This blog post is based on a sermon that you can listen to HERE.
The Gospels tell two stories of private interactions between Jesus and his disciples that provide a glimpse into the ambitions of Jesus’ closest disciples.
- The Twelve argue among themselves over who is the greatest. (Mark 9:34)
- James and John request the seats either side of Jesus’ throne in his kingdom. (Mark 10:35-37)
In most discussions of these texts that I’ve heard, people generally criticise the disciples for using Jesus to obtain personal gain. This seems valid criticism. The disciples’ motives seem selfish and unholy.
When we arrive at this conclusion, it appears that we now understand the text as a warning against pride and selfishness and we can move on to the next passage. However, I believe that we can glean more from this text before moving on.
We could easily observe the disciples’ behaviour and conclude that the desire to succeed or achieve as a Jesus follower is an improper desire. Instead, we should endeavour to make our goals and ambitions consistent with God’s will.
Greatness is a worthy goal. How we define greatness is vital. Jesus provides a definition in Mark 9:35 “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last,and servant of all.” Importantly, Jesus doesn’t say, “Don’t aspire to greatness.” Rather he describes a holy path to greatness.
James and John made the mistake of seeking something that wasn’t theirs to seek, or even Jesus’ to give. I wonder, if they had asked Jesus to give them the ministry of primary apostolic healers if Jesus wouldn’t have honoured that request.
So how about us?
The idea of spiritual ambitions seems dangerous to most Christians I know. Yes, Paul tells Timothy to identify men that desire the role of shepherd in the church. But if someone starts wanting that role too much, we get nervous. This creates the problem of discerning the difference between ‘ambition’ and ‘excessive ambition’. So more often than not we frown upon ambition as pride and therefore an ungodly attitude.
Fear of ambitious Christians results in churches filled with people who have few goals and dreams for where their faith could take them. Without goals how can a person determine the next step in their faith walk?
This is a long introduction to what I hope will prove to be a helpful list of concrete ambitions Christians can choose. While I recognise the danger of trying to put the Holy Spirit in a box or define his job, I also realise that I don’t function well in the abstract. Simply telling me to, “walk by faith” doesn’t help me very much, I need more definite instructions. So, here are some ideas, and I’d love for you to add some of yours in the comments section below!
Possible Goals for Spiritual Growth
- Read the Bible all the way through.
- Lead a ministry at church.
- Start an NPO to make a difference in the lives of your community.
- Become a small group leader.
- Go on a 24hr silent retreat.
- Baptize someone.
- Go on a mission trip.
- Teach a children’s Bible class
- Increase your giving. (Aim at a specific percentage.)
- Memorize Scripture.
- Read the Bible daily. (Find all sorts of reading plans HERE.)
- Attend a Bible or ministry conference/workshop.
- Raise a godly family.
- Host a small group in your home.
- Take Bible courses from a college. (So many are offered online now.)
- Intentionally encourage someone every day. (Be able to name that person at the end of the day.)
- Make a friend of someone from a different faith background.
- Strive to live in such a way that others will describe you as generous.
- Reach a point where you can honestly say that you love your enemies. In the meantime, pray good things for them and their families.
- Spiritually mentor someone.
- Tell a nonbeliever why you’re a Christian.
- Regularly practice fasting.
- Visit the Holy Land.
- Create a work of art (painting, sculpting, song, poem, whatever) that explores an aspect of your faith.
- Share a meal with all your neighbors (one at a time).
- Identify an organization you can volunteer at regularly.
- Lead a ministry at your church.
- Become a foreign missionary.
- Regularly read the Bible and have spiritual conversations with your grand/children.
- Cook a meal for someone else each month/week. Maybe they eat it with you. Maybe you just deliver it.
- Pray with another person (not always the same person) each week.
- Give money to a mission work, or new church plant in the U.S..
- Make a new friend with someone from a different ethnic background.
- Adopt a college student.
- Read a religious book other than the Bible each year/6 months.
- Become a full-time minister.
