Humility

A few years ago, I was seeking to understand God’s will for my life, and I asked Him to show me the work he would have me to do.  Looking back, I now recognize that my question and concern had as much to do with my employment as it did with service to God.  At the time, I had a particular career path in mind, specifically the one most appealing to me, since I didn’t know of any other method of determining His will.  I wanted my life to have a meaningful, positive impact on others, so I was interested in starting, or at least working in, an orphanage.  I never received an answer in that regard.  Instead, the response to my inquiry, whispered by that still, small voice was, “Humble yourself.”  It seemed to me to be a very inadequate reply.  That’s not to say I saw no value in doing so, it’s just that I wanted to do great things for God, and I thought my time needed to be occupied by activities that would have a more practical benefit to others.  But laboring for God always starts with an internal process of refining, and I see now that even if humbling myself was the only job He ever gave me, the task is such that I will always have work left to do.  I now believe that any and all efforts to draw near to God, to know His will, and to serve Him, must start with humbling oneself.

Why is this so?  We are told in Hebrews 6:1 that repentance from dead works is the first foundational principle of the doctrine of Christ.  Consider that, when building, before any foundation is ever laid, it must first be established that the land is suitable for construction.  With that in mind, it can be said that humility is the spiritual ground into which all foundational doctrines are poured and accepted.  All godly characteristics are built upon having a right view of self in relation to the Holiness, perfection and power of God.  It stands to reason that humility must precede repentance, because without humility repentance is impossible, since pride always justifies itself and will not accept that it has done wrong —  and no one repents of an action they consider to be right. (See Psalm 36:1-2) But if I know myself to be a sinner who has fallen thousands of times in thousands of ways, and have seen time and again how my love for God has proven to be weak, frail and miserable in contrast to how much I love myself, then I will have taken the first step toward allowing the perfection that is found in Jesus to advocate on my behalf, as opposed to seeking to justify myself before God.  Although acknowledging that there is nothing perfectly good within us is not the natural way we like to see ourselves, it is an essential and truthful one.  It’s necessary because every path to repentance leads to Christ, and when we accept the Messiah’s sacrifice as payment and atonement for our sins, he opens the door to God’s Kingdom, making it possible to enter into a relationship with the Father, just as the Lord himself stated in John 10:7-9.  So from this we see that without humility it is impossible to even begin a true relationship with God.

The second foundational doctrine of Christ from Hebrews 6:1 is faith toward God.  As was the case with repentance, the cornerstone upon which faith toward God is built is also humility.  Humility is the end-result of thinking about yourself less and less.  It’s the natural product of trusting in God to provide for ALL of your needs with all of your heart, mind, soul and being.  To the extent that we are able to do that, we become freed to spend our thoughts and energy towards service to others.  But when a person believes that they will accomplish their personal goals through the strength of their own efforts, as they pursue those objectives they often become locked in a path of self-aggrandizement and self-promotion.  The fourth chapter of the book of James speaks to this when it states,

“What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?  You want something but don’t get it.  You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want.  You quarrel and fight.  You do not have, because you do not ask God.  When you [do] ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”

Conflict arises because we want something, someone else wants the same thing, and there’s not enough of it for everyone — so we fight to see who gets to have it.  But when we do so, it shows where our interests ultimately lie.  The degree of humility James was elucidating here exhorts for a complete relinquishing of self — turning control of the direction of our lives completely over to God.  It entails consciously choosing to promote God’s glory rather than seeking to further our own agendas.  The Kingdom of God is spiritual, and spacious enough to accommodate all who earnestly desire to enter it.  In it there is no scarcity — so if seeking it is our focus, we need not quarrel over the things of this life.  We need to learn to make ourselves small and stop seeking personal greatness.  We should be content with what God provides, leaving concern for material blessings to the children of the world; because God’s children have a far greater inheritance.

A final point on this before moving on: life never works out according to our plans 100% of the time, because our plans aren’t consistent with God’s plans 100% of the time.  How do we respond when the two are not in unity?  If we should ever be displeased with the course God would have us follow, do we trust that God alone knows what is best?  Or do we insist upon having our own way, and seek to flee from His will, like Jonah did?   Are we humble enough to “allow” God to remain sovereign? If we truly desire to serve God with our life,  we must be continually willing to submit our will in order to bring it into alignment with His.

Returning back to Hebrews 6:1, we see that it is an outline of the doctrinal progression which forms the backbone of Christianity.  A doctrine is a teaching: and just as one does not begin to build upon quicksand, a teacher cannot teach successfully unless the student is willing to learn.  God is the ultimate teacher, and His lessons are intended to make us more like His Son; but it is only through humility that we are made capable of understanding His instructions.  And yet no matter how much God may open our hearts and minds to receive and understand the truth, there is still so little that we can truly, fully know.  It takes humility to accept that fact, and also to acknowledge God as the source of all of our talents and abilities; whereas pride reverences the gift above the Giver. Humility keeps our focus on God, from Whom every good and perfect gift proceeds.

