Dogmatic Rank and the Quest for Christian Maturity

Archery: woman aiming at target

All theology is important,
but not all theology is of the same importance.

Words to live by! I’m not sure who originally said them in that exact form. But when I search on the phrase, two of the first three hits on Google are: 1) an excerpt from the classic Mere Christianity by CS Lewis and 3) an article from the Gospel Coalition. It’s not surprising that these would all be bound up together, given my love of all three: this guiding principle for theological study, CS Lewis (my hero!), and the TGC, which is closely linked in my mind with Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where I’ve been hanging out these last few years getting an M.Div. But wherever it came from, I’ve been itching to write about it since the earliest days in my seminary career. The time has finally come.

Failure to study theologian with discernment has created more problems than anyone could enumerate. And although correcting that bad trend can’t possibly be in the scope of a single blog post, I want to at least talk about one of the critical ingredients in doing theology well. For lack of a coherent, disciplined, repeatable system for classifying theological topics and discerning their importance and meaning, a great many have ended up defaulting to unhealthy and unhelpful extremes in their views of God. In this post, I hope (summarizing the work of giants who came before me) to describe a better way.

A Tale of Two Theologians

First, the world is full of lazy and lawless theologians, who treat all theology as somewhat unimportant. Typically, this is because they don’t want to do the hard work of thinking through difficult concepts and their implications. Or, it’s because they are desperate to protect a favorite and familiar sin that would be threatened by a serious study of Scripture that might lead to conviction and the call of God to obedience.

Lazy TheologianThis position leads to a church that ceases to be a church, because anyone can wander in and flop down on the couch believing whatever suits their fancy or proclivities. This allows people to subscribe to a “choose your own adventure” kind of religion, that doesn’t take Jesus seriously at all. Tragically, many fool themselves into thinking that somehow they are part of God’s Kingdom even though they do not actually attempt to know God for who He really is or take seriously the need to obey His word (Rom 1:21-25; Jas 2:14-26).

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the legalistic theologian, who attempts to treat all theology as maximally important. Of course, it’s impossible to live like this in a logically-consistent way. So, this person invariably ends up treating as very important the theological concepts they feel they’ve mastered or that make them look superior, and relegate areas in which they struggle to be far less important. In other words, they emphasize their strengths and others’ weaknesses. This lets them — justifiably in their own minds — stand in judgment over everyone around them. This person is invariably ready to do battle about things that Jesus would likely find unimportant (the kind of music on Sunday morning, the way children’s ministry is organized, the color of the new paint in the sanctuary, etc.) while ignoring the things nearest to Jesus’ heart (unity in His church, caring for the poor, sharing the gospel with our neighbors, etc).

PhariseeThis position leads to disunity and the “foolish and useless arguments” against which Paul passionately warns us (2 Tim 2:22-26; Titus 3:1-11). It leads to a church full of Pharisees, who can end up believing they are right on every issue that matters and that the only way others can be real Christians is to come around to their views on their favorite issues. And it results in the fracturing of churches that is absolutely antithetical to the unity to which we have been called (Eph 4:1-6; 1 Cor 12:12-27) and which Jesus desires for His church (John 17:20-23). Oddly enough, this too is a kind of “choose your own adventure” religion.

If we accept the premise that these are ends of a spectrum, and if both these paths end up in the same place of personal-preference-as-ruling-authority, then I think it’s safe to re-affirmed that extremes are unhelpful and unhealthy and we need to forge a middle way.

A System of Dogmatic Rank

In order to do that, we must put some kind of system in place to discern differences between the really important stuff and the concepts and positions which are debatable or even optional. We need a method “to correctly teach the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15). To this end, theologians have long preferred a hierarchical categorization scheme that labels issues by their “dogmatic rank.” Though there are many nuanced variations of this system, I subscribe to a very simple three-tiered version, as follows…

Rank 1: Essentials

First, there are issues — such as the identify of Jesus of Nazareth or the nature of the Trinity or the reality of sin — that separate Christians from non-Christians. To believe certain things about these issues either makes you a Christian, or not. If you give someone a test about these things, there’s one right answer and a ton of wrong ones. These are issues of 1st dogmatic rank.

Rank 2: Convictions

Then, there are beliefs which are less important and do not determine whether or not a person belongs to Jesus. These may include one’s approach to baptism, for example, or models of church government, or some of the details around how the Holy Spirit works in our lives, etc. Having agreed that these are not issues that categorically separate Christians from non-Christians, every Christian must decide for herself the relative importance of these issues in her own life. If a Christian develops a strong enough conviction about a given issue, then he might only want to be a part of a church with others who are of like mind.

For example, many disagree on whether or not women have a biblical warrant to serve as pastors or elders in the Church. Some feel they do (a position called “egalitarianism“), and others feel the Scriptures expressly forbid women from serving as pastors and elders (called “complementarianism“). Churches tend to take one or the other of these two positions, and those of like mind gather in one church or the other. One who feels that disagreement on such an issue is important enough to divide fellowship in this way has determined that issue to be of 2nd dogmatic rank in her own theological matrix.

Remember those who disagree here are all still saved, all still love the Lord, and are all still family (brothers and sisters in Christ). But there is a separation between them.

Rank 3: Preferences

If it doesn’t define what it means to be a Christian and it’s not important enough to break fellowship over, then the issue is 3rd rank. This is the “everything else” category. These are personal preferences on which we may disagree, but we still go to church together and do ministry side-by-side. We just see something differently … and are totally okay with that. Some, picking up on Paul’s language in Romans 14:1, call these lesser issues “disputable matters.” I like this term.

So, in summary:

  1. Essentials: You must believe this to be a Christian (e.g. Jesus is fully God and fully man and the only way to the Father). These differences separate Christians from non-Christians.
  2. Convictions: We’re both Christians, but this issue is so important to me that I’m only willing attend a church where we all agree on it. These differences separate us within the body of Christ.
  3. Preferences: We’re both Christians and we might disagree, but we get along great, enjoy fellowship together and serve the Lord side-by-side. These differences don’t really separate us.

So, now we can categorize ideas; so what?!

From my perspective, there is a defined set of 1st rank issues on which all Christians, by definition, must agree in order to in fact be Christ-followers. These are defined by the proper interpretation of Scripture and summarized well in the historic creeds of the Church (e.g. the Nicene Creed or 1 Cor 15:3-8). I also think the EFCA statement of faith does a particularly good job focusing on issues of first importance.

Beyond these essentials, I content that the children of God should strive to identify as few issues to be “rank 2” as possible. If it’s not an essential, then the mature, gracious, unity-minded Christ-follower should endeavor to relegate as many issues as possible to the status of personal preferences … which do not divide churches, cause arguments, or birth new denominations. In my opinion, Christians should be able to amicably disagree on a ton of lesser issues while remaining united on as many fronts as possible.

Dogmatic Rank Sets

This is not to say that convictions are somehow bad or unimportant. In fact, they’re vital. And there are times when division is necessary. Every Christian should know what they believe and why and on which hills they’re prepared to take a stand. But we live in a culture that has elevated personal preference to godhood, and therefore either tries to ignore theology all together (the lazy and lawless theologian) or makes everything but the brand of the kitchen sink a matter of deep, intractable conviction (the legalistic theologian). Too many Americans live our lives like we configure our Facebook profiles: demanding that every interaction, news feed, political view, friend group, etc meet an increasingly-exacting definition of “right for me.” Despite all the talk about “tolerance,” many seem anything but tolerant with those who don’t share their  perspectives. We seem to have lost our ability, as a society, to disagree respectfully, let alone lovingly. Many of us seem to prefer to scream at each other on social media. This is fundamentally antithetical to the mature Christian life, which should value love and unity and self-denial and cross bearing over rights, preferences and comfort (see Mark 8:34, 1 Cor 6:1-11 and 1 Pet 2:21-25 just to get started). Christians must espouse and live out counter-cultural lives with regard to these things, if we intend to honor Christ with our theological convictions.

It doesn’t help you grow to surround yourself only with people exactly like you or listen only to those who reenforce your pre-existing opinions.

It doesn’t reflect Christian maturity to demand that everyone in your church see every theological issue the same way you do.

On the essentials, yes, be exacting. Demand clarity and consensus. Accept no compromise or substitutes. But on everything else, let’s work harder — against the tide of our culture — to develop habits of compassion, empathy and love. Who knows, we might even learn something from one another.

How do I discern which issues are essentials?

It takes a lot of humility and grace to lay down our pet issues and agree to disagree on the non-essentials as friends and ministry partners. But we also can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We need a way to identify the essentials on which we will not compromise, so that we don’t end up making too many things a matter of considered (or not) opinion.

It won’t surprise you that I have a few suggestions.

Study the Scriptures

How to Read the Bible for all its WorthFirst, read How to Read the Bible for all its Worth, and then apply the timeless principles it teaches to study the daylights out of the Scriptures. Learn what it really says. Become an expert at biblical interpretation. You don’t need a fancy degree; you need time and intentionality — and there’s nothing more important to give time and intentionality to than the study of the word of God.

Adopt a Formal Method of Discernment

Second, develop a plan. Use the same approach or method every time you try to answer the “What dogmatic rank should I assign to this topic?” question. I commend to you the EFCA’s six principles / questions for evaluating theological significance. You don’t have to use them, but you need to use something. And they’re really good. Perhaps at least take this a starting point.