- Commit to being an ethical voice in your workplace.
- Raise money for worthy causes.
- Attend every church work day.
- Prioritise Sunday worship with the body of Christ.
- Intentionally express gratitude to someone every day.
- Love your spouse, so that they know it.
Most of these goals take more than a moment to fulfill. They’re something to work towards, to aspire to complete. Because spiritual growth is a process.
I dream of the day when I might ask each member of my congregation, “Which aspect of your walk with God are you working on at the moment?” and they’d have a response that was ambitious rather than guilt-ridden.
This list results from random brainstorming rather than profound meditation. I hope it provides a spark for you set some spiritual goals that you might pursue spiritual greatness by becoming the servant of all.
As Jesus watches Judas walk out the door to betray him and start the dominoes falling that will lead to his death, he gives his disciples a new command, “Love one another.” In saying this Jesus implicitly also tells us, “Let the church love you.” Which of those commands do you find easier?
At Lawson Road we emphasise three “love commands” as part of a theme we call LR-cubed.
- The Great Command – Love the Lord your God. (Matthew 22:37-38)
- The Second Command – Love your neighbour as yourself. (Matthew 22:39)
- A New Command – Love one another. (John 13:34-35)
In this post I’m talking about the new command – Love one another.
I want to come at this command from a different perspective. We rightly think of this command as an attitude for us to integrate into our lives. It’s all about transforming the natural self focus into an other focus, beginning with those closest to us: our spiritual family.
Often overlooked in this command is the assumption that we want to be loved. And that we’ll let people love us.
In our culture there’s a tremendous honor with being a self-made man or woman. We generally value rugged individualism more highly than great collaboration skills. A business launched from a garage gains more acclaim than one that results from years of study and education. This emphasis upon individual achievement encourages our society to hide our weaknesses. Vulnerabilities can only prevent us from achieving our goals.
So allowing ourselves to be loved actually pushes against some deeply ingrained cultural values.
In 2 Corinthians 12:9 Paul wrote about God “But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
God’s strength isn’t made perfect in our self-sufficiency, or our inner strength, or our ability to resist temptation, or desire to “soldier on”. God’s strength becomes evident when we willingly share our limitations and weaknesses, and the areas of our lives where we need God to pick us up.
Is this Faith Development?
Here’s a process I often see. People start coming to church because we’ve got stuff going on in our lives that prompt us to question our bigger picture. The church loves us and helps us work through those issues. We discover our need of God and commit our lives to following Him, accepting Jesus’ sacrifice for the forgiveness of our sins.
Then, once we’ve moved past those initial questions and problems we start to feel like God’s in our life and we should have our stuff together. God’s supposed to have “fixed” me, right? So we begin to keep our problems and struggles to ourselves. We begin to create distinctions between what’s for the church, and what’s personal. Even though deep personal issues may have brought us to this loving church in the first place, we develop a list of private topics that are off limits to others.
As this pattern evolves we paint ourselves into a corner to where we look up one day and say, “I don’t know if I really want the love of the church.” Deep inside we do, but we now realize it’s going to cost us something. And we’ve grown comfortable over here.
We brought in the La-Z-Boy.
We’ve hung a couple of pictures.
I’ve got a flat screen on that wall, book shelf under it.
The coffee pot sits on the bookshelf.
Occasionally, we let people into our corner where we can have a polite conversation, perhaps about the problems a friend’s experiencing, or a book we’ve read recently. Very civil.
We long to share our pain and receive comfort, healing and renewal. In the deep places we long to break out of our corner, but to do so requires some words that we’re not ready to utter:
- Boasting about weakness;
- Confession (James 5:20);
- Submission (Ephesians 5:21);
- Openness; and
Sadly, it’s often more comfortable to be eaten by a La-Z-Boy than to step out of the corner and share our hearts. But the church can never “love each other” if we never acknowledge and share our need for love.
How’s your heart? Will you let the church love you?
