yet in my judgment she is happier if she remains as she is. And I think that I too have the Spirit of God.” (ESV)
It is Good to Stay
Paul is here addressing a lot of situations directly, but there was an overarching theme to all of his answers. Look again. He says in verse 7, “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” And then in verse 17, “Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him.” And in verse 24, “So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God.”
There’s no way that Paul could address the many variations on human relationships, or try to write a letter that told every human being what they should do with themselves for the rest of their lives. And even if God did do that, people’s circumstances change so quickly that they would need a new letter every year! So look at the overarching theme for what God says:
Verse 8 – If you are divorced or widowed Christian, it’s good to stay as you are and follow God, but if you need to get married, get married.
Verse 10 – If you are married Christian, it is good to stay as you are and follow God, but if your unbelieving partner divorces you, then let it be so.
Verse 20 – If you are a bondservant or slave who is Christian, then it is good to stay as you are and follow God, but if you have a chance to gain your freedom, go for it.
Verse 25 – If you are unmarried, then it is good to stay as you are and follow God, but if you want to get married, get married.
Verse 36 – If you have a child who is unmarried, then it is good that they stay that way and follow God, but if they want to get married, let them.
Verse 39 – If you are married and your spouse dies, then it is good to stay that way, but if you want to get married, then go ahead and marry a Christian.
Did you catch the theme? What is God’s concern here? Over and over we see God saying that whatever the situation is, find God in it, work in it, be at peace with it, serve God in it – grow and bloom where you are planted as best you – but if the situation changes around you, or you sense that God wants you to change your situation so you can serve Him better, then go for it. One might call it “contentment” – be content with the situation you find yourself in. Another might call it “focus” – stay focused on where you are and what you are doing, don’t get distracted by a bunch of temptations, man-made rules and worldly options. My Bible entitles the section above verse 17, “Live As You Are Called”. Essentially, bloom where you are planted as best you can, until the Gardner moves you.
Recall that part starting in verse 32 about anxieties where the Apostle says: “I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife… the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband. I say this for your own benefit, not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord.”
The crux comes at the end there as this teaching is designed to benefit us and our relationship with God, not to try to restrain us or keep us from experiencing what God has for us. A lot of man-made religious rules seemed designed only to “restrain”: “don’t do this, don’t do that”, but God’s rules are designed to help us flourish – to bloom where we are planted. He wants to free us from the entanglements and anxieties of this world and help us live maturely, with “good order”, devoted to our God-give life’s purpose.
For some, God’s purpose requires you to be married, so He’ll give you desires in that direction and point you to a spouse. For others, it means bucking the trend where the whole world seems to want you to hook up with someone or get married, so you can stay single and flexible. For some, it means staying content at a job you aren’t thrilled with so it can help you do something you couldn’t do otherwise. For others it means leaving your job security so you can have the freedom to do something that God needs you for.
The idea is that we weren’t put on this planet to simply eat, sleep, work, entertain ourselves, reproduce, and die. We were created for so much more. God has given us a purpose and when we make these big and little decisions – from will I marry, what job will I get, who will my friends be, what school will I attend, what will I do in my free time, who will my business partners be, what will my hobbies be – there is a bigger picture to consider. Will they bring more anxiety and restrain me from following God’s plan for my life, or will they be beneficial, promoting good order, and securing my devotion to the Lord?
Most of us don’t think that way. We usually get as far as “Do I like it?” “Is it fun?” “Will it make me money?” “Is she pretty?” “What do others expect me to do?” “What will make me popular?” “Will it be safe?” “Will it make me uncomfortable?” God tells us to expand our thinking beyond these worldly concerns and ask bigger questions: “Will it make me a better follower of Christ?” “Will it help me serve God and others better?” “Does it fit with who God has created me to be?” “Does it help me fulfill my life’s purpose or, even if it looks good, will it distract me from it?”
What a shallow, pointless existence it would be to waste our life pursuing fun, interesting, popular things – and completely miss the entire purpose of our lives.
The Purpose Driven Life
I want now to do doing something I’ve never really done before, and that is read a large selection from a book that has meant a lot to me. This is some selections from the first few pages of Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life”, a book that has helped me in innumerable ways. Please listen as I read this to you – and then go buy or borrow this book and finish it. If you hear nothing else this morning – hear this first sentence:
“It’s not about you. The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. If you want to know why you were placed on this planet, you must begin with God. You were born by his purpose and for his purpose.
The search for the purpose of life has puzzled people for thousands of years. That’s because we typically begin at the wrong starting point—ourselves. We ask self-centered questions like What do I want to be? What should I do with my life? What are my goals, my ambitions, my dreams for my future? But focusing on ourselves will never reveal our life’s purpose. The Bible says, ‘It is God who directs the lives of his creatures; everyone’s life is in his power.’
Contrary to what many popular books, movies, and seminars tell you, you won’t discover your life’s meaning by looking within yourself. You’ve probably tried that already. You didn’t create yourself, so there is no way you can tell yourself what you were created for! If I handed you an invention you had never seen before, you wouldn’t know its purpose, and the invention itself wouldn’t be able to tell you either. Only the creator or the owner’s manual could reveal its purpose.
I once got lost in the mountains. When I stopped to ask for directions to the campsite, I was told, ‘You can’t get there from here. You must start from the other side of the mountain!’ In the same way, you cannot arrive at your life’s purpose by starting with a focus on yourself. You must begin with God, your Creator. You exist only because God wills that you exist. You were made by God and for God—and until you understand that, life will never make sense. It is only in God that we discover our origin, our identity, our meaning, our purpose, our significance, and our destiny. Every other path leads to a dead end.
Many people try to use God for their own self-actualization, but that is a reversal of nature and is doomed to failure. You were made for God, not vice versa, and life is about letting God use you for his purposes, not your using him for your own purpose.…
How, then, do you discover the purpose you were created for? You have only two options. Your first option is speculation. This is what most people choose. They conjecture, they guess, they theorize. When people say, ‘I’ve always thought life is . . . ,’ they mean, ‘This is the best guess I can come up with.’
For thousands of years, brilliant philosophers have discussed and speculated about the meaning of life. Philosophy is an important subject and has its uses, but when it comes to determining the purpose of life, even the wisest philosophers are just guessing.…
Fortunately, there is an alternative to speculation about the meaning and purpose of life. It’s revelation. We can turn to what God has revealed about life in his Word. The easiest way to discover the purpose of an invention is to ask the creator of it. The same is true for discovering your life’s purpose: Ask God….
God is not just the starting point of your life; he is the source of it. To discover the purpose in life you must turn to god’s word, not the world’s wisdom. You must build your life on eternal truths, not pop psychology, success-motivation, or inspirational stories.
The Bible says, ‘It is in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for. Long before we first heard of Christ and got our hopes up, he had his eye on us, had designs on us for glorious living, part of the overall purpose he is working out in everything and everyone.’ This verse gives us three insights into your purpose.
- You discover your identity and purpose through a relationship with Jesus Christ…..
- God was thinking of you long before you ever thought about Him. His purpose for your life predates your conception. He planned it before you existed, without your input. You may choose your career, your spouse, your hobbies, and many other parts of your life, but you don’t get to choose your purpose.
- The purpose of your life fits into a much larger, cosmic purpose that God has designed for eternity….”
Let me close with the words of Jesus from Matthew 6:24-33 where He speaks about anxiety, worry, and focusing on the wrong things – especially focusing on a life worried about money and stuff – but as we saw in 1 Corinthians we can get just as muddled with worries about relationships and other things. Jesus says,
“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
This is one of the hardest things about faith to teach and to practice. The point here is that God knows what you need and what you desire. If you think you need money, your heart is in the wrong place. God knows what you need. The question is, will you seek God’s kingdom and a righteous life first, and trust that God will give you what you need to accomplish it? Or will you leave your faith to the side and pursue the money instead.
If you think you need a girlfriend or boyfriend, or husband or wife, or a better husband or wife, then your heart is in the wrong place. Do you not believe that God knows what you need? If so, then will you seek to live out God’s purpose for you, content where you are, blooming where you are planted, trusting God will give you what you need to accomplish what He has asked you to do? Or will you cast your faith in God aside and pursue a relationship God never intended you to have? Which will bring you greater good and God more glory?
If you think you need a better job, then your heart is in the wrong place. Do you not believe that God knows what you need and desire? If so, then will you make the decision to bloom where you are planted, do the good you are called to do, be the employee God wants you to be, and allow God to decide where to put you? Or will you stay anxious, upset, resentful, and bitter that you aren’t getting your due – cutting corners and complaining, or jumping from place to place – trying to get something God hasn’t given you, that won’t lead to your flourishing? Which will bring God more glory and you more good? (James
God says in James 1:1-3,
“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”
Jesus says, “…[Unbelievers] seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”
This is the second of a two-part series on 1 Corinthians 4, so please open up to 1 Corinthians 4 and let’s read verse 1 to remind ourselves about what we talked about last week. It says, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” This verse gives the summary for the two themes that are captured in the rest of the chapter.
Last week we started off a study of what 1 Corinthians 4 has to say about apostleship by looking at the first aspect, which was that Apostles are “faithful” servants and stewards of their master Jesus Christ. We then drew application from this about the importance of our own commitment to remaining “faithful” to Jesus by not changing what He has said to us in order that we might impress people because it is He who will judge us and not anyone else.
We ended last week with the challenge to go home and ask ourselves why we say what we say and do what we do – to look inside and see if we have moved away from who God wants us to be because of the pressure to conform to those around us.
This week we are looking at the second of the two descriptors Paul uses in verse 1: an apostle is a “steward of the mysteries of God”.
It is in verse 6 Paul makes the transition from talking about the apostles being faithful “servants of Christ” to being faithful “stewards of the mysteries of God”. This is the part that people normally take issue with. Most people have a problem with those who claim to be messengers from God! And rightly so! There has been a lot of abuse by people claiming to speak for God.