Consider, concerning any given issue, its…

  1. Relevance to our understanding of the nature and character of God: To what extent does this doctrine or practice reveal the person and nature of God?
  2. Connection to the gospel and the overarching narrative of the Bible: How directly is this doctrine or practice connected to the gospel and to the storyline of the whole Bible?
  3. Exegetical clarity: To what extent does Scripture unambiguously affirm this doctrine or practice?
  4. Biblical prominence: How prominent is this doctrine or practice in Scripture?
  5. Historical consensus: How widespread is the consensus on this doctrine or practice in the Church of both the past and present?
  6. Application to the church and the believer: How relevant is this doctrine or practice to us today?

(Read more from TGC)

Put Accountability Structures in Place

Lastly, I recommend a simple three-prong model for discernment in general that I think every Christian should use to hear and understand God’s voice well. It focuses on accountability, attempting to minimize “hearing from God” by any one means in isolation.

DiscernmentWhat we learn in God’s word we test in prayer and with the people of God throughout history to make sure that we are interpreting it rightly. What we hear from God’s people, we test by God’s word and in prayer. And what we hear in prayer, we test by God’s word and with God’s people [1]. And over all this, we trust the Spirit to reveal and illuminate truth to us, to be our Teacher and our Guide (John 14:26).

Conclusion

I hope this was a helpful (if perhaps long-winded) excursion into the principle of dogmatic rank.

A.W. Tozer said that what we think about God is the most important thing about us. Don’t be lazy or lawless or legalistic when you think about God. Major on the majors. Focus on what’s essential, and learn to love radically in the face of everything that isn’t. In this way, we obey Jesus and glorify Him.


Footnotes

[1] Relying on God’s people means three things that every Christian should rush to do:

  1. Join a church that is deeply committed Biblical authority and taking Jesus seriously
  2. Get in a small group where you are transparent and speak truth in love to each other
  3. Read dead guys, who loved the Lord in their day and can speak into your life

Image credit:
– Woman aiming at target: thegearhunt.com
– Lazy guy with Cheetos: infoworld.com
– Pharisee: geeksjourney.com
– How to Read the Bible for all its Worth: amazon.com
– Dogmatic rank and discernment models / images: mine
Posted in Theology | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Seeing Jesus Changes Everything: Word Pictures in Revelation’s Prologue

Jesus Among the Lampstands 1


THEOLOGICAL REFLECTIONS ON IMAGES OF JESUS IN REVELATION 1:1-20

Submitted to Dr. Dana Harris in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the course
NT 6253 Interpreting Johannine Literature at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School


Introduction

The last book of the Bible is “the revelation of Jesus Christ,” written “to show God’s servants what must soon take place” (Rev 1:1). It is not designed as a chronology of future events, but as a fleeting glimpse of the end of the story. In it, you can flip to the last page of the book of cosmic history and see that God wins. He keeps His promises. No matter what kind of fear or uncertainty or injustice faces us in the world today, no one who puts their hope in the Lord will be put to shame (Ps 25; 1 Pet 3:13-16). It is the testimony of Jesus, the Messiah (Rev 1:2), who told the Apostle John to “write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches” (1:11). These seven churches represent the Church universal in all of history, particularly those who are suffering for the sake of the gospel. It is with these in mind that I write this brief reflection.

In His revelation in general and this prologue (Rev 1:1-20) in particular, Jesus paints a number of vivid word pictures of Himself, designed to give confidence and comfort to the hurting (and to unsettle and motivate the complacent). While space does not permit me to treat every image presented in this passage, I will touch on seven selected images to highlight their value in encouraging those who are afflicted and oppressed because of their faith in Jesus. And I think it’s very appropriate, as Christmas approaches, to take a long look at Jesus, the way He revealed Himself to us, rather than the way our cultural image of Him has evolved over the centuries.

1) Jesus, the Faithful Witness

Truth in DictionaryFirst, Jesus is “the faithful Witness” (Rev 1:5a). Those suffering for the cause of Christ can be assured that Jesus sees their pain and intercedes for them before the Father (Rom 8:31-35; Heb 7:25). He will personally bear witness to their faith and suffering, and His testimony is faithful and true (c.f. Rev 19:11). When He proclaims that they belong to Him, it is the final, faithful and unassailable word. This should assure those struggling with pain or fear or uncertainty that God will ensure justice and reward those who are His. They may be obscure or feel alone, but God sees them, and will remember them. In the end, He will be proven faithful.

2) Jesus, the Firstborn from the Dead

Resurrection Empty TombJesus is also “the firstborn from the dead” (Rev 1:5b), alive forever, and “holding the keys of death and Hades” (1:18). What awaits those whom God has chosen is resurrection into a glorified life directly in the presence of the Lord. Of all the messages of Revelation, the most important is that God wins, and as a result, He will dwell with His people forever (Rev 21:3). The seemingly insurmountable barriers of sin and death to our true communion with God has been forever conquered, not by our blood (which would be just recompense for our evil ways), but by the blood of the spotless Lamb, who was slain on our behalf (c.f. Rev 5:6-10). No matter how bad things get in this world (and they are bad!), a glorious future awaits the children of God. As the firstborn from the dead — not just the first to be resurrected to this new life, but the rightful heir to all its glorious benefits —, we know that Jesus has the authority in Himself to grant us life (John 5:26). Because He lives, we too shall live, and someday soon, we will be like Him, seeing Him as He truly is (1 John 3:2). The persecuted Christian – in John’s time or ours – can embrace this blessed hope for the future.

3) Jesus, the Ruler of the kings of the earth

Royal Crown and SceptorNext, Jesus is “the Ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev 1:5c). Caesar may be king for a day, but Jesus is the eternal King. Empire may appear to have the power now, but in fact, even what little it has will soon be taken away from it (Matt 13:12). Christians who are hunted by the authorities of this world can look forward to the final judgment by ultimate Authority, who will set everything right. Jesus will reign in power, bringing justice, peace, stable government and firm-but-loving rule to the people of God. The images of the golden sash (Rev 1:13), white hair (1:14), and bronze feet (1:15) all speak to Jesus’ kingly power and authority. And certainly, His divine sovereignty is clearly demonstrated in statements like, “I am the Alpha and the Omega” (1:8) and “I am the First and the Last” (1:17). Jesus is the just, all-powerful King who will conquer and supplant the corrupt and abusive authorities of this world. This too should bring us great hope, and help the oppressed to persevere.

4) Jesus is Coming Back Soon

Fourth, Jesus is coming back for us. He has not left us as orphans (John 14:18). Behold, “He is coming with the clouds” (Rev 1:7; c.f. Isa 19:1; Dan 7:13), and every eye will see Him. There will be no confusion or contest or subtlety when Jesus returns. None who belong to Him will remain in hiding or continue to suffer, for when He comes for us, He will make all things new (Rev 21:5), establish justice, and finally bring rest to the people of God (Heb 4:1-11).

5) Jesus Stands Among His People

Jesus Among the Lampstands 2

Even now, fifthly, Jesus stands “among the lampstands, one like a Son of Man” (Rev 1:12). This depicts not only that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah (Rev 21:16), prophesied by Daniel (7:13), but that He is present even now among His people. Christians persecuted in this world are not far away from Jesus, because Jesus stands in the midst of the Church in every time and place. We have far more than some vague hope to someday be reunited with Him. Rather, Jesus restates in this passage His promise that He is always with His people, even to the close of the age (Matt 28:20). To those who know Him, it is a matter of great comfort to know that Jesus is always present, always walking through dark valleys with us, and having already gone before us to face every horror there is to face in this world. He has conquered, and therefore, we too shall conquer. And in the meantime, He is with us.

6) Jesus, the Sovereign Head of the Church

Jesus is “the one with seven stars in his right hand” (Rev 1:16a). This is the sixth image. Not only does Jesus walk among the churches, but He holds them in His right hand. Holding the churches gives a sense of His greatness and power and protective care. He not only knows us, but has the power to nurture, support and protect us. Also, in the use of “the right hand,” we see again Jesus’ sovereign, kingly authority. He not only desires to ensure that all things will work together for our good (Rom 8:28), but He is strong enough to achieve His purpose (Ps 135:5-7; Isa 55:10-11). It should be a great comfort to know that Jesus is not only present, but powerful. Even when suffering, we can rely on His protective care, not from pain or unmet expectations or even physical death, but from the one thing that we should truly fear: separation from Him. And as long as He holds us, no one can snatch us out of His hands (John 10:28-30).

7) Jesus, the One Wielding the Sharp, Double-edged Sword

Sharp, Double-Edged SwordFinally, “a sharp double-edged sword comes from [Jesus’] mouth” (Rev 1:16b). The Lord is a warrior (Exod 15:3), who created the world by His word (Ps 33:9), and who will judge the world, destroy evil and recreate it with His word in the final hour (Rev 12:11; 20:11ff; 21:3-7). The word of God is often depicted as a sword (Heb 4:12-13; Eph 6:17), demonstrating that it is powerful and effective for achieving God’s purposes, which are to conquer evil and to reconcile everything He created to Himself, especially us. So, the one who feels molested by evil can rest in the knowledge that God’s word will conquer it (Col 2:15; Eph 6:10-20). The one who lacks wisdom can experience in God’s word a light to their feet and a lamp to their path (Ps 119:105; Jas 1:5). And the one who feels uncertain about the future can know from God’s word how the story ends: “To the one who conquers I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev 3:21). This is particularly good news for the one living under the boot of earthly empire. Someday, God’s word declares, all the empires of the earth will become the footstool of the One who wields — He who is Himself — the Word of God (Heb 10:12-13; Ps 110:1; Rev 11:15).

