February 02, 2015
Author: Scott Hoezee
Usually we are far too casual about God’s kingdom. “Your kingdom come, your will be done” we say each time we intone the Lord’s Prayer, but when we finish our prayer and open our eyes, we do not see any such kingdom. It is difficult for us to conceive of a kingdom that is not also a definable place on the map–a realm with borders and with visible signs that this particular place is different from all other places.
Most of us know what such markers might be like. Cross the border into Canada and immediately lots of things look different: highway signs, street signs, traffic lights. Everything is in kilometers, some traffic lights have something called a “Delayed Green.” The lines painted on the roads may be a different color. In England the entire flow of traffic is reversed, which is why some of us very nearly get hit when crossing some London street because we instinctively look the wrong way to see if any cars are coming. (Winston Churchill nearly died in New York City once when he made this same mistake when crossing a street and looking the wrong way to check for traffic.)
A kingdom or country or nation or realm would rather be like that, we think. Kingdoms are defined by their different customs, signage, currency, and habits. So it is perhaps no surprise that when even Christians pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, they quietly assume that this is something that will happen only, or at least mostly, in the future. When God’s kingdom comes, we’ll all know it because living inside the borders of that kingdom will be just as obvious as being in a different country even today. But although we do believe in the reality of the New Creation that is yet to come, it is nevertheless wrong to relegate God’s kingdom to any other place, dimension, or time than this place, this time.
As Dallas Willard has written, the kingdom is real and it is real NOW. Because a kingdom is that realm where the effective will of the king determines what happens. In a sense, we all have our own little kingdoms in life–those places where what we want happens. If we say it, it goes. Maybe this is in our households, maybe it happens at work in the department of which you are the manager. But wherever a person can say, “Well, that’s the way I want it and so that’s the way it is going to be,” then that is in a real sense a kingdom, a place where your influence rules and makes stuff happen.
That’s why the kingdom of God is real and that’s why we can see it, right now today. The kingdom is present wherever people pray the way Jesus taught us to pray. The kingdom is present wherever Jesus nurtures certain behaviors and lifestyles that we call the fruit of the Spirit. The kingdom is present wherever people pour water over the heads of babies or take bread and wine to their lips all simply because Jesus told us that this is the way we are to act in remembrance of him.
The kingdom is present wherever a believer somewhere refuses to go along with some scheme because she believes it is untruthful and that going along with it would make her less transparent to Jesus. Whenever and wherever a believer refuses to participate in sinful activities, whenever and wherever a kindly old woman brings light into a neighbor’s darkness by speaking a word of peace, whenever and wherever a man sits down to tutor a homeless child, and whenever and wherever all such things are done because all these people believe there is a cosmic Lord named Jesus, then there–right there and right here and right now–the kingdom of God is present because the effective will of Jesus is calling the shots.
When the Son of God came to this earth, he announced the arrival of the kingdom. That kingdom is so real, and is such a viable alternative to all things evil and dark and wrong, that of course it only makes sense that the demons knew who Jesus was and fled before him. What’s more, if this same Jesus, who himself embodies the fullness of every kingdom virtue, could walk the streets of New York or Chicago this very day, don’t doubt for a second that he would even now cause any number of unclean spirits to come out of the woodwork.
Someone once suggested that the reason there were so many demons around Jesus all the time may be similar to the reason why when you go to the E.R. at the local hospital you find so many injured people. It would be rather foolish to see injured people at the E.R. but to then say, “Earlier today I was at the mall but I didn’t see any injured folks lying around there! How come so many cluster at the hospital?” The answer is so obvious as to make the question absurd. So also here: as the very incarnation of God’s kingdom, Jesus attracted and drew out and unmasked the forces that opposed him.
Once upon a time and far, far away Jesus did this, but it doesn’t have much to do with us, does it? Mostly the realm of the demonic is remote from our daily experiences.
So what do we make of Mark 1’s presentation of Jesus the exorcist? Is this demon business a little like graven images–something that used to exist but is now just a throwback to a bygone era? If you go through an antique store with your grandpa, you’ll run across lots of outdated stuff. Maybe you’ll ask Grandpa, “What’s this thing?” and he’ll reply, “Well, long time ago we used this to make toast.” Is that what Mark 1 is like–a kind of theological antique, a relic from an age long gone?
