Scripture readings: Ezek. 34:11-16, 20-24; Ps. 100
Sermon by Martin Manuel from Matthew 25:31-46
Responding to King Jesus
Today is Christ the King Sunday—the last Sunday during what the lectionary calls “ordinary time”—the time between Pentecost and Advent. Our readings today appropriately address the truth that God is the good shepherd, and his faithful sheep respond to his loving, protective care with worship. There is also a warning to those who don’t respond.
As our shepherd, Christ deals with predators who threaten his flock. It’s in that context that Matthew tells us of the time when Jesus returns and rewards the sheep who have followed him, separating out the goats who refuse his care. The context here reaches back to Matt. 24 where Jesus, sitting with his disciples on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Temple, tells his followers of events that will precede the Temple’s soon-coming destruction.
Jesus concludes his prophecy with statements pointing to his second coming, emphasizing that its date is known only to the Father. He then exhorts his disciples to be prepared for his eventual return by being faithful servants of their Master—obediently attending to their Master’s instructions. Then in chapter 25, Matthew gives two of Jesus’ parables that reinforce this admonition. Note also that Matthew is the only Gospel that contains this related warning:
Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven. Many will say to me on that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, I never knew you. Away from me you evildoers. (Matt. 7:21-23)
Before Jesus chose him to be an apostle, Matthew was a tax collector. As one who realized that the Jews considered tax collectors to be sinners, Matthew was keenly aware that an outer facade of religiosity can be covering up an inner corruption. Matthew seems to address this issue more than the other Gospel writers. Perhaps this is because Matthew wrote his Gospel primarily for Jewish Christians, though the Spirit intended his message for a much broader audience.
How are we to understand Jesus’ statements in today’s Gospel reading? Why does this passage follow parables about faithfulness and unfaithfulness and then speak in terms of the metaphor of sheep and goats? And why did Jesus, in the Olivet prophecy, speak using the apocalyptic language of Daniel 7? Note Daniel 7:13-14:
In my vision at night I looked, and before me was one like the son of man, coming in the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom one that will never be destroyed.
Apocalyptic is a literary genre (style) that used vivid imagery meant to be symbolic. It was not used to give a point-by-point account of what was going to occur. Instead, it painted a vivid picture—in this case of a huge gathering of people in worship around the King who is given all authority, including the authority to judge the nations.
Our passage in Matthew 25 is the subject of much controversy and dueling interpretations. Let’s see if we can put aside speculative ideas about Judgment Day, hell, and salvation, and focus instead on what this passage actually says about King Jesus and his reign.
King Jesus will reign
In the context of the destruction of the temple and the eventual return of Jesus, we read this:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. (Matt. 25:31)
Looking beyond the events quickly unfolding in Jerusalem—including Jesus death and resurrection and the destruction of Jerusalem—Jesus foresees his eventual bodily return to earth in glory, accompanied by a throng of angels. He is returning to reign as King.
King Jesus will judge
By definition, a king’s reign includes the authority and responsibility he has to judge his subjects. It’s thus no surprise when Jesus refers to a coming judgment:
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. (Matt. 25:32-33)
Is Jesus here referring to the great “day of judgment” mentioned in Matt. 12:36? There Jesus said, “I tell you men will have to give account in the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken.” In Matt. 12:41-42, Jesus goes on to describe a resurrection of people in that judgment: “The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation…. The Queen of the South will rise in the judgment with this generation…” If Jesus was talking about this same day of judgment here in Matthew 25, why is there no mention of the resurrection? Also, note that this judgment is binary—one group on the left, the other on the right, with nothing in between.
We also note that there is no mention of the tolerance Jesus advocated in Matt. 10:15, “I tell you the truth, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town,” or in Matt. 11:22, “It will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.”
Moreover, instead of referring to this gathering as including all people—both the living and the dead—Matthew quotes Jesus as referring to “all the nations.” The Greek word for nations here is ethnos, which can also be translated gentiles or heathen. In many cases, it excludes Israelites and Jews, but in some cases it seems to include all people. Are these “all nations” then to be understood as all the people who have ever lived, or are they the people alive when Jesus returns?
I do not believe that we have enough information here to answer these questions. It’s not clear that Jesus is referring to the judgment that will occur at the time of the general resurrection. Thus it is not advisable to build a doctrine about the Day of Judgment on this one passage.
King Jesus will reward
Though Jesus speaks here of a coming judgment (which may or may not be the coming final judgment), his next statement clearly mentions that there is a reward for being one of his faithful, responsive followers:
Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” (Matt. 25:34)
This is the invitation into the kingdom of heaven that Matthew mentions throughout his Gospel. In Matt. 4:17, we read, “From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’” Matthew then groups several of Jesus’ kingdom parables in Chapter 13: parables of the sower, the wheat and tares, the mustard seed, and leaven. In view here is the inheritance planned and prepared for the children of God from creation. Thus reward is no afterthought, indeed the purpose of the creation revolved around it. Jesus used parables, metaphors and analogies to describe these various aspects of his kingdom, which is the dream of dreams for all humanity. Nothing that the human race has experienced and nothing that we can imagine compares to this fabulous inheritance.
Jesus explained that the reason the inheritance is granted has to do with the inheritors taking actions that reflect a welcoming response to Jesus, the King. Note our Lord’s words:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ (Matt. 25:35-39)
Sometimes people who read these words assume Jesus’ main concern is that we should do good deeds for the poor. From this assumption comes the idea of salvation by works. But that is not Jesus’ point.
Matthew goes out of his way to show that our works are not the basis for our salvation. In Matt. 1:21, he says that Jesus “will save his people from their sins.” The Greek verb translated save is sozo, from which comes Soter, meaning Savior, and from which is derived soteria, the Greek word for salvation. The Christian doctrine of salvation is about God’s gracious, unmerited and unearned forgiveness of all sin through Jesus Christ.
Those invited by Jesus to the inheritance of the children of God are thus those whose sins, by grace, were forgiven through Jesus. They then receive and welcome Jesus by receiving and welcoming his representatives who are proclaiming the gospel. Jesus makes that point clear in Matt. 10:40, where he said to his disciples as he sent them to preach the gospel, “He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me.” In that same context, Jesus added, “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will not lose his reward” (Matt. 10:42).
Did you catch that? Not only do these people receive the message, but they receive the person proclaiming the message. A relationship of love ensues so that when that person is in need, the people who receive or welcome them and their message respond with loving support and help. That is putting faith into practice.
Salvation is all about Jesus Christ, the Savior. Hearing and responding to the message of the gospel—the message about Jesus— is essential. Welcoming his representatives is part of receiving the message. That is why Matt. 25:40 concludes with, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.'”
King Jesus will separate
After speaking to the “righteous” who inherit the kingdom, Jesus then speaks to those being denied an inheritance in the kingdom:
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matt. 25:41)
Without Jesus, there is no salvation—no inheritance in the kingdom of God. At his return in glory, Jesus tells these people the worst thing anyone can hear: “Depart from me.” I will address the “eternal fire” mentioned here in a moment, but for now let’s ask, why are they ordered to depart? Jesus’ explanation is that in response to him, these people did the exact opposite of those he calls “blessed of my Father.” Let’s consider the nature of their response, or better said, their lack of response:
“For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?” (Matt. 25:42-44)
Those welcomed by Jesus into the kingdom of God are those who, by their actions, demonstrate a welcoming response to Jesus. Notably, they have received (welcomed) his disciples who have shared with them the message of the good news that Jesus was sent by the Father, as Matthew 1:21 says, to “save his people from their sins.” They received this good news by responding to it with repentance (a change of heart and mind) just as Jesus preached: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt. 4:17). They became followers of Jesus and of his representatives.
But some, instead of receiving the gospel, both reject the gospel and those who proclaim it. Note Jesus’ words in Matt. 10:14: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town.” In the remainder of Matt. 10, Jesus warned his disciples about those who reject him, because persecution of the representatives often becomes their response.
Although Jesus did not accuse those separated from him of being persecutors of his followers, he made clear their willingness to ignore the suffering and deprivation of his followers at the hands of people who could have helped. Jesus called these “least” of his followers his “brothers and sisters” (v. 40). His pointed, convicting words to those who reject the good news about Jesus and his loving forgiveness of their sins, acting coldly and abusively toward his representatives, are found in Matt. 25:45: “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’” What they did not do for Jesus summarizes their response to him.
What does “eternal” mean?
This unresponsive, unrepentant group faces a radically different future than the responsive group that inherits the kingdom:
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matt. 25:46)
This “eternal punishment” is referred to in Matt. 25:41 as, “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels,” which is in stark contrast to the “eternal life” experienced by those who respond in a positive way to Jesus and his followers. A common explanation of these contrasting futures is that one group gets the everlasting fires of hell and the other gets never-ending life in heaven. An alternative theory, known as annihilationism, teaches that the recipients of eternal punishment cease to exist forever while the other group lives forever with God. A third explanation, considered by some to be universalism and by others to be a matter of hope, is that the punishment eventually rehabilitates the unrepentant and they become responsive to Christ. To which of these is Jesus referring? Well, we don’t know Jesus’ exact words. He probably spoke in Aramaic, and Matthew recorded his words in Greek. The Greek word translated eternal in vv. 41 and 46 is aionios. The same word applies to life and punishment. The New Bible Commentary says this:
Eternal can mean “everlasting” but more generally it means “of the age to come”; it is a statement of quality rather than duration. These verses, therefore, do not settle the dispute between those who understand hell as endless conscious torment and those who see it as annihilation or loss of existence.
We will avoid speculating on Matthew’s intent in his use of aionios. There is not enough explained here to develop a doctrine. However we can conclude that eternal punishment is not a good thing and that Jesus came to save people from such disastrous consequences. It is not God’s will that anyone miss out on the inheritance of the kingdom. That is why Jesus preached, then sent his representatives to preach, that people should repent and believe the gospel. For the same reason, it is why Jesus warned those who might be tempted to reject him, his representatives and the gospel that they are sent to proclaim.
Let’s consider how this passage in Matthew’s Gospel applies in our lives.
First, as readers of Jesus’ words, although we do not have a full picture of everything that occurs when he returns, we have assurance that he will return and in returning reign over all nations. His reign will be just, and his faithful followers will inherit the kingdom. To all who believe, this is fabulous good news about their future. To all who lament the woes of human rule in this present age, this is comforting and reassuring news about God’s final resolution of the problem. To all who are unsure about the role of religion in the future of humanity, this is insight about the substance of everything that pertains to Jesus Christ, his Father who sent him, and the Spirit of God in humans.
Although this passage does not teach salvation by works, it does teach that the substance of being a follower of Jesus differs dramatically from the form. Both groups call Jesus “Lord,” suggesting the possibility that even some who reject the gospel proclaimed by Jesus’ representatives could, being deceived, consider themselves Jesus’ followers. Their behavior, which is the antithesis of all that Jesus is about, tells the truth about the nature of their faith. Jesus frequently warned religious leaders in his day about the hypocrisy of having scrupulous religious practices while neglecting “the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness” (Matt. 23:23). To show mercy to those who are in need is Christ-like, even if the needy do not know Jesus.