As an example of one such gift, turn back to  James again, this time to chapter 1, verse 5, where we read, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.”  Solomon is an excellent illustration of this, and his story helps to illuminate the difference between the natural abilities God supplies to all men via his general providence, and those which He bestows supernaturally, through His spirit.  When God appeared to Solomon and told him to ask for whatever he wanted, Solomon said, “Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?”  (2 Chr. 1:7-10)  It’s clear from his petition that Solomon already possessed wisdom.  He recognized that it was God’s people that he had the responsibility to lead, not his own.  He also had the wisdom to know what he ought to ask for.  But it was humility that enabled him to realize that the wisdom he already possessed was insufficient, in  view of the stewardship committed to his care.  And after receiving his request, he would have recognized within himself, that he had now been given something which could not have been obtained from any other source. As a result of Solomon’s humility, we are given this record of his life:

“King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth.  All the kings of the earth sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart.  Year after year, everyone who came brought a gift — articles of silver and gold, and robes, weapons and spices, and horses and mules.” (2 Chr. 9:22-24)

And just as it was with Solomon, because God is first faithful to us in supplying our need, our faith in Him is built as we receive the answers to our petitions.

Another testament to the value and importance of humility can be found in the summary statement regarding the life of Moses from Deut. 34:10-12:

“Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face, who did all those miraculous signs and wonders the LORD sent him to do in Egypt — to Pharaoh and to all his officials and to his whole land.  For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.”

Moses, through his submission to the LORD, was empowered to show and display the mighty works of God.  He was entrusted with a service to God that has never been duplicated.  God’s mighty power and miraculous deeds are intended to showcase the love that he has for His children, and draw the hearts and minds of men to Him.   Is it reasonable, then, to assume that God would entrust the highest offices of His service to those who seek their own glory, rather than His?  I believe that it is no coincidence that it was also written that “…Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” (Num. 12:3)

These two accounts illustrate two principles pertaining to humility that tie in to and complement each other. From God’s dealing with Solomon, we see that when we are humble enough to acknowledge our deficiencies, and we look to God for aid, God is faithful to supply our need.  The person who desires to serve God must first recognize their own inadequacy for doing so, and must petition God that He would grant them the capacity to accomplish more for Him.  But the more pride a person possesses, the less they look to God for help because they lack a sense of need.   So, in addition to the characteristics already discussed, humility also keeps us diligent, because it allows us to recognize that our best will never be perfect in this life, and will always fall short of the holiness of God. The second, shown in the life of Moses, teaches that as we become more and more humble, we can be entrusted with greater and greater responsibilities.

Proverbs 16:18 states, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” (And the landing is rarely soft!)  So to summarize, humility is like a fence restraining us from overstepping our boundaries. If we pick its locks, and trespass in pride’s territory, we will be walking in the same path that caused Lucifer to be cast out of the presence of God.  Humility impacts all aspects of a Christian life.  It is required in order to acknowledge the need for a Savior for sins — so enjoying a right relationship with God is predicated upon having it — it’s also what makes repentance possible; it stimulates faith; and it opens the door to being entrusted with greater responsibilities in service to God.

In conclusion, Jesus, the Christ, is King of kings and Lord of lords.  Though he is greater than all but the Father, He completely emptied himself of self-consideration, temporarily leaving His Father’s side to die for us, so that we might be able to enter back into the presence of God along with him.  Let each of us be ever mindful of that sacrifice and go forward putting into practice the type of humility which he so perfectly modeled for us, as it is written:

“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.” (Philippians 2:1-11)

 

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“Be still and know that I am God”

In Psalm 46:10, King David quotes from the words of God spoken to Moses, who had relayed them to the people of Israel: “Be still and know that I am God”.  The quote in Psalms is an allusion to Exodus 14:13; and the words speak to an exciting and powerful deliverance, brought about by the hand of God himself.  But were they only intended for the people of Israel, who died millenia ago, or do the words still have power today?  Have you ever thought that they not only can be applied to your own life, but must be?  Whenever you are buffeted by any spiritual trial or difficulty, I believe this one simple sentence provides the essential formula for overcoming the adversity.  To elaborate upon this idea, let’s first expand the meaning of each of the Hebrew words involved.

The transliterated sentence is Râphâh yâda’ ‘elôhîym.

