“Take Up Your Cross and Follow Me…”

A few days before he was to be crucified, Jesus declared:

 

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me. “Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour (John 12:‬23‭-‬27).”

 

Jesus was that kernel of wheat falling to the ground. He accomplished what no one else could, and through the death he died his name was glorified forever. If he had not died he would have remained a single seed, a solitary Son of God, and the family of God would not have grown to include anyone other than him and the Father. Think about that: all of the patriarchs and prophets who came before him would have lived their lives in vain. If he had not died, it would have been pointless for his disciples to have left everything behind to follow him. Abraham and Moses, who were referred to as God’s friends, would not be merely sleeping now, they would be dead, forever, with no hope for resurrection. Jesus died so that they might join him in eternal life. He died to offer you the same opportunity. But, as is true with every opportunity, there is a cost. The passage above shows that sacrifice is required of all, whether a person believes in God, or not. It is only a question of whether you choose to sacrifice the now, or the later. If you place the greatest value on the things which you can gain from the material world, your life, along with everything you acquire in it, will inevitably be lost. But those who would willingly give up their life to follow the Lord will inherit all things, for all eternity. According to the Lord’s own words, then, where are would-be disciples obligated to follow him to? What was the way to the place where he was going? Luke 9:18-23 is a Scripture which shares the theme of this passage in John, and it makes it clear that Jesus meant his disciples must be willing to figuratively follow him to the cross, so let’s read together what it says:

 

“Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “God’s Messiah.” Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”  Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.””

 

The interaction began with two questions, and was followed by two statements of fact. The first question (“Who do the crowds say I am?”) encompassed the world at large, in Christ’s day. The general populace regarded Jesus as a noteworthy person, someone on par with John the Baptist, Elijah, or a resurrected prophet — important, perhaps — but still just a man. As a side point, it’s worth mentioning that this whole interaction recorded in verses 18-23 occurred sometime shortly after the twelve disciples had returned from being sent out to the people to preach the kingdom of God, raise the dead, heal the sick and cast out demons. Having just recently returned from that mission, the disciples would have certainly been well qualified to report on the public’s estimation of Jesus. So Jesus then directs the same question to his disciples, as if to say, [Having now seen all that you have just seen, and having now done all that you have just done,] “who do you say I am?” Peter’s response was that Jesus was not just a man, he was the Savior of Man, sent from God. His response establishes a fundamental difference between the viewpoint and belief of the followers of Christ in contrast to that of the rest of the world. Those who believe without any reservation that Jesus is the Messiah, the only way of salvation, and who also believe that the reward of eternal life in God’s kingdom is greater than anything that can be obtained in this world, willingly forsake everything to follow him. Those who doubt hesitate to do so. Having thus established this key difference, Jesus proceeds with the first statement, disclosing the imminent reality that, as the Son of God, he was going to suffer many things, be killed, and then be resurrected. Which brings me to his follow-up statement, the second of the two realities — one that is on-going, and perpetually current — and the focal point of this message:

 

“Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”

 

How much time have you spent reflecting upon what that means? I ask because the answer to that question leads to a more penetrating one: how much do you really want to know, and fully understand, what it means? To deny yourself means losing sight of your own interests; it means forsaking your very nature. But, even with the help of the spirit of God, that is not something that is easy to do. By nature, people prefer personal comfort over sacrifice, and yet the more a person understands about the sacrifice that is expected of them, the more they become responsible for offering it. So it is perhaps not unusual for people to read over the command to take up their cross without really thinking too deeply about what obeying it entails: and therefore there are few people who ever commit themself to serving God to the degree the Lord requires. To those who would say that I am being uncharitable when I state that there are few people who will fully commit themself to taking up their cross daily, I refer you to Luke 10:1‭-‬2, which states:

 

“After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them two by two ahead of him to every town and place where he was about to go. He told them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

 