Conclusion

One of God’s key purposes for the book of Revelation is to bring comfort and hope to the hurting and persecuted (while afflicting those have grown comfortable and complacent). This theme runs throughout the book, as we watch the drama of redemption unfold and the curtain fall on the final act of human history. But even in the letter’s prologue, we see at least seven comforting images of the Messiah, Jesus. He is the faithful Witness, the Firstborn from the dead, and the Ruler of the kings of the earth. He is returning soon, in power, yet even now He walks among His churches, supporting and nurturing them. And with absolute power, by the word of His mouth, He is preparing to destroy every power and earthly authority that would raise itself against the Most High God.

Thus, the persecuted and suffering Christiana can experience in Revelation a profound and renewed sense of comfort, as can any Christian preparing his heart to celebrate the birth of the Christ-child, who is in fact our Lord and King. And so we say with the Spirit and the bride, “Amen! Come, Lord Jesus! Come!” (Rev 22:17, 20).

Jesus Returns


Image credit:
1) Jesus among the lamp stands — Pintrest
2) Truth – Alchonaa
3) Empty Tomb – International Bible Society
4) Second lamp stands image – Pintrest
5) Sharp Double-edged sword – Quora
6) Jesus returning – Woodland Baptist Church
Posted in Bible Stories, Theology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Prophet Jonah and the Surprising Grace of God

Jonah slide

I lead one of the medium-sized Community Groups at my church (Life Bridge Community Church). We are currently in a series working through the Old Testament book of Jonah, and I have been asked to make some of the materials I’ve covered in our group available online. So, I thought the best place to do that would be here. It’s the first time I’m trying something like this, so we’ll see how it goes. Please feel free to your comments below.


Jonah is an unusual prophet. He is unique in his mission, sent by God to a pagan Gentile nation to declare their destruction, so that God can turn them from their sin and show His glory and grace in this surprising context. We see anger and bitterness and conflict in Jonah, and his potential to represent all of us. But in his story, we also see God’s gracious and loving character brilliantly on display, as well as a number of typological moments that point to Jesus.

Week 1: God’s Foolish and Disobedient Prophet

Slides: 2018-08-05 LIFT – Jonah 1:1-3 (with introduction to the text)

Jonah is a prophet of Yahweh who lived and prophesied in Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II in the early 8th century BC. He is a “latter, minor prophet” in Israel’s history. We know little about him, really, except for the amazing story told in the 29th book of the Old Testament, which you can find about 2/3 of the way through the Bible (maybe 50 pages before Matthew 1:1).

Jonah is the only prophet in Scripture called by God to prophesy to a Gentile nation. He is sent to Nineveh, an important city in the Assyrian empire — just a few decades after Jonah’s adventure, Assyria, with Nineveh as its new capital city, will invade and destroy the kingdom of Israel — to declare that God is painfully aware of their wickedness and pronounce His judgment upon them.

Shockingly, though, Jonah “flees from the presence of the Lord” (Jon 1:3) and tries to escape to Tarshish, a well-known port city on the other side of the known world. This would be like living in Kentucky, and when God sends you to Washington DC, you start hitchhiking to Seattle to get out of your assignment. It’s ridiculous, but Jonah does it anyway. Why? Because he knows God, who is gracious and compassionate and quick to forgive, and he hates the Ninevites, whom he feels are not worthy of God’s love. He knows that if He goes to Nineveh and tells them God is about to destroy them, that they will repent and God will spare them. He’s so disgusted by that idea, that he runs away. He would rather die than see God’s grace poured out on such wicked people.

Takeaway(s):

  • Fleeing from the presence of the Lord = Telling God “no”

Week 2: Jonah’s Sovereign and Personal God

Slides: 2018-08-12 LIFT – Jonah 1:4-9 (CSB Manuscript)

Jonah may have talked himself into thinking that he can get away from God, but of course he can’t. Jonah hitches a ride of a ship sailing across the Mediterranean, and God appoints a great storm which tosses the boat around like a rubber ducky in God’s bathtub. Everyone’s life is threatened, but while the experienced pagan sailors fight to save the ship (and their lives), Jonah pouts and eventually just goes to sleep below deck.

In this drama, we are given a front row seat to what it means to lack Christian maturity. Jonah tells God “no,” which is what “fleeing from the presence of the Lord” really means, and won’t even lend a hand to help those whom his unfaithfulness has put in jeopardy. We too face this choice. Will we be faithful and obedient to God’s command? We are called, increasingly, to say “yes” to God, whatever He asks, both quickly and joyfully.

Looking at God’s leading role in the story, we learn that:

  • God is personal – He relates to Jonah and even the sailors, by His personal name, Yahweh.
  • God is sovereign – His fundamentally controls nature (v4), because He created it (v9).
  • God is to be taken seriously – How could Jonah really think he could get away with telling God “no” and running away?

Amazingly, this sovereign, personal, all-powerful God is committed to pouring out grace. He abounds in hesed (saving covenantal faithfulness). He sovereignly orchestrates every aspect of this story to His redemptive ends. He saves the sailors from destruction, He saves Jonah from drowning, and we will see that He is relentlessly determined to save the Ninevites — even Gentiles benefit from God’s grace; through His people Israel, and ultimately His Messiah, all the nations of the earth will be blessed (Gen 12:3) —, and through this story and its preservation across the millennia, His grace extends even to us.

Takeaway(s):

  • Christian maturity means, increasingly, telling God “yes,” quickly and joyfully
  • God is always doing something something greater than we understand (or would do)

Week 3: A Demonstration of the Fear of the Lord

Slides: 2018-08-19 LIFT – Jonah 1:7-16 (CSB Manuscript)

In stark contrast to Jonah, when faced with imminent death from a raging storm, the sailors’ first instinct is to pray. Jonah doesn’t want to pray, because, ironically, he knows exactly what’s going on. It seems like he’d rather die (and take everyone else with him) than to obey the Lord. As the sailors’ fear mounts and hope begins to dwindle, they cast lots to determine who’s to blame for this catastrophe … hoping that a way out will present itself. Of course, God sovereignly directs the lot to fall to Jonah.

So, the sailors interrogate him, “Tell us who is to blame for this trouble we’re in. What is your business, and where are you from? What is your country, and who are your people?” (Jon 1:8). Jonah responds with a declaration of allegiance and ownership, “I’m a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, the God of the heavens, who made the sea and the dry land.” (Jon 1:9)

That’s ironic! Though Jonah is the one person on the ship who actually knows the Lord and should rightly belong to Him, he’s the one who acts the least like it. Ultimately, Jonah tells the sailors to throw him overboard, knowing that this will direct God’s anger away from them. Only Jonah needs to die. But faced with an opportunity to take a life to save their own, the sailors hesitate. They are afraid of further angering Yahweh. The reality is that pagan sailors demonstrate a better-developed fear of the Lord than Yahweh’s own prophet.

Jonah knows a lot about the Lord, but fears Him only a little.
The Sailors know only a little about the Lord, but fear Him a lot.

It’s scandalous and disheartening, and a cautionary tale. It’s possible to know a lot about God or look good in the right circles or even have a position of influence in the Church, but none of that matters compared to right worship … the right exercise of religion. The question is: Do you fear the Lord?

Takeaway(s):

  • Faith is not a matter of knowledge or position only, but of trust and obedience

Week 4: God’s Perpetual Movement toward Redemption

Slides: 2018-08-26 LIFT – Jonah 1:17-2:10 (CSB Manuscript)

Knowing their lives depend on it, and having prayed to ask God not to hold it against them, eventually the sailors throw Jonah overboard. In a squall in the middle of Mediterranean, this is of course a death sentence. But God “appoints” (keyword in Jonah) a great fish to save him. It swallows Jonah whole, and God facilitates a three-day time out for Jonah in the belly of the beast … waiting for Jonah to come to his senses.

Why three days? At least in part, this is to establish typologically “the sign of Jonah”…

An evil and adulterous generation demands a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at Jonah’s preaching; and look — something greater than Jonah is here. (Matthew 12:38-42; c.f. Luke 11:29-32)

Jonah’s story exists, because Jesus’ story exists. Isn’t it amazing how God is always orchestrating and superintending and redirecting  history to point to His Son, Jesus? Throughout all of history, the Father is facilitating through Him the redemption of humankind and the restoration of all things. From you to your pet chinchilla, from your prize daffodils to the physics governing the least significant chunk of rock in a remote galaxy, the plan of the Father and the work of the Son and the power of the Holy Spirit is for the renewal of all things. Hallelujah!

In the belly of great fish, Jonah finally decides to pray. His prayer is all about salvation. In a watery grave of almost certain death, God made a (totally unexpected) way to save him. That’s always the way God works. There is always a way out, always a way of salvation.

Anyone who looks to God’s temple (1 Kings 8:22-53) …
Anyone who believes in Jesus (John 3:14-16) …
Anyone who calls upon the Lord (Rom 1:13) …

… will be saved!

Jonah ends his prayer with a beautiful statement of acknowledgement of God’s grace and sovereignty and (I think) Jonah’s resignation…

Those who cherish worthless idols abandon
your hesed for them,
but as for me, I will sacrifice to you with a voice of thanksgiving.
I will fulfill what I have vowed.
Salvation belongs to the Lord.”