Don’t Go Beyond the Bible
In verse 6 Paul says,
“I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”
Essentially, he’s saying, “I might be using myself and Apollos as examples, but that’s not because we are so special – it just happens that we’re the people that you guys are fighting over. The only reason I’m even mentioning us is to remind you that we are of so little importance! When you’re talking about us, arguing about us, and setting us up as your leaders, you’re completely missing the point. Your sole authority is God, the Son of God, the Spirit of God, and the Word of God. You need to stop fighting about us and get back to the Bible. Since you have left the Bible and moved way past what it says, you have gotten yourselves in trouble. Stop going beyond what is written! The reason you have become puffed up, jealous, prideful, and divided, is because you stopped reading and believing in the word of God as it was given to you. Instead, you started listening to false teachers, worldly wisdom, and false apostles who invented things that gave you troubles. I, one of the real apostles, brought you the true Gospel and opened up the mysteries of God as He had told me. I told you about Jesus, the prophets, the Law, and all you needed to know, and it was all in agreement with what God had already written, and you checked me out and then received it as truth. Jesus gives it to me, I give it to you, and then you receive. But then you went beyond it! You started to boast as if you could come up with more things than I told you, that you could learn more about God than what the Bible teaches. Stop that and get back to what you received.”
Now, there are some who would give that a hearty “Amen, preach it brother”, but there is a large swath of people inside and outside the church who don’t see it that way. Where some see the Bible as the foundational, immoveable, God-breathed, bedrock document that teaches humanity everything they need to know about God, salvation, faith, life, religion and priorities – or as Ephesians 2:20-21 puts it, “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”, others see it as more of a starting point.
It was good at one time, but now we’ve moved beyond it. It is for an old era full of foolish ancients, and we are the new, enlightened, modern people who know more and better than they. Maybe there are a few things we can learn, but it’s mostly an untrustworthy jumble of religious nonsense, patriarchal bias, and religious rules that don’t apply to our more progressive and free-thinking society. The Corinthian mindset has not gone away.
I don’t intend to give an apologetic defense of why the Bible is God’s Word this morning, but I will say this – Christians believe that God’s Word is perfect, necessary, unchanging, and universal. It is not to be bargained with, but studied and applied.
We live by what 2 Timothy 3:12-17 says,
“Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
You Are Kings‽
Paul says something really interesting in verse 8 that I want you to see:
“Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you!”
What we see here is some really intense sarcasm directed towards those who think they can go beyond what the prophets and apostles have revealed and discover more and better truths.
The Corinthians were actually on the verge of dismissing the apostles, and therefore the Word of God, altogether. They believed themselves to be better, smarter, holier, and more informed than those whom God had appointed as His chosen messengers.
They, like many churches and Christians today, had done a little studying of the scriptures, had listened to a few sermons, and thought they knew better. They threw out the things they thought were too old, dismissed the authoritative parts people didn’t like, updated some of the stories, edited the controversial parts, and then invented some things to make it more interesting. Just like today.
Keep in mind that the New Testament hadn’t even been written by this time. 1st Corinthians is one of the earliest New Testament letters, so this church didn’t have Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to teach them about Jesus’s life and ministry. They didn’t have the theology of Romans or Hebrews, or the any of the other letters that address important issues. Paul and Apollos had moved away but the church still had the Old Testament, which was more than enough to keep them on the straight and narrow because it tells them a lot about Jesus. But now they had their own home-grown teachers who thought they were hot-stuff, had dropped the Bible, and were coming up with all kinds of crazy things about God, the church, worship, and morality.
So Paul uses sarcasm to call them out saying, “Wow, you guys think you have everything, don’t you? You’ve moved away from the Bible, away from the one, true, apostolic faith, and have come up with your own versions of God and Jesus. You think you’ve got it all nailed down. You’re the rich, kings of the church, outranking us poor, dumb, old apostles.”
Like today, some of these false teachers had changed the gospel message so they could become more popular, and quite frankly, richer from the proceeds of their teaching. They were lie-tellers and apostolic-frauds who lived like kings while Paul and the rest of the apostles who stuck to the truth were suffering.
So next Paul contrasts their life with his. He compares what happens to those who tell the unpopular truth with those who tell popular lies.
The Cost of Apostleship
In verse 9 he contrasts how both of them stand before crowds. The liar stands before his adoring audience, drinking in their praise and filling his pockets, while the true apostles were, “exhibited… like men sentenced to death… a spectacle to the world.” Both stood before crowds, but the Apostle stood in chains, paraded through the streets as prisoners, as Jesus was before his public execution. What a prophetic word showing what would actually happen to many of the apostles.
Being a true apostle of Jesus wasn’t a one-way ticket to easy street. Because of their willingness to preach the true message of Jesus Christ as Saviour, Lord, and God, every apostle was tortured and given the choice to change their story and deny Christ. And all of them chose torture and death instead. Why? Because they knew what they were saying was the truth and they cared more about what Jesus thought than any human authority.
We have a lot of cleaned up versions of the cross around, but crucifixion was the worst possible death imaginable, and there wasn’t just one way to crucify someone. Part of the torture was that they would nail your wrists, feet, and other parts of your body, to the wood and suspend you in many different postures, just for their amusement. If they hung you right-side up, it wouldn’t be long before your arms would give out and your shoulders come out of their sockets. Most would try to put weight on the nail driven through their feet, but couldn’t last long. Some would die from sheer blood loss, others by slowly suffocating as their position and body weight prevented them from taking a full breath, while others died of exposure as they spent days hanging in open air. Many apostles were crucified.
- The Apostles Thaddeus and Simon the Zealot were crucified like Jesus.
- Peter was crucified, upside down, by Emperor Nero. Andrew was scourged, tortuously whipped, and then hung for two days on a cross until he died, preaching to passersby the whole time. James was killed publically by
- Andrew was scourged, tortuously whipped, and then hung for two days on a cross until he died, preaching to passersby the whole time. James was killed publically by
- James was killed publically by sword. Philip was scourged, imprisoned, and then crucified. Bartholomew was beaten by a crowd of unbelievers and then either skinned alive and beheaded or crucified. Thomas was attacked by the leaders of a local religion and run through with a spear. Matthew was killed by a halberd, which is a large
- Philip was scourged, imprisoned, and then crucified. Bartholomew was beaten by a crowd of unbelievers and then either skinned alive and beheaded or crucified. Thomas was attacked by the leaders of a local religion and run through with a spear. Matthew was killed by a halberd, which is a large
- Bartholomew was beaten by a crowd of unbelievers and then either skinned alive and beheaded or crucified. Thomas was attacked by the leaders of a local religion and run through with a spear. Matthew was killed by a halberd, which is a large
- Thomas was attacked by the leaders of a local religion and run through with a spear. Matthew was killed by a halberd, which is a large
- Matthew was killed by a halberd (a large axe) to the back.
- At age 94 the Apostle James was stoned by a crowd of people and then beaten to death with clubs. John, the only one who wasn’t killed, was boiled alive in oil and then sent live in exile on the island of Patmos.
- John, the only one who wasn’t killed, was boiled alive in oil and then sent live in exile on the island of Patmos.
To be called as a Christian is costly – to be called as a Christian Apostle a death sentence.
Paul knew what was coming, and had already experienced some of this. He was there at the stoning of Stephen. He had met with the apostles and had seen the persecutions in Jerusalem and elsewhere. The false apostles and fake Christians would never face that because they didn’t really follow Jesus.
Look at verse 10. The apostles looked like fools for Christ’s sake, but these fakers looked like the wise ones. The apostles gave everything up, went for days without food, were rejected and imprisoned, and were seen as weak, while the well-fed fakers stayed strong and healthy.
“To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands.”
Why? Because they were preaching the truth and they knew it. They cared more about what God said than anyone else, and they knew that they had no right to change the message, no matter what anyone did to them. Their job was to be “faithful” “stewards” of the messages God had given them. Could they have fudged some details to be more popular? Sure! Could they have rounded off some of the hard teachings so that more people would like them? Sure! Could they have said they were lying to avoid torture? Sure. But they wouldn’t! Why? Because they had met Jesus and loved and feared Him more than anyone else!
The call to Apostleship wasn’t a call to popularity and success, but to service and suffering. What did they gain? Very little on earth. They weren’t venerated or held in special esteem for any part of their lives. They lived difficult lives because they knew they had a short time to spread the Gospel before God would call them home and then they would receive their reward. They had met Jesus, talked to Him, had been forgiven and saved from death, and wanted everyone to know Him too. So they traveled, wrote, preached, and faced the worst this world had to offer, so that we might know the truth about salvation through Jesus Christ.
The fakers don’t do that. As vs 12 says, the apostles blessed those who hated them, endured persecution, and begged those who slandered them to listen to the truth. They were treated “like the scum of the earth, the refuse of all things”. The word picture there is that they had become like the stuff you scrape off the bottom of your shoe after walking through a farmer’s field, or the dirt you sweep off the kitchen floor and throw away. The word “refuse” was used to describe the sick and wretched Athenians who, during a plague, would be tossed into the sea to drown in order to appease the gods. Treated as human waste.
The Apostles gave everything up because of their love for and faith in Jesus and desire to pass that message on to us – and were treated like garbage for it, while the fakers pranced along healthy, wealthy and popular.
How Do You Want Me?
Verses 18-21 are very interesting and you can read the authority and love with which he speaks as he lays down a solid, fatherly threat. He says,
“Some are arrogant, as though I were not coming to you. But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power. What do you wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness?”
He writes with the heart of a father who caught his kids throwing a wild party while he was out of town. He says, “You’re acting and speaking like I’m not ever coming back and that you’re going to get away with all this nonsense! Well, unless God Himself stops me, I am definitely making a trip back and we’ll see who the real apostle is and who the false one is. Anyone can say they speak for God¸ but the proof is in the pudding – or better, the proof is in the power.”
Perhaps Paul was calling to their minds what had happened to the occult teacher Elymas when he was in Cyprus and tried to interrupt Paul’s presentation of the Gospel. It says in Acts 13:9-11, “Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked intently at him and said, ‘You son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness, full of all deceit and villainy, will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon you, and you will be blind and unable to see the sun for a time.’ Immediately mist and darkness fell upon him, and he went about seeking people to lead him by the hand.”