To paraphrase the Lord’s words, there’s a whole world out there ignorant of the true nature of God, and His Kingdom — no shortage of brothers and sisters in need of salvation — but where are the servants who are qualified and willing to do the work? Oftentimes the problem isn’t that we don’t want the kingdom of God to arrive — most people would like to reap the benefits and blessing of its peace and unity — the problem is that we don’t want it enough now to sacrifice our own desires in order to dedicate ourselves completely to its work. We hesitate to make laboring to serve God our primary purpose. But read what the apostle Paul willingly endured in order to do the work of God. It’s recorded in 2 Cor. 11:23-29. Based upon what he suffered, and how he lived his life, how confident would you be that his desire to serve God was genuine? Did his deeds reveal his faith — did they prove that his convictions about the kingdom of God were real to him? It’s easy to say ”I want to serve God,” but do your actions, does your life, supply credibility to those words? If they do not, a re-evaluation of priorities is called for. Think of everything you are currently striving for in your life, and everything you hope to gain from your efforts, in the context of Jesus’s question from Luke 9:25:

 

“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?”

 

Are any of the things you’re currently working for worth more to you than your soul — than eternal life? If your answer is no, are you then living like the kingdom of God is the ultimate reality, or is your life indistinguishable from that of a citizen of this world? Jesus willingly gave his life to show that there is a greater life beyond this one, so that through faith in him we might be encouraged and inspired to follow him to that Promised Land, despite the fact that in this life “we must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14:22).” And as we read in John 12:27, his death was the culmination of his entire life’s purpose. Therefore, if you are called a Christian, as his follower, what is your purpose? Why were you called? Individual answers as to purpose may vary, but the word of God supplies answers which apply to every believer, every true Christian. One such answer is found in 2 Corinthians 5:15:

 

“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.”

 

Anyone whom the Father calls is called to live a life of service to the Son. What, then, are the aspects of a life lived for him? One example of what the Lord’s service entails is found in 1 Peter 2:20‭-‬21:

 

But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”

 

Peter plainly states that part of the work a Christian is called to do is to be willing to suffer for doing good and to endure it for the cause of advancing the gospel of the kingdom of God. Doing so is part of taking up your cross, daily, to follow the Lord. Continuing on with verses 22-24 he provides a more specific example of how Christ suffered for the sake of righteousness:

 

“He [Jesus] committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.  When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”

 

The Greek word translated here as healed means “made whole.” A person who is ”whole” can be considered to be fully integrated — they have no internal division, no disconnected or uncoordinated aspects to their personality — everything in them is working in “oneness” for a unified purpose. Consider that in light of Peter’s statement here about the Lord: ”When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” If someone insults a person, what prompts the other to retaliate? Is it not because their pride has been injured, and they feel a need to answer the injury? How natural it is for us to mirror back to others the ill treatment we receive from them! But when Jesus was insulted, although he may have been grieved by the unwarranted accusations of men, he never responded in kind because he trusted fully in the just judgment of God, and was completely secure in the love his Father has for him. It is not that he did not care about what others said of him, it is more that the esteem he knew his Father had for him made him whole, and rendered every other opinion of little consequence. Now consider that passage again, not as it applied to the Christ, but in regards to yourself. Has the love of God made you whole? Are you so secure in your knowledge of the Father’s and the Son’s love for you that insults and threats no longer unsettle you, so that you cannot be goaded into retaliation? Because that is how Jesus walked, and it is the example we are to follow: as it is written, ”This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did (John 2:5-6). The loftiness of that standard does not negate it’s reality. Instead, that standard should inspire a desire for the type of inner peace that the Lord himself possessed, the type that can only be obtained through intimate communion and fellowship with God, our Father; because it is only the peace of God which enables a person to endure in the face of suffering, and to do so without sinning. And whenever we fail to live according to the Lord’s example, those failures should only drive us to our knees all the more, feeling fervently the words of the psalmist: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God? (Psalm 42:1‭-‬2)”

 

Continuing on now with the discussion of the type of work which comprises a Christian’s purpose, if we skip forward to 1 Peter 4:1‭-‬3, we read:

 

“Therefore, since Christ suffered in his body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because whoever suffers in the body is done with sin. As a result, they do not live the rest of their earthly lives for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God.”