Râphâh means ‘to abate’, with the following connotations: to cease, draw toward evening, be faint, wax feeble, forsake, idle, stay, be still, be slothful.  It is related to the word râphâ’, which means ‘in order to be healed’:

  1. of physical ills (literally)
  2. of personal distress (figuratively)
  3. of national hurts (figuratively)

It also carries the connotation of being restored to favor (figuratively).

Yâda’ means

  • 1. to know (in the sense of)
    • a. to learn to know
    • b. to perceive
    • c. to find out and discern
    • d. to discriminate, distinguish
    • e. to know by experience
    • f. to recognize, admit, acknowledge, confess
    • g. to consider
  • 2. (indirectly) to be made known, be or become known, be revealed (through others or things)
  • 3. to be instructed
  • 4. to cause to know
  • 5. (directly) to make oneself known, reveal oneself

‘Elôhîym means ‘God, the (true) God.

So while “Be still and know that I am God” is a good translation, a fuller understanding of what the words intend to convey would yield the following:

“Humble yourself, make your self weak — cease from your own activities, and forsake pursuing your own path — in order to be healed from any and all of your woes.  Pursue God, and seek understanding from Him.  When you do this, God will reveal himself directly to you, and in the process you will:

  1. learn to know Him
  2. perceive His hand in your life — that He has guided and directed you
  3. find out and discern His will regarding the present concern
  4. gain experience and learn how to distinguish His will for future concerns.

Once you have recognized these things, and have overcome the trial through applying the knowledge you have gained, you will then be able to admit, acknowledge, and confess what He has done for you, and accomplished in you.  Your confession will then prompt others to consider His works — and since you have been instructed by Him, you will be more adequately equipped to instruct others through their trials.”

Through His work in your life, God will be made known to others!  Is that not incredible? Trials are the Christian’s opportunity to render service to God!  When we remain willing to persevere as we suffer loss or hardship, and continue to seek God rather than seeking our own solutions, we show our love to God, and our commitment to His way.  This is why the apostle Paul was inspired to write,

“I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God — this is your spiritual act of worship (your reasonable service).  Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world (which is: seeking to go your own way, pursuing your own objectives and agendas, to obtain your desires by the strength of your own efforts), but be transformed by the renewing of your mind (which occurs when we apply ourselves to seeking God’s will). Then (i.e., only after this) you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Rom. 12:1-2)

It would not be surprising to discover that Paul had Psalm 46:10 in mind when he penned these words, since they contain so many of the same elements.  Another parallel to the expanded meaning of “Be still and know that I am God” can be found in Hebrews 12:1-13:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.  Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.  In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. … Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. … No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.  Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees.  ‘Make level paths for your feet’, so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.”

Has the common theme in all of these Scriptures emerged?  The struggle against sin is the battle that is waged within each of us: the ongoing choice we face between doing whatever our human nature would like to do as opposed to submitting ourselves to allow God to direct our lives.  The only way we will emerge victorious from any test of faith, and thereby prove faithful in service to God, is to “Be still.”  Is that not completely contrary to our natural inclination?  When trials come, we feel a need to be doing something, as if we could wash the hardship away in a tidal wave of our own activity.  We even have the proverb, “God helps those who help themselves.”  While there is some truth in that adage, it is not a name by which God identifies himself — rather, he is known as “The Helper of the helpless” — He helps those who can’t help themselves.  “God helps those who help themselves” speaks to God’s general providence.  Such instances of His care rarely bring glory to God beyond the individual who is helped by them, since others commonly perceive the outcome to be the natural result of human effort, rather than an example of God’s intervention.  But the Divine Hand is evinced by all when the work accomplished could not have achieved by human strength or might, or any other means.  In reality, deliverance arrives, and the waters part before our very eyes, only when God is the one actively doing.  As it is written, “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the LORD Almighty.”    (Zec. 4:6)

But being still does not mean we do nothing.  As the Scripture states, “When you are in distress, if you seek the LORD your God, you will find him if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deut. 4:29-30)  We must render to the trial the attention it deserves and requires, by seeking God.  Every trial in the Christian life has a purpose and reason behind it.  Sometimes we bring them on ourselves, sometimes they come to prune our spiritual branches in order to make us more fruitful in the future, and sometimes we are called to suffer them to serve as examples to others.  Whatever the reason may be, earnest prayer and diligent Bible study are to be our activities, if we wish to understand God’s purpose.  The only way we can expect to receive an answer from Him is to apply and commit ourselves to the search, and to be willing to patiently endure, trusting that God will provide deliverance when the appropriate time has arrived.