In my previous post I linked the problems Paul confronted in 1 Corinthians 1-4 with excessive adoration of Christian authors and teachers on today’s landscape. However, I feel that it’s irresponsible of me to describe a problem without giving some ideas for avoiding it. So here are 4 methods Paul gives us in those same chapters to help us keep our focus on Christ.
1. Remember Your Roots (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)
Christians need to stay humble. This virtue remains as relevant today as 2000 years ago in Corinth. It’s so easy to gloat in our “superior” knowledge.
- “I can’t believe those atheists really think God doesn’t exist! Why don’t we all just pursue anarchy if we’re not following God? What’s the point?”
- “I can’t believe all those scientists really think God didn’t create the universe. Where’d we come from if He didn’t initiate life?”
Then we start picking on each other:
- “Did you hear what Mark Driscoll said the other week? Crazy!!”
- “I don’t understand how Calvinists live. It must be awful going through life feeling like a puppet.”
- “I don’t know why people are so enamored with ‘free will’. It’s much more comforting to trust my future to God.”
- “How crazy is it that Baptists don’t think baptism is very important?”
I hope you get my point. PRIDE!
We need Paul to remind each of us that our “knowledge” looks like foolishness to the world. It’s faith, not logic. It’s spiritual, not rational. We use words like “believe” and “hope”, not “prove” and “know”.
The entire basis of our faith is that we’re incapable of helping ourselves. We depend upon Jesus and his grace to restore relationship between God and ourselves. There’s nothing in those two sentences that should give us cause for pride or a spirit of superiority. Our own knowledge, skills, and abilities lead to us being buried in sin and death. We only have relationship restored with God because He wants it restored.
2. Seek the Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 2:15-16)
Given point #1 above, and recognising our human limitations, following Christ requires us to depend upon his wisdom and teaching. When we depend upon our own wisdom and knowledge we’ve stopped following Christ.
Seeking the wisdom of God according to verses 11-13 requires listening to the Holy Spirit. We do this by practicing spiritual disciplines. In my experience within Churches of Christ spiritual disciplines are for the “super-Christians”. I’ve been part of 5 churches of Christ in the United States. I don’t recall one of them every having a Day of Prayer, or promoting a Prayer Retreat. Fasting tends to be something we joke about rather than practice. We’re much more likely to have a class on the subject of prayer than to spend 45 minutes praying together. When Randy Harris went on a silent retreat it was so revolutionary that he wrote a book about the experience.
Following Jesus requires us to listen to the Holy Spirit.
3. Despise Division (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)
We live in a society of choices. I cannot list the numerous choices that confront us when we go to a diner and order eggs. “How do you want them cooked?” The same applies to churches. We each have a gazillion choices about where to attend church.
Somewhere along the road Christians have come to accept division within the church. We prioritize doctrine, decorations, worship styles, personalities and umpteen other things above the unity of the church.
If you want to follow Jesus, love His church. “If anyone destroys God’s temple [the church] God will destroy that person.” Ouch! Persevere with the church. Seek the betterment of the church. Spend more energy contributing to solutions than identifying problems. Love God’s people in the church.
4. Glorify God for our Differences (1 Corinthians 4:6-7)
In the Corinthian church the members wanted everyone else to agree that their favourite preacher was THE best one. As a result the church divided into several factions aligned with different leaders (not that the leaders wanted this).
First, we should see our distinctives as gifts that strengthen the church. Paul talks further about this in chapter 12. If four preachers connect with four different groups within the church that’s a great blessing that one of those groups isn’t left out in the cold. Diversity is a gift.
Second, since our gifts and talents come from God, let’s not take credit for them. Let’s use them to encourage others and strengthen God’s kingdom. “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.”
I’d love to get some feedback on this post. Obviously it’s not the answer to everything related to following Jesus, but I believe it’s a significant step. Does one of the points above strike you as more urgent for the church today than the others? (It’s okay if we disagree. 🙂 )
The Corinthian church was a mess. Located in a major sea port numerous big name preachers had visited the church over the years: Paul, Peter, Apollos, and probably others. God gave each of these preachers different gifts and different mission emphases. Naturally, some members of the church in Corinth connected better with one of those teachers over the others.