 

The exhortation that we are to arm ourselves with the same attitude as Christ indicates that we must make a conscious resolution that no amount of suffering in the body will cause us to turn away from continuing to seek to serve God’s will. A willingness to endure suffering for the sake of advancing the gospel is something that we must maintain as a point of focus because we know it is in unity with our Father’s will. But on its own, a willing spirit is not enough to succeed, because the flesh is weak, and human focus and will lacks the constancy of an eternal perspective. Our carnal nature continually wars against the spirit of God for supremacy within us, testing us to see what we desire most.

 

What is our human, carnal nature, then? One answer is that it is our unexamined life, those things we do naturally, instinctively. And, instinctively, in order to preserve life, we work first to satisfy our physical needs. But we also have wants, which extend beyond our needs — and we can exhaust ourselves in the pursuit of them — due to the nature passed down to us from our common parents. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve had all their needs supplied, and were denied only one thing — the Tree of Knowledge — but once the seed of “want” for that one thing was sown in the heart of Eve, she yielded to it. She desired instant gratification of what she would have otherwise been given in time (knowledge), and because she believed the lie that she would not die, she consumed the fruit, which, in a spiritual sense, also consumed her: since once she ate, death entered the world. The fact that Adam was not deceived implies that he discerned her fallen state and therefore, recognizing that the cost of his continued obedience to God’s command would now eventually lead to him being deprived of her companionship, he willfully disobeyed God, consciously choosing to die with her instead, because he did not want his life without her in it. And yet they had been created perfect, whereas we are born into sin. So if our common parents, who were superior to us in every way, and who were given but a few commands to obey, could not submit their “wants” to the will of God in an environment where only one thing was withheld from them, how could it ever be natural for us to do what they could not? Through Adam and Eve, Satan prompted mankind to question the perfection of God’s will and, collectively, we have all eaten of the same fruit as they did. Their choice to follow their own will above God’s has become our nature.

 

The purpose behind that brief discussion of human nature was to help illustrate that it is impossible for anyone to “take up their cross daily” to follow the Lord by their own strength. Indeed, if it were natural for man to sacrifice for others in the way that Jesus did, the world would be a vastly different place than it is now. No one accomplishes anything for God apart from the work of His spirit. I think there is a proof of that intended in the fact that, due to the beatings he had endured, in a purely physical sense even the Lord himself was not able to carry his cross to its end destination under his own strength (Matt. 27:32). But if the exhortation from 1 Peter 4:1‭-‬3 (along with other similar scriptures), that we are to arm ourselves with the same attitude as Christ, indicates that the Holy Spirit doesn’t just do all the work, or completely change us overnight, what role does the spirit of God then have in our life? How does the spirit of God work in you to change your base nature?

 

First, it is a witness to the truth. Because we lack knowledge, and can therefore be too easily led to believe things that are harmful and false, it provides testimony as to what is true, calling to our minds the words which God has spoken on a given matter. The spirit of God is our counsellor and teacher, both informing us of what is good and bad, and providing wisdom and understanding as to why it is so. More than that, it provides the motivation to respond to and act upon the newly discerned truth by providing an awareness of greater things to come. As it supplies us with a glimpse of future perfection, our faith in that vision works to alter our values and desires, reshaping them from an inclination for temporary things to a longing for what is faultless and eternal. We begin to want bad/transient things less and less, and good/permanent things more and more, because we see them for what they are, as God himself sees them: because the spirit of God gives access to the perspective of God. The end result of this process is that we are to lose our desire to eat from the tree of knowledge because we come to know with certainty that self-reliance leads to death. It is only absolute trust in God, fostered by the spirit of God, that leads us to reject its fruit and what it produces, thereby making a different choice than our parents did. Could oneness ever be obtained through any other means than complete trust in God? What is it that prevents Satan from repenting and being restored to a right relationship with God? Is it not his unyielding belief in his “right-ness” — that he knows better than God? Is it not a similar pride within us, that by nature causes us to reach for the Tree of Knowledge, and bars access to the Tree of Life?