If our belief is that our difficulties will be solved as long as we remain busy and physically productive, our faith is in ourselves, not in God, and we will become spiritually unproductive.  An opportunity to grow spiritually and bring glory to the Father will have been lost.  This is why Hebrews 11:6 instructs, “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.”  No one who believes that a particular activity will be unfruitful would rationally invest time, energy and resources toward it.  The time we spend in seeking God could easily be used in numerous other ways; therefore, it is essential that we have faith that the resources we expend in our pursuit of God will yield a worthwhile outcome.

Trials are inevitable.  When they arrive, it is important to understand that the end result is determined by the approach.  If we desire to learn how to know God more intimately, and perceive His hand in our lives, we must view the tests we face in the proper context.  Remember the guiding principle, “Be still and know that I am God.”  Seek Him, and look forward to seeing His wonderful works displayed through you, and, in due time, God will grant that you emerge from the adversity as a conqueror.

 

 

 

Baptism

Baptism is understood to be an action, undertaken by an individual, which is intended to represent that they are entering into a covenant relationship with God.  Complete submersion into the baptismal waters symbolizes the grave (for a person who is fully submersed in water cannot remain alive for long — they soon drown).  It typifies the death of the sinful nature, and indicates the person’s willingness, nay even desire, for self-ishness to have an end.  It speaks to both the transition that is about to happen, and the change of state that is to be made by it.

The transition is going from life (the pre-baptismal condition), to death (symbolized by the submersion), back to life again (represented by the emersion from the watery tomb).  The change of state indicates the man or woman is no longer going to be who they used to be, or live in the same manner as they had previously lived.

The pre-baptismal condition, is a life, but it is only a dead life, because it is a life of sin; and although there are many roads which lead to sin, the only road that sin leads to is death. Self-ish-ness literally means “One who is about themself”, indicating a person who only looks after their own interests.  Is there a life more lonely or dead than one such as this?  This is the life the individual is to die to, leaving their own will behind.  The old self lies at rest in the waters, where the transition is made.  Coming up out of the water, he or she has now been symbolically raised from the dead and born again into a new life, a living life, a self-less life.  As this is the only sustainable life, continuing to walk according to this new state and manner of living is the only path which leads to Eternal life.

But baptism is merely symbolic: it has no power to actually affect a change within the person, in and of itself.  In order to walk a new Path, one must have a Guide to show the Way; and in order to be made capable of living in accordance with the will of God, the man or woman must first be granted a new, spiritual nature.  This is accomplished by God’s gift of his Holy Spirit, which now is made to dwell within, and grow along with, the newborn child of God — to be his Teacher, Comforter, Counselor, and Friend.  Without the power of God’s Spirit to instill a new nature, the only possible outcome of baptism would be a continuation of, and return to, the old, pre-established ways.

The terms of the transaction, or the agreement being made between the two parties could be written up as follows:

I (the individual being baptized), by this action do hereby acknowledge before God:

  1. That He is absolutely Sovereign.  By my entrance into these waters, I signify my willingness and desire to follow and obey your will alone, O Father, as you are my Creator and the Sustainer of my life.
  2. That prior to entering into this covenant, the life I had lived was one of sin.
  3. That sin should not and cannot continue to exist; and therefore you are justified in pronouncing the judgment of death as your condemnation of sin.
  4. That I repent and no longer wish to live in the same sinful ways as I have done previously; but I am powerless to change my nature.  Just as no cat can will itself to become a lion, I cannot but be anything other than what I am, unless You, O God, make me into something more.
  5. That just as I am powerless to change my nature, I cannot atone for my sins by my own virtue — I need a Savior. (For more on this, see the article Why did Jesus have to die?)
  6. That your only begotten Son was and is that Messiah, who was and is the only perfect and acceptable sacrifice for sin.
  7. That from henceforth I will look to Him for the strength necessary to walk in Your ways and carry out your will and to forsake my own.

God, for His part, promises:

  1. To forgive all sin by an act of grace, which was supplied by the death of His Son.
  2. To place His holy spirit within the believer to supply their every need.
  3. To be faithful, even when we are unfaithful.
  4. To never leave or forsake you as you attempt to walk the path of righteousness
  5. An Eternal reward for continued obedience.

 

Having now discussed the nature of baptism as a covenant existing between God and man, have you ever considered that the earth itself has undergone a baptism, and indeed will do so yet once more?  A man’s baptism is undertaken voluntarily; the earth however, was and will be, subjected involuntarily.

The earth’s first baptism was the Flood; which was a baptism by water.  It occurred to wash away the corruption from the sins that had taken place in it, and it represented a physical cleansing.

The second will occur at the Lord’s return, and will be a baptism of fire.  It will not only wash away corruption — it will completely consume it.  It represents a spiritual cleansing — the removal of all that can be corrupted, so that only that which is spiritual and eternal remains.  It will be the end of the physical universe.