Having a broad exposure to different teachers should strengthen the church as the hear different perspectives on the Gospel. Different speakers will make different applications and share different experiences. The stories one teacher shares regarding his struggles with addiction might motivate a portion of the church with similar struggles, while another raised within the cocoon of orthodoxy might stimulate the faith of others.
However, the Corinthians fell into the trap insisting that their favorite teacher was THE only teacher the church should follow. On top of that, as the church segmented behind their favourite teacher the spirit of pride crept in. Christians took pride that they were following the most eloquent speaker, or the most handsome speaker, or the smartest teacher, or the most practical speaker, and because they had made the best choice of who to follow, they were better than the other Christians in the church.
As one of the leaders people were arguing over, Paul immediately responds to this competition in his letter.
My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” (1 Cor 1:11-12)
I believe that Paul’s being sarcastic when he writes “another says, ‘I follow Christ.” Would anyone in the church say they follow Paul or Peter or Apollos rather than follow Christ? Probably not. As he continues in v13 he points out the ridiculousness of following anyone other than Jesus.
How does this apply to the church today?
In an era of mega churches many preachers and teachers have become very popular authors and TV personalities. It’s very easy to say “I love everything that person writes.” It’s quite possible at that point we’ve begun following the the teacher rather than Jesus. No teacher has a claim to absolute truth, only Jesus. All teachers make mistakes and each person is responsible for our own faith.
Here’s an exercise: Consider this list of popular authors and ask yourself if you would accept the teaching of one over the other just because of your opinion of the author rather than what it is they actually teach.
- Max Lucado
- CS Lewis
- John Ortberg
- Craig Groeschel
- Bill Hybels
- Mark Driscoll
- Philip Yancey
- Andy Stanley
- Charles Stanley
- Chuck Colson
- James Dobson
- Timothy Keller
- John Piper
- NT Wright
- Rick Warren
- TD Jakes
- Brian McLaren
- John MacArthur
- Joel Olsteen
Obviously that list could be much longer. But some of those names you probably respect, while others you won’t touch.
While there’s nothing wrong with having favorites, when we start seeing Jesus through lens of a teacher, rather than the teacher through the lens of Jesus, we have a problem.
When our loyalty to a single teacher or small group of teachers prompts us to reflexively reject all other voices, we have a problem.
When everything one person says or writes is always the right thing, we have a problem.
When we feel superior because we’ve identified “the best” author or teacher and take pity on the rest of the world that is missing out, we have a problem.
No matter how inspiring, motivating, thought provoking, challenging, or relevant a preacher, teacher, or author might be, NEVER FORGET that they are only a tool to help you as you follow Christ. Listen to preachers, learn from teachers, love them even, but never as much as you listen to, learn from, and love Jesus himself.
Since it is okay to have favorites….
- Please share with all the readers, Who is your favorite Christian author?
Although chapter 19-22 contain a lot of teaching, chapter 19 begins with the key phrase “When Jesus had finished saying these things…” which indicates that the following passage is narrative, not discourse. Chapters 19-22 describe events during Jesus’ journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.
The narrative found in chapters 19-22 builds on the previous discourse about humility by emphasizing the Godly value of serving others. These chapters are framed by descriptions and statements confirming Jesus as God’s Messiah. In 16:16 Peter has declared Jesus to be the Messiah, while in 21:1-17 Jesus is welcomed to Jerusalem as Messiah, and demonstrates his authority by clearing merchants out of the temple courts. The big picture message is that despite his majesty and authority Jesus’ life work is serving others.
In 20:25-28 Jesus lays out the fundamental principle by contrasting the motivations of citizens in the kingdom of heaven, and those outside it. Again Jesus has to address his disciples request for greatness (a link between the discourse and the narrative), and he does so by definitively stating that his disciples don’t become great by gaining authority, but through serving.