Finally, it is best to not attempt to derive doctrinal conclusions about the Day of Judgment and hell from this passage. Instead, let the followers of Jesus rejoice knowing that Jesus will return; that the fullness of the kingdom and thus the reign of King Jesus is coming. Let everyone be aware of the importance of receiving Jesus’ gracious gift in faith, and of them expressing that gift by graciously receiving and caring for others in Jesus’ name. Amen.
This sermon is for Thanksgiving Day (November 23). It could also be used for a pre- or post-Thanksgiving worship service.
Scripture readings: Deut. 8:7-18; Ps. 65
2 Cor. 9:6-15; Luke 17:11-19
Sermon by Josh McDonald from Luke 17:11-19
Double Stranger—Double Grateful
In Luke 17:11 we find Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, traveling along the border between Samaria and his home area of Galilee (see the map below). This means he was journeying in what was considered “no-man’s land,” for Samaritans and Jews went out of their way to avoid contact (for the history of this rift, click here).
The Samaritans were descendants of the Israelites left in the land when most of their kinsmen in the Northern Kingdom were deported by the Assyrians some 700 years before Christ. Many of those left behind intermarried with gentiles, yielding a mixed group known as the “Samaritans.” Many of them practiced their own brand of Judaism. The Jews of Jesus’ day derisively referred to them as “dogs,” considering them to be half-breeds and heretics. The Samaritans returned the favor, holding deep animosity toward the Jews.
So here is Jesus walking the back trails in the no-man’s land with Galilee stretching to the north and Samaria to the south—a rather wild, untended place. It was the kind of place anthropologists refer to today as liminal space (with the word “liminal” derived from the Latin word limens, meaning threshold).
A liminal space is the in-between space where a person in a culture is moving between two stages or two places in life. For example, a teen inhabits a liminal space—not quite a child, not quite an adult. An adult in midlife crisis inhabits a liminal space—not quite young, not quite old. A comedian once noted that we reach this mid-life liminal space at about age 40 when we’re not young enough for anyone to be proud of us, and we’re not old enough for anyone to want to help us. After all, no Boy Scout ever talked about helping a 40-year-old across the street!
So that’s liminal space—not quite this, not quite that. Liminal space is about the awkward often painful time of transition that calls one’s identity into question. And here is Jesus in a sort of liminal space—not quite at home, not quite completely removed from the familiar. We’re reminded of Jesus’ statement: “The Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” So here Jesus is, and here he meets a group of people who, like him, are wandering.
Jesus and the ten lepers
As Jesus heads into a village, he is met by ten lepers. They stand at a distance and call out to him in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” The term “leper” in that day referred to people suffering various skin diseases including bad eczema, cellulitis and actual leprosy. People with these diseases were required to wear torn clothing and announce themselves by crying out, “Unclean! Unclean!” in order to protect others from infection. Until they got better, lepers were excluded from temple life, considered to be both physically and ritually impure.
Some lepers did recover from the less serious skin disorders, and there were special rules in the book of Leviticus as to how they could then be restored to the temple and thus to the community. However, those who had full-blown leprosy never did recover and so were consigned to a life of living in exile—a life in liminal space, kept outside of populated areas: not quite this, not quite that. People without a country.
It is often on these side trips—on back trails in liminal spaces—that the Lord meets us. When we’re out of our routines—out of our comfort zones. Sometimes it’s only when we’re in these no-man’s lands and times that we are able to fully listen to God.
But this is where Jesus often hangs out. When we’re vying for attention or in hot pursuit of a career, or obsessing about our own status and ego—we’re just a little too busy for him. We’re already occupied, no need to listen to God, we’re chasing mirages.
This group of lepers is under no such illusion—at least at that moment. They have been driven from family and community life. There was not only a fear of getting whatever they had, there was the assumption that they had been cursed by God for some sin. And now in the distance, these accursed ones see a Rabbi known to be a healer. So, at a proper distance, they call out in a loud voice: “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!” By law, this is what they are required to do. They have to warn everyone that they are unclean to keep you at a distance. You can’t get close enough to them to have a conversation. But Jesus hears the desperation in their voices.
Have you ever come to God out of that kind of poverty, that sort of desperation? It’s when we’re in liminal places like that, that Jesus really gets to work with us. Why? Because we’re ready for his help, his healing.
When Jesus saw these ten lepers approaching, he said to them: “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.
Jesus was sending them to get the routine check-over from the priests as prescribed in the book of Leviticus. This may seem strange to us. Didn’t Jesus fulfill the law and therefore such ceremonies are no longer needed? Remember, Jesus has broken the Sabbath and forgiven sins apart from the rituals of the law, thus undercutting the temple system at its root. So why does Jesus now tell these lepers to obey the law’s rituals?
I think it’s because Jesus is thinking of their future well-being. If they don’t go through these rituals, they will be excluded from temple life, which means they will be excluded from the center of their culture. Seeing family, connecting with their heritage, let alone getting a job or making connections will never happen unless they go through the proper temple rituals. So Jesus’ concern for them is very practical, though I think it also points to something much deeper.
The story goes on to tell that the cleansed lepers return to their lives and 90% of them never come back to thank Jesus for healing them. This is an interesting commentary on the topic of thankfulness. Jesus gives them an “out” from the liminal space they are trapped in to return to the safety and security and identity of their former lives. It involved going back to the temple, to there be reinstated, to get back to things as they always had been. Essentially acting as though nothing had happened.
How easy it is for us to forget to be thankful! Perhaps we’re praying for something and God answers, yet the “gnat-like cloud” of concerns and distractions of life keep us from responding to God in thanks. As one commentator said, “Thankfulness is not a command, it’s an invitation.” It’s easy to drown out the voice of God in our lives and come back into business as usual, never changed.
There’s a story of a businessman running late for a meeting. The meeting was vitally important, and he realized he couldn’t find parking. If he was late, it would mean big losses for him. Not a religious man, this crisis pushed him even to the point of prayer. He promised God that he would straighten up and fly right and even come to church if God would just make a parking spot appear for him. He even promised that he would give half his profits to the church! Then he turned the corner and there was a parking space! Then he said, “Oh, never mind God, I found a space!”
Isn’t this easy to do? Just run back into the fray as if we were never in need, as if we were never hurting and had not received God’s healing. Thankfulness is not a command, it’s an invitation. Never mind, I found a space. Never mind, I was healing anyway. Never mind, I was able to save myself or find fulfillment, or make peace on my own.
But one of the ten lepers wakes up and sees what is going on. Sadly, the other nine just kept moving. The one leper somehow understands the great treasure he has received from Jesus and returns to give him thanks.
As English theologian GK Chesterton said, the world is a sort of cosmic shipwreck. A person in search of meaning in this world resembles a sailor who awakens from a deep sleep and discovers treasure strewn about, relics from a civilization he can barely remember. One by one he picks up the relics—gold coins, a compass, fine clothing—and tries to discern their meaning. Fallen humanity is in such a state. The good things of earth—beauty, love, joy—still bear traces of their original purpose, but amnesia mars the image of God in us.
Gratefulness is part of restoring that image. It’s part of waking up to the reality of who God is and thus who we are. Gratitude gives dimension to everything in our lives. By being grateful we become aware that everything is a gift. As one of the great Greek thinkers said, “It is not what we have, but what we enjoy that constitutes our abundance.” Sadly, as fallen beings, we enjoy abundance—we eat and drink and amass wealth, and yet it is never enough.
An interesting aside here. There was a 19-year-old garbage man in England named Michael Carrol. He won about $14 ½ million in the lottery. He spent it within a few years on a mansion, several cars to have demolition derbies on the lawn, crack cocaine and prostitutes. Within a few years, he was on unemployment living in the woods in a tent. He now works in a factory somewhere, knowing that he would have been dead if he hadn’t been stopped by running out of money. There was never enough. Always more and more. Simply having all this stuff didn’t raise him from being a petty thief who was going nowhere with his life—it just raised the amount of damage he could do.
It’s not what we have, but what we enjoy that constitutes our abundance. Even if we “have all we want” it’s worth nothing if we don’t take joy in it. Gratitude has a key part to play in truly enjoying what we have. Through the practice of gratitude, we awaken like the stranded sailor, beginning to remember who we truly are, what life can truly be, whose image we truly bear.
When was the last time we were thankful for something we get every day? When was the last time “we saw we were healed,” like the one leper who took a second look and understanding the source of his healing, returned to Jesus and, as it says in v. 16, “Threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him.”
The double stranger
Now note what else is said of that leper: “He was a Samaritan.” Truly shocking; doubly amazing. He was a double stranger—both a leper and a Samaritan. Not only would his disease exclude him from the community, his ethnicity made him despised by the Jews. People thought of his leprosy as a curse for his sin, and they thought of him as a cursed person already because of his heritage. He is thus the double stranger—the double other. Yet he is the one who returns to thank and praise Jesus.
Sometimes the double stranger is the only one who truly understands. The rest of us are so caught up in the swarm of life’s distractions that we don’t see what God is up to. I heard one pastor say, “We must linger in gratitude.” It’s hard to do that—especially when there’s a Facebook feed to check, or election results to worry about, or other pressing things we just must attend to!
The Samaritan, former leper walks away from the pull of everyday life to linger with Christ. To linger in gratitude. Luke uses the word eucharisteo to describe his gratitude. This is the word used to describe how Jesus prayed over the bread and wine at the last supper—the word from which we get “eucharist,” one of the words we use to speak of the Lord’s Supper or communion.
What about us?
How hard is it to just sit and praise—to just sit and linger in gratitude toward God? Even this one hour and a half on Sunday, my mind chatters away with petty concerns. All this strange décor in here, that many of us aren’t used to, has its place. This reminds us that this place is special. There isn’t a practical use for this ornamentation and art, but it is meant to remind us to linger. To step out of the current of everyday life for a while—to be grateful and to worship.
Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 to “thankful in all things.” It’s interesting that he says “in” all things, not “for” all things. Jesus didn’t tell the “double stranger” to be thankful for leprosy. We can’t thank God for all the circumstances that have ever happened to us, but we can thank him “in” all circumstances. That’s part of the deal here—practicing aggressive gratitude even in the hardest of times.
When you can’t be here in the physical sanctuary, you can be in the sanctuary in your soul that you and God have built through the practices of gratitude, prayer and stillness. Our faith is not a change of circumstances, but a change of perspective on our circumstances. Because we know how the story ends—we know who’s in charge and who lovingly holds us in the palms of his hand. We know who is the beginning and the end—the alpha and the omega.
Affirming our humanity
Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” At first blush, this statement seems a bit harsh, calling the man the name that others call him—foreigner. What Jesus is actually doing is contrasting the man with his cultured, non-foreign despisers. He is turning their own bigoted slurs against them. He is, in essence, saying to them, “Even this one who you would call an outsider—a double outsider—a “foreigner” gets it and you don’t! His heart is softer toward God than yours; he understands and you don’t. Shame on you!”
Who is the double stranger in our community? Who are those that are outside of the outside? Notice that Jesus never approves of this man’s religious beliefs—he is not endorsing this man’s Samaritan religion. However, he is endorsing this man’s faith along with this basic humanity and in doing so he reaches out to him with healing.
Jesus has a way of showing up in those liminal spaces where so-called “rejects” reside—those who society has pushed to the margins, left to wander on their own. What if this Samaritan had been a mentally ill person? A homeless person who stunk of liquor and the filth of the streets? A gay or transsexual person? Jesus doesn’t affirm the Samaritan’s lifestyle but he did affirm that the man, like all humans, was beloved of God. In that way, Jesus affirmed his humanity.