The baptism by water, as it was the earth’s first, had but one witness — Noah — who both testified of its imminent arrival, and survived the judgment it proclaimed.

The baptism of fire, being the second baptism, has two heralds — known as the two witnesses — who are the two olive trees spoken of in Zec. 4 and in Rev. 11:4.  They currently stand in the presence of the Lord; one to His right, and the other to His left.  As they have been in the heavens, they have witnessed all that has been transacted below.  When they appear, they will be pronouncing the imminent arrival of the Lord, testifying of the Righteousness of the coming Judgment according to all that they have been witness to, and proclaiming the need for repentance; just as Noah had done in his day.

They are Enoch and Elijah, the only two men Scripture records as having been translated; and the purpose of their translation was to serve as the end time witnesses.  Enoch is the scribe of the righteous, recording all that is good; and he will be sent to testify of the blessings prepared by God for those who love and obey Him.  Elijah is the scribe for the wicked, recording all that has merited Judgment.  He will testify to the destruction that awaits all those who hate God and reject His Son.  He called down fire from heaven during his time on earth, and Scripture informs he will command it to fall again, upon all who oppose him.

 

Finding Joy in Trial

To all who believe in the Goodness of God,

When you encounter adversity in your life, whether it comes through no fault of your own, or because of your own words or actions, rejoice!   Your Heavenly Father is treating you as a son or daughter, and you are being perfected for the Kingdom of God!

Consider that gold and silver must first be melted in a furnace before their impurities can be removed.   The more thorough the refinement process is, the more perfect the end product becomes; and the purer the gold, the greater its value.

The same is true of trials.  Adversity is the process through which we must go in order to come to know ourselves more perfectly.  Life’s trials draw out our inconsistencies — the conflicts which exist within us between what we profess to believe versus what we actually do when put to the test.  For example, if we say we believe that we are to love our neighbor to the same degree and with the same strength as we love ourselves, do we then add conditions and disclaimers to that belief?  Rather than doing unto others as we would have them do unto us, in practice do we actually only do unto them as they do unto us?  Are we warm only to those who are kind to us, but cold to everyone else?

All trials are potential learning experiences, so the first thing we ought to do when we encounter adversity is look to God, as the source of all wisdom, and ask Him for understanding: “Father, what is it that you have for me to learn from my present circumstances?”.  Ask — and believe without doubting that you will receive — and you WILL be given your answer.  For why should you doubt?  Do you not believe that God intends ALL things for your benefit?  If we ask Him for things that are not only beneficial, but essential for our spiritual purification, do we imagine that He would ever possibly withhold them?  “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?  Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?  If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

But we must also be cognizant that the answers we seek won’t always arrive immediately.  Having believed, we must also persist in the conviction.  If the answer seems delayed, far off on some distant horizon, perhaps patience is part of the lesson.  We receive from God that which we expect from Him, so if our faith falters and our minds settle on uncertainty, we can rightfully expect that we will receive nothing.  God does not operate according to our timetables and schedules, so hold fast, persevere, and don’t let go until He answers!

Then, after we receive what we have asked for, the next step is to take the newly gained understanding, apply it, and begin to put it into practice consistently.  When we do this, we will have taken a significant stride towards perfection; and our value as servants of God will have grown.

Finally, remember also that the more fiery the trial, the greater its refining power.  Therefore let us welcome adversity into our lives as an honored, albeit temporary, guest: one who visits to unburden us of those things within which are false, so that only that which is true remains; and so we may become people of integrity, suitably equipped for service to God.

 

Open study discussion

Hi all,

During his time on earth, Jesus had much to say about the cost of being his disciple and the responsibilities inherent to being a Christian.  For this study we’ll be exploring some of the passages relevant to these themes.  The first three relate to the cost of following Jesus.  They are:

Luke 9:57-62

1.  Why do you think these short snippets of conversation are included in the gospel account?

2.  What connection does the Lord’s response in verse 58 have to the statement which prompted it?  What is the take-away of the entire passage for would-be Christians today?

Luke 14:15-35

1.  Why do you think Jesus chose to answer the statement made in verse 15 with the parable in verses 16-24?

2.  Think of the responses given by those who were invited to the banquet, and then read Matt. 9:37.  Do you think there is a connection?

3.  In verse 27, Jesus states, “And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  This is a hard statement, isn’t it?  What does “carry his cross and follow him” mean to you?

4.  Pair verse 27 with John 12:25-26.  Compare the standard outlined in these two short scriptures with the modern view of what being a Christian means.  In your opinion, are the standards consistent?  Why or why not?