If so, then a big gap opens up between our faith and our lives. So maybe what we need to do is take the Bible’s language seriously in the belief that on some level, this does describe a vital aspect of reality in also this day and age.
There are realities and spiritual forces at work in this world that are undeniably anti-God and anti-Christ. We err if we think that the demonic was only long ago and far away. We err if we limit the presence of the demonic to only caricature-like spectacles of The Exorcist variety. The devil is, among other things, an opportunist. When the Bible tells us that the devil prowls about like a lion, looking for whom he might devour, that may mean that this prowling will take many forms and it won’t necessarily be lion-like in every instance. The “devouring” may well take many forms, starting with whatever is expedient. If in a given culture what we might regard as “obvious” forms of demon-possession or demonic activity would be too easily spotted (and so probably resisted), then another form will be taken.
In the frightening film Devil’s Advocate actor Al Pacino is a very convincing demon in a designer suit. He’s also a lawyer and, lawyer jokes aside, the point of the film is that the law is as susceptible to demonic influence as anything. The devil will always survey the landscape to see where the cracks are, and they won’t always be the same from one society or place to the next.
In some ways, then, reading these texts about “Jesus the Exorcist” connects us with a world so remote from our own and from our typical experience that it may as well be a story about talking animals or aliens from outer space. In other words, we conclude that whatever necessitated Jesus’ being an exorcist back then no longer applies to us now. That was then. It is not now.
A good sermon on Mark 1:29-39 will surely make people a bit more thoughtful on such matters.
Mark 1:34 is the first clear instance in Mark of the motif known as “The Messianic Secret.” There was a slight hint of this in Mark 1:25 when Jesus tells the unclean spirit to “be quiet,” but this is the first instance where we are told that Jesus actively was preventing knowledge of his true identity from getting noised around too much. And it will come up again and again from here on out. Possible reasons for this secrecy have been bandied about for centuries. But it does seem that Jesus knew that for him to accomplish the work he came to do, he could not let people too quickly seize on him lest they turn him into what they wanted him to be as opposed to what he knew his Father would have him to be (and for that to happen, he’d have to trek all the way to the cross). Mark drives us as readers to the cross. And so there is a sense in which even for readers of this gospel that every instance of hearing Jesus silence those who know his true identity is a goad for us, too, to keep reading, to not impose on Jesus (even yet today) our own ideas on what he should be like, what he should say, what he should do. Our job is not to jump to conclusions or force prior agendas. Our job is to keep following, even though we know that the path down which we follow Jesus is going in the opposite direction of where we’d prefer to go.
In a cartoon I once saw there were two somewhat rough-looking characters emerging from a church after a worship service. As they walk down the church steps, the one man is saying to the other, “Well, the news wasn’t all bad–at least I ain’t made no graven images lately!” Among other things, this little cartoon may remind us that in church, we can be rather casual in tossing around language that you mostly don’t encounter the rest of the week. We even read whole stories from the Bible that are so different from anything we have ever experienced–or even anticipate experiencing–that there may be a quiet and subtle disconnect between what we say in church and the rest of our lives.
If the gospel is true, however, then any apparent gap between what we talk about in church and what goes on the rest of the week must be only apparent and so not a real gap. That is to say, if there is simply no such thing as “graven images” in life, then talking about such an unreal thing in church ushers people into a realm of fantasy, a fictional world that has no true connection to the actual world.
We need to ponder this sometimes when dealing with passages that treat the presence of demon and the demon-possessed as a run-of-the-mill reality in Jesus’ day. Is there ANY such thing still around today?
Author: Scott Hoezee
Isaiah 40 is by no means the only place in the Hebrew Scriptures to see this irony but it is on glorious display in also these verses. You can see it also in places like Psalms 8, 19, and 90, as well as in the Book of Job and other places.
What is this irony? It is that within the span of only a few verses the authors of Scripture—in this case Isaiah, who also relays words that are said to come directly from the mouth of Yahweh—has no difficulty at all switching back and forth between as lofty a piece of rhetoric as possible and as intimate a piece of rhetoric as possible. In the case of Isaiah 40:21-31, we are hit over the head repeatedly with soaring pictures of God’s grandeur.