Then Jesus says to the now-healed Samaritan, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” “Made you well”—a phrase that can mean being made well or whole, being saved, being healed. Did you notice that it is not those with “enough faith” who are healed? The others, who showed no actions of faith, presumably were also healed.
Jesus is talking on several levels here. Not only was the Samaritan’s body healed, so was his place in the community. There also seemed to be a healing deep within his own heart. He went from blessing to relationship—from physical healing to spiritual healing. He gained an entirely new perspective—jumping out of a plain old life to be grateful, and therefore to experience the greater life that is ours in a relationship of faith with Christ. He has not just received, but he has also given. That’s the essence of a relationship—not just unilateral action, but reciprocal action, of giving a response to what we are given.
The message here is about being thankful IN every circumstance no matter what it may be—no matter how we might, at first, feel about it. Being thankful in all circumstances declares that we know what our true identity is, who our true Lord is, and how the story ends. We know who and what truly matters.
The double stranger in our reading today was double grateful. In the end, we’re also double strangers—dwelling in liminal spaces, begging for mercy. This holiday season, which traditionally begins with Thanksgiving, ironically can be the most distracting and least relaxing time of the year. Let’s commit to taking some time apart from the shopping, cooking and gathering to return to our Lord, to fall down before him in praise, and thank him for who he is and for all he has, is and will yet do not only for our salvation, but for the salvation of all.
Scripture readings: Judges 4:1-7 and Ps. 123
(or Zeph.1:7, 12-18 and Ps. 90:1-12)
1 Thess. 5:1-11; Matt. 25:14-30
Sermon by Lance McKinnon from Matthew 25:14-30
God’s Got Talent
In our Gospel reading today, we’re taken to Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Parable of the Talents. Reading this parable on the Sunday before Thanksgiving is a helpful reminder of how a response of thankfulness plays out in our journey with Jesus.
What this parable is not about
This parable could easily be viewed as an admonition concerning stewardship of everything from our spiritual gifts, money, time, abilities and, of course, our talents. The problem with that approach is that the focus can end up being on our talents, and how well we manage them, with the idea that if we do a good-enough job with a little, then we’ll qualify to get a little more. From that perspective, God is seen as a taskmaster whose primary concern is putting his servants (slaves) through an examination to see if they can turn a profit.
Is this the God Jesus was seeking to tell his disciples about? Is this the God Matthew was trying to convey to his readers? If so, why tell a parable? Why not just tell us that God is like every other taskmaster we find in this “present evil age”? Why not just tell us that our experience in this world is a mirror of the one that is to come?
Here is the meaning
It’s important to realize that parables are told to challenge conventional modes of thinking, not confirm them. Besides that, in this particular parable, we find three interesting details that should alert us that we’re not talking here about “business as usual.”
The story is about a particular man, not the talents. It begins by having this man as the reference point for understanding the whole passage. Also, let’s not miss Matthew’s placement of this parable. It’s the last one that Jesus gives before he is crucified. Could the “man going on a journey” in this parable be Jesus, with the journey taking him through his death, resurrection and ascension? Is it not there that we are “called” by the man to receive his “wealth”—a reference to his kingdom?
When Jesus “went away,” returning through the ascension back to the Father, are we not to live here in a way that reflects life there—is not our life now as followers of Jesus a participation now, through the Spirit, in the kingdom of our Lord that is already here, though we await its future fullness? If so, this Parable of the Talents has more to say about how we live in this world according to the rhythms of the next.
The term “talent” was a specific measurement of money in Jesus’ day. The point being made by this term is thus not about what was given, but in the amount given. See if these numbers change how you see the “man” who gave the talents: One denarius equals about an average day’s wage. One talent is roughly 10,000 denarii. In other words, the man gives his servants more than enough money (gold in this case) to live on for the rest of their lives! They are given everything they will ever need, whether they are given 5, 2 or “just” 1 talent. If that’s what being a servant of this man looks like, sign me up!
Each servant is given this great wealth “each according to his ability.” Clearly the “man” is not trying to use the talents to determine his servants’ abilities. He already knows them well enough to give a fitting amount to each one.
The servants respond
Understanding these details, let’s look at how each servant responded to the lavish gift given them by their master. The first two respond in the same way—they receive the gift and then go and do business with it. That’s pretty much it. We’re tempted to read into the text that these servants also were responsible for the results. But the talents seem to do their own work. “Money makes money,” we might say. Basically, the servants trusted enough that what they were given would not be lost. They enjoyed the talents given, and in that joyful business, the gift kept giving.
It seems that the only way to keep the talent from doubling is to do absolutely nothing with it. This is what the third servant does. He received the talent, but it seems that he didn’t really want it. He went out, dug a hole in the ground, and hid his master’s money. Say what?! Did Matthew get that right? You mean to tell me that this particular servant was just given enough money to live on for the rest of his life, with plenty to spare, and he just buried it? Why on earth would he do that?!!
I think we see the answer to that question when the master returns “after a long time” (Matt. 25:19). This, by the way, is another point in favor of seeing this man as being Jesus. The first two servants do not hesitate to come to the master and report their experience with the talents they were given. They seem overjoyed to share how the talents grew to twice the amount they had received.
The master responds
Then the master responds to the servants’ response with what may be the key to understanding the parable:
Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness! (Matt. 25:21)
Did you catch that last line? This is what the master has been up to the whole time—bringing his servants into his own joy. It seems that the talents represent Jesus himself. Jesus gives himself to us in order that we might enjoy life with, in and through him! The “wealth” the man gives his servants in Matt. 25:14 is translated “property” in the NRSV. The idea is of the place the master intends to return to and so share with his servants. Who would want the gift of property if you could not enjoy being with the one who lives there?
It’s about enjoying Jesus
Enjoyment of Jesus, our Lord and Master, has a way of growing. When we receive him and then grow in trusting him, we find he is indeed a generous and gracious giver who is completely trustworthy and, therefore, quite enjoyable. As we grow in our relationship with Jesus, we find ourselves wanting to enjoy him more and more—communing with him in every second of every day, as we live in this “present evil world”—the “time between the times” of his first and second advents.
We enjoy Jesus knowing that as our gracious Master who knows and loves us best, he will return one day in glory to fill us with his presence, which we will enjoy forever.
The wicked, lazy servant
But we are not done yet. There is the last servant who we are told about as a warning. He represents a judgment of how we respond to Jesus.
We asked, why on earth would he bury the gift of a lifetime? Basically, it looks like this servant wanted nothing to do with the “man.” He had prejudged his master as “harsh” even though the man had just given him a ridiculously large amount of money to enjoy. This “wicked and lazy servant,” gives his one talent back to the master with these words: “Here is what belongs to you” (Matt. 25:25).
Do you grasp what he has done? He has judged the man to be a taskmaster—one who only gives gifts with strings attached. To this servant, the master is a tightwad accountant trying to get as much as he can out of his servants. The talent is seen not as a gift to be received, but as a test to be avoided.
The master has harsh words for this servant: “You wicked, lazy servant!” (Matt. 25:26). This servant is not getting bad marks for poor financial management—he is being called out in the same way Jesus called out the religious leaders of Israel. Israel was supposed to be God’s servant, enjoying God’s presence, which served as a witness inviting the whole world to enjoy him as well. Instead, Israel chose to bury the talent God gave them by rejecting Jesus and having him killed. The unfaithful, self-focused servant in the parable did not like it that the master would harvest where he had not sown (Matt. 25:24). Israel didn’t like it that God was concerned about other nations—that the talent invested in Israel would mean growth in value that would benefit others. Israel had her Temple—why care about other nations?
The master tells his unthankful, short-sighted servant that what he has been given will be taken away and given to others (Matt. 25:29). The point here is that when something is not enjoyed for its intended purpose, we not only lose the benefit intended, but we lose the thing itself. It would be like using a piano as lawn furniture—not only will you lose enjoying the music, you will eventually lose the piano itself. That’s what happened with Israel’s Temple. The Pharisees and other religious leaders of the Jews did not use the Temple for its intended purpose: to enjoy God’s presence. Instead, they tried to work it for a profit. In the end, they couldn’t receive God’s actual presence in Jesus, and ended up losing the Temple itself.
That’s the judgement on this wicked, lazy servant. He repudiated his calling to live with and therefore enjoy the master and by doing so he became “worthless” (Matt. 25:30). This servant chose to respond to his own judgement that the master should be avoided instead of being enjoyed. To refuse Jesus—to refuse to trust in him and so to enjoy him, is to receive only weeping and gnashing of teeth.
I’ve got good news: God’s got talent!—and his name is Jesus. Doing business with him is the most enjoyable enterprise you can ever imagine. And when others want to be part of that, there’s more than enough to go around. So enjoy Jesus and share him with others. Amen.
At our recent Denominational Conference held in Orlando, Florida, GCI President Joseph Tkach announced that I will be replacing him as President when he retires at the end of 2018. Many people congratulated me and shared other positive responses—none more positive than the kind words spoken by Mrs. Norva Kelly.
Norva recounted the many conferences she and her husband Ron have attended in their long, storied history with GCI. She mentioned that this might be the last Denominational Conference they would be able to attend (I hope not!). Then, drawing close and looking me in the eyes, she shared the part of Psalm 66 that was part of her devotional reading that day:
Praise our God, all peoples,
let the sound of his praise be heard;
he has preserved our lives
and kept our feet from slipping.
For you, God, tested us;
you refined us like silver.
You brought us into prison
and laid burdens on our backs.
You let people ride over our heads;
we went through fire and water,
but you brought us to a place of abundance. (Psalm 66:8-12)
These words deeply moved me, bringing to mind our journey in GCI from trial to abundance. I rejoiced as I reflected on the way God has turned us into a global mosaic of churches, knit tightly together by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Psalm 66 is a hope-filled reminder that one day the whole earth will worship God. The verses Norva quoted point to a particular occasion when God delivered Israel. Written in the plural (“us” and “our”), it speaks on behalf of the whole nation, reflecting on Israel’s experience as the people of God. The first part gives assurance that it is God who gives life, lovingly holding his people in his hands no matter what trials come their way. We absolutely do live and move and have our being in God!
For multiple centuries, Israel suffered the oppressive hardship of Egyptian slavery. Yet through it all, the Lord was faithful—preserving Israel, then as promised, delivering his people out of slavery and into the Promised Land—a place “flowing with milk and honey.”
Though Norva and I did not sit down and exegete this passage together, she told me she felt the Holy Spirit had given her this message to share with me, and I agreed. It is a vivid reminder that in our journey as a church fellowship, we have always had a gracious God worthy of our praise. He has always been faithful to us—never allowing our feet to slip, no matter what stormy trials came our way (and come they did!).
Going through an extended season of trial and testing is not uncommon to the people of God—in fact, it is normal. However, the purposes God is working out through trials and tests typically are understood only in hindsight. Yet, through them all, the Lord is with his people, making a way for their deliverance from trial to abundance. That truly is our story.
What is the abundance the Lord has granted GCI? I see three things:
An abundance of grace, manifested in our clearer understanding of the triune God of grace revealed in Jesus.
An abundance of unity, seen clearly at the conference in Orlando where 1,000+ GCI members sang “We Believe” at the top of their lungs.