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
It’s very easy for churches and individual Christians to resort to authority, rather than service. We serve the Creator of the universe, so we often expect people to listen to us because we proclaim His message. We want to change the behavior of people around us because they’re not living the way the Supreme God wants them to.
History is littered with examples of churches of all stripes who sought to change the world for God using whatever authority they could gather. Instead, Jesus calls us to serve. He calls us to put others’ needs ahead of our own.
But God doesn’t just want us scheduling our “acts of service”. He wants us to live lives characterized by service and in the process, to increase our humility.
We can see that the apostle Peter took this lesson to heart. 30 years later, he wrote in 1 Peter 4:10, “Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” I’m sure Paul also had this idea in mind when he wrote in Ephesians 5:21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
I believe that selfishness and pride are at the core of most/all sins. Humility and service don’t come naturally. But they’re the basis of life in the Kingdom of Heaven.
- It seems easy to think of atrocities committed over the span of history in the name of Christ. What examples from history can you think of that demonstrate the church’s call and willingness to serve?
- What opportunity to serve have you participated in that is most memorable or fulfilling to you?
I felt like my sermon rambled on Sunday, so let me try and summarise it here.
In this passage, Judas is the obvious bad guy. He agrees to betray Jesus for money. (22:4; Cf Lk 16:13) But Judas is not the only one who betrays Jesus at this Passover meal he “eagerly desired to eat” with his disciples.
During the meal Jesus discusses several profound ideas with the apostles.
- He’s going to suffer (v15);
- The kingdom of God is coming (v16-18);
- He’s leaving, but he provides a way for them to remember him (v19);
- He’s ushering in a new covenant (v20).
Despite the significance of these points, the disciples don’t seem moved to respond or question him until he broaches the topic of his betrayal (v21-22). At this point the betrayal begins:
The Twelve ignore the greater calling of the kingdom of God and dispute which of them is the greatest (v24). Jesus responds by calling them to serve others.
Peter self-confidently corrects Jesus, implying that he’s immune to Satan’s attacks and temptations (v33). Perhaps he’s still arguing that he’s the greatest. Jesus prays for Peter.
Jesus tells his disciples that his ministry is concluding and they’ll be on their own, and The Twelve respond by placing their trust in their strength and weapons (v35-37).
Self-confidence. Pride. Selfishness. Arrogance. Self-sufficiency. Independence.
It’s easy, at times, to replace God with our own gifts, skills, strengths and resources. Jesus knows that the apostles, and the world, need him to receive eternal life. But just as he’s about to offer himself for them, they focus on their own greatness, not their reliance upon God. They’re more interested in ruling the kingdom of God, than they are the message and mission of the kingdom. In time, their perspective will change, but right now it’s as though they’ve never heard a word he said.
Judas wasn’t alone that night in turning his back on the mission and message of Jesus.
Jesus intends for the Lord’s Supper (Communion, Eucharist) to remind us of our higher calling, our higher destination, and our dependence upon God. In Luke’s account his emphasis is clearly on the big picture, while the disciples focus on themselves.
- In your experience, is the Lord’s Supper about individuals, or the mission of God?
- I think that the regular reading of 1 Cor. 11:27-29 has made the Lord’s Supper personal and one dimensional for many people. Do you agree or disagree?
- If we participate in the Lord’s Supper regularly, and it reminds us of our human limitations and dependence upon God, why do so many Christians (including myself) still struggle with pride and self-confidence?
It’s my impression that for most Christians the practice of fasting poses many questions. Some might even argue based on Lk 5:33-39 that Christians should avoid fasting. (I understand that passage as placing a moratorium on fasting while Jesus was living, but that the practice recommenced after his death, which is why we have examples of fasting in the early church, eg. Acts 13:2-3; 14:21-25.) If you’re from a Church of Christ background you know that it’s not one of the “Five Acts of Worship”, yet I don’t know how else to think about it than as an act of worship.