“So”, he asks the Corinthians, “do you want the carrot or the stick? Are you going to clean up your house before I get there so I can celebrate with you, or shall I come with rod in hand to clear out the liars, fools and enemies from among you by the power of God?”
Let me close with this: The Apostles are, as Paul says in verse 15, the fathers of our faith. They are the servants of Christ and the stewards of the mysteries of God. There are “countless guides” along the road of this journey called Christianity – pastors, teachers, preachers, elders, disciples, friends, and leaders – but there are very few fathers to our faith. Jesus made these men our spiritual fathers under His authority as our King and Lord, and so, we believers work hard to teach, preach and proclaim the truths they passed along to us – without messing with them. The words of scripture are not old words to be rejected or changed, nor do they bend to our opinions or preferences. They are revelations from God, given to ordinary men, but inspired by God Himself and held together for thousands of years as His consistent message to us about His Son Jesus Christ.
It should anger you that there are still so many false teachers today. It should drive you crazy that there are so many out there who believe lies about Jesus. And it should bring you to guilty repentance for any falsehood and hypocrisy you contain within yourself.
I challenge you to ask yourself. Are you following the full teachings of scripture? Are you willing to suffer for the truth?
If you remember last week, we learned that regardless of what the multitudes of unbelievers in this world think, there really is objective truth and objective morality, and those things were written long, long ago by God Himself. And therefore, despite all of the dramatic changes of opinion which seek to envelop us, and all the forces pulling us towards compromise, there are many things that Christians will not change.
The world around us is redefining itself at a remarkable rate.
- A hundred years ago few homes had a telephone, now almost everyone has access to the wonders of the internet in their pockets.
- In 1915 only a handful of people graduated from high school, and only 1 in 10 doctors had a college education – today you almost need a bachelor’s degree to be hired to flip burgers.
- In 1915 you could get Marijuana and Heroin over the counter from your pharmacist.
In just one generation, we have seen radical changes in the way the world looks and sounds.
- Tattoos used to be reserved for sailors, and piercings for women’s earlobes.
- Children have all but stopped going to the park and riding their bikes all over the neighbourhood – although Pokémon Go seems to have changed that now!
- Television wouldn’t even show a husband and wife in the same bed.
- We didn’t hear the first uncensored swear word until 1999.
- It took until 1971 before the sound of a toilet flush was heard on TV! Now we have Netflix and Game of Thrones.
And that’s just a little scratch off the surface. In an even shorter time, we’ve seen seismic changes in how the world views human sexuality, marriage and family, contraception and abortion, pornography and prostitution, the role of government, multiculturalism, religion, and more. And we’re not merely talking about fads and fashions, but complete reversals on these issues. What was once considered immoral, illegal, disgusting and even dangerous, is now part of our everyday mainstream media and culture.
It was incredible to me (though perhaps it shouldn’t have been) to see a woman at the US Democratic National Convention stand in front of a group of thousands of people and be applauded for having her first child aborted, and encouraging others to do the same. Or to watch prostitutes stand on the steps of the Canadian Parliament and shout how proud they are of their “valuable work”. That’s an incredible change from only a few years ago.
Christians, every day, everywhere, even in our little context here in Beckwith and Carleton Place, are faced with a dramatically and rapidly changing world. We can’t avoid dealing with it.
Last week we talked about the danger and foolishness of dealing with it by setting your moral compass by the “rulers” or authorities of this ages who’s “wisdom” is “doomed to pass away”, but we are to pursue spiritually mature thinking by staying connected to God and His Word.
In the passage of scripture we were looking at, we are reminded that today’s worldly wisdom will not only “pass away”, but those coming up with these new ideas are usually wrong. The quintessential example of how wrong they got it was that when they saw Jesus Christ, instead of seeing the sinless Son of God, they murdered him.
The passage continues and reminds us that if we want to understand what God is doing, then we have to listen to Him, because his plans are often “secret and hidden”, beyond our ability to discern through our own human abilities. No matter how much we study, we will never be able to figure out what God is doing because, as Isaiah 55:9 says, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [God’s] ways higher than [our] ways and [God’s] thoughts than [our] thoughts.”
God’s Plan is a Revealed Plan
But that doesn’t meant that God’s plan is impossible to learn, or His voice impossible to hear. We just can’t get there ourselves. We need help. Please open up to 1 Corinthians 2:9-12.
“But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.”
There’s an important word there that we need to make sure that we see; it’s the word “revealed”. God’s will is a revealed will. God’s plan is a revealed plan. What God has “prepared for those who love him” is “secret and hidden” for most people, but it can be found by those who have received the Spirit of God.
Remember the context. The Corinthian church has been acting like a bunch of immature, unspiritual, babies, and Paul says that as much as he’d like to teach them about “secret and hidden” things of God, he can’t because they’re too immature to listen.
The reason we have Children’s Church, or Sunday School, here is so that those who are unable to understand me – who don’t have the attention span, vocabulary, or maturity to be able to sit through a sermon – can be taught about Jesus at their own level. It’s important that we do that or the children will be both confused and frustrated, and we don’t want that. We speak to them at their level.
The Apostle Paul had spent a year and half teaching the Corinthians, and after he had left, they didn’t grow more mature in their faith, but instead reverted back to acting like spiritual babies. They could barely handle Children’s Church, and would never be able to understand a real, deep, mature Christian lesson.
But, Paul says, these things are absolutely available! Anyone can learn them – but they need to be pursuing spiritual maturity in order to do it. I want to spend next week giving more details about the Holy Spirit, but today we’ll suffice with this: the only way to “comprehend the thoughts of God” is to receive, accept and walk with “the Spirit of God”.
These truths must be “revealed”. We can’t figure them out on our own, no matter how hard we try. He does this through us reading scripture and when we are in prayer – but both require submission to the Holy Spirit for it to work.
Here’s a great example:
In Matthew 16:13-17 it says,
“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’”
A bunch of people had put their heads together and came up with some great theories about who Jesus was, and it was based on a lot of study. Herod and his experts thought that Jesus was John the Baptist come back to life and that rumour spread far and wide. Others thought that Jesus was like one of the prophets of old brought back to life. Elijah had great power, and so did Jesus. Jeremiah had great wisdom, and so did Jesus, so perhaps it was him. But, as good as these guesses were, they were all wrong.
When Jesus turned to ask His group of disciples who they thought He was, it was the bold Simon Peter who spoke up.
“He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
Do you see that? Jesus says, “Peter, you got the right answer, but it wasn’t you who came up with it. It was God who gave that to you. You wouldn’t have come up with that yourself!”
And we know that because within about 6 verses, Peter takes Jesus aside to tell him that He’s never going to be killed or raised from the dead, and Jesus says,
“Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” (Matthew 16:23)
Oh, Peter! When you were listening to God you were right on, but when you started to set your mind on the things of man – the worries you had for your friend, the plans you think you have in your mind, the ways you think Jesus should work, the belief that all suffering is bad – you started working for Satan and hindering the work of God!
Over and over in his letters, the Apostle Paul reminds his readers that everything from his conversion to Christianity to the sermons he preached were not His idea, but came because Jesus acted first. He knew the Old Testament better than anyone and hated Jesus. And yet Jesus save Him and taught him the truth. Jesus shone light in the dark places so Paul could see things that his great, human wisdom and learning, could never reveal. (Gal 1:12, 16; Eph 3:3, 5)
This is something we absolutely need to understand, and is something that I’ve been talking around for a number of weeks. Our human senses, knowledge, and understanding are not enough to figure out what God is doing in our lives, our family, or this world. His truths are revealed to spiritual people in a spiritual way. It is through the pursuit of God’s Spirit, by walking with God, that we are able to discern the secrets and mysteries of His plan.
But most of us still really, really want to believe our human wisdom is enough, which is why we spend more time thinking, talking and reading than praying and meditating. We believe that our abilities are enough to comprehend the mind of God. We think that with enough thought or study or effort, we’ll be able to figure it all out and/or save ourselves without having to trouble God.
When we are presented with a problem, we tend to trust our senses, our feelings, our knowledge, and our understanding. We seek out human experts, human wisdom and human answers for questions that can only be spiritually discerned.
- We are presented with suffering, fear, sadness, and pain, and we want to know why it’s happening and what to do about it. Immediately our minds fly into “human wisdom” mode and we start to try to figure it out. How can we fix this? How can we defeat this? Where does this come from? What do the experts say? How do I feel about it? If I think enough about it, and work hard enough, then I’m sure I’ll figure it all out and be able to make a plan that fixes everything for myself and everyone else.
- Or, maybe we’re presented with fighting, disagreement, and hard-hearts. We want people to either agree with us or all get along, and what do we do? We have imaginary arguments and see if we can outwit them before they even speak. We try to find ways to make everyone happy. We build walls and fences to protect ourselves.
We are surrounded by so-called experts who are full to the brim with answers and worldly wisdom to solve our problems – but most are only digging deeper graves for themselves and their followers.
Notice that the Bible here talks about two different spirits: the “spirit of the world” and “the Spirit who is from God”. Notice also that one is lower-case and the other is capitalized.
There are two ways of confronting these difficult issues, two different spirits we can choose between to trust: one is the “spirit of the world” the other is “the Spirt who comes from God.” You can see these as two different sources of power, or two different God’s we can worship, almost; two different places to find hope and peace.
The “spirit of the world” draws its strength from multiple sources. It draws strength from the wisdom of the world and this age, supposed rulers and experts of today and yesterday. These are the humanists and philosophers who have tried to riddle out human existence without the need for God. And coupled with that it also draws strength from the demonic realm. Remember, it was Satan who first offered Adam and Eve the opportunity to be like God, knowing good and evil. It was a temptation towards human knowledge, human power, worldly wisdom, that didn’t require God. It’s the same temptation we have today when we try to solve our issues or understand this world without God’s help.
The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, comes from God. He is God. He knows the mind of God the Father, and is fully God Himself.