An abundance of faithfulnessto the mission of God, which I see unfolding in our midst as more and more of our congregations participate in what Jesus is doing to engage a lost world.
This abundance of grace, unity and faithfulness to God’s mission are gifts from God—ones of far greater worth than any measure of gold or diamonds. They are the precious fruit of the long, often painful, journey of the past 20+ years—a journey that has taken GCI from trial to abundance.
GCI brothers and sisters, we truly are a blessed people! Please join me in responding by blessing our Triune God—shouting together his praises with joy and thanksgiving.
Your brother in Christ,
GCI Vice President
PS: I want to extend my sincere thanks this month (Pastor Appreciation Month in the United States) to our many faithful pastors, pastoral team members and fellowship group facilitators. I know the many sacrifices you have made in shepherding your congregation(s) on our often difficult journey from trial to abundance. Thank you for both teaching and exemplifying God’s grace, for contributing to our unity, and for your faithfulness. All of you are deeply appreciated!
Here is part 5, which concludes the essay Clarifying Our Theological Vision by Gary Deddo, with an introduction from Joseph Tkach. This essay has been published serially here in Equipper. To read each part, click a link: introduction, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. To read the full essay in one article, click here. For the related essay, Covenant, Law and God's Faithfulness, click here. For the related essay, The Church and Its Ministry, click here.
foundational insights and conclusion
By Dr. Gary Deddo
The purpose of this essay, which we’ll now conclude, has been to clarify key concepts related to GCI’s incarnational Trinitarian theology in a way that is consistent with the renewal God has granted us, including the transformation of our doctrine and theology. The clarifications given have primarily addressed our understanding of the Christian life. A companion essay, addressing our understanding of the church and its ministry, is being published serially in GCI Weekly Update (click here for part 1).
In both essays, we’ve sought to give a faithful and thorough account of the biblical, Christ-centered, Trinitarian, historically orthodox faith. The need to do so arose as certain theological concepts were developing within GCI in non-official ways—ones that tended to be grounded in unwarranted assumptions or logical inferences from what we do affirm. Some of our members and pastors were wondering if some of these inferences or assumptions were now official GCI teaching. But as this essay has sought to explain, some of these logical inferences (particularly ones concerning the Christian life) are not warranted and, therefore, are not what GCI officially teaches.
Nothing in this essay should be construed as changing GCI’s understanding of our Triune God’s purpose for all persons and the basis for the fulfillment of that purpose in and through Jesus and by the Spirit. As GCI has proclaimed for over ten years, all are included—Jesus came to redeem the whole creation, and because God already has reconciled all people to himself in Christ, God loves and forgives all people. The essay then explains how, in response to the ministry of the Holy Spirit, each individual might personally receive and share in that redemption.
Let’s now revisit some of the key clarifications presented in this essay, adding additional insights that, hopefully, will lend even greater clarity to our understanding of GCI’s theological vision.
Created and reconciled for the gift of relationship
Throughout this essay we’ve emphasized that God, for and through his eternal Son, created and then reconciled to himself all humanity so that we might enjoy a relationship with God that is living, interactive and personal. That relationship, which is the heart and core of salvation, involves sharing (koinonia), by the Spirit, in Jesus’ own communion with the Father—a dynamic relationship of obedience, faith, hope and love that was evident throughout his earthly life.
We’ve also emphasized that salvation results from the co-achievement of all three of the divine Persons acting together for our benefit. Salvation is the outflow of their internal and eternal good and holy, loving relationship extended to humanity as a gift of grace. That gift involves both a renewed human nature, and a reconciled relationship with God. Both exist already in the glorified humanity of Jesus who, on our behalf, lives in obedient and trusting communion with the Father. It is God’s desire that this gift, which is laid up in store for all people in Jesus, be personally received and thus experienced by all. It is with this understanding that the apostle Paul made this important declaration:
We are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died. And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again. So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation.
We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:14-21)
Having declared that God has already reconciled all humanity to himself in Christ, Paul indicates that those who have received this free gift experience, through Jesus, a personal, particular and dynamic relationship with God. As Paul notes elsewhere, this relationship is made possible by the Holy Spirit’s ongoing personal, particular and individual post-ascension ministry—a ministry conducted solely on the basis of Jesus’ completed work.
The Spirit’s ongoing ministry has many facets. He incorporates believers into the body of Christ (an event also referred to in the New Testament as being “baptized” or “sealed” by the Spirit). He then calls believers to serve as Christ’s “ambassadors,” sent into the world to proclaim the good news that God, in Christ, has reconciled himself to all people everywhere, and that all people are thus loved and forgiven by God. Christ’s ambassadors are then to call people to “be reconciled to God”—to receive the good news that God has reconciled himself in Christ to them, and that they, by responding to that truth in repentance with faith, enter a good, holy and right relationship with God.
A personal, relational gift received by faith
It is vital to understand that salvation is a gift that, rather than being impersonal, automatic or static, is personal and relational. It involves the work of the tri-personal God, and to experience the benefits of the salvation God has secured for us, it must be received personally and relationally—through faith (trusting) in the triune God who gives it. As noted by the author of Hebrews, those who do not receive salvation in this way do not experience its benefits:
Now, since God has left us the promise that we may enter his rest, let us be very careful so none of you will fail to enter. The Good News was preached to us just as it was to them [Israel]. But the teaching they heard did not help them, because they heard it but did not accept it with faith. (Heb. 4:1-2, NCV)
The God who created humanity for personal, dynamic and individual relationship with himself is the same God who provides everything needed for all persons to receive and thus participate in that relationship, which involves loving, obedient communion with the triune God despite the corruption of the very good nature God gave human persons in the beginning. We see this relationship lived out perfectly in Jesus’ earthly life—his loving, obedient relationship with his Father, in the Spirit, that culminated in his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension—the gift he gave for the salvation of all humanity. It is in Jesus’ relationship of communion with the Father that we share when we respond in faith to the personal and dynamic ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Salvation involves two types of union
In order to sort out the meaning and place of our personal response to God (i.e., the Christian life), this essay has addressed the vicarious humanity of Christ and the related doctrine of the hypostatic union, noting that salvation is a personal and relational gift of God. The foundation of our salvation is the completed work of the incarnate Son of God who, having assumed our human nature, transformed (sanctified) it throughout his entire human life, culminating at the cross. The glorification of human nature was then completed in Jesus’ bodily resurrection and ascension. That completed work of Christ reconciled God to all people everywhere, and reconciled them all so that each person might positively respond to and receive that gift, sharing in what Christ has done for them as their Mediator.
We then noted that our sharing in the gift of reconciliation and in a renewed human nature, and so in Christ’s salvation, requires the additional post-ascension ministry of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is at work drawing all humanity, as individual persons, to Christ—freeing their hearts and minds from bondage to the power of sin, guilt and death. No one can, nor would they ever, turn to God, receiving his forgiveness, grace and mercy, except that the Holy Spirit is doing this vital ministry, acting on the basis of the completed work of Jesus Christ.
We noted that salvation, which requires both the ministry of the Son and the Spirit, involves two distinct “unions”:
The hypostatic union, which unites human nature and the divine nature in the one Person (hypostasis) of the Son of God. One person: two natures.
The spiritual union (or “the koinonia of the Spirit,” as T.F. Torrance called it) that unites individual persons to Jesus Christ by the distinct but not separate ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Receptivity (responsiveness) to the Spirit’s ministry to unite us personally to Christ is signaled by repentance, faith, hope and love for God on the basis of the person and work of Jesus Christ. The spiritual union (union by the Holy Spirit) results in individual persons being incorporated into the body of Christ. We thus understand, as T.F. Torrance notes, that there is a “dual incorporation”—Christ is incorporated into humanity (as a whole) by the hypostatic union, and we (as individuals) are incorporated into Christ by the spiritual union (the fellowship or communion of the Holy Spirit).
Proclaim the indicatives and the imperatives
We have also pointed out in this essay that our teaching and preaching must convey the distinction between these two unions (incorporations). That means teaching and preaching both the indicatives (positive declarations) of grace and the imperatives (commands) of grace. These indicatives involve the truth that God, as a gift of grace apart from any human response, has, in Christ, reconciled all people to himself. This truth must be proclaimed first, for it is the ground (root or basis) of everything else. But we must also, on that basis (and on that basis alone), call for a positive response to God’s grace, a response that involves personal participation via faith in God—faith in what he has done, is doing and will yet do through Christ and by the Spirit.
Gospel-shaped proclamation of the indicatives of grace will naturally lead to an equally gospel-shaped proclamation of the imperatives of grace—the responses that the Holy Spirit enables people to show. The imperatives (commands) should never be proclaimed apart from the proclamation of the indicatives (positive declarations) of grace. Doing so inevitably leads to legalism, which is based on the false idea that God wants an impersonal, legal, contractual relationship with human beings. On the other hand, proclaiming grace without proclaiming an appropriate and corresponding response, inevitably leads to antinomianism—disobedience that presumes upon grace. Even worse, it obscures the fact that as human beings we were created by God for personal, interactive, dynamic, communicative relationship with God, through Christ, by the Spirit. Proclaiming grace without also proclaiming the need for a personal response tends to present salvation as impersonal, mechanical, automatic, and non-relational.
The pattern of proclaiming grace followed by a proclamation of the need for a personal response pervades Scripture. In the New Testament Jesus calls people to “repent and believe the good news” because the kingdom is present and available in him (Mark 1:14-15). Paul tells us that because God has already reconciled the world to himself in Christ, the church has the ministry of proclaiming that individuals are to turn to God in faith, and so “be reconciled” to God (2 Cor. 5:14-21). Coupling a declaration of the grace of God followed by a call to personal response is the biblical pattern.
The Spirit’s ministry with non-believers
A related issue that has been addressed in this essay has to do with the difference between those who are believing (and thus responding to the ministry of the Spirit) and those who are not yet believing. A related question is this: Is the Holy Spirit absent from the lives of non-believers? The answer is absolutely not! The Spirit has an important ministry in their lives, long before they even acknowledge and so respond to the Spirit. Note these seven points:
The nature, character, mind, heart and purpose of the Holy Spirit is identical to that of the Father and the Son. The three Persons of the Trinity are undivided in will and purpose, even if differentiated in terms of ministry or work in relationship to creation.
The New Testament says little about how the Holy Spirit works in people’s lives prior to the time they begin to believe. This is largely because the character and nature of the Spirit is revealed primarily in the Son. The Spirit’s working, which often remains hidden, is hard to comprehend in creaturely terms. As Jesus told Nicodemus, likening the Spirit to the wind, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going” (John 3:8).
Though often hidden from our view, based on what is revealed in Scripture about the Spirit’s character, heart and mind (which is identical to that of the Son and the Father), we can say with confidence that the Spirit is for all persons—the same persons for whom Christ died.
We can also say with confidence that the Spirit is involved in Jesus’ continuing ministry to “draw all persons” to himself (John 12:32).
Scripture shows that the gracious ministry of the Holy Spirit is required to open eyes, ears and hearts so that any one person may receive the gifts of God’s grace, responding with faith, hope, love and repentance. The Holy Spirit is the only one who can free human beings from the grip of deception, the bondage of sin and guilt, and the pride of self-sufficiency and rebellion against God.