We have a difficult time understanding fasting because the Bible doesn’t give a lot of teaching on the topic. It would be helpful to have spelled out for us how to fast in a manner that God finds meaningful. Cain missed out on God’s blessing because he sacrificed fruit rather than meat. Does it make a difference to God if I fast from facebook instead of food? Or is only food acceptable?
It would also be helpful if the Bible clearly explained the purpose of fasting, and the appropriate occasions to fast. Instead we’re left to draw conclusions from examples and indirect teaching on the subject, and to learn from the experiences of ourselves and others.
Instead, Jesus’ teachings on fasting focus on attitude. Fasting is a private practice between an individual and God (except on occasions when the whole church participates) and should not be used as a means of gaining additional street cred in religious society. (Matt 16:16-18; Lk 18:9-14; cf Zech 7:5)
I’d like to suggest several purposes for fasting:
- Fasting makes a statement to God, and ourselves, that He is our #1 priority. When we fast we say that we would rather spend time with God, than eat.
- When we fast because of a particular need or crisis in our life, or the church, we add emphasis to the prayer.
- The hunger pangs during a fast can serve as a reminder to again pray for the particular concerns prompting the fast.
- When we fast we take a small step toward imitating the example of Christ in Phil. 2:1-11. Christ humbled himself leaving behind the glories of heaven to take on the form of a man and becoming obedient, even unto death. Although all Christians leave stuff behind at baptism, fasting allows us to recreate this experience, remind ourselves of the sacrifices of Christ, and actively work on developing a character of humility.
- Prayer should always accompany fasting. But the benefit of combining the two is NOT that God listens to us extra closely when we fast. Rather, through fasting we create space in our lives that better allows us to listen to God. We create space to have conversations with God that the busy-ness of our lives often prohibits.
Richard Foster, in his classic work Celebration of Discipline, states that, “Fasting must forever center on God. Every other purpose must be subservient to God.” (3rd ed, 1998, p54) I also found it interesting to learn that,
“John Wesley sought to revive the teaching of the ‘Didache’ and urged early Methodists to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. He felt so strongly about this matter, in fact, that he refused to ordain anyone to the Methodist ministry who did not fast on those two days.” (Foster, 51)
- Have you made fasting a regular part of your relationship with God? When your answer’s “no”, what has stopped you?
- Have you experienced additional benefits, beyond those I’ve listed, from fasting?
- Since fasting isn’t commanded in the New Testament, how important do you think it is for Christians? Should it be a regular discipline, or reserved for special needs?
Coincidentally, the sermon topic scheduled for this week complements the topic we’ve been discussing on Wednesday night. Any basic introduction or overview of the Gospel of Luke will mention two themes that Luke gives special attention compared to the writers of the other Gospels: the poor, and women.
Luke doesn’t do this by including lengthy diatribes on the status of women in Jesus eyes, but by simply including them in his accounts. Like the other Gospels, Luke still focuses on the ministry of Jesus and the Twelve, but he’s more deliberate in mentioning the presence and work of women.
My sermon focused on Joanna. She’s an easy person to miss since we’re not told very much about her, but since her husband managed Herod’s household (v3), she must have had a significant degree of social standing. She was apparently willing to risk her social reputation in and around Herod’s court by leaving that behind and following Jesus as he traveled from village to village. Jesus had rescued her from illness or demon possession and in return she committed her life to His ministry.
The Herod mentioned in this verse is probably Herod Antipas (since the events take place in Galilee). This is the same Herod who imprisoned and executed John the Baptiser. He also interviewed and mocked Jesus prior to his crucifixion (Lk 23:5-12). The father of Antipas, Herod the Great, had earlier killed all the infant males in Bethlehem in an effort eradicate the threat he believed Jesus posed to his position as king.
Joanna would have known Herod’s fear/hatred of Jesus and the fate of John the Baptiser, yet she took the risk and accompanied Jesus on his travels. Her acceptance of Jesus’ call is no less dramatic than that of any of the apostles (Lk 51-11; 27-31). She not only left the social circle of the royal court to follow Jesus, but also supported his ministry financially. And despite these sacrifices, she receives only the briefest of mentions, while the men are treated as heroes.