Takeaway(s):

  • God intentionally orders history to point to Jesus
  • God always makes a way of salvation
  • Those who cherish worthless idols abandon the hesed God intends for them

Week 5: Jonah Comes to Nineveh; Grace Comes with Him

Slides: 2018-09-02 LIFT – Jonah 3:1-5
Additional Reading: Brief Exegetical Analysis of Jonah 3

Jonah’s prayer, at first blush, looks pretty contrite. But is it really? Notice what he doesn’t say… That God was right and he was wrong, or that he’s onboard with God’s plan to extend grace to the Ninevites. God might have a heart for the lost, but Jonah doesn’t. He’s thankful that he didn’t drown, and he acknowledges that God saved him, and he’s thankful. But Jonah’s heart is fundamentally focused on club membership … He’s for Israel, not for filthy Gentiles like the Ninevites. So, his prayer is one of resignation and the (still disheartened?) acknowledge that God has the right to do what He wants to do. Jonah, for his part though, doesn’t have to like it.

So, after getting barfed onto a beach somewhere, when God summons Jonah a second time and commands him to proclaim judgment upon Nineveh, Jonah arises and goes to Nineveh according to the Lord’s command (Jon 3:1-3; a classic prophetic formula). Hopefully after a shower. Once there, Jonah immediately begins to preach, and the people immediately repent … literally in sackcloth and ashes.

Takeaway(s):

  • What God has made clean, do not call impure. (Acts 10:15)

Week 6: Nineveh Repents; God Relents

Slides: 2018-09-09 LIFT – Jonah 3:6-10

“When word reached the king of Nineveh, he got up from his throne, took off his royal robe, put on sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he issued a decree in Nineveh…” (Jon 3:6ff)

It wasn’t just a few people that responded to Jonah’s (evidently very simple, maybe even a bit residually-hesitant) preaching. But “from the greatest of them to the least,” the people of Nineveh turned from their wicked ways and called out to God. So did the king and his nobles. And as a result, a decree went out to all the land demanding fasting and prayer, sackcloth and ashes, and repentance from wrongdoing. Even animals were included in the king’s decree, signifying just how seriously he’s taking their sin and their need for repentance. This is the only time in Scripture we see a bunch of Gentiles in sackcloth and ashes.

“Who know?!” the king says, “God may turn and relent; He may turn from His burning anger so that we will not perish” (Jon 3:9). Translation: “We deserve judgment and destruction, and God, the righteous Judge, may very well visit it upon us. But who knows? Perhaps He’s so gracious that He will actually spare us.”

God saw their actions ​— ​that they had turned from their evil ways ​— ​so God relented from the disaster he had threatened them with. And he did not do it.” (Jon 3:10)

We are all the king of Nineveh. We are all wicked and deserve death. We all must take our sin so seriously that we would tear off royal robes and involve even our animals in demonstrating the fruit of repentance. And because Jesus took the penalty for our sin and imputed to us His righteousness, if we turn from our wicked ways, God will relent from the disaster He had threatened us with. And He will not do it.

If that doesn’t get you fired up, then your wood’s wet.

Takeaway(s):

  • The speed of the leader is the speed of the team
  • God’s law and our sin must be taken seriously
  • God’s grace must be taken even more seriously
  • Talk is cheap; God’s “hears” your repentance by in your heart and your life

Week 7: Jonah’s Temper Tantrum

Slides: 2018-09-16 LIFT – Jonah 4 1-4
Additional Reading: Brief Exegetical Analysis of Jonah 4

You would think that God’s choice not to destroy the city would be cause for rejoicing … and it is, for everyone but Jonah. Instead, Jonah storms out of town, flops down on top of a hill and fumes. This time, his bad attitude comes complete with a full-tilt whiny temper tantrum…

“See, Lord, isn’t this exactly what I said would happen before we came out here? This is exactly why I tried to run away. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger, abounding in hesed, and one who relents from sending disaster. And now, Lord, take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jon 4:2-3 paraphrased)

In other words, Jonah’s “worst fears” have been realized. God took pity on a giant group of sinful Gentiles, and when they turned to Him, He forgave their sin. Now, Jonah’s kinda hacked off. That whole prayer-in-the-fish thing was nice and all, but it’s pretty clear he was cherishing a barely-concealed hope that maybe God would get all Sodom-and-Gomorra on the wicked Ninevites after all. Alas, it was not meant to be. Instead of fire and brimstone, they get grace. [Insert Jonah’s exasperated curses here.]

The result? Yet again, Jonah waxes fatalistic, “Just kill me, God! If you’re going to save Gentiles too, I’d rather not be alive to see it.” How sad!

Essentially, Jonah is accusing God of injustice. And that takes us from sad to scary-wrong! And the takeaway is obvious, who are “those people” for you? Who are the ones that “don’t deserve” God’s hesed?

In truth, nobody but Jesus deserves anything good from God. The rest of us wretched sinners are all on the grace plan — right alongside the Ninevites, and Jonah for that matter — assuming we’re contrite enough to throw ourselves on the mercy of the Sovereign Judge. It’s not club membership that saves you, but the grace of God poured out in the blood of the Messiah Jesus. Clearly, Jonah has yet to learn that.

Takeaway(s):

  • Nobody deserves God’s hesed, except Jesus
  • God pours out His hesed on the children of Abraham (Gal 3:27-29) — not Abraham’s biological descendants, but those whom God chooses (Exod 33:19) and who choose Him by faith (John 3:14; Rom 1:13)

Week 8: Is it Right for you to be Angry?

Slides: 2018-09-23 LIFT – Jonah 4:5ff

God has saved Nineveh, extending lavish, totally-undeserved grace to a people not His own, who have for centuries done what is evil in the eyes of the Lord. As a result, Jonah is really, really angry! He stomps out of the city, flops down on top of a hill, and broods. And it continues to go downhill from there.

God shows Jonah kindness too, by miraculously growing up a plant to shelter Jonah from the sun. And this turns Jonah’s attitude around. We might be tempted to be happy for him now that he’s finally found some happiness, until we think about how perverse that is. Jonah doesn’t give a whit about all the people in Nineveh who could have gone straight to hell; instead, he’s all energized over a plant dedicated to preventing his personal sunburn. Selfish to the core is our friend Jonah, wouldn’t you say … and demanding, and unmerciful, and filled with angry judgment. He’s all the things God isn’t, as He flings mercy around everywhere in our story.

So, the Lord — as He often does — turns this into a teachable moment. As quickly as He appointed a plant to keep the sun off Jonah, He appoints a worm to kill the plant and a hot, oppressive desert wind to beat on Jonah and make him miserable. And it works. Again, Jonah careens into the pits. “If you’re going to take away my plant and sit out here in the hot sun and sandy wind, then I’d rather just die. I renew my request for death. And btw, I’m still angry with you for showing grace to those wicked people, God!” Wow, if that were the heart of God, the human race would never have made it out of the Garden of Eden.

God’s response ends the book. He asks a critical question that the writer of Jonah just leave hanging in the air. God asks,

You cared about the plant, which you did not labor over and did not grow. It appeared in a night and perished in a night. But may I not care about the great city of Nineveh, which has more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left, as well as many animals? (Jon 4:10-11)

Doesn’t God have the right to care about people? Shouldn’t we be filled with joy when He brings salvation, even to those people? Who are those people to you? People of other colors or races or cultures or even faiths? People who have done terrible evil? Aren’t they people too? Shouldn’t our hearts be for God to heal and restore them as He has healed and restored us? Because if my heart is like Jonah’s heart — superior and judgmental and clearly believing that my club membership has earned me a spot at the front of God’s line — then I might be shocked to find out someday that I have never really known the Lord. And that should be the most terrifying thought any of us has ever had.

Takeaway(s):

  • The Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in hesed, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation. (Exod 34:6-7)
  • God does whatever He pleases. (Psalm 135:6)
  • God has the right to do whatever He pleases  (Rom 9:14-24; Isa 45:9-12)
  • God’s children have a heart for the things of God; if we want to be known by Jesus we must, by the Spirit’s power and also by God’s amazing grace, be transformed to become more like Jesus (Rom 8:1-11, 12:1-2; Matt 7:21-23, 25:31ff)

Image credit:
1) Jonah header image – ThoughtCo
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Paul, the Institution of Slavery, and the Cross-shaped Life

Slavery


THEOLOGICAL REFLECTIONS ON SLAVERY IN THE PAULINE CORPUS

Submitted to Dr. Joshua Jipp in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the course
NT 6252 Interpreting Paul and General Epistles at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School


Preface

Whether as a paper or a blog post, this writing is a woefully inadequate starting point for discussion on these issues. Both as I typed it originally and as I have been repurposing it now for republication as a blog post, I have felt its weight and how little I know about this difficult subject. I fear, as I throw this out onto the net for anyone to read, that it could be interpreted as somehow dismissive or unfeeling. I certainly hope not. In no way do I think the answers to these questions are easy or that I have all of them, but I think it’s important not to shy away from the discussion. So, thank you for reading my humble contribution to it. As I write, I fall back on the hope of God’s promise that “love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pet 4:8).