5.  What is the point Jesus is making by following the pronouncement in verse 27 with what he says from verses 28-35?

and Matt. 10: 34-39

1.  Jesus is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6), so why would he ever make the statement found in verses 34-36, and how can it be reconciled with what he says at the end of Mark 9:50?  How should we properly understand this passage?

2.  Based on this passage, should a Christian be at peace with the world?  Why or why not?

Let’s conclude with two passages that address the responsibilities inherent to the Christian calling:  Matt. 5:13-16 and Mark 4:13-29.

1.  List as many qualities and attributes of salt and light as you can.  How do these qualities correlate to the attributes the Lord expects his followers to possess?

2.  In the context of Mark 4:21-23, and also in the larger context of this study, what do you think verse 22 refers to?

3.  When you combine Mark 4:13-19 with another parable Jesus gave regarding a wedding banquet, found in Matt. 22:1-14, what is the message you come up with?

Self-deception and Service to God

King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them.  While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines might drink from them.  So they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives and his concubines drank from them.  As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood and stone.  Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace.  The king watched the hand as it wrote.  His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way.  Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king what it meant.  So King Belshazzar became even more terrified and his face grew more pale.  This is the inscription that was written: Mene, Mene, Tekel, Parsin.  Tekel means, ‘You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.’  

What relevance does this story of a pagan king have for you or I as a Christian?  Simply this.  Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard someone utter the words, ‘I am a good person.’  Raise your hand again if you would apply that statement to yourself.  Despite the fact that even our Lord, who was without sin, acknowledged that ‘No one is good but One, that is, God.’ — I say despite this, it is natural for men to hold such an opinion about themselves.  And given that the tendency to think of oneself in this light is so pervasive, it’s reasonable to conclude that King Belshazzar also imagined that he was a “good” person.  But regardless of how the king perceived himself, God’s assessment — which is the only one that truly matters — is that his character was lacking in redeemable qualities.  So return with me to his reaction to the materialization of the ethereal hand.  Although he knew not what it wrote, he was shook to the very foundation of his being by its appearance, because at some tenuous level of his awareness, he perceived that it was not sent as an omen of good tidings.  That is an understatement.  Reading further into the account, we’re informed that his time in this world ended that very evening.  Try to imagine what it would feel like going to your grave with such a testimonial of your life and its value being recorded by the finger of God.  Does it make you shudder, as it did the king?

So how is it that he could be so blind to the reality of his condition, until it was too late?  Daniel, the servant who God used to read and translate the inscription to Belshazzar, pointed out that the king’s ignorance was without excuse, because he had full knowledge of how God had humbled his father, Nebuchadnezzar.  He chastises the king, “But you his son, O Belshazzar, have not humbled yourself, though you knew all this.  Instead you have set yourself up against the Lord of heaven.  You had the goblets from his temple brought to you, and you and your nobles, your wives and your concubines drank wine from them.  You praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or understand.  But you did not honor the God who holds in his hand your life and all your ways.  Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription.” (Dan. 5:22-24) So I ask again, how could he have failed to see “the handwriting on the wall”?  What prevented him from seeing himself as God saw him?  I believe the answer is he was blinded by human nature.

Human nature is self-oriented.  The love of self, woven into every fiber of our being so deeply as to be inoperable, instills us with a desire to be esteemed by others, and frequently causes us to view ourselves through the most flattering of lenses.  Love of self skews and distorts our judgement.  It makes us over-valuate our “good” actions, and shields our sins from our view.  We are, so often, our own greatest apologists.  Since rationalizing and justifying whatever it is we want to do comes so naturally, it is not difficult to picture Belshazzar consoling himself after Daniel’s rebuke with the thought, ‘I was just celebrating with my family and loyal supporters.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  It doesn’t make me a bad person.’  Whether he did so or not is not something Scripture concerned itself with, and so neither shall I.  However, we should be concerned with the harvest this condition of the heart yielded in Belshazzar’s life — and yet as tragic as it proved to be for him, for professed Christians the ultimate danger of the deceitfulness of our nature is made evident in the Lord’s warning delivered at the close of the Sermon on the Mount.

The entire sermon is recorded in chapters 5, 6, and 7 of the book of Matthew, but in 7:21-23, Jesus states, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in 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!’”.  So what connection is there between the Lord’s admonition and Belshazzar’s demise?  As Christians, we are called to serve God.  It should be our highest purpose, and the number one priority of our lives.  But if we were to look through the microscope, and assess honestly, how closely does the reality of how we live align with the demands of our calling?  What if, right now, it doesn’t measure up?  What actions would we be willing to take?  If we are unconcerned, and do nothing, will there be anything more terrible for the supposed Christian than to have the Lord say, on the Day of Judgement, “I never knew you”?  Lest we feel secure that this pronouncement will apply as the exception, rather than the rule, bear in mind that Jesus said it will be directed to many.