This is not a new message, but one that has been preached for millennia. When you are faced with something in this world, you have two choices: human wisdom coupled with demonic influence, or dependence on the Holy Spirit of God. The question is, which will you choose?
Our Hiding Place
I’ll talk more specifically about what the Holy Spirit offers next week, but for now I want you to consider how you are reacting to what’s going on around you.
The world is rapidly changing – how are you seeking to discern truth from lies, good from evil, positive changes from negative ones? Are you trying to use human wisdom, or are you on your knees before God, reading His word, and asking the Holy Spirit to reveal his truth to you and give you discernment to understand it?
Many of you are in difficult places, struggling with areas of suffering. How are you reacting to it? Are you trying to figure it out yourself? Depending on worldly experts and worldly wisdom? Are you leaning on your friends, spouse, family, and everyone else, in hopes they will give you strength – but not leaning on God? Do your struggles drive you to Jesus and His promise to give you the Holy Spirit to help you “understand the things freely given us by God”, or do your struggles drive you away from Him.
It is the immature believer that runs from God during times of confusion, fear, and struggle. It is the mature believer that runs towards Him for help. Over and over in scripture God is called a “strong tower”, a “refuge”, a “fortress”, a “rock”, a “shield”, a “stronghold” (Prov 18:10, Ps 18:2, 61:3, 2 Samuel 22:3) Over and over, God is called our “hiding place” (Psalm 17:8, 27:5, 32:7, 119:114). The place where we run to and hide when things get tough. Jesus is called the “Saviour” because He saves us!
The world says that your pains are meant to make you stronger so you can handle more things. No! Our changing world, personal struggles, and pains are meant to drive us to Him so He can be our strength and our defender. God gives them us to show us our weakness so we can learn that we need God to handle everything!
What is stopping you from running to Him?
What is keeping you from crying out to your deliverer?
What keeps you from putting aside the wisdom of the world and leaning heavily on the Spirit of God?
What keeps you from confessing your problems to your Christian brothers and sisters and asking them to call out to God with you?
Is it your pride? You want to come up with your own answers? You want to be the one who saves yourself? You want to impress everyone, including God, with how strong and independent you are? Don’t be foolish. That’s the human path of destruction.
Is it your false humility? You think you are too far gone for God’s notice? You think that your prayers are too simple? You think that you need to do something good before God will listen? Then you don’t understand the Good news of the Gospel! To God, you were dead and dumb and His enemy – and He came to save you anyway. He knows the thoughts of your heart, and knows exactly how you feel – because Jesus has felt the same way. And there is nothing you need to do to be worthy of God’s attention – because He’s a good Father who wants nothing more than to have you come to Him.
It actually grieves His heart when you think that you are either too good or too bad for Him to help. It grieves His heart when you refuse to come.
The Prodigal Son
Remember the story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). The son looked at the father and said, “I wish you were dead. Give me my inheritance and I’ll pretend you are. I’m going to go live like the world. I’m going to listen to the world. I’m going to act like I’m not even one of your children. I’m going to take all the blessings you give me, and spend them only on my own selfish desires. Get out of my life, Father… I know better than you!”
And it says that after hitting rock bottom, the son got so sick of what the world was offering that he wanted to go home. But he thought he was unworthy. He wanted to come back and as a lowly servant. Like many people here, he figured his father would be angry because of how they have lived, or because of the neglect of his soul, or because he had made himself unclean, so he thought, maybe he could just scrub pots in the kitchen.
The moment his life changed was the moment he decided, “I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to Him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.’”. So he went home, with a three sentence speech planned, hoping to grovel for some grace.
But how was he greeted? His Father was looking for Him. As soon as the son was in sight, his Father ran out to him, and before the son could even get his little speech out, the Father was yelling at the servants to dress him, clean him, restore him, equip him, celebrate him! He was thrilled beyond belief to have his child with him again!
That’s the kind of God we have! He is the shepherd who leaves the 99 to go searching for the lost one and rejoices when they are found. He is the woman who tears apart the house looking for the one coin she has lost, even though she still has 9. He is the God who is jealous for His people and loves it when they come to Him. And promises, that when we do, He will help us understand what is going on, why it’s happening, and where we can find comfort.
Before the word is on our tongue, He is there, restoring, cleaning, helping, comforting, and embracing us. He’s not angry – He’s thrilled you are there! The Spirit of God has been waiting for you to open up to Him.
Right now, and over the past few weeks, we’ve been working through an extended introduction to the first few verse of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. It begins as most letters began, by stating who the letter was from and who it was to. It reads:
“Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, – To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:1-3)
To get the context for what is happening, it was important that we start out by working through the historical background of the letter, introducing who the Apostle Paul was, where he came from, and what the city of Corinth was like. It’s critically important when we study the scriptures to keep in mind the original audience and intention of the author because that helps us understand what God is trying to say to us these many years later.
But these first few verse, called the “greeting”, is much more than a standard introduction before we get into the meat of the letter. We believe that every word of the Bible is divinely inspired, or “breathed out by God” (2 Tim 3:16). God wasn’t wasting space or beat around the bush when He worked through Paul to write these letters, and therefore it is required that we take every single word as important.
God, through Paul, used some very specific language in His greeting to the church in Corinth, and so we’ve been taking some time to take those words apart and understand them better, because they contain concepts and truths that will keep coming up throughout the rest of the letter.
In the last couple weeks we talked about the importance of Paul reminding the church that his authority wasn’t his own, but God’s. He was an “apostle” (or “official messenger of Christ Jesus”). His job in this letter was to tell them everything that Jesus wanted to say to them. And further, he reminded them that they were “the church of God that is in Corinth.”
To drive this point home Paul uses another important word: “called”. They weren’t Christians because anything they had done, but were “called by the will of God”, “called to be saints”, who in turn “call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Paul’s mission and their existence in Corinth wasn’t their idea, but God’s – and therefore they needed to listen to what He had to say.
But there’s another word here that is critical for our understanding of not only God’s intention for this letter, but our understanding of how salvation through Jesus Christ works. Paul uses the word “sanctified”. Paul says that all Christians, or as it’s put here, everyone who “calls upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”, are “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”.
Sanctification, for Christians, has two important meanings. We covered the first last week. The first meaning gives us our understanding of how we are saved by Jesus on the cross. Jesus took our penalty and became the final, atoning sacrifice, for our sins. Just like in the Old Testament, after we are called by God, or “consecrated”, God purifies us from sin using the blood of Jesus. God makes us fit for His presence by the death and shed blood of Jesus. I covered that last week.
Sanctification in Action
But sanctification has another meaning as well, and this is why we talked about “paradoxes” last week. Sanctification, according to scripture, is both a present reality and a life-long process. Last week I used the term “already, but not yet”. Everyone who is “in Christ”, who believes in Him as their Lord and Saviour, is already perfectly clean before God and there is nothing they need to do in order to achieve perfection. They can’t get any better in God’s eyes, because the full righteousness of Jesus has been given to them. Their ledger is clean, their record deleted, their sins cast as far as the east is from the west. They are perfect in God’s eyes.
However, the other side of sanctification is the life-long work of obeying God, killing our sin, battling our fleshly desires, and trying to become more and more like Jesus every day. Both are present in scripture, and both are a reality for Christians. Both are present in the Corinthian church as well. They were people who believed in Jesus as their saviour but continued to make mistakes were falling into darkness. And so God through Paul, in this greeting and throughout the rest of the letter, reminds them of their present reality of being sanctified saints who have received grace and peace from God. That was presently true. They hadn’t lost their salvation because it wasn’t theirs to lose.
However, they weren’t living like Christians. They had a “religious knowledge” of God, but that knowledge wasn’t being worked out in their lives. While they knew all about salvation through Jesus Christ, they hadn’t let that knowledge sink deep into their hearts and change their behaviour.
Jerry Bridges in his book “The Practice of Godliness” gives an example from 1st Corinthians about how their salvation hadn’t yet captivated their hearts:
“They knew that an idol was nothing and that eating food sacrificed to an idol was a matter of spiritual indifference. But they did not know about their responsibility to love their weaker brother.”
You see, they had faith in Jesus as the one and only God of the universe, and they had put their faith in Him to such an effect that they know understood the foolishness of idols, had turned away from pagan beliefs, and would even argue against and defy the culture around them – but their hearts weren’t soft toward their fellow believer who was struggling with their faith and had concerns, and it hadn’t changed their behaviour towards one another.
Do you see the difference? They had head knowledge of salvation, and had even given their lives to Jesus – so I believe they were saved – but they hadn’t yet reached the maturity of faith where the grace they had been shown was being poured out to others.
Perhaps you’ve experienced this – religion without grace, rules without relationship, wrath without mercy. There are a lot of people who have turned away from Christianity because of hard-hearted churches who know the truth about God, but don’t show His love.
Maybe you even struggle with this. You know the truth, read the scriptures, believe in Jesus, but instead of having that knowledge settle in your heart and change your behaviour towards those around you, you keep it all in your head or use that knowledge to beat people up.
This is where the second part of sanctification comes in. We are already made right with God through the miracle of salvation through Jesus Christ and have been turned into a new creation by His Holy Spirit, but now we must do the work that comes with living out that new reality.
To start, I want to talk about two mistakes people make when thinking about this, and then I want to make a biblical case for why we need to do the work of sanctification. Why? Because a lot of Christians get this wrong, and they get it wrong in two important ways.
The first way they get it wrong is to not take their sanctification seriously. They assume that God doesn’t care if they do the work of sanctification (Rom 6:22; 1 Thess 4:3), which we can also call pursuing “godliness” (1 Tim 4:8) or “holiness” (2 Cor 7:1; 1 Thess 4:4) or “purity” (1 Tim 4:12) or “Christlikeness” (1 Cor 11:1; Rom 8:29).
They assume that since they have the head-knowledge of salvation, then God is pleased. They believe what they’re supposed to believe, go to church, say their prayers, read their Bible sometimes, and are generally good people, so, they conclude, God must be happy with them. They compare themselves to others and think, “Well, I’m not a murderer, or a thief, or a whatever, so God must be ok with me.” They know that there are a few things they could change, like they eat, or yell, or spend, or gossip a little too much, or have a lust problem, but no one’s perfect and no one is getting hurt, so it’s not really a problem, right? So they conclude, it must not really bother God either.