Anyone who personally turns to God to receive his freely-given gift of grace does so only because of the Holy Spirit’s ministry being conducted for the glory of the Son. No one would (or could) turn to God on their own. No one can truly say and mean, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:3). Repentance and faith are gifts of Jesus to individual persons, given by and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
The ministry of the Holy Spirit is not predictable in terms of how he ministers to individuals or even among groups. His ministry is the widest, but also the most individual and personal of God’s workings. The timing of his drawing of individuals to God will always be a mystery to us. His workings with individuals is customized to particular persons, calculated to draw them in and to overcome their resistance, misunderstandings, social conditioning, and even work with their disabilities.
From our standpoint, it seems that the Holy Spirit does not exert the same persuasive power at every moment upon a given individual. Rather, it appears that he moves at just the right moment—perhaps even “waiting” for that moment to arrive—in order to draw persons closer in. Note here the similarity with how human love works—being patient, but persistent; never coercing, yet purposeful, deliberate and persuasive.
What we do know, and can testify to, is that the Holy Spirit, in his particular, unique and even mysterious way, will be faithful to all, just as the Father and the Son are. We must not think of the ministry of the Spirit as being generic, impersonal, automatic, static or fixed. Like all that God does, the Spirit’s ministry is personal and relational.
As shown in the diagram below, the Holy Spirit meets individuals where they are, taking into account all that they are. His ministry is customized (personalized) for each individual. His purpose is always to free persons from bondage, to open their eyes, bringing them to repentance and faith so that they might receive from Christ all he is, and all he has for them. This receptivity is the beginning of an ever-growing life of what Paul refers to in Romans 1:5 and Romans 16:26 as “the obedience of faith” (or “the obedience that comes from faith”)—a sharing in the obedient faith of Jesus; a sharing in his union and communion with the Father.
Note that the Holy Spirit is the center of this diagram—he is intersecting with all people, no matter where they might currently be (near or far from God). No matter which direction a particular person is facing, the Holy Spirit is always interacting with them in order to turn them towards Christ, and then to help them receive Christ and pursue him by living peacefully, joyfully, deliberately and purposefully in relationship with Christ as a response to the Spirit’s continuous upward calling.
The nature of the Spirit’s “presence”
Though the Holy Spirit is present in the lives of both believers and non-believers, we must not think of him as being present to everyone in exactly the same way. To do so would be to turn the Spirit into some sort of ubiquitous universal law, abstract principle, or impersonal force like gravity or electricity. The truth is that God the Holy Spirit is personally present in an infinite number of ways, as he sees fit. In that regard, you will recall from the Old Testament how the Spirit worked in various ways with Adam and Eve, Noah, Saul and David (to name just a few). You will also recall the astonishing promises given by the Old Testament prophets concerning a new presence and effect of the Holy Spirit, which would be realized with the Messiah’s coming. The prophets promised that the Spirit would give life to dead bones and change hearts and minds resulting in a deeper and true knowing of God.
In the New Testament accounts of the time following Jesus’ earthly ministry, we find examples of yet more variability in the Spirit’s work. You will recall Paul’s experience, that of the Ethiopian eunuch, Stephen’s vision upon his martyrdom, and of course, Pentecost itself, where some received the promised Spirit announced by the Old Testament prophets, but others scoffed and rejected this new phase of the Spirit’s work. John tells us specifically that the world has no ability of itself to receive, know or perceive the Holy Spirit, but Jesus’ followers do (John 14:17).
Throughout the book of Acts, the Spirit is present and acting, but in a wide range of ways, and often unpredictably. Consider the preaching of Peter, the judgment of Ananias and Sapphira, the encounter with the sorcerer Simon Magus. Also consider the visions of the apostle John recorded in the book of Revelation. We could give many more examples.
Leading up to Pentecost (and providing its foundation) was the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in the life and ministry of Jesus, including his conception, baptism, dealing with demons, and crucifixion. These represent a whole variety of workings and, to some degree, variability in the Spirit’s presence, yet without the Spirit ever being absent from Jesus’ life. Key to Jesus’ own teaching was his promise of the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophetic promises about the Holy Spirit. He promised that he, with the Father, would be sending the Holy Spirit to establish a new presence and ministry of the Spirit (John 14:26; 15:26). You will also recall Jesus breathing his Spirit upon his apostles (John 20:22), yet telling them to wait for the sending of the Spirit (Luke 24:49). He specifically tells them that the Spirit who was with them, would be in them (John 14:17).
These examples show us that there is no single, simple pattern of the Spirit’s presence or absence. Instead, there is a mysterious, sovereign and dynamic personal presence. Recall again Jesus’ words to Nicodemus concerning the unpredictable nature of the Spirit and his ministry (John 3:5-8).
The Spirit’s ministry is personal and dynamic
Unfortunately, some want to construe the Spirit’s ministry in non-relational, contractual or legal terms: If we do X, then the Spirit will now be able to do Y. With this wrong-headed approach, the Holy Spirit is construed as being conditioned by individual effort and achievement with his presence and ministry being seen in mechanical and material terms, as if the Spirit exists in variable quantities or in divisible pieces or parts. This way of viewing the Spirit and his ministry is not Scriptural.
In contrast, the New Testament holds forth for us a personal, often individual and always dynamic view of the Spirit and his ministry. It can speak of an individual being “born of” the Holy Spirit and “indwelt” by the Spirit (in contrast to not being indwelt). Many individuals are spoken of as being “filled” by the Spirit, and then serving in some particular and distinctive way at a certain time and place. Think, again, of Stephen’s martyrdom, or of Peter’s preaching, or of the New Testament’s teaching concerning the gifts and fruit of the Spirit. The Spirit’s dynamic presence is also brought out in the fact that the effects of his faithful ministry can be blunted, diminished and even outright repudiated (blasphemed). We are warned not to “grieve” the Spirit. Instead we are exhorted to, “be continually filled” by the Spirit (Eph. 5:18, where the verb indicates present and continuous action) and to be “led” by the Spirit (Rom. 8:14; Gal. 5:18).
Some of the variability in our experience of the Holy Spirit involves the variability of our response and so a variability in how the benefits of the Spirit’s ministry are received. This is not to say that we somehow condition the Spirit to be graciously present and active. But it does lead to the fact that our experience of the benefits of the Spirit involves, to some significant extent, human responsiveness to the faithful and sovereign presence and working of the Spirit, all as the Spirit deems appropriate. We do not condition the active grace of the Holy Spirit, but we can either resist him or cooperate with him, and that will make a difference in the extent of the benefits we experience of the gifts that the Spirit freely gives.
In the New Testament, those who are responsive to the Holy Spirit (believers) are encouraged to be more consistently responsive. Those who are resistant to the Spirit (both believers and non-believers) are warned not to presume upon the grace of God and exhorted to repent of such resistance. The connection, even of the believer, with the Holy Spirit is personal and dynamic, not fixed, static or mechanical. The effects of the ministry of the Spirit thus can be varied even while he is present in a way particular to those who are believing. The Spirit is constant and faithful in character and purpose but dynamic in ministry—because the Spirit is personal (as T.F. Torrance often said, he is “personalizing”).
Though this relational, personal and personalizing presence of the Spirit is variable, it cannot be properly thought of as broken up into “parts,” nor can it be explained as a matter of simple “presence” or “absence.” Instead, Scripture calls upon us to intersect as best we can with what the Holy Spirit is doing in our lives. It is in that way that our responsiveness (or lack thereof) to the presence and activity of the Spirit does make a difference—not one in the intention and faithfulness of the Spirit, and certainly not one in the character of the Spirit. Rather, there is a difference in how persons are benefitting in the Spirit’s presence and ministry. Once again, we are dealing with the relational nature of God’s work—in this case as it pertains to the particular ministry of the Spirit. It’s important to recognize the difference our responsiveness does and does not make.
Now returning to the question of how the Spirit is involved in the lives of both non-believers and believers, we are not able to specify exactly how the Spirit works in either case. Ultimately how he operates is a mystery beyond our knowing. However, we can know something of the why he operates—we can understand his overall purposes and aims, which are the same for both believers and non-believers. How is it that we can understand? The answer is that we know the character, heart and mind of the Spirit, because that has been revealed to us. It is identical with that of the Son and the Father—the triune Persons are one in will and purpose. But how exactly the Spirit works out that will and purpose, we cannot (and we need not) say. It is sufficient for us to know the Spirit’s mind, heart and intention, which is consistent towards believers and non-believers.
The many examples of the Spirit’s presence and ministry recorded in Scripture cannot be reduced to an impersonal, fixed formula. They cannot be reduced to conditions that need to be met in order for the Holy Spirit to be obligated to act in certain ways. However, these examples do indicate that the Spirit takes account of the personal, particular and individual situations of persons even while accomplishing his predetermined purpose, which is to draw all persons to Christ and then into Christ.
Here is a helpful way to look at the Spirit’s ministry: No matter who we are, no matter what condition we are in, the Holy Spirit is drawing us in one direction—upward, towards a worship relationship with God through Christ. As seen in the diagram above, the Spirit’s work has a certain trajectory—one that slopes upward towards the high calling of Christ (to paraphrase Paul). The top of the slope represents a full and complete relationship with Christ—sharing completely in his sanctified and glorified human nature. This represents the complete conformity of our whole lives to Christ. The bottom of the slope then represents full and complete rejection of Christ. It represents death and rebellion against God—a refusal of the gifts of Christ and of life in Christ given by the Spirit.
What is most important in this attempt to graphically illustrate something of the ministry of the Holy Spirit is the direction the Spirit is drawing all people (both non-believers and believers). Where a given individual stands on this slope is of secondary importance. The Spirit, being personal and ministering to humanity in particular and dynamic ways, can be redemptively present with a person no matter where they are on the slope. Note, however, that the Spirit is always working with each person to draw them in one direction only—towards God, through Jesus.
The Spirit will do this work of drawing no matter where on the slope the individual may be—close to Christ, or far away—and no matter which direction they currently are headed. The aim of the Spirit will always be to turn the person in the direction of moving deliberately, intentionally and personally, upward on the slope towards Christ. The Spirit does this by setting the person free to exercise a personal faith, hope and love towards God on the basis of the mediation of the Son and his completed work.
In this personal, relational ministry, the Holy Spirit accounts for all of a person’s particularities—their age, gender, ethnicity, mental capacity, physical and emotional abilities and disabilities, background, education, current frame of mind, place in society, economic state, family history, religious background, etc. The aim will always be to turn them to Christ and to have them participate as fully as they can, in as deep a relationship as possible, with Christ at any given time.
Compared to where someone happens to be on the slope at any given time, what is far more important is the direction the person is facing. Are they facing towards Christ and responding to his upward call through the Spirit? Or are they facing away from Christ, resisting the Spirit, rejecting their need for grace, clinging to their self-will and self-righteousness?
The foundational ministry of the Spirit is to turn people towards God, in Christ, setting them free to trust in Christ and so to begin drawing from the full storehouse of blessings that are already complete in Christ.
Our ministry: sharing in the Spirit’s ministry
Given that this is the nature of the Spirit’s ministry, it follows that the ministry of the church should also be the same towards believers and non-believers. The Spirit calls and gifts us to proclaim who Christ is and what he has done for all people. We are to make God known to all according to his self-revelation in Christ and the witness presented to us in Scripture. On that basis, we encourage, persuade and direct people to begin or to continue to put their trust in Christ and what he has done for them, and to begin or continue to repent of putting ultimate trust in anyone or anything else.
