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
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
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!
Clarifying Our Theological Vision, part 5 (conclusion)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Kids Korner: Let's play "Simon Says"
This Kids Korner is from GenMin national coordinator Jeff
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
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
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
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.
Sermon for November 5, 2017
Scripture readings: Joshua 3:7-17 and Ps.
(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
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
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
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
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.
Sermon for November 12, 2017
Scripture readings: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25;
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Sermon for November 19, 2017
Scripture readings: Judges 4:1-7 and Ps.
(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
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
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
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
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.
Sermon for November 23, 2017
This sermon is for Thanksgiving Day
(November 23). It could also be used for a pre- or post-Thanksgiving
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Sermon for November 26, 2017
Scripture readings: Ezek. 34:11-16, 20-24;
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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 GCI Equipper email is from Grace Communion International, 3120 Whitehall Park Dr, Charlotte, NC 28273.
You are receiving it because you subscribe to the GCI Equipper email list.
Current and past issues are available at https://equipper.gci.org
where you may view and print them.