Introduction

Slavery in 18th and 19th century America – along with the wickedness which spawned both the institution and related prejudices that exist even to our day – was and is a great injustice. It violates God’s character and defiles His image in human beings. The Apostle Paul has received no end of criticism from scholars, pastors and laypeople alike, reading passages like Philemon 1-25 and Col 3:18-4:1, feeling Paul is signaling tacit approval of institutions and patterns of human interaction that have caused so much suffering for so many. I believe, however, that these critics are misreading Paul. Or, at the very least, they are attempting to hijack the focus of his letters, asking him to answer questions he was not intending to answer when he wrote them.

Note: The NT book of Philemon is a letter from the Apostle Paul to a slaveowner in Colossae named Philemon. Paul is sending one of his slaves, Onesimus, back to Philemon with this letter. Onesimus had come to Christ through Paul’s ministry and was serving Paul in prison. Now, Paul is asking Philemon (also a Christian) to welcome Onesimus back as a brother (rather than a slave), because they both belong to the Lord.

The Scriptures, like any text, are to be read in light of the intention of their authors. This is a well-understood, well-defended biblical hermeneutic. We seek, as we study the bible, to understand what an author like Paul is doing with what he is saying – the so-called “world in front of the text,” or its “transhistorical intention.”[1] As such, I contend that Paul is doing something entirely different than his critics are demanding of him.

In this brief paper, I will attempt to demonstrate this fact, and describe the theology I believe Paul intends for us to adopt as a result of reading these passages. Finally, I will apply that Christological perspective specifically to the related topics of slavery and justice.

Fix Your Eyes on Things Above

Christians are citizens of heaven (Phil 3:20). We belong to another world. We are not to be conformed to the standards of this world, but to be transformed into new patterns of thinking and acting (Rom 12:2). We are called by God to fix our eyes on heavenly things (Col 3:2).

The Apostle Paul, following his dramatic face-to-face meeting with the risen Messiah, was absolutely consumed with this other-worldly perspective. His entire post-conversion life was oriented around principles and patterns of thinking that defied earthly custom. He had, instead, the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16). When he planted churches and subsequently wrote letters to them, Paul communicated on every page the idea that we are to imitate the Messiah, Jesus, not the world around us. Consequently, understanding any of his letters must center on this truth.

Interpreting Philemon

The purpose of Paul’s letter to Philemon, for example, is to challenge Philemon’s perspective on human relationships in light of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. He expects Philemon to function differently as a redeemed citizen of the Messiah’s kingdom. All the old divisions and hierarchies are no longer in play. There is no longer slave nor free (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11). The earthly status Philemon possesses as a slave owner is of no more consequence to Paul than his own status as a well-born, highly-educated Jewish Pharisee (Phil 3:4-8). Similarly, and no less shockingly, Onesimus’ earthly status as a slave is also irrelevant. What matters to Paul is that he, Philemon and Onesimus are all children of God and brothers in Christ (Phlm 16).

So, Paul isn’t writing about the institution of slavery in this letter per se – either to condone or condemn it. Rather, he is communicating the implications of the death and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus on human relationships, specifically in this case between Philemon and Onesimus. Although Roman culture may prescribe various patterns of relating that the world around them would readily embrace, Paul expects Philemon to look beyond / rise above them, and welcome Onesimus the way that Christ welcomed Philemon, not in the way any worldly institution (be it formalized slavery or any other) would dictate their interactions with one another. The only consideration Paul gives to earthly roles or titles or rights or privileges in his letter is to set the example of laying them aside for the sake of love (Phlm 8-9). To read Philemon as a Pauline critique for or against the institution of slavery is to miss Paul’s broader point: the ground is eminently level at the foot of the cross.

Interpreting Colossians 3:18-4:1

Similarly, in Colossians, Paul gives instructions to the various members of a typical Roman household on how to relate to one another in light of their rebirth in Christ. This list of so-called “household codes” specifically covers relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, and masters and slaves. Again, Paul is not writing this letter to critique Roman social customs or family structures or the institution of slavery. His purpose is to teach the Colossians how to relate to one another. It dishonors the Lord for a slave – our modern equivalent might be a corporate employee or household servant – to do just enough to look good, but rather to labor as if they are working directly for God Himself, to please Him. Rather than looking to earthly wages (which would be zero in the case of a slave) as compensation for our work, we are to see God Himself as our benefactor. He will surely pay us extravagantly either as a reward for doing right or as a condemnation for doing wrong. Again, Paul calls us to look beyond earthly customs and institutions, and to fix our eyes on heaven – to understand the world around us in light of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God.

Paul’s Theology and the Centrality of the Gospel

But why stop there? Why does Paul not go on a rant about the inherent injustice and unfairness of slavery? Why not order Philemon to free all his slaves (surely, Onesimus wasn’t the only one), because to do otherwise is to fail to seek justice? Or, for that matter, why not give us, in Colossians, a treatise on the evils of patriarchal society, with all its misogynistic woes, and call for a new activist movement to be launched in Colossae to seek equality for women? Etc.

Avoiding Eisegesis

First of all, we can’t project our cultural values or the problems we discern in our modern society onto Paul and his writings. Slavery (not to mention the other cultural morays that form the backdrop of texts like Philemon or Colossians) in 1st century Asia Minor simply wasn’t the same institution as it was in 19th century America, or as Paul’s 21st century critics see it today. “Freedom” didn’t mean the same thing either. For the average Roman, a free person was still a servant of the emperor / empire. And for Paul, “freedom” meant freedom from sin for the sake of serving one another (Gal 5:13) and becoming a slave to righteousness (Rom 6:15-18). Nor did anyone in Paul’s world value (or it might be better to say worship) individualism and independence in any sense the way we do today. In fact, many slaves in Paul’s day would never way to be freed, because they knew that would mean a lack of provision (food) and protection. To be sure, 1st century slavery was wrought with injustice and very painful for the enslaved, but it wasn’t remotely the same injustice and pain we perceive as we look back at 19th century America.

In sum, we have to be very careful not to expect Paul to speak directly into a situation that wouldn’t exist for 2,000 years at the time of his writing. Instead, we must develop theology to apply to today’s world and culture, as we study God’s word, which is infallible “in all that it affirms.”[2] If we discern the world in front of the text – what Paul is intentionally affirming; what he’s trying to accomplish with what he’s writing – then we can apply it to our situation today, unencumbered by an unwarranted disappointment in (or judgment of) Paul for failing to address it directly in our preferred terms.

Bloom Where You’re Planted

So, what is Paul affirming? His focus is entirely on the gospel: the reality of the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and session of God’s Messiah, and its implications for individual and community life. To Paul, everything else is merely context for this amazingly good news. When in prison, Paul is thinking about how that can advance the gospel (Phil 1:12-14). When confronted by self-serving preachers, Paul is thinking about how that can advance the gospel (Phil 1:15-18). Flogged, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, homeless, danger abounding, etc (2 Cor 11:23-28), and Paul is asking that we pray for his boldness to declare the gospel (Eph 6:19-20). Paul met with every form of injustice there was, but we never see him engaging in feverish activism for anything except the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I think this is why Paul encourages people to “remain in the situation they were in when God called them” (1 Cor 7:20). Paul views all of life – every decision – according to how it would affect the spread of the gospel message. It’s as if social institutions were unimportant to him, because he was laser-focused on Jesus. So, if you are unmarried, stop worrying about how to change your state for the better (as society would define it), and focus on how you can best serve Christ by loving others as a single person. If you are a husband or wife, then the same calling applies. How can you be the best husband or the best wife possible for Jesus and His Kingdom (so Col 3:19)? And if you are a slave … the same thinking applies as well. Focus on the gospel. Be the church. Honor God in all you do. Be about the work of the Lord. Bloom where you’re planted.

The Cruciform Life: Your Needs Over My Rights

No matter which of his letters we’re considering, we simply cannot conclude a conversation about Paul’s theology without talking about sacrificial love — “cruciform” love; love in the shape of the cross. This is perhaps the most prominent and important theme in Paul’s regenerate life, and therefore in his apostolic writing: imitating Christ in sacrificing oneself for the sake of others. Paul firmly believes that, in so doing, he is fulfilling the law of Christ (Gal 6:2). Throughout the New Testament, we see him setting aside his rights for the sake of someone else’s needs. This pattern is so widespread that bible scholars have given it a formulaic descriptor: “although x, not y, but z.”[3] In both the Philemon (e.g. vv8-9) and Colossians passages mentioned, this mindset permeates Paul’s behavior and his expectation of those who would read his letters and imitate him as he imitates Jesus (1 Cor 11:1).

Inferring a Position on Slavery from Paul’s Christology

So, what does Paul’s theology in general – and his Christology in particular – tell us about his view of slavery? First, we know that Paul expects the follower of Christ to actually follow Christ’s example (Phil 2:5-11), becoming the servant of all (1 Cor 12:25; c.f. Mark 9:35). Even without talking about the image of God and the dignity of human life, we must understand this to preclude any Christian’s belief that they could own or enslave another human being. To be a Christian (a little Christ), one must seek to love her neighbor as herself (Rom 13:9; c.f. Mark 12:31), to bear one another’s burdens (Gal 6:2), to submit to one another (Eph 5:21), to see each other as family, not property (Phlm 16), and so on. Slave ownership, whether in 19th century America or 1st century Colossae, does not and cannot exemplify these principles. So therefore, it would not meet Paul’s expectation of a godly cross-shaped life. It is an oxymoron for a Christian to condone slavery.