This message and witness—this ministry—is one and the same toward all, no matter where they are on the slope; no matter which direction they may be facing at the present time. In this way we join with the Spirit in his ministry. Though this does not mean that we cannot take into account where a person is located on the slope, or which direction they may currently be facing, these will not be the primary determinates of our proclamation. Instead, our calling is to point all people to Jesus, calling them to a personal, particular, vital and transforming relationship in communion with God through Christ and by the Spirit according to Scripture. Such a relationship will come to involve their participation in the church. Those who follow Jesus will want to associate with other believers as the Holy Spirit incorporates (baptizes) them into the body of Christ. Such persons will also want to join in the mission of the church—witnessing to Jesus by word and deed. They will want to grow in their relationship with God, understanding more fully his Word and ways. They will want to follow Christ, exploring where he leads them through this relationship of union and communion with God.
It cannot rightly be said that those who are not receptive to the Holy Spirit have been incorporated by the Spirit into the body of Christ. As is clear from the New Testament, sharing in Christ’s mission in worship and witness as members of his body is something that takes place purposely and consciously—by prayer and with thanksgiving. As Karl Barth has indicated, the Holy Spirit does not fulfill his ministry on behalf of Jesus anonymously—there are no anonymous Christians. However, this does not mean that we can know with certainty who is and who isn’t a member of Christ’s body at any given time. But it does inform us that those who are responsive to the Spirit’s drawing, and receptive to receiving the grace of God as it comes to us through Christ, experience a unique quality of relationship that corresponds to the New Testament’s description of the fellowship enjoyed by those who are members of the body of Christ.
Christian ministry and the Christian life follow this biblical pattern of thought, but not in ways that are self-righteous and dismissive of those who are not believers. Instead, we are encouraged as the church to persevere in the work to which we are called, and encouraged as individual believers to persevere in following Jesus forward.
The nature of the Christian life
How we follow Jesus forward has to do with the nature of the Christian life—another primary topic that we’ve been addressing in this essay. As shown in the diagram above, we live this life of following Jesus “between the times”—in the time between Jesus’ first and second advents. During this time, Christ’s ministry is taking place by his presence in and through the Holy Spirit, who forms and sends the church, the body of Christ, into the world.
The Christian life is first and foremost about our participation, as the body of Christ, by the Spirit, in the Son of God’s relationship with his Father. As brothers and sisters of Jesus by adoption, we share in Jesus’ worship and communion with our mutual Father. We also partake together of Jesus’ responses to the Father. As we do so, Jesus sanctifies our partial and inadequate responses, leading us, as one of us, in worshipping the Father.
What the Son of God has accomplished for us, the Holy Spirit works out in us. That means that our whole salvation (including our justification and sanctification), which are complete in Christ, is worked out completely in us. We have a share in all these aspects of salvation now as a kind of inheritance, because by the Spirit, there is (as Calvin put it) a “wonderful exchange” whereby Jesus takes what is ours, makes it his own, then by the Spirit gives it back to us. This understanding echoes Paul’s statement:
For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. (2 Cor. 8:9, NRSV)
We share in what is Christ’s. Because we live between the times, this will be a matter of dynamic interaction, relationship and process. It’s definitely not a fixed, automatic set-up. It involves both repenting and confessing sin when we fall into temptation. It also involves being renewed in our faith, hope and love for God and for others (what Calvin called our “mortification” and “vivification”). The New Testament speaks of dying to self and rising to Christ and of putting off our sinful ways, then putting on Christ. Thus we acknowledge the reality that we have a past and a weakened human nature.
In our relationship with God, we confess our sin when we fall into temptation, going to God knowing he is ready and able to renew us and give us his forgiveness again. We do not presume upon his grace—we hand over to God all that needs eradication, and God cleanses us again. God renews and strengthens us. This is what our sanctification in this life is like in relationship to Christ and the Spirit between the times, looking forward, in faith, with hope, to the day when we will see our weaknesses gone, and all traces of sin removed.
This is what the normal Christian life looks like. You will recall Jesus’ High Priestly prayer in John 17 where he prayed for this very thing to occur in our lives. He knew we were going to need to receive his sanctification as he left us in the world to be his witnesses. Even in our times of confession, Jesus does not leave us alone, relying on our own strength. Instead, he stands with us, by the Spirit, as our High Priest, praying for us and with us, cleansing us with his own sanctity, then handing us over to the Father.
Our singular identity, in Christ
This dynamic relationship and process is truly hope-filled. Why? Because we know that our salvation is complete in Christ, and we know that God is faithful. With this confidence—this hope grounded in faith in God—we are involved in a life-long transformative relationship, becoming conformed to Christ as the Lord pleases, in his time and in his way. In this life, we are becoming, in ourselves, what we truly are in Christ.
However, in this time between the times, we are “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). As noted earlier in this essay, this does not mean that we have two “selves” or two “identities”—one here on earth and another hidden with Christ in heaven. Scripture teaches that, as those belonging to Jesus, we are a single self—we possess a single identity. Jesus is our life—we belong to him, body and soul.
Knowing this, we “press on” (Phil 3:12) to live into this one, true identity. Jesus alone tells us who we are in him. Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, he gives us a share in his meaning, significance, security, dignity and destiny. We do not derive these things from any other source. We live into and out of our single identity “in Christ.” This, it seems, is what Paul means by “working out” the gift of our salvation.
Because we are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit (the spiritual union, which we’ve addressed at length in this essay), our pasts do not determine who we are, or who we are becoming. Jesus, who is Lord of all time, is Lord of our past and our future. Thus we understand that we are no longer simply sinners—we are forgiven sinners. Having been created “good” creatures, we know that we will be the glorified, perfected children of God. This means that we should not, indeed we cannot, define our identities on the basis of our fallen, weakened human nature that is still prone to sin and so is open to being taken advantage of by the power of sin.
Our human nature, which already is perfected in Christ, is in this time between the times, in transition. Our attention (wills, minds, hearts and bodies) can be directed towards the past (which is passing away under the judgment of the cross of Christ) or it can be directed, by the power of the Spirit, towards the high calling of Christ. The New Testament indicates that we have a part to play in this dynamic.
On the basis of our singular identity—the identity of our persons in union and communion with Christ—we are to align ourselves with the power of the Spirit that leads to life, and thereby resist the power of sin that leads to death. This does not mean that it is all up to us—not at all! We do have our part which, according to Paul, is to “fight the fight of faith” (1 Tim. 6:12). This we do in alliance with the Spirit, placing our trust and hope in God’s faithfulness on the basis of his Word. What God has begun in us, we know he will bring to completion (Phil. 1:6). We are to direct our selves—our persons, our personal agencies—our nature and its natural, if weakened capacities, toward serving the glory of God through the power of the Word of God and the Spirit.
Avoiding two errors
This understanding of the nature of the Christian life, and of the identity and future we have in Christ, helps us avoid two errors that some have embraced. The first error is thinking that the fullness of our salvation is fully accomplished by the Incarnation (i.e., the hypostatic union). That viewpoint fails to properly account for the biblical doctrine of the Holy Spirit and the related doctrines of the body of Christ, the church, and the Christian life.
The second error is thinking that we have a divided self, or two wills, or two natures, or even two identities. As we have shown in this essay, that is not the case. As Jesus says, we are not to serve two masters because we have only one. We are to live with a single (sound) eye (mind) (Luke 11:34). We are slaves only to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
We have a fallen (weakened) human nature that cannot, in this age, be completely restored. That nature can be tempted to live in the past—to revivify what has been crucified with Christ. But it is tempted not because there is a division within it, or because we have two identities. Instead, it is tempted by the power of evil still operating to some degree in this age. That evil looks for an opportunity to take advantage of our weakness.
Thus we understand that the temptations we experience do not arise from within us, but from what is alien to us, and more importantly, what is alien to the Holy Spirit and the life he has for us in Christ. Yes, sometimes the tension we experience seems to be within us—evil attacks us and tempts us at the deepest level of our being. But this tension is not between two intrinsic, irresolvable “parts” dueling away within us (as illustrated below). Instead, it’s between what is not us, namely sin or the power of sin, on the one hand, and life in the Holy Spirit on the other.
Consequently, we are not in a hopeless state—we are not caught in an “existential bind.” As Paul tells us (see Romans 5), our union with Christ (the new Adam—the new head of humanity) by the Spirit is far greater than our connection with the first Adam and our fallen nature, which has been corrupted by a past that is now passing away. Thus the New Testament teaches us to expect some degree of transformation even now as we share (from the inside out) in what Christ gives us of himself by his Word and Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).
This transformation, under the direction of the personal and particular ministry of the Holy Spirit, is custom-fitted to each individual as a member of the body of Christ. Thus the scope and rate of this transformation cannot be predicted. Nevertheless, its basic pattern is predictable. The Spirit will lead us to proclaim Christ and the work of salvation that he has completed in our place and on our behalf. He will lead us to be announcing the faithful ministry of the Holy Spirit so as to encourage ourselves and others to press on—to live in fellowship and communion with Christ, ready to receive all he has to give us, and to turn away from all that hinders us from receiving and enjoying fellowship and communion with him.
The obedience that comes from faith
Paul characterizes the life that results from fellowship with Christ, in the Spirit, as “the obedience that comes from faith” (or “the obedience of faith” in some translations). By using this phrase (in Romans 1:5 and Romans 16:26) Paul indicates that all that is said and done in the Christian life arises out of confidence in the person and work of Christ—in who he is and what he has done, is doing and will yet do according to his Word.
The foundation for all our doing as Christians is our being in Christ. The commands (imperatives) of the Christian life are thus based in the facts (indicatives) of grace, which we can absolutely count on. As shown in the diagram at the beginning of this part of the essay, when commands (imperatives) are given, they typically appeal to the indicative of the identity we have in Christ—in essence, we are being told to “be who you are in Christ.”
Christian ministry (including our teaching and preaching) should thus always begin by proclaiming the indicatives (the positive facts of grace)—all that God can be trusted for on the basis of his Word and revealed character. Only then do we address our response (the commands, the imperatives of grace). For example, we declare that we are to forgive because we have been forgiven. That we are to love because we are loved. That we are to be generous to others because God has been generous to us. That we are to care for the orphans and widows because God cares for them. That we are to be faithful in marriage and faithful in celibacy as singles because God is faithful to us and will never abandon us. That we are to pray because God listens to our prayers with the Son and Spirit as intercessors for us.
All these are examples of the obedience that comes from faith—the only kind that God is interested in because it is the only obedience that arises out of a trust and recognition of the truth of who God is—a recognition of his goodness, love, holiness and faithfulness. This kind of obedience is the fruit of spiritual maturity. It’s obedience that rules out both legalism and antinomianism.
It is the Holy Spirit’s ministry to lead members of the church both individually and collectively in making these kinds of grace-based responses, which are all about receiving from Christ, being conformed to Christ, growing up into Christ, being transformed, and being sanctified by sharing in Christ’s regenerated and sanctified humanity. The church then is the context in which we grow and are transformed as we feed upon Christ and his Word, and as we build up and strengthen one another. It is within the church that we partake in worship and witness, sharing in the mission of the church to know God in Christ and to make him known, in word and deed, as we are both gathered and sent out.