God, we are told, sits enthroned high above the circle of the earth—his perch is so lofty as to render us human beings as mere bugs scurrying along the ground. The entire canopy of space is stretched out by this same God as he handles the fabric of the cosmos the way a seamstress would handle a swatch of cloth. And when it comes to even the mightiest people on the planet, God is able to buy and sell them with ease. Their earthly majesty and power mean nothing to God—with a wave of his hand he is able to turn even the proudest and strongest to dust.
Having peered briefly at the earth, Isaiah then returns our gaze to the starry skies of the night. As is the case with all biblical depictions of the night sky and the stars above, what the ancient peoples could not see in the heavens was a lot. Even today if you can get away from city lights and stand on the side of a dark country road some summertime evening, the number of stars that can be seen in that arm of the Milky Way galaxy that we can see in summer in the northern hemisphere is still mind-boggling. But we now know that what the naked eye can see only scratches the surface of what is truly out there in the universe.
“Who created that starry host?” Yahweh asks through Isaiah. “Who calls them each by name?” And even the stargazing Israelites of old—much less we who can see so much farther and deeper today—hear this question and can respond only with some gasp along the lines of “Whoa!” The writer of Psalm 8 saw what stars he could and asked the famous question, “What is humanity that you would be mindful of little ole’ us, O God?!” We look out onto a universe clotted with more whole galaxies than we can count and say, “What is the entire planet earth; what is the entire solar system; what is the entire Milky Way galaxy that you should even be able to see us and pick us out among the starry hosts, O God?” We feel unmade by the vastness of space.
Or as any number of atheists today would answer that question: We don’t matter. We can’t matter. As John Ortberg quotes Bertrand Russell in Ortberg’s book Faith & Doubt, “In the visible world, the Milky Way is a tiny fragment. Within this fragment the Solar System is an infinitesimal speck, and within that speck our planet is a microscopic dot. On this dot, tiny lumps of carbon and water crawl about for a few years until they are dissolved again into the elements of which they are compounded.” As Ortberg wryly comments, “Is it only me, or is that the tiniest bit depressing?” (Faith & Doubt, 2008, Zondervan Publishing, p. 33).
Isaiah 40 pummels us with this same kind of imagery.
God is high.
We are low.
God is lofty.
We are scurrying bugs.
God plays with the stars.
We make mud pies.
Yes, we must be all-but invisible, all-but inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. What other conclusion can one draw?
So how gloriously ironic it is that this passage more-or-less sets us up to draw just such a conclusion only to then read in verse 27, “Why do you say, O Jacob, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD, my cause is disregarded by my God?’”
Why do we say that??? Well good grief, you just backed us into a corner where we could draw no other conclusion! If you want to bolster our confidence that God can see us, then don’t set us up by making our smallness so vivid and undeniable!!
But that’s just the irony: every time the Bible wows us with the grandeur of God and the magnitude of God’s neverending creation, we are immediately told that this same God uses that very same almighty power in the service of attending to us, to our lives, to all that we do. No matter how vast the universe is, no matter how awesome and almighty our great God is, none of it gets in the way of God’s tender regard for every last one of us. He knows our names, too.
“Do you not know?” Isaiah asks again and again. “Do you not know?” Well, no. Knowing this is not obvious. A glance into the night sky would not lead us to conclude that we matter so much to God that he worries about the same things that vex little old us. But that’s where the revelation of Scripture comes in. It tells us so many wonderful things, not the least of which is that we matter. We are loved.
Maybe you didn’t see that coming in a passage that hammers away at our littleness. But what a nice surprising ending we get anyway!
My friend Deborah Haarsma is an expert on galaxies and on astronomy generally. Sometimes when she makes a presentation for adult education classes she will conclude her talk by showing a slide of a typical night sky. On one part of the picture there is an area of sky that appears empty—there are stars all around but some parts of the sky don’t contain any visible stars. So Deb zooms in on one of those apparently blank patches of darkness but then superimposes on it what the Hubble Space Telescope saw in that very “blank” patch when it really cranked up its magnification. What the picture reveals always draws gasps from all who see it because in that seemingly “empty” part of the night sky the Hubble photographed hundreds and hundreds of not stars but of whole galaxies. And since each galaxy may contain upwards of 1 billion stars, it soon becomes apparent that even the seemingly blank parts of the night sky actually look out onto clusters of stars that number in the trillions.