 

Returning now to the question of how the spirit of God works in us to convert us from being physically-minded to spiritually-minded beings, consider how, in the Scriptures, water symbolically represents baptism and cleansing, while the holy spirit is described as a refining fire (John 3:5, 1 Peter 3:21, Matt. 3:11, Acts 2:3, Numbers 31:23, 2 Peter 3:3-7). Baptism is a figurative acknowledgement of our willingness to die to ourself, submerging our human nature in a watery grave to become immersed in a new life of obedience to God’s will. When we emerge from the water, through the laying on of hands we are symbolically touched by God, and we receive an earnest of the fire of God, burning within. The fire represents our new nature, a nature that enables us to live a new life governed by the power of God. In this sense, the Holy Spirit provides a power that far surpasses human limits, to enable a person to overcome their inherent weakness. The water represents our old nature; and it is important to note that water and fire oppose each other, they do not merge. In this symbolism, fire is pictured arising out of water, to be separate and distinct from it. And, by nature, if they mingle, when fire preponderates over water, the water evaporates; but if the volume of water is greater than the flames, the fire is extinguished. Similarly, the spirit of God within you will either work to burn away your old nature, or your human nature will douse the Holy Spirit’s flame. The principle is discussed in the parable Jesus told, recorded in Matthew 13:33:

 

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”


The parable indicates that the spark of God’s spirit, which is kindled through baptism and the laying on of hands, is intended to grow within, like yeast working in dough, until our old nature is fully consumed by it. But if it is true that it is also possible for our old nature to quench the holy spirit, it is then important to know how that occurs. The apostle Paul spoke regarding this when he was inspired to write:

 

“Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. (Romans 8:5)”

 

A “set” mind is one where thoughts are fixed on something, to the exclusion of considering things that are contrary to it, so that it cannot be moved. Such a mind maintains an unchanging position. So if our mind is set on what the flesh desires it ceases to be attuned to the voice of the Spirit — it will not hear or entertain what it has to say. Conversely, living in accordance with the Spirit means having a lack of preoccupation with physical concerns. It means that a person’s foremost interest and focus is both to discern and do the will of God. But fixing our minds on what the Spirit desires requires that an effort be made on our part — God doesn’t just do it all for us —

“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble … (2 Peter 1:5‭-‬7‭, ‬10)”


Making an effort to add those attributes is not a  is not a one time action, it is a continuous practice. A single action does not establish a pattern. An action must be performed repeatedly before it becomes a behavior; and the character that God desires to build in us goes even beyond behaviors. God is love, which indicates a state of being. Everything He does is motivated by love, and He would be disavowing himself if He ever behaved in any other manner. If we are to grow to be like our Father, practicing His love, and the right behaviors associated with it, is what we are to work toward, until it becomes a state of being. That is the process of how we become transformed.

 

But why doesn’t God just do all this work for you? If He did, how would you show Him how much you value holy character? God tests us all to bring our values and priorities into the light. How you use your time is one of those tests. Has the thought ever occurred to you, that any and every day you do not willingly take up your cross to follow the Lord, you are quenching the work of the holy spirit? We have been instructed to “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.” Reflect on how you used your time this week/month/year. Was seeking to advance the interests of the kingdom of God your first pursuit? The second? What were the thoughts that most occupied your mind? Do you want to serve God more than you want to have fun and enjoy yourself, or is taking up your cross a mere afterthought, buried under a mountain of self interests?