We now conclude this series, not because we’ve said all that can be said on these topics, but knowing that the conversation will continue, building on what we’ve covered. This essay is offered in the hope that enough was said to lend greater clarity to our understanding of Christ’s relationship to us by the Incarnation (the hypostatic union) and by the Spirit (the spiritual union), and also of the nature of the Christian life in response to the grace of God. The Father, Son and Spirit (the whole Trinity) call us to enter into deep and abiding fellowship and communion with them both now and into eternity. It is for this that we were created and then redeemed. Amen.
This Kids Korner is from GenMin national coordinator Jeff Broadnax.
This month, as we step into a new season of children’s ministry, let’s play the game Simon Says.
I imagine you’re familiar with this game. It teaches children to outwit, outlast and outplay their friends to become the lone survivor (no desert island involved!). All you need to excel is patience and a keen ability to listen for the words “Simon says” before following the instruction given.
Our version of the game will involve two men named Simon. The first is a well-known leadership consultant, author and speaker named Simon Sinek who, according to his bio, leads “a movement to build a world in which the vast majority of us are inspired by the work we do.” The second Simon, also well-known, was a disciple of Jesus named Simon Peter. According to Scripture, he was commissioned by Jesus to be both a fisher of men and a shepherd to the Lord’s flock, the church. I hope the lessons we learn from both Simons will inform and inspire our ministry to children.
Simon Sinek: start with why
If someone asked you to describe your children’s ministry, where would you begin? With your curriculum? Your student-teacher ratio? The snacks you provide, or the fun activities your kids enjoy? Though all these are important, Simon Sinek would tell you to begin not with what you provide, or with how you provide it. Instead, as indicated by the title of his well-known book, he would tell you to Start with Why.
Imagine the impact it would have if you started your reply by saying, “Let me tell you why I love being involved in ministry to children.” Sinek has it right—addressing what we do or how we do it should come only after we have addressed (with passion and boldness!) why we do it.
Simon says… take time this month to prayerfully determine (in order to be able to boldly state), why you are engaged in ministry to children.
Simon Peter: start with who
As Jesus’ miracle-working ministry progressed, Simon Peter and the rest of our Lord’s disciples were encountering people trying to figure out who their miracle-working Master was. Some said he was the resurrected John the Baptist. Others thought he might be Elijah or Jeremiah or another of the prophets. So Jesus asked the group, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus then responded to Peter, first saying that the Father in heaven had given Peter this insight, then challenging Peter to join in building Jesus’ church. Notice that Simon Peter’s insight concerning who Jesus is preceded and thus informed the why and what of his ministry. And so should it be with us in our ministry to children in Christ’s name.
Simon says… take some time this month to prayerfully focus on who children’s ministry is about, and who you want the children to say he is. Then (and only then), Simon says… answer why you are engaged in children’s ministry.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about the who and why of your ministry to children. You can record your thoughts in the “Leave a reply” box below, or email them to me at Jeffrey.Broadnax@gci.org.
Scripture readings: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25; Ps. 78:1-7;
1 Thess. 4:13-18; Matt. 25:1-13
Sermon by Linda Rex from Matthew 25:1-13
Join the Party!
Our Gospel reading in Matthew 25 tells us the story of “the unfaithful servant.” It’s been interpreted in several ways—often in terms of a particular end-time point of view. But let’s see what it says when we view it through the “lens” of Jesus—considering both who he is (as Son of God and son of man) and what he does (his mission and ministry).
The wicked servant
The context of the story includes Jesus’ story (beginning in Matt. 24:45) that tells of a wealthy master who charged his lead servant to care for the other servants while he was away on a long trip. As the story unfolds we learn that the master apparently stayed away longer than originally planned and the lead servant not only did not care for the other servants, he badly abused them. When the master returned and discovered what had happened, he was furious. Instead of being faithful to the master by being loving toward the other servants, the wicked lead servant had shown himself to be an irresponsible, self-centered abuser.
The ten virgins
With that illustration in mind concerning faithfulness to Christ, Matthew takes us to Jesus’ parable of the ten virgins (beginning in Matt. 25:1). Five were foolish (like the wicked lead servant in Matt. 24) and five were wise. The occasion is the bridegroom’s coming—perhaps Matthew wants us to connect that with the return of the master in the previous story. All ten virgins have all they need to take part in the forthcoming wedding—all have been invited and thus included. All that remains is for all of them to go out to meet the bridegroom. That, of course, is not what happens.
The wedding banquet
In reading this parable of the ten virgins, Matthew likely intends that we do so recalling Jesus’ parable of the wedding banquet in Matt. 22:1-14. Everyone in that parable who enters the wedding banquet comes in wearing clothing given to them, a practice that was common in that culture. However, one man in Jesus’ parable refuses to wear the garment he had been given, and so is not allowed to enter the banquet room. The point seems to be that our passport into the fullness of God’s kingdom (symbolized by the wedding banquet) is not about what we bring to the banquet, but about what we are given to wear and what we then willingly put on. It’s about the Lord’s provision—his righteousness, not our own.
In Ephesians 5:26, also using the analogy of marriage, Paul speaks of God’s gift to us as “washing with water through the Word.” The message is about purity, our acceptability. Rather than being the result of what we have done or what we are, it is a gift from God, given through Christ, to the church (Christ’s bride). We can be part of this wedding party because God the Father has invited us in and has given us the proper clothing (Christ’s righteousness) at his expense.
Thus Jesus challenges us to understand that our acceptability to God—our inclusion in his love and life—is by grace, not our own works or our own merit. In Christ, through what he has done, God has reconciled all people to himself, thus including them in his love and life. Because of Christ they have a standing invitation to the party. All are welcome to enter. All they need do is put on the wedding garments that the gracious father of the bridegroom has provided.
Back now to the ten virgins. We are told that five are “foolish” and the other five are “wise” (meaning “prudent”). The foolish ones, noting that they are short on oil to light their lamps and thus provide safe passage in the dark, are distracted from their journey to welcome the bridegroom. I think what we are to understand here is that their problem is being fearful and distracted—of thinking they needed to take things into their own hands and “get their act together” before seeing the bridegroom Theirs is a failure to trust the one who had invited them to take part in the wedding. How ironic that their concern about a little lamp distracted them from pursuing the Light of Life! I think we see here a metaphor for an issue all of us face—the tendency to become distracted by our own concerns, including getting our religious stuff right, and so losing sight of our relationship with God himself.
I’m reminded of when the prophet Samuel was still a child being tutored by Eli the priest. Israel went to war against the Philistines, and overwhelmed by the size of the Philistine army, the Israelites decided they would bring the Ark of the Covenant into battle as a sort of good luck charm. What was wrong with that? Well, first of all, God didn’t tell them to go to war. Second, they didn’t ask God his opinion—they were more concerned about having the ark present than about having God with them.
Ironically, the ark ended up in the Philistine camp, where the Philistines, acting as though the ark was Israel’s God, placed it in their temple to prove their god’s superiority. Well, you know what happened—the Philistine god kept “bowing down” to the ark. Yet Israel kept putting their trust in something other than God. How foolish!
Five foolish virgins
Back now to the ten virgins. The five foolish ones lacked the faith to believe that the bridegroom would accept them just the way they were—without oil in their lamps. Instead of proceeding into the wedding party, they felt they had to take care of what they perceived to be a more pressing need in order to be acceptable to enter the wedding.
Perhaps the oil in the parable represents the Spirit, but remember, the Spirit is God’s gift—not something we go out and shop for, and certainly not something we earn or deserve. Also, the Holy Spirit is not a magical talisman that we wear around our necks. Unfortunately, as Christians we often go looking for such things—we think if we have just the right religious practices or programs, we’ll have more of God. But that thinking is exactly backward—it’s not about us getting more of God, it’s about God getting more of us!
What about us?
So how much of us does God have? Are we willing to trust that he loves us enough—that even if we don’t have oil for our lamps—even if we’re somehow lacking (at least in our own estimation), we can still go right into the wedding. Why? Because we’re already acceptable in God’s sight. Indeed, in Christ, God made us acceptable. It’s about his works, not ours.
In his high priestly prayer in John 17, Jesus said eternal life is to know the only true God and Jesus Christ whom God sent. Eternal life is thus about truly knowing the Father and the Son in intimate relationship. Isn’t it ironic from that perspective that Jesus says to those represented by the five foolish virgins: “I don’t know you” (Matt. 25:12)? If they had really known the bridegroom, they would have known they didn’t have to go shopping for oil. They would have known that the bridegroom was all they needed. But they were foolish, and while they were out shopping, the five wise virgins went into the party. They knew and trusted the bridegroom.
It’s interesting that the bridegroom delayed his arrival. Many times God delays so as to see where our relationship with him really is. He did that with Mary and Martha on the occasion of the death of their brother, Lazarus. Jesus delayed going to them because he had something he wanted to show them about his glory. So he stayed behind as Lazarus died and the sisters grieved. But then Jesus went to them, met them in their grief and heard their testimony concerning his ability to raise the dead. Then, in accordance with that testimony of trust in Jesus, as imperfect as it was, Jesus brought Lazarus back to life.
Jesus allows things to happen in our lives where it seems to us that he delays his coming—but Jesus’ timing is always perfect, always for our good. And this is true when the topic is the timing of his return in glory. Look at all that is going on in the world. Lord, why are you delaying? Is that our complaint? Or do we know Jesus, trust him, and rely upon him to do what is best for all at just the right time?
It’s about trusting Jesus. Will we be about his business as faithful servants even when it seems he is delaying his return, or will we, in despair and doubt, abandon the calling he’s given us?
What will our relationship with the bridegroom be when he does return? Will we know him? Will he know us? Are we trusting him no matter what occurs in our lives even now? Are we walking every minute as though he is here already? Indeed, he is—through the Spirit. We don’t have to live as though he is absent—far away in some other country. He invites us into the party now—to live every moment in intimate relationship with him, talking to him, listening to him in quiet meditation, hearing his voice speak through his word and by his Spirit—hearing him guide us as we make decisions when we’re not sure what to do.
Each of us needs to understand we are cherished—loved by God. Christ has already declared us to be his beautiful, beloved bride. Our privilege—our calling—is to practice his presence; to glow with his glory. We do so by loving others around us with the love by which God is loving us.
Jesus is here—go in!
Yes, Jesus, the Bridegroom, is here, and he comes to us whenever we need him. And one day he will return visibly, in all his glory. Only God knows when. But when Jesus does come in that final and full way, the question will be this: where are we? Will we be out shopping—trying to make ourselves more acceptable, trying to justify ourselves? Or will we be right there with him; trusting him and him alone?
If we are trusting him, there won’t be much of a transition—we’ll already be living the way we’re going to live for all eternity. Nothing to be afraid of, nothing to be anxious about, nothing to fear—we already have the relationship. We can just step into the party—just run to meet him. “He’s here! Let’s go!”
What about the closed door?
Though there is some vagueness concerning the closed door in this parable, we know that it’s not about whether Christ came, and it’s not about whether he offered salvation. He did. It’s there. He has given us his perfected humanity. But there comes a point where he invites us to receive it, to rely upon it, to live into it.
It seems that the closed door is a metaphor for Jesus saying to us, “Thy will be done—I give you what you’ve decided you want. You don’t know me—you don’t want to know me—so I guess I don’t know you.” In essence, Jesus is begrudgingly agreeing with the decision some have made in saying “No” to his “Yes.” Some close the door and then lock it from their side.