One of the lessons we can learn from Joanna, is her commitment to following Jesus, despite her lack of public recognition. Luke also mentions her presence at the tomb of Jesus as one of the women who discovered his resurrection. Despite any obstacles she encountered during the intervening period she remained faithful to her Saviour. She demonstrates endurance and persistence.
We all face the temptation of becoming demoralised when we persistently work at something and receive no recognition for our efforts. We can easily find ourselves considering the gifts God gives us and seeking a bigger stage on which to exercise them. Paul’s words in Galatians 1:10 provide an important reminder for us, “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
When we find ourselves limited, because of our gender, or location, or some other reason, we face the choice of whether to focus on the limitation, or the opportunities available to us within that limitation.
It was recently pointed out to me that the first step in the serpent’s temptation of Eve was to remove her attention from the innumerable blessings God had given her to instead focus upon the single restriction. I believe this continues to be a strategy of Satan that women have to resolve as they serve God within the church.
But Satan uses this strategy on all of us. I could sit around lamenting that I’m not working for a larger church, or in a bigger city, or closer to Christian college that would give me more opportunities to share my “incredible wisdom” and “awesome speaking skills” God’s given me. Or I can work in my current situation to share God’s love and Good News with everyone with whom I come in contact.
Joanna reminds us that we can work just as effectively for God away from the limelight as we can in the limelight. While many people want to deepen their pockets by raising their profile in the Lord’s work, Joanna supported the ministry of Jesus out of her own pocket. The crucial point in this whole story is that Jesus called her… and she followed, and served. Although I believe the NT does place some restrictions on the roles of women in the church (see here) it’s crucial that we recognise that Jesus called women as well as men. Jesus relied on the support of women, as well as men. The church needs to equally equip, commission, and acknowledge the work of women in God’s service.
Joanna may not have a book of the Bible named after her, but she was rewarded on that Sunday morning as the angel, in person, declared to her and the other women the Good News of a risen Saviour.
- While some people struggle with the urge to lead the church, others struggle to develop the willingness to serve. To what extent do you think this is a gender issue?
- Do you think I’m making too big a deal over the couple of things we’re told about Joanna, or is this a reasonable application?
- Have you experienced Satan directing your attention from opportunities to limitations? What are some other limitations he uses in addition to gender & location?
There’s no recording of the sermon this week as Lawson Rd had its annual Fall Fellowship in a park. But I presented the same material in the park that I shared on Friday at the Camp Hunt Men’s Retreat. (The recording is available HERE, along with the other speakers.)
The subject I was allocated for the Men’s Retreat revolved around the idea that Christians are called to be humble. Both 1 Cor. 1:26 and James 2:5 remind us that the world doesn’t think we’re better, smarter, or stronger because of faith in Christ. In fact, they regard us as foolish, lowly, and poor. While these passages also reassure the church that at the end of the day our faith will be vindicated, they also dismiss any suggestion that the ultimate vindication is any excuse for pride or arrogance in the present.
Many people outside the church seem to regard Christians as having a “holier-than-thou” attitude to them. Since this impression is so widespread, I expect it’s rooted in reality. Churches, and therefore by definition individual Christians, can easily fall into the trap of looking down our noses at people who are not as “enlightened” as us. We can even think less of other Christians who interpret Scripture differently or choose to express their faith in a different manner than we do.
Paul asked the Corinthian church to “remember what you were when you were called.” I wonder if we forget that too quickly. Or do we sometimes exaggerate our “goodness” before we accepted God’s grace? Do we expect people to clean themselves up before they show up at church?
Ephesians 2:1-10 also discusses this phenomena of Christians forgetting their total dependence upon God’s grace. Throughout this passage God acts to save people. God initiates and we accept his gift of salvation. Verses 8-9 provide a succinct summary, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Even here Paul warns of the dangers of pride, and the need for humility. It’s easy for us to take credit for our own salvation.