Psalm 147:1-11, 20c
Author: Doug Bratt
Psalm 147 is one of the psalter’s five last psalms, each of which begins and ends with a “Hallelu Yah!” It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate way to close God’s people’s hymnbook. In fact, this psalm even basically begins by asserting the fittingness of praise to God. It is, insists the psalmist, “good,” “pleasant” and “fitting” to praise the Lord. In fact, in a culture that always seems to ask, “What will this do?” the psalmist even claims that praise to God is appropriate all by itself.
The psalmist takes time, virtually in the middle of Psalm 147, to describe appropriate vehicles for praising God. “Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving,” he writes in verse 7, “Make music to our God on the harp.” Praise to God is, after all, so fitting and right that it calls for both the human voice and instrumentation. In fact, as Psalm 148 adds, it’s so appropriate that praise to God calls for the whole creation to join in it.
Praise to God is appropriate for a number of reasons. A close inspection of those reasons reveals some striking features. God, insists the psalmist, is praiseworthy because God’s activity is cosmic in its scope. God, in a sense, stoops down to care for lowly Jerusalem and her exiles. God, in other words, is praiseworthy because God has launched what James Limburg refers to as a second kind of exodus, gathering Israel’s exiles from afar, healing their hurts and settling them in a land that’s marked by shalom.
Of course, some confusion may stem from the psalmist’s use of a present tense to describe God’s building up of Jerusalem and gathering of her exiles. Those are, after all, historic acts. Limburg, however, suggests that the psalmist uses the present tense to describe God’s historical activity in order to remind God’s people that such restoration is typical of God’s care for God’s children. So when the church says, “The Lord builds up Jerusalem” and “gathers Israel’s exiles,” we’re professing that God continues to care for God’s people, even in the face of tribulation.
God, however, doesn’t just reach down to lowly Jerusalem and Israel’s exiles. God’s care also extends beyond what the human eye can see to the majestic stars. God knows their numbers and is so familiar with them that God even calls them by name. While some of Israel’s pagan neighbors thought of those stars as divine, the psalmist asserts that they are merely the domain of Yahweh, the living God.
As he lists reasons why praise to God is so appropriate, Psalm 147’s author also asserts that God is very active in God’s creation. This God is no divinity that made things and then simply sat back to watch them exist on their own. The psalmist uses present tense verbs to describe God’s intimate involvement with what God has made and continues to make. God “builds up, “gathers,” “binds up,” “determines,” “calls” and so forth.
The fittingness of praise to God is evident as well in God’s ongoing care for cities, people and creatures that other largely overlook. God builds up Jerusalem that her enemies have basically reduced to rubble. God gathers Israel’s exiles who perhaps feel forgotten even by God. This God heals those in pain, binding up their wounds. This God even cares for baby birds that some of the poet’s contemporaries may have assumed their parents left to take care of themselves. There’s certainly a kind of tenderness to such praiseworthy activity. Psalm 147’s images are parental and gentle. God builds up and gathers, heals and binds up, calls and provides food.
But the psalmist doesn’t want God’s tenderness confused with some kind of moral weakness or indecision. God watches out for those about whom few others care. However, God also casts the wicked to the ground. In fact, we might say that one way God sustains the humble is by punishing those who torment them.
God acts in praiseworthy ways in both history and in the creation. God doesn’t, after all, just care for Jerusalem, Israel’s exiles, the brokenhearted and the humble. God also acts on the cosmic stage. God knows the stars intimately. However, God is also deeply involved with caring for what God makes. No matter how we understand God’s activity in what God has made, God’s children realize that God somehow generously provides for God’s creation. The psalmist understands God to cover the sky with clouds that supply the earth with rain so that grass grows so that the cattle and young ravens have food to eat. In a “neighborhood” where Israel’s neighbors were deeply confused about who’s in charge of the weather, the psalmist asserts that it’s Yahweh who is the God of the seasons.
Yet God isn’t praiseworthy just because of what God does. It’s also appropriate to praise the Lord for who God is, for God’s character. The psalmist asserts that God is “great,” “mighty in power” and has limitless “understanding.” There’s a vast chasm between this mighty God and people. Yet this great God is no “unmoved Mover” who views God’s creation dispassionately. While we sometimes have a hard time imagining that God has any sort of emotions, the psalmist insists that Yahweh finds pleasure and delight in what God has made. God’s love is, in fact, unfailing, tenacious.