This is a total misunderstanding of the holiness of God. God wants His people to be holy as He is holy (1 Peter 1:16), perfect as He is perfect (Matthew 5:48). He wants us to live by His standards.
“As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy.’” (1 Peter 1:14-16)
“Therefore, since we have these promises, dear friends, let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God.” (2 Corinthians 7:1)
That’s God’s standard for His people. He cares very much for how we live. He knows the danger of sin and doesn’t want His children to be affected by it anymore. Just as a good parent or friend wants the best for the person they care about, so God wants the best for us. He doesn’t want us living lives of compromise and apathy towards evil.
For a Christian, every moment of every day is an opportunity to bring worship to God – there are no unsanctified moments in a Christian’s life. For a Christian, every place is holy because God is there, and every part of our life is a matter of holiness because it can be offered to God. That’s why Paul says in Romans 12:1-2,
“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
God cares very much about how we live every part of our life, and that we show discernment to know right and wrong.
The second way Christians get sanctification wrong is to think that God is going to do all the work. Let me read from Bridges again,
“We Christians may be very disciplined and industrious in our business, our studies, our home, or even our minister, but we tend to be lazy when it comes to exercise in our own spiritual lives. We would much rather pray, ‘Lord, make me godly,’ and expect him to ‘pour’ some godliness into our souls in some mysterious way. God does in fact work in a mysterious way to make us godly, but he does not do this apart from the fulfillment of our own personal responsibility. We are to train ourselves to be Godly.”
I think he’s exactly right! And, I’m as guilty as anyone else for asking God to just change me and then expecting Him to do it in a miraculous way without me actually lifting a finger. “God, make me more disciplined. God, fix my marriage. God, make me a better parent. God, make me pray and read my Bible. God, take away my lust, my pride, my greed, my anger, my bitterness.” And then I say “amen”, stand up, and do exactly nothing to sanctify, or purify, or cleanse, my life. I pour the same chemicals into my body, watch the same shows, harbor the same bitterness, keep the same calendar…. I do nothing to pursue a holy and changed life, and then I blame God for not changing me.
A Biblical Case for Pursuing Sanctification
Bridges said, “We are to train ourselves to be Godly.” Where does he get that? Scripture. He’s quoting 1 Timothy 4:7. I was absolutely floored this week as I came across verse after verse that commands Christians to partner with God in the pursuit of godliness, purity and sanctification!
Let me give you a few examples. First, let’s look at 1 Timothy 4:6-16. If you’ve ever played sports – I used to play a lot of Fastball – then this is going to sound very familiar to you, because when Paul is telling his young disciple Timothy how to conduct himself as a leader in the church he talks to him like a sports coach talking to one of his players. He says, almost literally: learn the rule book, do your exercises, get lots of practice, be a good example for your teammates and give it your best. It’s standard coach stuff. Read with me:
“If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. Command and teach these things. Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Over and over and over Paul reminds Timothy that even though his “hope is set on the living God, who is the saviour of all people”, he must also work hard towards pursuing a life worthy of that call. The Bible presents the Christian life as a dualism of being a partnership between the power of God and our personal responsibility. “Timothy was personally responsible for his progress in godliness” and so are we. Notice what Paul didn’t say. He didn’t say, “Trust in the Lord Jesus enough and He’ll do all the work for you. Just relax and let God clean up your life.” No, Paul embraced the paradox of sanctification, just as we must. He knew that any progress that we make in purity and godliness is certainly through God’s power, but that we also have the responsibility to keep pursuing, training, toiling, striving, and persisting in these things? Why? Because our sanctification is a natural outworking of our faith and has ripple effects on everyone around us.
Scripture absolutely pounds this home over and over. Philippians 2:12-13 shows us this paradox again,
“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
The idea of putting the effort into our sanctification is found over and over.
- King David said it this way in Psalm 63:1, “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you…”
- The author of Hebrews tells the church in 12:11-14, “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
- In Luke 13:24, Jesus says, “Strive to enter by the narrow door…”
- Paul at the end of his life said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” (2 Tim 4:7)
Turn to 2 Peter 1:3-10 and let’s read how Peter exhorts the church as well. He starts with a reminder of their salvation and their sanctification through Jesus Christ, and then moves straight into their personal responsibility:
“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins. Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall.”
We have “escaped corruption” by “His divine power”, and that gives is everything we need to pursue “godliness”. He even goes as far as to say we are “partakers of the divine nature”. You see, that’s the first part of sanctification. We are already seated with Christ!
But then he says this: “For this very reason”… what reason?… Because we are saved and sanctified by Jesus…. “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith…” What does that mean? Just like when we talked about the Corinthians, Peter is telling Christians to not only confess Jesus as Lord with their words and believe it in their minds but to allow that truth to completely change the way they live their lives.
We are not saved by pursuing godliness. No one can be saved by their own good works (Eph 2:8-9). But we show that we are called and cleansed, saved and sanctified, by making the effort to live out that faith every day. Titus 1:1 calls it the “knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness”. We know the truth, the truth sets us free, and we live in that truth.
Two Motivations to Pursue Sanctification: Fear and Love
There is so much more I want to say about this, but let me close with this. Where does the desire to pursue godliness, sanctification, purity, and holiness come from? Maybe as I’ve been speaking you’ve realized that you really don’t care about how you live and that that’s not a good thing. You don’t feel a passion for purity and holiness, but you want to. Where does that passion come from?
Or maybe you are caught in a sin today and haven’t been able to get free. You’ve tried over and over to conquer it, but it keeps getting the better of you? How can you work to defeat it once and for all?
There are many practical things I could tell you in answer to that question: Things like pray, read your bible, set up boundaries, find different friends, change your schedule, get rid of the thing that tempts you, find accountability partners, etc. But that’s not where the root of a desire for personal sanctification really lies. It’s not in our activities, but in our hearts.
Paul, throughout 1st Corinthians, gives a lot of practical advice, but he always roots it in one place: their relationship with God through Jesus Christ – and for a Christian, that comes down to two things, two polarities, of our faith: Our love for God and our fear of God.
Throughout the book Paul keeps reminding them of the love they’ve been shown, grace they’ve been given, the peace they now have, the calling they received, and the Spirit that now dwells inside them because they are God’s people. He said this as a motivation to stop sinning. “God loves you, Jesus loves you, the Holy Spirit loves you! He chose you, cleansed you, and is with you forever. Why would you work for His enemy? Why would you divide His church? Why would you insult His apostles? Why would you profane His table? Why would you hurt each other?”
That’s one of our main motivations to seek purity, holiness, godliness, and sanctification – because of the great love we have been shown by God, and our desire to love Him back. We hate sin because our Heavenly Father hates sin. We work to remove the things in our life that separate us from Him because we want to be near Him. We obey His word because He knows what’s best. We hate and work against evil and satanic things because they are an insult to God. We do good things because He has done good for us. We love because He first loved us. That’s one motivator – our knowledge of how much God loves us and our own love for Him.
The second motivator is different. It is our fear of God. Partly this means that when we are about to do something wrong, there is a sense of dread within us “produced by the realization of God’s impending judgement upon sin…. The Christian has been delivered from the fear of the wrath of God. But the Christian has not been delivered from the discipline of God against his sinful conduct, and in this sense, he still fears God. He works out his salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12)…” with a healthy fear of not wanting to incur the discipline of his Heavenly Father.
The other part of fearing God is that we choose not to sin because we respect, honour, and stand in awe of the King of Kings, the Lord of Lords, the Creator and Sustainer of the entire universe. He sits on the throne. He has written the rules for how we live. He created us out of dirt, and will one day return us to the dirt. He controls everything and has the right to tell us what to do.
Some Christians aren’t comfortable with this, but it is an important part of our understanding of God. In fact, it is the non-believer and the pagan that the Bible says, “has no fear of God before his eyes.” (Psalm 36:1, Rom 3:18) Proverbs says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of both knowledge and wisdom. (Prov 1:7, 9:10) When God promised to save Israel from their sins, part of his promise in Jeremiah 32:40 was,
“I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.”
And it’s the same for the church. Acts 9:31 describes the growth of the Christian church this way:
“So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.”
You see, it’s both: Christians walk in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit. Both of these are motivators towards sanctification, motivators to living a holy life – our love for God and our fear of Him.
If you want to kill that sin inside of you, you need to grow in both of these. Grow in your love for God – read His word, talk to Him every day, listen to sermons about how much He loves you and what He has done for you. Ask God to fill your heart with love for Him, and seek ways to acknowledge and remember His love for you every day.
And also grow in your fear of God – realize that if you don’t clean up your act, He may discipline you and that discipline can be quite severe. Remember Ananias and Saphira, who were struck dead right on the steps of the church for lying about their offering. Remember that Paul tells the Corinthians that God has actually brought a sickness because they had desecrated the Lord’s Supper.
Remember what it says in Hebrews 12:5-6,
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
The word “chastises” there is also translated “scourges” or “whips”! God doesn’t sit idly by when His people disobey, fall to temptation, and start playing Satan’s game. No, as a good parent, He gets involved and sometimes even brings painful discipline meant to drive us away from the sin that is harming us and others. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do and He loves us. It would be cruel of Him to leave us alone.
My encouragement to you today is to take your sanctification seriously, and you can start to do that by cultivating a greater love for and fear of God. How? Read His word and take it seriously. Examine your life and ask God to point out the parts that are wrong and commit to changing them – because you love Him and because you don’t want to be scourged!
 William Law, “Call to a Devout Life”
 Practice of Godliness pg 42
 Practice of Godliness Pg 25.
Confronting people’s sin isn’t very popular these days. More and more the world is handing out excuses rather than judgements and punishments. It’s not that I’m advocating for the return of the Salem Witch trials or the Spanish Inquisition, but I do believe that we have lost something incredibly important to human society when we are no longer able (or allowed) to call out evil and declare something a sin.