Warnings such as this are intended to give us pause, and to cause us to take personal inventory of our spiritual life.  The bible is full of many such exhortations.  But God’s word also tells us that “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.  Who can understand it?”  The heart, that which blinded Belshazzar and represents who and what we are in our central-most being — our very nature —  can blind us as well. So if the heart is so deceitful, how do we proceed to take an honest inventory of it?  We have to begin by asking God to show us our faults — to teach us what we cannot see — because it is only the working of the Holy Spirit, which gives access to God’s perspective, that enables a person to see themself as they truly are. 

I’ll share a personal example to show how God’s spirit works in us to direct our focus toward the corrections He would have us make in our lives.  A few years ago, I was seeking to understand God’s will for my life, and I asked Him, “What service would you have me do at this present time?”  I wanted my life to have a meaningful impact on others and, at the time, I was interested in starting, or at least working in, an orphanage.  In retrospect, I suppose I was looking to serve God through a particular career path, specifically the one most appealing to me, since I didn’t know of any other method of determining His will.  I never received an answer in that regard.  Instead, the response whispered by that still, small voice was, “Humble yourself.”  It seemed to me to be a very inadequate reply.  That’s not to say I saw no value in doing so, it’s just that I wanted to do great things for God, and I thought my time needed to be occupied by activities that would have a more practical benefit to others.  But service to God always starts with an internal process of refining.  I believe that any and all efforts to draw near to God must start with humbling oneself (which was the very thing Belshazzar was disinclined to do), and I see now that even if I occupied myself with nothing other than this single labor of service, the task is such that I would never be faced with a shortage of work to do.    

Why is it that service to God should start with humility?  One important aspect to understand regarding humility is that it correlates proportionally to the degree of faith a person has in God.  How so?  The more pride a person possesses, the less they look to God for help because they lack a sense of need.  The humble person however, recognizing their own inadequacy, depends upon God; and their faith is built as they receive the answers to their petitions for aid, which they directed to Him.  Humility is also the end-result of thinking about yourself less and less, so if an individual were to trust in God to provide for ALL of their needs with all of their heart, mind, soul and being, less thought and energy would be unnecessarily spent on self-considerations and could be re-allocated towards service to others.  And in the process, faith would grow and flourish: so we can see a link between humility, faith, and service to God (which is a reflection of our love, both for Him and our fellow man).

Another component of humility is being willing to submit our will in order to bring it into alignment with God’s.    When the Lord’s half-brother wrote about submission to God in James 4:1-10, he was speaking of a complete relinquishing of self — turning control of the direction of our lives over to God.  That entails consciously choosing to promote God’s glory rather than seeking to further our own agendas.  For indeed, “What causes fights and quarrels among you?  Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you?”   Conflict arises because we want something, someone else wants the same thing, and there’s not enough for everyone — so we fight to see who gets to have it.  But when we do so, it shows where our interests ultimately lie.  The Kingdom of God is spacious enough to accommodate all who earnestly desire to enter it, and it knows no scarcity — so when obtaining it is our focus, we need not quarrel over the things of this life.  In order to promote God’s Way, we need to first forsake our own.  We need to learn to make ourselves small and stop seeking personal greatness.  We should be content with what God provides, leaving concern for material blessings to the children of the world; because God’s children have a far greater inheritance.   And when we set our sights on the heavenly abode and allow God to direct our path to it, we acknowledge that we cannot serve Him in the way of our own choosing — that which suits us best.  At least not if our Christianity is to be something other than a nominal one.  

If one desires proof of this, they need look no further than Luke 16:13.   It states, “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 mammon.”  Mammon is commonly translated as money, or material wealth.  I believe this misses the mark; the meaning is too narrowly defined.  Money is only a resource — one that provides a means to pursue and obtain one’s own self-interests.  I believe the true intent of the passage is to convey the reality that it is impossible to serve God and the self-interests of the natural man at the same time.  Our time, energy, and resources are going to be spent doing one, or the other.  There exists no third alternative.    