We also know that Paul intends every Christ-follower to be a slave to God, a slave to righteousness – a state of mind antithetical to being enslaved by or conformed to this world or the things of this world (Rom 6:15ff). This clearly implies that one who owns slaves (e.g. Philemon) and one who is owned as a slave (e.g. Onesimus) should both consider themselves slaves to God (Eph 6:8-9). But as I’ve described, this has little if anything to do with one’s seeking to escape from his or her current station in life as defined in this-worldly terms. Paul is concerned with matters of the heart and spirit, not matters of social station or status. In Paul’s mind, we must seek (and cooperate with the Spirit in attaining) freedom from any snare that would entangle us spiritually, whether we are slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female, etc. He is remarkably unfocused – one might even say disinterested – in the earthly context in which seeking that freedom (living the Christian life) occurs. Paul’s attitude toward his imprisonment in Philippians (1:12-14) is a helpful model for us in this regard. He does not seek his freedom; rather, he sees his imprisonment as yet the latest context in which he will continue to run the race (1 Cor 9:24ff) and complete his mission to preach the word in any circumstance (2 Tim 4:1-2).

Conclusion

Slavery is a great evil. It violates the image of God in human beings, goes against the grain of God’s character, and is at odds with the Christian life, as demonstrated and commanded by the Messiah, Jesus, and His apostle, Paul. However, it stands alongside a great many other social evils in this world, none of which were truly Paul’s focus when he wrote the epistles which now comprise most of the New Testament. Instead, like Jesus, Paul taught consistently about the shape and attitude of the heart – the inner life that overflows into outer behavior. Any sensible interpretation / application of Paul’s instruction to throw off worldly living and put on Christ (e.g. Eph 4:17ff) or his demonstrated life of cruciform love (e.g. Rom 15:1-7) must include a disdain for the institution of slavery and an eager willingness to undermine it as a legitimate human institution. The godly life of the follower of Jesus cannot include participation in or indifference toward slavery and all its works. It is therefore unnecessary in my view for Paul to make explicit demands on Philemon to free Onesimus or on the Colossian church to rise up as activists against slavery. Paul has instead called them (and us) to a much higher standard than that (which includes but far exceeds a godly contempt for slavery): to live the cross-shaped life of a follower of the Messiah, Jesus.


Footnotes:

[1] Abraham Kuruvilla, Privilege the Text! A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013), 43–48.
[2] “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.” Dallas Theological Seminary, accessed March 16, 2018. http://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_1.pdf
[3] Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters, Second Ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017), 538.


Bibliography:

Gorman, Michael J. Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters. Second Ed. 1 vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2017.

Kuruvilla, Abraham. Privilege the Text! A Theological Hermeneutic for Preaching. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013.


Image credit:
1) Slaves in cotton field – The Daily Beast
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The Kingdom that Demands a Response

A sermon manuscript for Matthew 22:1-14,
prepared for Life Bridge Community Church
(recorded audio | sermon notes | parables study tool handout)

Introduction

Well, here we are – the final message in our Kingdom Parables series. Today, we’ll be studying the parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22.

Jesus' Nine Kingdom Parables

I’ve put our chart back up on the screen, and I want to renew my encouragement to you to be studying these parables in your own time.

In addition, although we don’t have time to look at them, I want to point out that today’s parable is the third in a trilogy of so-called “judgment parables,” through which Jesus pronounces judgment over the leaders of Israel who are challenging His authority and rejecting His Kingdom.

As you can see, these other two appears in the previous chapter, Matthew 21. In fact, the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Matt 21:33ff) is almost identical to this parable. I would encourage you to check these out as well, as you’re meditating on today’s message this week.

Finally, before we get into today’s passage, I wanted to share a quick personal update. As you know, I’ve been conducting my internship at Life Bridge for the past 18 months. As of this week, my internship has concluded. Sometimes I think when people hear “internship,” they think that our family will be moving on as soon as it’s over, but we are not. This church is our home, and we are members here. I have 3 more years of school, so at least until that is completed, we’re not going anywhere.

But what I really wanted to say is “thank you” for the innumerable ways you have encouraged and supported me and my family during this internship period. Thank you for the opportunity to open God’s word with you, which is an awesome privilege. We love this church, and consider it an honor to do life together with all of you. So, thank you!

On that note, let’s pray, and then dig into the parable of the wedding feast.

Prayer for Illumination

Father, we praise you for the marvelous ways in which you love us. We thank you for your word and for your grace, for your patience with us and for your reckless love. We come to you with open hands and open hearts today, because we truly want to know you and love you more. Illuminate your word for us and teach us. And use this time and this parable to change us and make us more like you, Jesus, for it’s in your name that we pray.

Amen.

The Parable

Open your bibles with me to Matthew 22:1-14, and follow along, as I read from the ESV…

Again, Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast, but they would not come.

Again, he sent other servants, saying, ‘Tell those who are invited, “See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.”’ But they paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them.

The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city. Then he said to his servants, ‘The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.’ And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So, the wedding hall was filled with guests.

“But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”

For many are called, but few are chosen.

Character Overview

Wedding ReceptionThis parable has a ton of characters in it, but only two are truly the focus of the story. So, before we dig into the text, let’s take a few minutes to describe the characters in the parable, because I think it will help smooth out our analysis as we walk through the passage. There’s a chart on the back of your bulletin insert for you to fill in, so that you’ve got it as an easy reference when we’re analyzing the parable.

  • The king – The first character is the king. He represents God the Father, and He’s the main character. Often, when we encounter kingly language in Scripture, it’s talking about Jesus. But in this parable, the king is the Father, who is hosting a wedding feast for his son.
  • The king’s son – This is Jesus, the bridegroom, who is betrothed and preparing to celebrate His marriage with a royal banquet.
  • The bride – The bride is us, the people of God – Israel and the Church. Let’s pause for a second and let that sink in. This is incredible. The King of heaven left His throne, became a man, died and rose again, so that He could be united to us, and resurrect us with Him into a totally new kind of life that lasts forever.

The fact that the Eternal Son has chosen you for Himself should absolutely blow your mind! It should drive us to our knees in worship. It really should give you butterflies just to think about it … as if you really were the bride on the morning of her wedding … marrying the most amazing man you’ve ever met … the guy you’ve had your eye on ever since grade school but whom you thought would never ever even notice you. The perfect guy. The one everyone with half a brain wants. But he didn’t choose them, he has chosen you!

This is the picture (only infinitely more so) that Jesus is painting in His story. He has chosen you to be His! Don’t ever let the wonder of that truth fade!

But we have to be careful not to mix metaphors here. Although the people of God are indeed the bride of Christ in an absolute sense, for the purposes of this parable, Jesus intends his listeners to identify with the people the king is inviting to the wedding feast. As we work through the parable, you’ll see that the focus is not on the bride but on the king and the guests. So, for our purposes today, when I refer to Israel or the Church, I’m talking about the wedding guests, not the bride. Deal?

Okay, moving on…

  • The servants – Typically, when we encounter “servant” language in Scripture, it is a reference to the angels of God, who serve Him day and night around His throne (Rev 7:15). But in this case, the servants are the prophets and apostles, whom God sent into this world – largely to Israel – throughout history to speak for Him and proclaim His Kingdom.
  • The invitees – The story gets a little complicated at this point. Allegorically, the identity of those invited to the wedding feast changes as the story unfolds. We’ll track that progression as we work through the parable, but for now, suffice it to say that these are human beings who must choose how they will respond to God’s invitation to dwell in His Kingdom.

Observation and Interpretation

Now that we have a sense of who the characters are in this story, let’s walk through the parable. We’ll take it a verse at a time, and see if we can get at what Jesus is teaching us. I want to warn you ahead of time: there’s a ton in this parable that I’d love to talk about, but which we just don’t have time to cover. So, please forgive me if I mention some things only in passing and totally bypass others. If this parable raises questions for you that aren’t adequately addressed today, write them down. I would encourage you to bring those questions up for discussion in your community group or life group. You can also feel free to find me (or one of the elders); I’d absolutely love to discuss these things further offline.

As we work through this parable, we’ll see the king take six specific actions in the story. I’d like to use these as a structure for our observations and interpretation, and then we close with two points of application.

1. The King plans a wedding feast

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son, and sent his servants to call those who were invited to the wedding feast…” (Matthew 22:2-3a)

Wedding Feast Banquet HallThe king (allegorically, the God of all creation) has a son (Jesus), and that son is getting married. As we discussed when we went through the characters in the story, this represents Jesus’ being married to His people, the Church.

Side note: Hold it… Do you have butterflies? Okay, just checking.

To celebrate the wedding, his father, the king is hosting a wedding feast.

In 1st century Jewish culture, to talk about the wedding feast is to talk about the wedding itself. And this is a royal wedding. In Jesus’ day, even a poor peasant’s wedding celebration could last for days. The party the king is about to throw will be at the palace, and will probably go on for weeks. Guests will be lodged in the palace at the expense of the king. The purchases the king makes for this party in the local villages will materially impact their economies. This isn’t some back-yard BBQ or a dinner party at your church. Even the most elaborate wedding today would have been dwarfed by the scope of the event imagined by Jesus’ listeners. Essentially, Jesus is describing the most extravagant party they could possibly conceive.

Allegorically, this means worshipping God, walking with God, and working for God under the rule of King Jesus in His perfect Kingdom for all eternity. This is better by far than the most amazing thing you have ever imagined.

Let’s also talk about the guest list.