Even our movies have changed. It used to be that we knew the bad guy because he had the black hat and twirly mustache. He didn’t need much of a back-story – he was the bad guy. “Once upon a time there was a witch who hated everyone…” or “Once upon a time a young girl was sent to visit her grandmother’s house, but when she got there her grandmother was replaced by a wolf…” was plenty enough information for us to know that the witch and the wolf were bad guys.
Not anymore. Now the witch and the wolf have backstories that explain why they went bad. The witch was hurt by an untrustworthy boy she liked, and the wolf came from a broken home in a bad neighbourhood. Implicit in these backstories is that everyone has an excuse for why they do what they do – nothing is their fault. They are merely a product of a broken system. If they had grown up in a different place, with good education and the right meds, then they would be just fine.
Words and stories are very powerful things because they shape our worldview. And if we get rid of words like right and wrong, good and evil, sin and righteousness, then we end up rewriting our understanding of the greatest problem in this world and losing sight of what must be done to change it. If our greatest problem is sin, and the solution is Jesus, then we need to be able to declare that sin exists. But what happens when we stop using the word sin? How can we get to the solution, when we’ve changed what we think the problem is?
Consider the fact that we’ve all but lost the categories for sin today. Last week I read a passage from Galatians 5 which outlined a whole list of sins that God says we need to take seriously, because when we commit these sins we show that we are out of step with Him and are working against His Spirit. The passage went like this:
“Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal 5:19-21)
Now that sounds bad when you use those words, right? “Not inheriting the Kingdom of God” is a big deal, right? This is a problem that needs solving! We need Jesus to fix this!
Well, let’s modernize them and see what happens.
- First, let’s turn “sexual immorality, impurity and sensuality” into “expressing your feelings for someone in a natural way”, “a healthy expression of one’s inner desires”, “dating” and the ever-popular, “safe sex.” That way we can turn something like “adultery” into “a love affair” (that sounds nice, doesn’t it) or “finding my soul mate during a troubled marriage”.
- Next let’s turn “idolatry” into “consumerism”, “a beautiful expression of culture.” and “personal religious constructs”.
- We’ll turn “sorcery” into “silly superstitions”, “using pharmaceuticals to improve life”, “being in touch with mother nature” or “living a naturalistic lifestyle”.
- We’ll change “enmity”, “strife”, “jealousy”, “fits of anger” and “rivalries”, “dissensions” and “divisions” into “having a competitive spirit”, “wanting to be the best you can be”, “winning at all costs”, “survival of the fittest” or simply “being passionate about excellence”.
- We’ll turn “envy” into “looking up to someone more successful than you”, “wanting to get what you deserve.”
- And finally “drunkenness” and “orgies” can become “getting a little carried away at a fun party”.
Ok, so let’s summarize, and we’ll use the modern translation that we’ve just come up with:
“Now, the works of the flesh are… expressing your natural feelings for someone, sharing in the beauty of your culture, living a natural lifestyle, being passionate about excellence, looking up to people more successful than you, and having fun at parties… those who do such things (?) will not inherit the kingdom of God…”
Now, that sounds a little harsh doesn’t it? How can God be against people expressing our feelings, sharing beauty, living naturally, pursuing excellence, and having fun?! Do you see why words are important and how dangerous it is that we are living in a culture that won’t call sin sin?
What we’re about to study today is a passage known as the “Woe to the Chaldeans” and it’s all about calling out sin. We talked a bit about this last week, but I want you to remember the context. This intense section of scripture is full of hard language and threats, but is there for a reason. It’s pointing out how much God hates sin – which is what we talked about last week – but also how He intends to deal with it. Some people are going to be disciplined, others punished. No one will get away with anything.
Christians love to sing “Amazing Grace how sweet the sound”, but in order to understand the first part, we need to understand the “that saved a wretch like me” part. In order to understand forgiveness we need to see what we’ve been forgiven for. In order to understand mercy, we need to see the wrath from which we were spared. In order to comprehend the amazing love of God for His people, and the sacrifice of His Son on our behalf, we have to come face to face with the depth of our sin and depravity, and the weight of judgement that faces each person that doesn’t know Jesus as their Saviour and Lord. It’s awesome to talk about amazing grace, but it only makes sense in the light of knowing we are wretches first.
So, as we look at this, let’s keep the context in mind. Habakkuk, a priest in God’s temple, was living in a nation that was almost totally corrupt. Suffering, injustice, violence and sin were everywhere. His heart is breaking and he starts to pray, asking God why He’s not doing anything about it. God sends Habakkuk a vision that explains to him and us how he plans to deal with the sin of His people and, by extension, the sins of the world. God says his plan is to discipline his people by sending their enemy, the Chaldeans (later called the Babylonians), to wipe out Jerusalem and drag the people off into captivity for 70 years.
Habakkuk, a priest in God’s temple, was living in a nation that was almost totally corrupt. Suffering, injustice, violence and sin were everywhere. His heart is breaking and he starts to pray, asking God why He’s not doing anything about it. God sends Habakkuk a vision that explains to him and us how he plans to deal with the sin of His people and, by extension, the sins of the world. God says his plan is to discipline his people by sending their enemy, the Chaldeans (later called the Babylonians), to wipe out Jerusalem and drag the people off into captivity for 70 years.
Habakkuk asks a follow-up question, wondering how God could justify using a greater evil to punish a lesser one: “Why would he use the pagan Chaldeans to punish the lesser wrongs of Israel? Why should the Chaldeans get away with being evil when Israel won’t?”
God’s answer is that He is a God of justice and that no one will be getting away with anything! He’s going to use the Chaldeans as a rod of discipline against His children, and then make sure that the Chaldeans receive their judgement for their sin too. God isn’t slow to act, nor has He forgotten. He’s been patiently waiting for His people to repent, but they won’t. And while they’ve been rejecting Him and His prophets, He’s been preparing the world for a change of empires – the rise of the Babylonians – who though they don’t even believe in Him, God intends to use bring Himself glory and bring salvation to His people.
Last week we talked about the inner workings, the heart, of the Chaldeans – their pride, addiction and greed – and now this week we’re going to get in the specifics of God’s problem with them.
What I want to do over the next few weeks is look at the passage in context and then extrapolate out what those sins would look like today because God’s standards haven’t changed.
The big take-away from this sermon, I hope, is that God is very serious about sin, and we need to be serious about it too. And, perhaps the second take-away is that even when the world seems very dark, God isn’t being idle – He’s being patient – and He’s preparing the world for something even greater. Let’s turn to Habakkuk 2:6-20 and let’s read the passage together and then take it apart piece by piece.
“Shall not all these take up their taunt against him, with scoffing and riddles for him, and say, ‘Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own—for how long?—and loads himself with pledges!’ Will not your debtors suddenly arise, and those awake who will make you tremble? Then you will be spoil for them. Because you have plundered many nations, all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them.
‘Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house, to set his nest on high, to be safe from the reach of harm! You have devised shame for your house by cutting off many peoples; you have forfeited your life. For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the woodwork respond.
‘Woe to him who builds a town with blood and founds a city on iniquity! Behold, is it not from the LORD of hosts that peoples labor merely for fire, and nations weary themselves for nothing? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
‘Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—you pour out your wrath and make them drunk, in order to gaze at their nakedness! You will have your fill of shame instead of glory. Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision! The cup in the LORD’s right hand will come around to you, and utter shame will come upon your glory! The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, as will the destruction of the beasts that terrified them, for the blood of man and violence to the earth, to cities and all who dwell in them.
‘What profit is an idol when its maker has shaped it, a metal image, a teacher of lies? For its maker trusts in his own creation when he makes speechless idols! Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake; to a silent stone, Arise! Can this teach? Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, and there is no breath at all in it. But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.’” (Habakkuk 2:6-20)
What are Woes
There are five woes and I want to look at each of them, but first, let’s answer the question: What is a “Woe”?
A “Woe” is a declaration of judgement for the miserable, deplorable condition of the one being addressed. It is not a good thing to receive a “woe”. Someone receiving a “woe” is most often living in a fantasy world, thinking they are doing well, when in fact they are utterly wretched and blind to the truth. They are self-satisfied, and don’t realize their spiritual condition, or the future that awaits them.
A “woe” is a pronouncement of judgement and a warning to someone who thinks they’re doing just fine, and they are found throughout scripture. In Matthew 23 Jesus pronounced woes on the Scribes and Pharisees who thought themselves to be so great and holy, but were in fact under the terrible judgement of God, destined for hell. It’s an expression of grief at the terrible condition of the sinner – people that are so utterly lost, they don’t even know it.
I want today’s message to serve as a sort of woe to each one of us, and perhaps to our friends and neighbours too. I hope that as we read this passage, we will have a realization of the depths of our sin problem and God’s hatred of it. We are far too comfortable with our sin, and it gets us into great trouble. We make excuses for it, play with it, think it no big deal, and start to think that God doesn’t care about it either. We desperately need the conviction of God and the knowledge of our sin, or we won’t come to Jesus. As long as we think ourselves righteous and good – perhaps only needing a little divine help here or there – we will not be on our face asking God for daily forgiveness and crying out in need for His love and presence.
I believe that desire starts with the acknowledgement that we are sinners and that there are serious consequences for our sins: for the believer and the unbeliever! Woe to any of us who do not listen to these words and not feel the weight of conviction on our souls and desire to come before God in repentance. If you can read these words and not feel some kind of conviction, then there is something wrong with your soul.
Ok, so let’s get into them:
The First Woe: Greed
“Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own—for how long?—and loads himself with pledges!’”
The first woe is against this nation’s greed. We talked about this last week. Their pride, fueled by drunkenness led to addiction which gave birth to an unquenchable greed. Woe to the one who keeps hoarding things they cannot pay for. Notice that these things aren’t theirs!
The first woe is against this nation’s greed. We talked about this last week. Their pride, fueled by drunkenness led to addiction which gave birth to an unquenchable greed. Woe to the one who keeps hoarding things they cannot pay for. Notice that these things aren’t theirs!