 

All of us will one day stand before God’s judgment seat, and each of us will give an account of ourselves to Him (Romans 14:10‭-‬12). If honest reflection on the questions I have just posed prompts anyone to acknowledge that they have been living more for self than for God, know that I have not asked them as anyone’s judge. Instead, my hope is that you will take encouragement from those questions — because it is far better to consider such things now, while you still have time left to choose to live differently, if need be, than it is to stand ashamed before the Lord after our account has been given. If your life thus far has only been lived as a hearer of the Word, my prayer is that you become a doer as well. My prayer is that God will indeed send workers into the harvest. I pray that God will supply every one of us with what we need in order to truly take up our crosses and follow Christ, and that these words may inspire every one of you to join me in that prayer. I’ve said before that I believe all service to God begins with humility, and that’s really what the essence of taking up your cross is: humility. So I’ll conclude with the apostle Paul’s words about the humility of our Lord and Savior, and its end result:

 

“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,  that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life (Philippians 2:1‭-‬16).”

 

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Spiritual gifts and love for God

In 1 Cor. 12, the apostle Paul told the Corinthians that each member of the church was to be one of the constituent parts of a unified whole. He told them that he didn’t want them to be without knowledge regarding spiritual gifts, and their function and operation within the body of Christ. As part of his instruction, he asked them:

“Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” (vs. 29-30)

The answer of course was, and still is, no. But then he said a very interesting thing: he told them to “eagerly desire the greater gifts” (v. 31). And in chapter 14:1, he told them they ought to especially desire the gift of prophecy.

That begs the question: can a man heal others or prophesy by an act of his own strength, or by desire alone? No, of course not. Although one might have the will to do so, the ability itself is a gift given by God and all such gifts are distributed according to His will alone. As John the Baptist observed, “A person can receive only what is given them from heaven.” (John 3:27) So why, then, did Paul encourage the church to earnestly desire spiritual gifts? Is it possible that God chooses to distribute the gifts of His spirit based at least in part on how earnestly a person desires them?

As you consider that question, please turn in your bible to 2 Chr. 1:7-12, where you can read about an extraordinary occurrence. In those verses we are told that God appeared to Solomon at night and said to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Imagine yourself in that position: having assurance from God himself that whatever you ask for will be granted to you. What would your request be? While you’re considering your answer, let’s look at Solomon’s response, in verses 8- 10:

“Solomon answered God, “You have shown great kindness to David my father and have made me king in his place. Now LORD God, let your promise to my father David be confirmed, for you have made me king over a people who are as numerous as the dust of the earth. Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?””

Solomon could have had anything. Have you ever wondered why he prized wisdom so highly that he asked for it above anything else? Solomon himself supplies the answer. In Proverbs 4:3-9 he wrote:

“When I was a boy in my father’s house, still tender, and an only child of my mother, he [referring to King David] taught me and said, “Lay hold of my words with all your heart; keep my commands and you will live. Get wisdom, get understanding; do not forget my words or swerve from them. Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. Esteem her, and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honor you. She will set a garland of grace on your head and present you with a crown of splendor.””

What a beautiful example of a father teaching and training his son to love what is right and good! Through his instruction, King David planted the seed of desire for wisdom in Solomon. Because he had love and reverence for his father, Solomon heeded that instruction and fixed his heart upon it — and so when the LORD appeared to him he knew what he wanted most — and his earnest desire was rewarded.

For the next example, please turn to Gen. 32:24-30. It reads:

“So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.” Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.””

If any of you have ever had an occasion to wrestle with someone, you would know that doing so for just 5 minutes can be physically exhausting. Jacob wrestled from night until early morning. Against an angel! (Hosea 12:4-5) As impressive as that is on its own, I would ask you to immerse yourself further into the account. When the angel saw that he could not prevail over Jacob, he gave him a demonstration of his power by dislocating Jacob’s hip, then commanded him to let him go. Can you adequately appreciate how imposing that experience would have been? Can you feel the hint of potential threat behind the angel’s command: as if he were saying, “Let me go, NOW, before I am forced to hurt you even worse.”