With that in mind, I’d like to ask a different question now, but in order to frame it properly, allow me to draw the discussion of humility to a close with one more observation.  Humility is an essential safeguard to protect us from the danger of self-deception; a critical ingredient in equipping us to overcome it.  It requires that we be willing to embrace the truth about ourselves, so here is an honest question to reflect upon: What percentage of our time is expended upon laboring in our chosen careers, simply to obtain the necessities of life?  How much do we then further exhaust ourselves to ensure our ability to procure all the additional luxuries we might desire?  Extend the examination a bit further.  What percentage of our “free” time is used in the pursuit of enjoying these comforts?  How much is required for the passive activity of simply “decompressing” from the stresses of the day?  I’m not saying these things are bad, or wrong, in and of themselves, brethren.  We are not machines.  Life needs to have its enjoyments, even for the most dedicated servant of God.  But when we add it all up, what is left for God?  Go a step further: in our labor for Him, are the efforts we do make truly the best we could give?  Even if they are, who can rightfully claim to be offering their all?  If we take an honest inventory of how we have stewarded the spiritual wealth and truth given to us by our Father, and the amount of time we have spent using those resources in His employment, how true does our claim to be His servants still ring?

Food is good, drink is good, owning homes and cars is fine — but if they cost me entrance into God’s Kingdom because I worked harder to have them than I did for God, I would curse the day that I ever enjoyed them.  “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36)  If we find that our focus has drifted towards seeking our own pleasure, and our desire is to relax and enjoy “the good life”, does that awareness cause us any concern?  It should, my brothers and sisters, it should.  If it does, James once again supplies the counsel we ought to follow.  He says, “Come near to God and he will come near to you.  Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.  Grieve, mourn and wail.  Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom.  Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.”   

Grieving, mourning and wailing isn’t a fun list of things to do, and denying ourselves isn’t easy — it’s contrary to our nature.  But if we want to serve God, it is what’s required of us. If we feel it’s too difficult, bear in mind that we have not resisted sin unto the shedding of our blood.  If we are tempted to walk our own path, because it’s the path of least resistance, we should remember the example of Esau: who despised his birthright because of the responsibilities that came with it, and valued so little the blessings he would have received that he sold it for a single meal.  Because of this the scriptures testify that he was a godless man, and that he could find no place for repentance (Heb. 12:16-17).  

So then, how genuine is our desire to serve God?  How diligently have we sought out His service?   Our lives are a mirror that will always reflect back what we are really living for.  What are we willing to sacrifice to further God’s Kingdom?  It’s easy for men to praise God when all their needs and wants are satisfied; to serve others from a position of overflowing personal abundance, like the rich young man from Matt. 19:16-30, and to feel good for having done so.  But suppose all the blessings were taken away.  Would deprivation diminish your enthusiasm for the Lord’s service, or is our mentality like Job’s, who viewed the loss of all he possessed within the following context: “Shall we accept good from God, and be unwilling to accept adversity?”  Sacrificing the tangible enjoyments of the present life for celestial reward in a future age is a trade too many are unwilling to make.  The choice between living for this life or for the Kingdom of Heaven is presented to each of us, as it was to the rich young man.  Are we willing to forego our own aspirations whenever they fail to align with God’s purpose?  Have we drawn any unconscious lines we are unwilling to cross to serve Him — things we refuse to give up?  Jesus told the disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.”  (Luke 10:2)  His statement has not lost any relevance in our present day.  Why are the workers few?  Because few are willing to forego the pursuit of their own interests in order to take up a new life of sacrifice and service to others.

How eager are we to suffer to serve the Lord?   Would we be willing to go through what Ezekiel did?  Take the time to read the fourth chapter of Ezekiel.  He had to lie in the streets for 430 days, and was told Take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them in a storage jar and use them to make bread for yourself.  …Weigh out about [8 ounces] of food to eat each day and eat it at set times.  Eat the food as you would a barley cake; bake it in the sight of the people, using human excrement[!] for fuel.”  He replied, “Not so, Sovereign Lord!  I have never defiled myself.  No unclean meat has ever entered my mouth.”  The Lord answers, “Very well, I will let you bake your bread over cow manure instead of human excrement.”  

… Oh!  Well then … Awesome!  Thank you!  Thank you!  … Seriously, who wouldn’t fight to be first in line to be selected for such an opportunity?  Of all the various ways one might while away fifteen months, surely in all the history of man a more pleasant time has never been had, or even imagined!  Now, obviously, I’m having a little fun here, but in reality, it wasn’t a laughing matter.  Such are the lengths God’s servants are called to go to at times — and it is but one example.  

“Others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection.  Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison.  They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword.  They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated — the world was not worthy of them.” (Heb. 11:35-38)  

So how are we doing, individually and collectively?  I am here to ask the questions, not to supply the answers.  But I ask because I am convinced that there will be a Day when the Lord himself asks them of all who would seek to be identified by His name.  Far better to reflect upon the matter now, while we still have the opportunity to make any necessary course corrections, than to find that, in the final Judgement, our service was mere self-deception, and that, being weighed in the balances, we have been found wanting.  I can imagine no delusion more dreadful or tragic.