This isn’t a woe against materialism, ownership, or having nice things. This woe is specifically against those who take things from others that aren’t theirs. They didn’t work for what they had, they took it from others. They weren’t spending their own money, they were spending other people’s money.
The term “loaded himself with pledges” is a figurative term meaning that these conquering Chaldeans (or Babylonians) weren’t the owners of what they had, but were merely borrowing it. They were extorting money from people, seizing their land by force, and using military might to make their victims into slaves. Woe to them, God says, because that loan is going to be paid back!
What goes around comes around and all of the borrowing you’ve done is going to be taken back. A larger nation will take it from you and give it back – which is exactly what happened when the Persians conquered the Babylonians.
Their sin was greed. They wanted someone else to do the work for them so they could come and take it. They stole other nation’s homes, lands, cities, walls, cattle, money, and people. Instead of building, they plundered. Instead of working, they conquered.
The Chaldeans were doing this on a national level, but we do this on a personal level all the time. Consider the explosion of Credit Card debt we have today. According to a few news articles I read this week, consumer debt is at an all-time high. We might be in a recession, but that hasn’t stopped us from filling up our credit cards and getting new loans from the bank. And it’s not for food and shelter. The big costs, according to the Globe and Mail, are Restaurants, Cars, Home Improvement, and New Furniture. According to the CBC, the debt-to-income ratio for Canadian households is 163.3 percent. That means that for every dollar we earn, we owe $1.64 in debt. If that’s not greed, I don’t know what is. It’s the same thing!
The thievery and conquering of the Chaldean armies is phrased in the language of loans and pledges because they didn’t own any of it! It was merely borrowed from other nations, and ultimately borrowed from God. Their short-sighted thinking had them believing that this world was about the accumulation of good for pleasure, no matter how they got it. And their decision was to take what they wanted from others.
The Gospel Consequences of Greed
Our society runs on the back of this kind of greed. Credit cards, high-interest pay-day loans, tax fraud and evasion, and more, are crippling our society today – and the church. Let’s take a minute to consider the terrible consequences to living a lifestyle of greed, consumerism and debt. Being greedy and seeking to accumulate things you aren’t willing to work for has some huge consequences to your life, family and ministry.
Let me ask you a few questions:
Are you making decisions with your money, or is your debt making decision for you? Proverbs 22:7 says, “… the borrower is the slave of the lender.” What that means is that once you are in debt, you lose a lot of your ability to make decisions.
If God were to call you to give generously to help someone who needs your help today, could you? Or is your money tied up in paying off the debts you have after buying things you don’t need?
If God asked you to pick up stakes and serve Him somewhere else, could you? Or have the decisions you’ve made with your money got you pinned down and unable to be flexible with your future. You have to say, “No God, don’t ask me to do that, I just can’t.”
Do you feel the pull to volunteer more of your time or give more of your energies to your church or your community, but can’t because you need to spend more time at work?
Has it ever crossed your mind that you are doing your family a disservice by working so much – that you need to either pull back the hours, get a different job, or quit altogether – but you can’t because you have too many debts to pay? You feel the pull to be a better parent, grandparent, grandchild, uncle, aunt, brother or sister – and know that you need to make a change, but you can’t because you decided to buy something you didn’t really need.
You’ve made yourself a “slave to the lender”. Your greed has caused you to take something that wasn’t yours. You, like the Chaldeans, have used money that isn’t yours to accumulate things for yourself you weren’t intended to have. You didn’t work and save for them, but instead got someone else to do the work for you.
God is no longer making decisions in your life, and neither are you. The Bank is deciding how many hours you work. Master Card is deciding how great a priority your family is to you. The loan company is your master now, and they get to tell you where you can live and what you can do with your time.
Debt makes you a slave! God’s woe to the Chaldeans was that the ones that they have borrowed from would rise up and destroy them. They thought that their conquering and accumulation would bring them happiness, but all it did was create the opportunity for their enemies to destroy them. It made them gluttonous and weak. It’s the same thing today.
Satan loves it when God’s people are greedy and in debt. It paralyzes them. As long as they are spending their money on themselves and digging themselves into financial ruin, then they aren’t spending their money on acts of mercy, giving generously, sharing with others, or spreading the gospel. He loves it when we’re being greedy and in debt.
So that was the first of the five woes, and that’s all we’re going to cover today. Let me close with the words of Jesus regarding the importance of being faithful with our money. This is found in Luke 16:10-13 and comes after the parable of the dishonest manager. Jesus says:
“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” (Luke 16:10-13)
Being greedy and living in constant debt isn’t just a money issue – it declares a spiritual truth. It shows God that He’s not our Master or our God, someone else is. It shows that our priorities are out of whack. It shows that we care more for the things in this world than the people in it.
As a church, we cry out to God to use us for His glory and ask Him why He won’t give us more and more opportunities to obey Him. Is it possible that His answer is, “I gave you a few little things to take care of – a little pile of money, a little house, a little family – and you used it dishonestly and unfaithfully. Why would I entrust you with true riches?
I gave you everything you needed, but you didn’t think it was enough, so you borrowed more from pagans and non-believers. You felt that they were better providers than Me. And now, because of your debt to them, you serve them… and cannot wholly serve me.”
I encourage you to pray about this. Are there any changes you need to make financially? Is there anything you need to take back to the store or sell because you couldn’t afford it? Do you need to ask God’s forgiveness for seeking things He didn’t want to give you? Have you been greedy? Are you being faithful with your finances?
Please open up to Habakkuk 2, and as you get there let me give you a quick reminder of what we’ve covered so far.
Habakkuk is a book that show us a conversation between God and one of his prophets about the incredibly sinful things he’s seeing around him. His whole nation was corrupt and He wanted to know what God was going to do about it.
Habakkuk’s first question was one that we’ve all asked, “Why are all these bad things happening to us and what are you going to do about it?” God’s answer was, “I see the bad that is happening and my plan to deal with it is to discipline my people by destroying their city and sending them into captivity.” Habakkuk then asks the follow up question, “Ok, God, I know that you are good and just and hate sin, so how can you use people as utterly sinful as the Chaldeans to punish Israel – which though sinful, isn’t nearly as bad as they are? It seems unfair that you would use a greater evil to correct a lesser one.”
Then, as we ended last week, Habakkuk closed his mouth and went to sit and wait for God’s answer. Today we catch up with the prophet, sitting in the watchtower, waiting for God explain how God uses evil to bring about good. But as happened last week, God’s answer wasn’t exactly direct.
Let’s open up to Habakkuk 2:2-4 and read the first part of God’s answer to Habakkuk. But once again, realize that God isn’t about to give a direct answer. No, instead He’s going to get to the heart of the issue instead.
“And the LORD answered me: ‘Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay. Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.”
The Disparity Gospel
Habakkuk really strikes close to our hearts, doesn’t it? We all suffer. We all want to know the answer to Habakkuk’s questions, right? We’ve all wondered Why God would use destruction to build people up, why He would use physical or mental illness to bring about spiritual health, why God would crush someone before making them well, why God would ordain (or plan out in advance) that His people would suffer. Why is that the way the world works? Surely there must be a better way!
I titled this message “Life Sucks and Then You Die” to be a little provocative, but also because it’s sort of true. Life does suck a lot of times, doesn’t it? Suffering and evil isn’t something that we usually talk about out in the open, is it? I’m supposed to be up here giving you the good news, aren’t I? My kids often accuse me of being “Mr. Bad News” and tell me I spend way too long telling people how bad they are and how bad the world is and not enough time telling them the good news. They’re probably right, but I think it might be because God has set me up as a counterbalance to the prosperity gospel.
I think I might be preaching the Disparity Gospel. Not as in my job is to bring you to despair… Disparity means “lack of parity” or “lack of equality”, a “lack of fairness”. Where the prosperity gospel preachers say that God wants you to have your best life now and that if you follow him all your worldly dreams to come true, I preach the disparity gospel that reminds people that this world isn’t fair and has a lot of suffering and inequality in it. The wicked prosper, the righteous suffer. Good deeds are punished, and criminals run free. Healthy people suddenly drop dead, and people that abuse their bodies for years continue on. It’s not fair.
And as I read Habakkuk, I’m reminded how unfair, disjointed and frustrating life is. But that’s close to our hearts too, isn’t it? I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I stood up here and said that life is always great, that the life of a believer is always happy, and that Jesus wants you to have your best life now – because that’s just not true.
Yes, without question, God made this world a good place. James says that God is not the author of evil or temptation, and that every good thing in this world is a gift from above. God fills this world with light and hope. He is the glorious one who makes this life worth living. (James 1:13-17)
The book of Ecclesiastes, as hopeless and frustrated as the author is, continuously reminds us that the normalcy of life is still good. We work, we live, we play, we sing, we dance, we eat and drink, and we live under the brightness of the sun. There is a lot of good in this world, and we are right to rejoice in it.
It proves that the curse of sin that came through Adam and Eve is not complete. God has given us common grace and abundant love. Much of life is good and wonderful and even happy. But – not always. Sometimes life kicks you in the shins. The question is, during those times, how are we going to respond?
The Dangers of Avoiding Suffering: Some Examples
Part of studying Habakkuk is to realize that suffering is normal and it’s good for us to accept that and then bring our big questions about suffering and evil to God. Habakkuk is just asking a normal, human questions.
We all hate suffering, don’t we? I know, that’s a weird question to ask. No one likes suffering! No one wants to suffer. But let me make a quick point here before we dig into the scripture: That I think we’ve forgotten that suffering has an important role in this world. We are right to be joyful and happy during the good times – but I think we’ve forgotten that God’s good plans for us sometimes include times of suffering.
The society around us disagrees completely. In fact, they disagree so profoundly, that people are literally killing themselves in an attempt to completely eliminate suffering from their lives.
Let me give you an example: The New York Times published an article recently that said that the death rates of young white adults in the US is climbing. We have better and more access to medicine than any time in history, but now these young people are dying faster than they have since the 1970s. Why? Because of drug overdoses and suicides. Here’s a quote:
“Rising rates of overdose deaths and suicide appear to have erased the benefits from advances in medical treatment for most age groups of whites.”