Some additional background on the pathophysiology of a dislocated hip might be helpful here. The hip is a modified ball-socket joint, bolstered by a fibrous joint capsule, and many strong muscles of the upper thigh and gluteal region, and so the joint is very stable. Because of that, a large force is required to dislocate it — a degree of force typically produced by a motor vehicle crash or a fall from height. Simply put, dislocating your hip would get your attention. How did Jacob respond to that physical trauma and the angel’s subsequent demand? He said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” In that moment, all of Jacob’s will — his energy, strength and focus — was centered on one thing, to the extent that even the intense pain of a dislocated hip could not distract him from the object of his heart’s desire.

What was it that Jacob was seeking as he wrestled with the angel? Wealth? A life of pleasure and ease? Fame? Adulation from the masses? No, he sought a spiritual blessing and because of his fervency he received his desire, his name was changed and, in spirit, he became greater than he had been before. I cannot think of a better physical example of how spiritual faith is supposed to work in our lives. Jacob knew in his heart what it was he wanted and needed most — which was to be blessed by God. He began with a right desire, he believed God could and would provide it, and then he set his will with all of his might and refused to let go until he received it. Oh, my brothers and sisters, if only we were all more like him!

Solomon and Jacob are only two of the examples that can be found in the Scriptures where individuals received spiritual blessings because of the integrity and earnestness of their desire. Now that we’ve discussed them, I’d like to return to my earlier question: Is it possible that God chooses to distribute the gifts of His spirit based at least in part on how earnestly a person desires them? Aside from personal stories, do the Scriptures have anything else to say on the matter? Jeremiah 17:10 states,

“I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.”

Additionally, Deuteronomy 4:29 and Jeremiah 29:13 both state that a person seeking God will find him if and when they seek him with all of their heart and all of their soul. The negative implication is that God will not reveal himself if you seek him with a divided heart. Nothing less than 100% integrity is accepted by him. Would not the same principle also apply to receiving spiritual gifts? Considering how exceedingly precious the gifts of His spirit are, do you believe that God would bestow them upon someone with a tepid interest in them? I have often heard the question asked, “Why don’t we see prophesying, healings and miracles today, like we read about in the Book of Acts?” If you simply accept as an answer that God just isn’t working in that way anymore, how earnest would you say your desire to receive those gifts is? Would Solomon have been so easily dissuaded? Could Jacob have been turned aside by such a pat reply?

More importantly though, spiritual gifts are given for the purpose of benefiting others, to draw them to a right relationship with God, and to bring honor and glory to His name — so if our words and our deeds show that our hearts are set more on the things of this life than for rendering service to God and our fellow man, why would we expect to receive them? If we don’t believe we’re incomplete and inadequate without them, and feel a deep need for them, like Solomon and Jacob did, it is unreasonable to expect to possess them. I say that because although God can supply what we lack, only the truly hungry beg to be fed. The simple truth that God has brought me to understand, then, is that His power is not more evident and on display in my life because my love of self is still too strong and my love for Him and for His service is still too weak. And if His power is not manifest in your life, the reason is the same.

Before moving on, there’s one more Scripture I’d like to turn to. Hebrews 11:6 states:

“And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Earnestly seek — there are those words again!)

The first part of that statement is self-apparent: no one seeks for God if they don’t believe he exists. But why is it impossible to please God without believing that he rewards those who earnestly seek him? One reason is that an earnest or diligent search implies that considerable effort is involved. A brief example to illustrate that point can be found in Proverbs 2:3-5:

“Indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God.”