It is implied (see v3) that the king has invited a large group of people to the wedding feast. Allegorically, this refers to God’s covenant with the nation of Israel. Almost 2,000 years before Jesus stood telling this story, God made a covenant with Abraham, that his descendants would be God’s very own people – a people for his possession (c.f. Deut 7:6; Isa 43:21). In Jesus’ story, this agreement is represented by the king’s wedding invitation. God selected Abraham’s descendants to live in close proximity to Him, with the goal that they would come to know Him by faith and thereby participate in His eternal Kingdom. They were to obey His laws and represent Him to the nations around them. In time, the whole world would be blessed through them.

In Jesus’ parable, the king has formalized an arrangement with a subset of his citizens that they are officially invited to the wedding feast. “Someday soon,” He said, “when everything is ready, I’ll send for you, for we have agreed that you will be there to witness my son’s marriage and celebrate with us.” So, there is a sense of obligation, but primarily this is a great privilege. In theory, those the king invites would be tingling with anticipation, excited for the king and his son, waiting for his announcement, and eager to celebrate with the royal family.

2. The King proclaims that the time is at hand

King's Royal ProclamationAnd now, at last, the day has come. The time of the long-awaited wedding feast has finally arrived. Allegorically, the Kingdom of Heaven is being inaugurated. Jesus, Himself, is bringing about the dawning of the kingdom. Look at v4…

He sent His servants, saying, “Tell those who are invited, ‘See, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready. Come to the wedding feast.’” (Matthew 22:4)

We aren’t looking for significance in the details of this statement. Slaughtering oxen and fattened calves (etc) is just what people did when they threw a feast in those days. The point is that everything is now in readiness, and the king is going to activate the standing agreement he has in place with his citizens, summoning them to the palace to celebrate with his son.

The words of Jesus in Mark 1, or for that matter the words of John the Baptist (who is chief among the King’s servants) in Matthew 3, should be ringing in your ears…

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news! (Mark 1:15)

So, the Kingdom of God has arrived in this world in the person of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God. And He calls all whom God has invited – at that time, the nation of Israel – to fulfill their covenant commitment and respond to His invitation.

Note that there is nothing automatic about this. Being invited to a wedding feast isn’t the same as attending it. Similarly, the Bible makes it very clear throughout – from the very first day that God made His covenant with Israel to the last pages of the book of Revelation – that God’s gift of salvation and life in His Kingdom must be accepted. We must appropriate these things for ourselves. The Kingdom of God isn’t about something Jesus did “out there,” it’s about something He does “in here”.  {point to chest}

Nobody is saved from sin and death and born again into new life by osmosis or because they grow up in a Christian household or because they sit next to a godly people on Sunday mornings. God’s kingdom invitation demands a response.

But that’s not what happens in the story…

3. The King sees His invitation rejected

But [those he had invited] paid no attention and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his servants, treated them shamefully, and killed them. (Matthew 22:5-6)

In Jesus’ day, to refuse a wedding invitation was a tremendous insult. It was considered a very personal rejection. And again, this is a royal wedding. So, bottom line, to reject this wedding invitation is to reject the king himself.

Jesus is using this story to indict the nation of Israel, particularly its leaders. For many hundreds of years, they had rejected God and maligned His prophets. In fact, some of the people Jesus is speaking to at this very moment are in the process of plotting His death. And these are supposed to be Israel’s leaders and teachers! They should have been leading the people in procession to the wedding feast, not rejecting the bridegroom and killing his servants.

But notice that not everyone violently mistreats the king’s servants. Some just ignore his invitation. They are too busy, too self-important, or have too many other things to do to worry about a wedding. They can’t be bothered to come to the feast, even though they had committed to do so. They probably had thoughts like, “I need to make a little more money, and then I’ll have enough to go” or “I just need to finish this one task first” or “It’s just not a good season right now for me to make this trip.” Surely, they thought their excuses were justifiable. But in the end, no matter how legitimate they may have seemed at the time, they all amount to the same thing: rejection of and great insult to the king. And we’ll see that he does not stand for that.

I think Israel thought they were secure because they were descended from Abraham and were biologically a part of his family. Well, and they had kept the rules they found easy to keep. They were circumcised, so they though they were automatically in the Kingdom. But their circumcision was a circumcision of the body, not of the heart.

The Bible makes it clear over and over again that we are not included in the family of God because of outward works or club memberships. God includes in His family those whose hearts are surrendered to Him, who have exchanged their old lives for Christ’s new life. God’s kingdom isn’t a club membership among many other club memberships. It’s not something you can layer onto the rest of a life lived your own way. It demands that you surrender one life to receive another. The leaders of Israel got this totally wrong, and ultimately paid a terrible price for their sinfulness and error.

4. The King destroys those who reject him

“The king was angry, and he sent his troops and destroyed those murderers and burned their city.” (Matthew 22:7)

Angel ArmiesAt this point, the story turns ugly. We have a tendency in our culture to consider any kind of negativity or judgment to be harsh and unwarranted, but God doesn’t see the world that way. Modern American culture also tend to imagine Jesus as meek and mild and uncritical, and we picture God the Father as a wizened, kindly old grandfather who overlooks our faults, always lets us eat candy and stay up late. And when He grades, He grades on a curve. Even in Christian circles, we have a way of explaining away the terrifying holiness of God and His legitimate wrathful judgment of sin. But this is an extremely distorted and unhelpful view of reality.

Yahweh is the sovereign, all-powerful God who created all things by speaking them into existence (Ps 33:9). He holds the whole universe in the palm of His hand (Isa 40:12), and every second of every day He holds the very atoms in your body together by His will (Col 1:17). He is the God of angel armies (Ps 84:8-9), who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim 6:16). Moses couldn’t even look directly at Him, lest He be immediately struck dead (Ex 33:18-20). When God described Himself to Moses, he said this…

The Lord, the Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in covenantal love and faithfulness, maintaining that love to a thousand generations, and forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But I will not leave the guilty unpunished…” (Exodus 34:6-7)

God’s patience with us has limits. There is judgment for sin and consequences for rejecting God’s covenant invitation. There is no indication anywhere but in our secular culture that God is soft on sin and inclined to overlook rebellion in His people. In this story, those who agreed (established a covenant) with the King to attend the wedding are now disregarding it. This depicts Israel’s disobedience in general and specifically their rejection of God’s Messiah. And God is not going to let that pass.

In the story, God punishes the would-be wedding guests with an avenging army. He utterly destroys them and burns their city. This is foreshadowing.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (AD 70)Not even 50 years later, in AD 70, God will send Roman armies to raze Jerusalem to the ground (including the temple), killing many of its inhabitants, and scattering others. The Jewish people – particularly the leadership – refused to recognize the promised Messiah and the inauguration of His Kingdom, bringing God’s wrath upon them in consequence.

5. The King broadens His invitation to include everyone

Then [the king] said to his servants, “The wedding feast is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore to the main roads and invite to the wedding feast as many as you find.” And those servants went out into the roads and gathered all whom they found, both bad and good. So, the wedding hall was filled with guests. (Matthew 22:8-10)

Wedding InvitationNot only is God judging Israel because they have rejected His invitation, but Jesus now pronounces an end to Israel’s exclusivity as God’s people. They have demonstrated that they are unworthy of their invitation to be ruled by King Jesus, so God will now extend that opportunity to the Judea and Samaria and even to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

One obvious question this raises… What makes someone worthy (or unworthy) of God’s invitation to His Kingdom? Simply put, worthiness is determined by one’s response to the king’s invitation. Those who fail to respond are not worthy of the invitation. It doesn’t matter if they’re morally good or bad, rich or poor, Jew or Gentile, circumcised or uncircumcised. The king has one criterion and one criterion only: Do you accept my invitation to the wedding?

Allegorically, God wants to know, “Do you accept my Son?”

If you do, then you are worthy of God’s Kingdom.
If you do not, then nothing else in this world can secure you access to the banquet.

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). This is what He meant!

Back in the story…

The servants of the king are literally combing the main highways (where the most people possible can be found) inviting every person they can find to the wedding feast. Every homeless person, every prostitute, every unclean Gentile … people who have never before had much regard for the king … They are all now invited to the palace for the son’s wedding banquet. What an honor! Not one of these people could have earned this or deserved it. They’ve never even dreamed about something like this, but now they have it! And all they have to do to be “worthy” of it is to accept the king’s crazy generosity and head to the palace. Well, it’s almost the only thing, but we’ll get to that in a second.

Interpretively, this is the great turning point in redemption history. What the Jews thought was exclusively theirs because they are genetically descended from Abraham, we now learn is available to everyone. Anyone who accepts God’s invitation can now be a child of Abraham and a citizen in God’s Kingdom.

So, when the people in Jesus’ story hear this, they respond to the king’s invitation in droves, and they flock to the palace. This is clearly the opportunity of a lifetime, and nobody wants to miss out.

6. The King evaluates the guests and separates the prepared from the unprepared

But when the king came in to look at the guests, he saw there a man who had no wedding garment. And he said to him, “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” But [the guest] was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, “Bind him hand and foot and cast him into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 22:11-13)

Appropriate Wedding AttireThis parable has been full of surprises, and the end is no different. Many have now responded to the king’s expanded invitation, and it might be tempting to think that these people will live happily ever after. But Jesus throws us a curve ball at the end of the story. Not all of the guests are permitted to stay at the party. We have been working on the assumption that responding to the king’s invitation by showing up at the wedding feast is all that the king requires. But clearly, something more is necessary. Specifically, the king expects us to be appropriately dressed for the occasion. Those who aren’t – even though they have responded to the king’s invitation – are separated from the other guests and thrown out of the feast.