God does want us to boast, but not in our our abilities. “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:26; Jer 9:23-4) How would our churches be different if we did more “boasting in the Lord”, and less in our knowledge and behaviour? I’m also interested to hear how others think churches/Christians communicate pride? What would a humble church look like?
I am regularly surprised by how often I have conversations where the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart comes up. I’m not saying it’s every week or anything, but it’s more than I’d expect. It’s often in a context of discussing the issues raised by Calvinism concerning humanity’s freedom to make decisions. Are we free moral agents, or puppets with God as the puppeteer?
The other scenario to which people apply this concept is that of evangelism. If someone hasn’t responded to the Gospel message, then “maybe their heart is hard like Pharaoh’s.” This seems to give the Christian permission to give up on that individual and turn attention elsewhere. Of course, the possibility that maybe the other person won’t respond because of the aggressive nature the Christian brought to the discussion, or because the way the Christian treats his wife and kids is inconsistent with his message, is never entertained as a possibility. It’s much simpler just to blame the person with the “hard heart”.
I’m not willing to turn this post into a Calvinism debate. That’s been going on for hundreds of years and I doubt I’ll be able to settle it here. However, I will say that I disagree with Calvin. I do not believe that our choices and eternal destiny is predetermined by God. Foreknown, but not predetermined. We make our own choices and are responsible for their consequences. (eg. John 3:16, Acts 2:38)
Back in Exodus, I understand why the phrase “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart” attracts the attention it does. How could a loving God make Pharaoh reject His instruction and then punish him for it? It seems inconsistent with our understanding of God.
Nahum M. Sarna provides a valuable analysis of this statement that I find clarifies its use and meaning a lot. He points out that between chapter 4 and 14 Pharaoh’s heart is said to harden 20 times, but we need to notice how these statements are distributed. 10 times God is said to harden Pharaoh’s heart, and 10 times Pharoah either hardens his own heart, or it is stated in the passive.
The first two times (4:21; 7:3) God predicts that He will harden Pharoah’s heart, but it’s still a prediction at this point, not an event.
The next seven statements (7:13, 14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 13:15) are either passive “Pharaoh’s heart became hard”, or Pharaoh actively hardens his heart himself. It is not until after the 5th plague (9:12) that we’re told that God acted to harden Pharaoh’s heart (also 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17). Then after the 6th plague we’re again told that,
When Pharoah saw that the rain and hail and thunder had stopped, he sinned again: He and his officials hardened their hearts. So Pharaoh’s heart was hard and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Lord had said through Moses. (Exodus 9:34-35)
I believe that the sequence of events provides the key to understanding the phrase. God only hardened Pharoah’s heart after Pharaoh himself had rejected God and His instruction. God gave Pharaoh multiple chances, and 5 major signs that he should listen to Him, but Pharaoh refused. At that point God decided something like, “Okay, if that’s your decision I’ll use your stubbornness for my glory. The deliverance of My people will bring more glory to My name, and you will be punished for your pride and disobedience.”
Pharaoh is responsible for his own decisions. What we see in God’s actions is that sometimes his judgment comes sooner than at other times. However, we need to recognize God’s grace in giving Pharoah 5+ chances to obey God, even though He knew what the outcome would be.
Other passages that seem to reflect similar circumstances include Romans 1:21-25, where people that choose to reject God’s message are abandoned to the consequences of their sinful desires and actions. 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, and 1 Timothy 1:20 both speak of “handing someone over to Satan”. I don’t know the exact implications of this, but in both cases it’s a result of deliberate sin, and seems consistent with the examples of Pharaoh, and Romans 1. The good news about these latter passages is that in both cases the purpose of this action is to prompt repentance leading to salvation. In this context, I’m reluctant to conclude that even in Pharaoh’s case he ever lost the ability to obey God’s instructions and let the Hebrews leave.
Okay, so that’s a long post today on a complex topic. What do you think? Have you heard this phrase referenced in a different context? I’d love to receive your comments!