Unless a person is fully convinced the reward is worthwhile, they will be either half-hearted in their effort, or entirely unwilling to do the work. There is an opportunity cost involved in seeking God. We can only learn his precepts and judgments through prayer, bible study, and service to others. Doing those things requires time that is not spent on entertainment or other pursuits. For example, in Luke 9:57-62, we read:

“As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He said to another man, “Follow me.” But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-bye to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”

What then is the cost of following the Lord? Nothing less than everything. The question then becomes, “Is that a price I am willing to pay? We can read that Peter once remarked that he and the other disciples had indeed left everything to follow Jesus, and so Peter asked him, “What then will there be for us?” (Matt 19:27) In response Jesus said:

“I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

My brothers and sisters in Christ, do you truly believe in your Lord’s promise? Remember then that he also said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt 6:21) If your treasure is truly in heaven, and you believe that the reward which awaits you there is far superior to anything that can be enjoyed on earth, is there any loss you could suffer in this life that would shake your faith or lessen your resolve to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness?”

The apostle Paul taught that “We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22) Could he and the rest of the apostles have persevered through all of the adversities they encountered in serving the Lord if their greatest hope and treasure did not rest firmly in God’s Kingdom? Their decision to follow Jesus required them to make a decision as to how they would use their time on earth — a decision that you and I are faced with as well. They gave the entirety of their life and devoted all of their energy and time to promoting the Gospel, which testifies to the love they had for God, and the value they placed on their promised reward.

This leads me to my next point. The last time I spoke, I concluded by mentioning that my next message would be about love for God. Have you ever thought about the fact that how we spend our time is one of the main ways we show our love toward God? The author of Psalm 84 had it in his heart to write:

“How lovely is your dwelling place, LORD Almighty! My soul yearns, even faints, for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” (vs. 1-2)

He also observed, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere.” Have you ever thought about what a day with God would be like? How would being in His presence alter your perspective and change the things you live for? Consider what the apostle Paul told the Corinthian church:

“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know — God knows. And I know that this man — whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows — was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell.” (2 Cor. 12:2-4)

Do you think that experience was impactful? Do you think it would have been still vividly etched in his memory years later when he wrote to the Philippian church, saying:

“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him …” (Philippians 3:8-9)

So often, we live as though this physical life is the ultimate reality. Having seen paradise firsthand, Paul knew with certainty that such is not the case, and when he reflected on everything that he had once lived for in light of what he now knew, he considered all he had left behind to be garbage. So consider everything you currently live for — the goals and dreams you’re pursuing. If you had seen paradise, would you not have a burning desire to return to it? Is there anything on earth that would be capable of capturing and holding your interest? Would your goals remain the same? Paul said there weren’t words to describe what he saw there, and yet even as inexpressibly beautiful and wonderful as that experience must have been, it still cannot possibly equal being in the actual presence of God himself. Nothing can compare to the peace and joy that come from being at one with the Perfection of Holiness and Love — and yet how readily and willingly do we trade time spent with Him for pursuit of fulfillment in the temporary pleasures of life!

So far, I’ve given two examples of individuals who received spiritual blessings based on their earnest desire and also provided evidence indicating that serving God requires faith and consistent commitment to seeking Him. I’d like to move on now to expound on a passage that highlights the seriousness of the responsibility the Lord’s followers have with regards to use of time. Luke 16:10-13 states:

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest [or unrighteous] with very little will also be dishonest [or unrighteous] with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”

This is an exceedingly important passage for anyone who desires to serve God. The subject matter goes far beyond a mere discussion of money and its use. The focus is really about the correlation between service to God and entrance into His Kingdom. The principle behind Jesus’s statement that “whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much” is well illustrated in the Parable of the Talents, found in Matt. 25:14-30, so I won’t elaborate further on that point. Instead, I’d like to focus on the question he poses in verse 11: “if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?”

There is clearly a contrast being made between “worldly wealth” and “true riches,” so what is the intended meaning of those terms? To begin, the translation “worldly wealth” is derived from adikos (ad’-ee-kos), which can mean unjust, unrighteous, sinful or deceitful, and mammonas (mam-mo-nas’). Thayer defines it as:

1. mammon
2. treasure
3. riches (where it is personified and opposed to God) — of Aramaic origin, signifying confidence.