And because God’s is so praiseworthy, God’s children can reject other sources of protection. God isn’t pleased when people turn to military or human strength. Other sources of protection shouldn’t delight people either. After all, even the strength of horses couldn’t protect Jerusalem from destruction. Even infantry soldiers couldn’t prevent Israelites from being carried off into exile. No, Psalm 147’s author insists, the only hope for humanity is a fear of God, that is, a healthy reverence that produces a commitment to doing God will, and a placing of hope in God’s unfailing love.
Of course, preachers and teachers of Psalm 147 may want to help listeners consider other appropriate responses to God’s praiseworthiness. After all, a faithful response to God’s grace goes beyond praising the Lord and relying on God for help. So preachers and teachers might want to explore how God’s gathering Israel’s exiles affects Christians’ response to modern refugees. How might God’s healing the brokenhearted and binding up their wounds inform God’s children’s response to society’s most vulnerable citizens? How might God’s ongoing involvement with creation affect ways God’s people care for what God has made?
The National Museum of American History owns the second of the two “Bibles” that Thomas Jefferson created by “editing” the gospels to reflect his understanding of Jesus’ true philosophy. Jefferson wanted to distinguish Jesus’ genuine teachings from what he called the “corruption of schismatizing followers.”
However, Jefferson was heavily influenced by the principle of deism. So he imagined a divine being that created the world but is no longer interested or involved in its daily life. He, for example, chose not to include in his “gospel” the miracles Jesus performed. He, in fact, rejected anything that he perceived as “contrary to reason.” So while Jefferson’s gospel includes some of Jesus’ teachings, including the Sermon the Mount and ends with a description of Jesus’ burial, it omits an account of his resurrection.
The God of Psalm 147 is radically different from such an uninterested God who is uninvolved in what God created and still creates. Many of the verbs it uses to describe God’s activity are in the present tense. Its God is passionately active in God’s handiwork, especially with its most vulnerable creatures.
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
Author: Stan Mast
On this fifth Sunday after Epiphany, this lesson from the epistles seems to have nothing to do with Epiphany, until we take a wider and deeper look. A review of the wider context reminds us that Paul is writing here to a church that is deeply divided—by the abuse of spiritual gifts, by a lax toleration of sin, by a proud assertion of Christian freedom, by troublesome ethical questions, by doubts about central Christian doctrine. In chapter 1 verse 10 Paul summarizes his purpose in writing to these battling Christians: “that all of you may agree with one another so that there will be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.” The effectiveness of the church’s mission depends on such unity, as Jesus said in his last prayer before his death. “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:23) The greatest contemporary Epiphany of Christ’s glory is a church standing united in a hopelessly divided world. Our text today is a continuation of Paul’s plea for unity, focusing particularly on the way our insistence on Christian freedom and personal rights can destroy that unity.
Paul uses his own life and ministry as an example of what he has just said in chapter 8 about putting love ahead of rights. Chapter 8 focused on eating meat offered to idols, which mature Christians know they can do. They have a perfect right because of the Gospel, but Paul calls them to set aside their rights for the sake of their weaker brothers and sisters. Love for others must take priority over your rights. Paul ended that chapter with a very personal pledge. “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.”
Now in chapter 9 Paul talks about how he has set aside another right for the sake of the Body of Christ, namely, his right to earn a living from preaching the gospel. Here a deeper look into Paul’s evangelistic ministry will help us make the connection between this text and Epiphany. Paul routinely sacrificed his right to be supported by the church and his right to live his life freely, so that the church would grow, not only in the quality of its unity, but also in the quantity of its membership. “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means, I might save some.” If the Body of Christ is the Epiphany of Christ’s glory among the nations, then growing the church by “winning” more people to Christ will more clearly show Christ’s glory to the world.
But what is the best way to grow the church? What did the church’s first and greatest missionary do to “win” people for Christ? Of course, he preached the Gospel faithfully and fearlessly, but our text here focuses on how he related to the people to whom he preached. First of all, he never accepted pay for his services, even though he had a perfect right to such pay. That’s the point of the compelling argument in verses 1-15. The other apostles used that right. Common sense says that every worker has a right to be paid. The Bible (the Old Testament) said that was perfectly legitimate. Jesus himself commanded that “those who preach the Gospel should receive their living from the Gospel (verse 14).” But Paul had not “used these rights,” either to eat whatever he wanted (chapter 8) or to earn his living by preaching the Gospel (chapter 9).