In other words, the amount of people that are being saved by new medical technology from diseases are cancelled out by those who are dying from overdosing on drugs or committing suicide.
They want to avoid pain so much that they are literally killing themselves.
Or consider the rise of abortion and euthanasia (or doctor existing suicide) in Canada. Instead of caring for babies and the elderly, our most the vulnerable citizens, we have decided to get rid of them instead. The thinking is that if the existence of the baby causes any form of suffering to the mother – including physical, mental or financial – then it should be killed. We avoid suffering via murdering someone else.
And, if the “quality of life” of an elderly person isn’t up to their standards – in other words, if they are suffering in any way they feel is too much – whether that’s physical, emotional or financial – then they should be allowed to kill themselves to alleviate the suffering. Our society is fleeing suffering at all costs – even the cost of human lives.
Consider this: There’s also the growing epidemic of addiction to prescription pain killers. What do we do if we get a headache? Grab a pill. If our back hurts? Grab a pill. The thinking is that pain is always bad. We should always avoid pain. Even Christians are caught up in this. We avoid alcohol, smoking, even caffeine, because we see them as potentially addictive and dangerous – but then we go to the doctor and he gives us a jar of narcotics which we munch down with delight because it helps us avoid pain.
And of course, I have to mention the utter stupidity of the Government of Canada considering the legalization of marijuana. There are people in Canada who want to be allowed to take a drug that is known to alter their senses, deadens their brain, and affects their memories. I read a while ago that they’re even looking into perfecting a pill that works by eliminating bad memories from the brain altogether. Take the pill, wipe out the bad memory.
And this idea of fleeing suffering at all costs goes even further. We’re completely losing our ability to judge right and wrong anymore. We can’t tell anyone that their sin is hurting them and others, because we might offend them – and to cause anyone any kind of emotional pain, even if the motivation was to help someone, is becoming tantamount to a crime.
Do you know what you call someone who can’t feel pain? A leper. It’s a disease. We need pain in our bodies so we can know when something is wrong. Feeling pain is part of being healthy. When we can no longer feel pain, it’s a big problem. We bump into things, cut ourselves, even break a leg, and we won’t know it. We need pain in order to live in this world.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we should go looking for suffering. Nor am I trying to say that all suffering is good. If someone is violently attacked, has a crime committed against them, becomes terribly ill, or is treated unjustly, even God feels pain for that person. He suffers with the suffering. I’m not saying that we should get rid of Tylenol and reject medical help when we go to the hospital. I’m certainly not saying that people who are in pain are closer to God, or worse, that we should cause ourselves pain so we can be closer to God. That’s a heresy called “asceticism”, and it’s addressed in scripture as being wrong.
No, what I’m saying is that we live in a society that will do anything to avoid any kind of pain, and that’s terribly unhealthy! And when we avoid pain at all costs, we miss out on the benefits that come from when God prescribes suffering as a treatment for our spiritual condition. We need to feel the pain so we can know that there’s something wrong with us.
When our first reaction to any kind of pain – physical, emotional or mental – is to turn immediately to anything that will remove that pain as quickly as possible, we do ourselves a disservice.
Suffering & Pain Serves Us
Let me give a few examples:
A friendship or a marriage goes through a rocky patch where there is a lot of arguing and painful conversations. One of the common reactions is to leave the relationship, get a divorce, and find someone else – and then repeat the problem with them. However, God’s will isn’t for us to evacuate when the difficult times come, but to draw closer to Him, and work through the pain to get to the other side where there is deeper love, more respect, a better friendship, and a higher level of understanding for each other. Leaving the pain of working through a difficult relationship time robs us of the joy that was mean tot come later when we worked through it. (I’m not talking about abuse situations!)
Or here’s another example of going through suffering so we can come out better on the other side: God gives us a passion to do something. Say it’s go to the mission field, switch careers, or quit our job and be a stay at home mom. We feel the tug in our heart, and believe it’s God’s will – but it’s going to be hard. It means financial struggles, a total life change, a whole bunch of uncertainty, and perhaps even some very difficult conversations with people who won’t understand. Our natural reaction is to try to avoid the pain – to dip our toe in, realize how hard it’s going to be, and then quit before we get started. Or start doing it, and then compromise our integrity or God’s plan to make it easier. Our refusal to go through the pain of that transition robs us of the blessing of fully obeying God and doing what He has called us to do.
One more example: Say we have a personality issue that we don’t see: we are impatient, or easily angered, or lazy, or lustful, or addicted to something. And God works it out in our life that that area of our life suddenly becomes a huge problem for us. Suddenly life starts to suck, everyone around us seems to be our enemy, and nothing is going right. Our first reaction is to dig into our addictions, avoid the pain, and blame everyone around us. But that’s not what God’s doing. No, He’s trying to show you that your impatience, or anger, or laziness, or lust, or addiction, is growing in you like a cancer, and that it’s going to take your life someday.
And so, like a healthy body, He sends a shot of pain into your life so you can register that something is wrong. And that pain is meant to force you to reevaluate things so you can see clearly and address the issue. It forces you to go to Doctor Jesus to see if He can do something about it. You wouldn’t have come to Jesus otherwise, right? You needed to feel that pain before you would come to Him so He could fix it.
That’s what I’m talking about sometimes God uses suffering to give us a new perspective on life and drive us to Him so we can receive the healing we need.
That’s what he was doing for His people during the Babylonian exile. They were a sick nation that didn’t even know how bad off they were. They were on the edge of spiritual death, and so God caused them pain so they could feel how bad off they were. That pain drove them to despair, but it also drove them to God.
“So He May Run”
In verse 2 God says to Habakkuk, “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it.”
Remember the context: God is sending the Chaldeans to wipe out the city and drag everyone into exile for 70 years. So here we see God doing something very kind for His people. He’s giving the people a chance to get out while they still can. Now, that sounds like He’s giving them a chance to avoid the suffering, but it’s not. What God is doing is telling them to accept the suffering that will come because they are leaving their homeland because God has decreed it. He’s giving them a chance to decrease their suffering through obedience to His word.
Like a skilled surgeon, He’s both inflicting a wound and doing pain management. He tells them to accept the pain of leaving their homes and accepting God’s discipline for their sin, but to leave the town now so they didn’t have to go through the horror of the siege.
God does the same for us now. He puts us into this wonderful world, but then tells us not to get caught up in the joys of it too much. He tells us about the effects of the curse of sin and how to be free from the curse. And then, He gives us the same choice He gave to the people who would listen to Habakkuk’s prophecy: accept the pain and suffering of this life, allowing it to change us into what God wants us to be, or refuse, pretended it’ll be fine, try to avoid the pain, eat, drink and be merry, and then feel the full weight of his wrath.
Either accept God’s plan to use suffering to drive you to Him now, or feel the full weight of greater suffering in hell later. Avoiding the pain of this life is not only physically dangerous, but also spiritually dangerous! If we refuse to allow the pain of guilt and conviction of sin, or the sadness, grief and anger that comes when we are affected by it, we deaden ourselves to the great revelation that God wants to show us! That temporary pain is meant to cause us to hate sin and want righteousness, hate immorality and want good, to flee evil and desire the presence of God. If we avoid feeling guilt, shame or grief, then we will not come to God for relief.
Evil Conquered and Enslaved
But here’s something else. God does something even better. Not only does he use the suffering to bring us to knowledge of sin and desire to be saved, but He actually makes all that suffering work for our good! Nothing is wasted in His economy. That’s why Paul says in Romans 5:3-5 that Christians…
“rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Read Romans 8:35-37:
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
What does it mean to be “more than a conqueror”? It means that the tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, sword, and slaughtering we face all day long won’t just be eliminated – but will actually serve us. Jesus is the conquering king that not only kills the evil in this world and gets rid of our enemies, but actually turns the enemy into our servants! Total, utter, victory! All the schemes of the devil, all the suffering he tries to inflict, not only come to nothing – but end up working out for the good of God’s plan!
It’s a mind boggling thing to process, I know, but it’s amazingly true. Habakkuk asks, “God, how can you use a greater evil to punish a lesser one?” and the answer we read throughout scripture is that God is so utterly perfect that He can even suffering and evil as His servants to bring about goodness and righteousness. The Chaldeans evil will work for good.
Again, this is most perfectly seen in the cross of Christ as humanity committed the worst atrocity imaginable, viciously murdering the perfect Son of God. And yet God used that worst of all evils, and turned it into the greatest good, the greatest gift imaginable. Listen again to Isaiah 53:3-5:
“He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”
So that’s my message for today, and something we all need to remember when suffering comes. So here’s the two things we talked about today:
First: Remember that suffering is an unavoidable part of this world – no matter how hard we try to run from it. Our instinct is to avoid pain at all costs, but that’s not only unhealthy, but doesn’t work for our good in the long term. If you are suffering today, or know someone that is suffering, I want you to remember that suffering is normal, it comes with this world, you are not alone, and it is only temporary. God desires to walk with you every step of the way.
Remember Psalm 23: God doesn’t just keep us in green pastures and still waters. It is in the Valley of the Shadow of Death that we learn that we need not fear evil, and know the comfort of the Good Shepherd. It is sitting at the table in the presence of our greatest enemies that we are covered with God’s blessed oil.
Second: Remember that God allowed this suffering for a purpose. If it’s something you brought on yourself, then it’s there to teach you something about yourself. If it’s something that happened to you, completely beyond your control, then it was given to you by God. I realize that takes a lot of faith and maturity, but it’s absolutely true.
Allow the pain of your suffering to force you to go to Doctor Jesus for help. Allow your suffering to drive you to God. Romans 8:18 says, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.” That means that no matter how bad it feels now, the good that comes after will be exponentially better. Don’t waste your suffering by trying to deny it or avoid it.
If you go to God with your pain, He will do something with it. He’s going to use this terrible, frustrating, difficult time for His glory, your good, and the good of others. He promises to do that! Get into the watchtower and watch for what God will do through this time in your life. You are, right now, surrounded by people who can tell stories of how they have suffered in their life, and how God brought them through it, and how God used it for His glory and their good.