With those definitions in mind, a fuller sense of “worldly wealth” could read: treasures or riches which are opposed to God, since man unjustly places his confidence in them, instead of trusting his Creator and Provider.

Next, the word translated as “true riches” is alēthinos (al-ay-thee-nos’), which Thayer defines as:

1. that which has not only the name and resemblance, but the real nature corresponding to the name, in every respect corresponding to the idea signified by the name
a. opposite to what is fictitious, counterfeit, imaginary, simulated or pretended
b. it contrasts realities with their semblances
c. opposite to what is imperfect, defective, frail, uncertain

This physical realm is imperfect, frail, and uncertain. It is only a semblance of the spiritual reality: so true wealth can never pertain to material things, it can only apply to things which are spiritual in nature. So now, I would ask you: do you think Solomon would have defined the gift of wisdom as “true riches”? Would Jacob tell you that to be blessed by God is to be truly rich? What testimony would the apostle Paul give? Would he counsel you to trade the gifts of the spirit for gold or treasure?

Now reframe the logic of the argument the Lord made in Luke 16:10-13, with time as the subject, instead of money. With regard to true riches, consider that time is more valuable than money, because time can be enjoyed without money, but money cannot be enjoyed without time. Even if all your other physical resources are exhausted, time continues on. Whether you are a follower of Christ, or you are a non-believer, we all have at least one thing in common — we are all given a limited amount of time. If you are a follower of Christ, you believe that God has called you to serve him — so is the way you are spending your time consistent with that belief? Time is a precious gift, yet it is wasted on many empty pursuits; and if you waste something, it shows a disregard for the value of the thing you are wasting. So if we have not proven faithful in using the little time we have been given, why would God entrust us with eternity?

At baptism we enter into a covenant with God and pledge to become slaves to Christ. (1 Cor. 7:22 and Romans 6:12) As he laid down his life for us, we also figuratively agreed to lay down our lives, subjecting our will to his, in the hopes that we might one day be called Sons of God. (John 15:13-14 and John 8:35) As his slaves, we are his property, and in truth, all things belong to God. So if we are not found faithful in dealing with His property in this life, how can we be entrusted to care for the eternal mansion he has prepared for his children? (John 14:2) If we will not willingly serve as slaves now, how will we inherit as sons? We cannot serve two masters. We either hate having to obey God and love exercising our free will, choosing to use our time as we please, or we are devoted to God and hate our carnal nature, which hinders us from knowing him more fully. We cannot serve God when we are more concerned with the cares of this life than we are with the interests of His Kingdom, or when we value physical blessings to be enjoyed in the present above spiritual rewards obtained in the future.

We are told to confess our sins to each other and to pray for each other (James 5:16), and so in conclusion I would like to acknowledge that when I examine my life in light of the Scriptures we’ve discussed, I have not consistently used my time in the ways that I ought to have. But there comes a time when anyone who desires to truly become like Christ must cease living for themself, and I believe that time is now, so I want to live differently. I want the way I use my time to truly reflect my love for God. I want my life to have meaning and purpose. I want the spiritual gifts Paul discussed because I realize I cannot adequately serve God without them. I want the eternal rewards God promises to those who faithfully serve Him. But just as a cat cannot will itself to become a lion, I cannot be more than I am, unless God changes me. My responsibility, then, is to maintain the desire to be more, for the sake of glorifying and honoring his name, and to continue to look to Him, trust in Him, and allow Him to complete His work in me. I shared this message today in the hope that each of you would be inspired with the same desire, and because I wanted to show that when the spirit and power of God is not at work in us, it is an indication of the weakness of our love for Him. Unless a person is willing to confront that truth, the door to change will not open.

Remember that Jesus once observed:

“The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Many are called to work in the Lord’s fields, but few are chosen, because few are willing to put in the work it requires. It is far easier to be concerned with tilling our own field. May we therefore be ever mindful that how we approach the work we have been given to do reflects the value we place on the reward we expect to receive; and may God continuously work in each of us both to will and to do his good pleasure.