Scripture declares that because of who Jesus is as the God-man, and because of what he has done on our behalf, all people are included in God’s love and life—all are loved, forgiven and accepted, and all are invited to respond to God’s invitation to participate in an intimate relationship with him through the ministry of the Spirit, who leads us to respond, but never forces us to do so. We can choose to turn away. We can choose to refuse to enter the party. We can choose to shut the door.
The key to entering is not our perfection—it’s not about us getting everything right. It’s about saying “Yes” to the “Yes” God has already spoken, in Christ, to everyone. Saying “Yes” to God is about trust, not perfection. Aren’t you glad?
By trusting, we participate. By trusting, we enter in and are able to enjoy the party. By trusting, we are not distracted or discouraged as the time leading up to Jesus’ return in glory continues. We are enjoying his presence now and we are actively sharing in his work now. It’s our relationship with Christ that is in view here and we need to get our minds around the fact that Jesus wants a personal relationship with each of us. We’ve got to get beyond any thought that it’s about our works, our achievements, our righteousness. Instead it’s about trusting Christ, resting in him, enjoying him, sharing in what he is doing. Joining in the party—his party.
Thank you, God, for giving us your Son, and for giving us hope that is beyond anything we can ask or imagine. Forgive us when we make it all out to be some sort of magic formula, believing somehow if we get it right, you’ll be kind and forgive us. Grant us the grace to live and walk in awareness of your presence, for in you we live and move and have our being. You are our Father, our Brother, our Spirit of life and truth, our Comfort and Peace. You give us hope, you give us joy, you give us family, you give us friends, you give us beauty in this life—so many things. Lord, let us live in the joy and peace you intended from the beginning so when you welcome us into eternity, it won’t be different from what we’ve been experiencing all along—just more of it. We thank you this is true and possible through Jesus our Lord, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Scripture readings: Joshua 3:7-17 and Ps. 107:1-7, 33-37
(or Micah 3:5-12 and Ps. 43)
1 Thess. 2:9-13; Matt. 23:1-12
Sermon by Linda Rex from Matthew 23:1-12
Look to Jesus, Not Moral Religion
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus admonished us to look to him to find a better way of relating to God. According to Jesus, the teachers of the law (the scribes) and the Pharisees—Jewish religious leaders in his day—had a place in “Moses’ seat”—God-given authority within the house of Israel. However, as we learn in Hebrews 3, Moses is the servant in the house, whereas the Father is its builder and Jesus is the house itself. Moses is not the ultimate authority when it comes to the things of God, nor are the scribes and Pharisees who share Moses’ authority. The supreme authority in all such matters is Jesus.
The problem with looking to humans as the ultimate authority when it comes to the things of God is that we then project human, earth-bound ideas and experiences back on God. To see God as he truly is, we must look to Jesus who, alone, reveals who God is, how he relates to us and, therefore, how we should relate to him.
In Matthew 23, Jesus affirms that the scribes and Pharisees have authority in Israel, under the law of the old covenant. However, their efforts to protect the people from that law by hedging it in with added rules and regulations is a mistake—it weighs people down with heavy burdens the scribes and Pharisees themselves are unwilling to bear (Matt. 23:3). So Jesus instructs the people, that though they should respect the position of these religious leaders and obey the law they have been charged to uphold they must not follow their example, for they are hypocrites who “do not practice what they preach.”
The problem with moral religion
The problem with the legalistic, moral religion taught by the scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day, and by many religious leaders in our day, is that it is rules-based, a “do this, don’t do that” approach to serving God that puts the burden on us to get things right so that God can be pleased with us and thus accept us. Don’t misunderstand: the moral religion taught by the scribes and Pharisees included some good things (that’s why Jesus tells the people to obey what they teach), but the problem was that no human being could actually do all that the Law of Moses (associated with the old covenant) commanded. Only one person could do that, and his name is Jesus. He perfectly obeyed the Law of Moses (as well as the larger principles behind it) and in doing so brought it to its intended end in the new covenant—the new way of relating to God, not through rules carved on stone tablets, but through Jesus, who dwells in us by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus invites us to join with him in doing what is right and good in accordance with his word. So in Matthew 23 Jesus is encouraging the people to look beyond moral religion to choose a way of being and doing that they would understand much better after Jesus died, rose, ascended and sent the Holy Spirit to dwell within them.
Jesus does not coerce us into joining him in doing what is right. That’s how much he respects us and he knows that being coerced does not lead to transformation. Instead it leads to legalistic, often begrudging, conformity to moral religion. Jesus understood that and that’s why he addresses it here in our passage in Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus says the scribes and Pharisees love the place of honor. Now, who’s the one who got that mindset going? That would be the evil one. He decided God’s place should be his. This is the ultimate lie, and to one extent or another, one we all succumb to. We like it when people notice us and look up to us, giving us credit, assigning us value, elevating us to the place of honor. How very different that is from the way of Jesus—the eternal Son of God who, through the Incarnation, humbled himself, took the place of a servant and served us all the way into death.
There is nothing that God asks of us, that God wants us to do, that Jesus has not already done in our place, on our behalf. He’s not asking us to do this on our own. In fact, he sends the Spirit—God in us—so we can share in all he has done for us and will yet do for us and through us.
So in this passage, Jesus is teaching the crowds and his disciples (likely in the ear-shot of the scribes and Pharisees) that there is something much deeper going on than mere moral religion. He’s making the point that there is a much deeper story to your life than what the scribes and the Pharisees would have you believe.
Who is God?
In Matt. 23:8-12, Jesus develops his point further by showing it is God (not the scribes and Pharisees) who is the true “teacher,” “father” and “instructor” (translated “leader” in the NASB). Looking closely, we sense Jesus making a reference to the Holy Trinity, with the Holy Spirit being the Teacher, God the Father being the Father, and Jesus being the Instructor. Let’s look at each one:
The Spirit, our Teacher
In John 13, Jesus is called rabbi (meaning teacher), and he said, “That’s right. I am your teacher. But there really is no teacher but God.” He then prepares his disciples for his crucifixion, “I have to go, though. Because when I go, I’m going to send the Holy Spirit, and he will teach you all things.” So our Teacher today in the church is principally the Holy Spirit (John 14:26) who teaches us as we listen to him, as he speaks to us through the Scriptures that he inspired, as we follow his lead in obeying Christ.
The Spirit, we are told in Scripture, leads us to Jesus—reminds us of what Jesus taught. He gives us God’s power—far more than is found in mere moral religion, which is all about “do this and don’t do that.” If we want real transformation of our lives, what we need is the Spirit to teach us—to transform us into the likeness of Christ from the inside out.
The Spirit is God in us— activating us, bringing to life the fullness of Jesus Christ within us. What is our hope of glory? It’s a “who” not a “what”—it’s Jesus who lives in us through the Spirit sent to us by the Father and the Son. We have the Teacher, the Holy Spirit, dwelling in us. Wherever the Spirit is, the Father and Jesus are as well. God is our Teacher.
Those of us called to teach within the church must rely on the Spirit and all he teaches us through the written word. As your pastor-teacher, I can talk until I’m blue in the face and it will have no effect in your life except by the Spirit’s power and direction. It’s God’s Spirit who does the work in our hearts and minds. And we trust him to do a major work in each of us and in those we teach.
The Father, our Father
Going on, Jesus says, “Do not call anyone on earth ‘father.’” We tend to get our picture of God as Father from our human fathers, and that’s often a problem. We need to realize that God the Father is not defined by human fathers. It’s the other way around. We don’t define God by our human experience—we define God by God. And who is God as Father? Well, Jesus said, “Look at me, and you’ll see the Father,” because Jesus is, as it says in Hebrews, the exact replica of the Father.
From Jesus we learn that when we trust in Jesus, the Father and the Son come to live in us through the Spirit. And indwelling us, they transform us. So we have a Father who, rather than standing apart and aloof (like some human fathers) from us, dwells in us and enables us to love and obey and so fellowship with him.
All we have to offer God comes as a gift of grace from our heavenly Father. It’s hard to get our minds around that truth, particularly when our experience of God was first within moral religion with its many do’s and don’ts: I must praise God, I must serve God; but I don’t know how, or I don’t do it well, or he doesn’t want to hear from me, a sinner; or….
Well, the truth is that the whole thing of serving and praising God begins with God, not with us. God gives us the heart. He gives us Jesus the one true and perfect human worshipper and servant of God. He gives us the Holy Spirit. And God flowing into us through Jesus by the Spirit gives us the perfect response to God—our sharing in Jesus’ own response of love and devotion to the Father, which has been going on for all eternity.
So God is our one true Father. As a human, Jesus obeyed the Father and acknowledged him as the Source of all good things. The testimony down the centuries in the church is that the Father has an eternally begotten Son, and the Holy Spirit eternally proceeds from the Father and the Son. And so we understand that God the Father is the Source of all good things. He loves us so much! So, as we go through the crises in life, let’s go to our Dad—he doesn’t want us to go through any of it by ourselves. He wants to be right there with us, supporting us, delivering us, redeeming all our circumstances.
Jesus, our Leader
Next, Jesus says not to call any human your “Leader” (NASB), for as “Messiah,” Jesus is Supreme Leader—the Lord of lords to whom we are to give allegiance. Jesus reminded Peter of this in Matthew 8 where Peter thought he was pretty clever in figuring out that Jesus is the Messiah. But Jesus reminded him, “Peter, the only reason you know this is because God revealed it to you.” Then Jesus said that he must go to Jerusalem to die, to which the self-confident Peter replied, “No way is that going to happen to you Lord!” To this impetuous statement Jesus replied, “Get behind me, Satan! You’re thinking more about the things of man than the things of God.”
Isn’t that also our tendency? It certainly was the tendency of the scribes and Pharisees, who were more concerned about human concerns than the things of God. In contrast, Jesus’ says to us, “Deny yourself and follow me”—which means to pick up your cross, and follow him.
Jesus went on to explain that true leadership—his leadership—involves service; it involves laying down one’s life and being humble rather than self-exalting. Jesus is showing us that instead of trusting imperfect, flawed humans to lead us, we must, first and foremost, look to Jesus who always is perfect. As your pastor, called to a position of leadership, I say to you, like Paul, “follow me as I follow Christ,” which to say that we all follow Christ first.
The Father, Son and Spirit come together, teaching us about true leadership, which is servant-leadership. The three Persons of the Trinity, who from all eternity serve each other in a self-sacrificial way, have made room for us in their divine fellowship. In doing so they teach us to join them in self-sacrifice and humility for the sake of loving others.
Make no mistake about it: God, alone, is our Teacher, Father and Leader. It is to the Triune God that we need to look as the source of our life, the focus of our worship, and the direction of our obedience. Every moment of our lives is bound up with the Father, Son and Spirit.
Yes, our lives can be a struggle. But it’s to the triune God that we always turn, and God never turns us away. We are never alone. God is always with us and for us. The Father, with the Son dwells in us by the Spirit. God is ours forever. That is his promise, his commitment to us. On that you can count. Let’s close in prayer:
Thank you, God, for your great love—for being our Teacher, our Father, and our Leader—Spirit, Father, Son. Thank you that you guard and keep us, watching over us every day, providing for our needs. We give you the glory and honor. Father, remind us again of the great love you shower upon us, through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.