Paul wasn’t writing this to suggest that the Corinthians should start paying him now. Indeed, he gets so choked up with emotion as he writes about this, that his next sentence in verse 15 is a grammatical train wreck. “I would rather die than….” His thought breaks here in the Greek. We don’t know what he was going to say exactly. When he collects himself he says something like “I won’t let anyone deprive me of this boast,” that is, the boast that he never accepts pay, that he preaches the Gospel free of charge, even though he has the perfect right to such support.
In the near background here are Paul’s ubiquitous critics (cf. verse 3), claiming that he wasn’t really an apostle at all, that he was leading the church away from its God given roots in Judaism, that he was a self-serving fake. Paul met these vicious accusations wherever he went. He always defended himself fiercely, because the attacks on him were finally attacks on the Gospel he preached. And that put the whole enterprise of the church at risk. So, he fought back, and he made sure that his own life didn’t become an issue in the controversy.
That’s why he never accepted pay. He wanted the Gospel to be free of charge, so that no one could ever say that he got rich by preaching, thus throwing the Gospel itself into question. Think of the effect on the Gospel of the public moral failures of some modern mega-preachers. That’s why Paul “boasts” of sacrificing his right to remuneration. He didn’t give up the right to receive pay because he wasn’t really an apostle (as his critics said), but because he would do anything to promote the cause of the Gospel.
That brings us, at last, to our text for today, where Paul picks up on that word “boast” in verse 15. I will always boast of my practice of supporting myself for the sake of the Gospel, but when it comes to actually preaching the Gospel, “I cannot boast….” I’ll boast about my tent making, but not about my preaching. I chose to live by my trade, but I didn’t choose to be a preacher. Undoubtedly thinking back to his conversion and commission in Acts 9:1-16, Paul says, “for I am compelled to preach.” Then he utters that word of discipline and judgment we hear in the prophets and from Jesus, “Woe! Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel.”
Then we have this peculiar business about reward. Paul says that he doesn’t deserve a reward because he isn’t doing this voluntarily. He is “simply discharging the trust committed to me.” He uses the word oikonomos, or steward, who was a slave entrusted with the care of his master’s possessions. Though he was “free” of all human obligation (cf. verses 1 and 19), he is a slave of Jesus Christ. So he deserves no reward for simply doing his duty. Paul may have been thinking of the words Jesus in Luke 17:10. “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’” Paul isn’t seeking a reward, and doesn’t think he deserves one, but he does have a reward. He gets to preach the gospel “free of charge and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.” His reward for preaching the gospel is that he gets to preach the gospel. His highest pay is to serve with no pay.
As a preacher who has always enjoyed being paid, I find Paul’s practice tough to understand on a gut level. Intellectually, I understand the principle of sacrificing everything for the sake of the gospel. But the practice of such sacrificial living looks like an insurmountable challenge. Thank God, Paul doesn’t tell me that I have to make the same sacrifices he did. He says right up front that this is just his personal way of doing ministry. Peter and the other apostles did otherwise, and had a perfect right, even a Christ-commanded right to do so. So do I. And thank God that my salvation depends not on my sacrificial living, but on the sacrifice of Christ who emptied himself and became a servant and a victim who obeyed unto death, even death on a cross. But Paul’s practice confronts me and you and our congregants with the question, how committed are we to the progress of the Gospel and the growth and unity of the church? What rights might we sacrifice for the sake of unity? What freedoms might we surrender for the sake of winning people to Christ?
That’s where Paul turns next in his letter—to the issue of winning people to Christ. That’s a term out of favor in our pluralistic postmodern culture where everyone has a right to his or her own beliefs. “Winning” people sounds like cultural imperialism. “We’re right, you’re wrong, so come over to our side.” Paul and the early Christians (and most Christians for the last 2000 years, in fact) didn’t see it that way. Paul knew that all of us are lost, but Jesus came to seek and save the lost. Then Jesus sent the found to find the rest of the lost and bring them to himself. Because the lost are all part of another kingdom, they must be won away from that kingdom and into the reign of Christ the King. The desire to win people for Christ propelled Paul and the church all over the world.
The big question is, how do we win people to Christ? Some of the church’s evangelistic practices have rightly earned the wrath and scorn of the world. Think, for example, of the Crusades, where winning meant defeating by force of arms. Paul’s method was the exact opposite of force. As a citizen of the Kingdom of Christ, Paul had authority, rights, freedom to be himself in all his Christ-given glory. He won people to Christ not by insisting on his rights and freedom and authority, but by identifying with the lost. “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone to win as many as possible.”
What does it mean to “make myself a slave to everyone?” Does it mean that we do whatever others tell us to do? Does it mean that we give up all our convictions in order to relate to others? Does it mean that we serve people’s felt needs and never speak to their deeper spiritual needs? Does it mean that we honor their beliefs and practices, never calling them to repent of their sins and come to Christ in faith? That is how some have taken Paul’s words, but clearly that’s not what he meant, as is clear from verses 20-22.
Paul says that he adapted his lifestyle to the people he was trying to win to Christ. If he was with Jews, he acted like a Jew, observing their feasts and rituals. So, he had Timothy circumcised in order not to offend the Jews (Acts 16:3). He observed the rites of being a Nazirite (Acts. 21:23-26). He honored Jewish dietary restrictions (I Cor. 8). If he was with Gentiles, he acted like a Gentile, following Jesus’ example of eating and drinking with sinners, even though that earned Jesus the slur of being a “friend of sinners.” (Matt. 11:9) To those who didn’t know the law of God, Paul “became like one not having the law.” This “loose” behavior was behind the accusation that Paul was undercutting the law of God and leading the Jews away from Torah. Actually, when Paul was with Gentiles, he ignored the ceremonial and civil parts of Torah, but never the moral part. That’s what he means when he adds, “though I am not free from God’s law, but am under Christ’s law.”
In other words, to win people to Christ, Paul didn’t stay in his own little world, safe in the holy huddle of the church. Rather, he entered into the lives of those outside the church. He identified with them, adapting to their lifestyle, becoming like them, as much as he could without violating God’s law and without compromising his own central Christian convictions. Instead of saying, “Come over here and become like I am,” Paul always began the process of winning people by “going into the world” and becoming like they were.
Paul was free and obligated to no one, as he says in verse 19. But he was obligated to preach the Gospel and he knew that the Gospel travels most effectively over the bridge of relationships. Relationships are built when we enter someone else’s life and identify with them as much as we can without losing our identity as Christ followers. Of course, that is very hard and very risky, which is why Paul talks in the verses following our text about the self discipline he exercises as he preaches this way (verse 27). But the discipline was worth it to Paul, because of his commitment to follow Christ’s great commission to the ends of the earth. “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”
Such “flexible” living might be interpreted by fellow church members as wishy-washy, unprincipled, worldly living. But Paul was anything but loose. Indeed, what we see here is Paul walking a tightrope, as one commentator put it, “blending sacrifice with reward, freedom with constraint, boasting with humility, law with love in order to optimize the Gospel.”
Those last words are what Paul ends with. He doesn’t live this way in order to prove something about himself or in order to walk the border of Christian propriety, but in order to preach the Gospel to maximum effect. “I do all this for the sake of the Gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” He doesn’t mean that he won’t be saved if he doesn’t live and preach this way. He means that by living and preaching this way, he will get to see the blessings of the Gospel fulfilled in the church and the world. He will see a unified church. He will see a growing church. He will see the Body of Christ in all its glory. Through the church, he will see Jesus in the world, shining as a light to the nations. He will get to see the Epiphany of Christ. That was his motive. And it should be ours.
Paul’s last words in verse 23, “I do all this (or all things) for the sake of the Gospel,” got me thinking about all the reasons we do what we do. Sometimes we know our reasons, but often we say with Paul in Romans 7, “I do not understand what I do.” Psychologists have proposed multiple theories about the central driving force in human life. It’s the hunger for sex, or the drive for power, or the search for meaning. An entrepreneurial friend of mine hired the motivational guru Tony Robbins to help him grow his company. In a talk entitled “Why We Do What We Do,” Robbins says that all human behavior is driven by 6 fundamental needs: the need for certainty, the need for uncertainty or variety, the need for significance, the need for connection or love, the need for growth, and the need to help or contribute. All of those are undoubtedly part of our lives, but they don’t capture the central motivation of Paul’s life, the need to do God’s will by preaching and living the Gospel. To the extent that Paul’s motivation is ours, the world will see Christ and come to the light.