This reminds me of the parable of the four soils (Matthew 13:1-24) we studied back in the beginning of the series. The seed, which is the word of God, takes root in 3 of the 4 soils and looks good for a time, but in the end, only plants growing in the 4th soil ultimately bear fruit. Allegorically, only those who bear fruit are the children of God.

Similarly, in the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:25-43), which we studied two weeks ago, the wheat and the weeds grow up together and look the same for a long time, but in the end, only the wheat is kept in the harvest. The weeds are thrown out and burned. Allegorically, in the end, God Himself will separate those who are truly His from those who, despite their appearance, are “guilty of lawlessness.” Only the former will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

This is a common theme in Jesus’ parables. Over and over again, Jesus teaches that He knows His own (e.g. John 10:27). And on the last day, when the King returns in His glory to rule over the earth, He will gather His people together into eternal life, but everyone who does not belong to Him will be turned away … because they have excluded themselves from His Kingdom.

Bringing it back to this parable… Jesus indicates that those who belong to him are the ones dressed in wedding garments. But what exactly does that mean?

Well, I think this is a great application question. So, let’s switch gears and make two points of application, the second of which will answer this question. And after that, we’ll close.

Application

Studying this parable, I think there are two commands contained in it. I’m going to zero in on these two ideas as our means of applying what we’ve studied today to our lives.

Jesus’ first command is very explicit. In v4, the king’s servants relay his command to his people, “Come to the wedding feast.” For us, this means that we must accept God’s invitation.

Accept God’s Invitation

RSVPEach of us must decide how we will respond to God’s invitation to participate in His Kingdom. In the parable, those who had a prior agreement with the king to attend the wedding feast didn’t respond well when the call finally came. This was Israel’s sin… Despite their incredible blessings and close proximity to God, they rejected God’s Messiah. The Jews should have been shoe-ins for life in the Kingdom, but they became complacent and distracted. They thought that they would enter life because they descended from Abraham and had circumcised bodies. Essentially, they thought they were in God’s club, so they were good to go. And that blinded them to their need for circumcised hearts – hearts that were wholly devoted to the King.

Here’s the application…  God forbid that it would ever be this way with us!

Accepting God’s invitation isn’t a matter of words or about ritualistic religious activity. It’s not about attending church or living a moral life or knowing the Scriptures well. All those things are important, but the Jewish leaders Jesus was rebuking in this parable did all these things really well. The problem was that their hearts had grown cold and their eyes had grown blind, and they no longer recognized God (Jesus!) even though He was standing right in front of them.

What God means when He bids us to accept His invitation is to respond to Him with our whole lives. He is not only our Savior, but our Lord and King. Don’t let the anything distract you from loving and pursuing Jesus this way. When we go off to work at our farms or our businesses, we must ask ourselves, are we considering the King? Work is good (and so are school and hobbies and sports and all manner of other activities), but only in their place. The question is: What would bring Him honor? Conversely, what would reject the King and bring Him insult? Do we think about these things when we make plans for our careers or our weekends? Do we consider these things when we decide where to live or what job to take or how to interact with the neighbors on our street? The Jews were God’s chosen people, and they blew right by the King’s invitation oblivious to their sin until the avenging armies showed up to burn down their city. This should be to us a cautionary tale.

Don’t let competing interests tempt you to wonder off and end up paying no attention to the King’s invitation. Don’t get taken in by the philosophies of this world, such that when God’s prophets come calling, you end up killing the messenger. That’s what happened to the king’s guests in this parable and it’s what happened to so many in Israel. And we would be foolish to think that it can’t happen to us. We must work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We must keep our eyes fixed on the King, and keep preaching the gospel to one another. And we must open our lives to godly men and women around us, and let them speak into us, because they will be able to spot idols encroaching on our souls long before we will be able to see them in ourselves.

In short, may there be no other kingdoms in our lives which threaten to compete with the Kingdom of the Living God!

Arrive properly dressed

Proper Wedding AttireSecondly, we must arrive at the wedding feast properly dressed. We saw in the story that only those who have not put on wedding garments are judged by the king to be unprepared for the wedding feast and are not permitted to stay. But what does this mean? How do we interpret this idea of a proper wedding garment?

Simply put, the only appropriate garment in which one can enter the Kingdom of Heaven is Jesus Himself.

This is another way of saying what we’ve already talked about: It’s meaningless to talk about coming to Jesus halfheartedly or alongside a bunch of other things. Coming to Jesus means exchanging our lives for His. We surrender to Him everything we are and all our plans to build our own kingdoms, and in exchange, He gives us Himself and His Kingdom. We put off ourselves, and we put on Christ.

Listen to how the Apostle Paul puts it in Romans…

The night is nearly over, and the day is near. So let us discard the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk with decency, as in the daytime: not in carousing and drunkenness; not in sexual impurity and promiscuity; not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus, the Messiah, and make no plans to gratify the desires of the flesh. (Romans 13:12-14)

Putting on Jesus means we obey Jesus’ command to repent and believe. It means to turn away from sin. To forsake it. To treat your old life as if it were dead to you. And if I can use a gambling analogy in church … we put all your chips on Jesus. Trust Him with your whole life, everything that you are. If we die with Him, and He will give you a new life in Him, united to Him by the power of the Holy Spirit.

In a spiritual but very real sense that we can’t fully understand, the Christian life is a life of being joined together with Christ. We literally clothe ourselves in Jesus. And unless we are remade in this way – what Jesus called “being born again” (John 3:3) –, then we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

No gospel that effectively equates to fire insurance results in being clothed in Christ.

No attempt to paint a thin veneer of Jesus over a life that’s essentially all about me will be acceptable to God.

The Kingdom of Heaven costs us everything. God will not be satisfied dwelling in the house of your heart if several of its rooms are off limits to Him.

We can’t come to the wedding feast on our own terms dressed in a comfy old T-shirt and Bermuda shorts, and expect God to let us into the party. Don’t forget, we don’t deserve to be invited to this wedding feast. The king has exhibited incredible grace by inviting us. Let us be careful in how we respond, showing Him the honor of coming on His terms, not ours.

Conclusion

And with that, we’ll close. Just like the last parable, in the last line of our passage Jesus offers a single line of commentary to summarize the whole parable. He explains,

“For many are called, but few are chosen.” (Matthew 22:14)

You and every person you know has been invited to spend eternity living in the presence and under the magnificent rule of King Jesus. That is the greatest reward, the greatest reality you could possibly imagine. But sadly, only a few will come to Him to receive it.

Make sure you’re taking God’s invitation seriously. Even if you’ve been a Christian for many years, ask yourself, “Do I have any competing kingdoms in my life?” And if you’re new to all this… If you have never turned from your sin and trusted Christ by faith to give you an entirely new life, then you can do that right now. He knows your heart! Find me after the service, and we’ll talk.

But remember, you can’t come to God on your own terms. Clothe yourself in the Lord Jesus Christ. Surrender your old life and give yourself entirely to Him. I guarantee that you can trust Him with every single part of your world.

Here’s the deal… You have been chosen. You have a destiny that is more glorious than you can possibly imagine. So, get dressed and head for the palace. The time has come. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. And we are all invited to dine with the King.

Let’s pray.

Father, I get goosebumps talking about this stuff. It can be a hard message to talk about surrendering everything to you, but that’s only because we are so proud and so foolish and so enamored with tiny little things. The truth is that to trade everything we are for everything you desire to give us is an unimaginable bargain. Father, I ask that in the coming week, you would give each person in this room a vision of you that would take our breath away. Captivate us, Lord, with your goodness and your grace.

Thank you for your invitation to life in all its fullness.

Thank you for making it possible for us to come to you. For, as imperfect as we are, we do come.

And thank you for clothing us in the very person of your Son, who is our eternal King. It’s in your name, Jesus, that we pray.

Amen.


Image credit:
1) Kingdom Parables – Dan Pongetti, 300DPI
2) Parables summary / O&I slides – mine
3) Wedding reception – The Spruce
4) Wedding banquet hall – Isobel Sippel Studios
5) Royal Proclamation – Armorial Register
6) Angel Armies – Chip Borgden
7) Destruction of Jerusalem – Wikipedia
8) Wedding invitation – elegantweddinginvites.com
9) Inappropriate wedding attire – the Gentlemanual
10) RSVP – Every Event Gives
11) Proper wedding attire – theknot.com
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A Love Song Teleology

Love Song Tape

What kind of music do you listen to?

I’m an Apple Music guy, so I have access to a lot of tunes. But only 4 or 5 of my playlists get a real workout. Typically I’m listening to Christian music, or sometimes country. My son John is the only Filippino cowboy I know, so he generally asks to listen to country when we’re driving somewhere together. Perhaps my favorite playlist is my Christmas music list, but my wife insists that I can’t listen to that year round. And then occasionally, I get in the mood for secular music, so I have a secular playlist as well. Plus, when I’m working or studying at a McDonald’s or some other public place, they’re typically playing secular music in the background (except at Chick-Fil-A, which plays fantastic instrumental praise music).

A few months ago, I was studying at Culver’s, and The Way I Tend To Be by Frank Turner (weird video; don’t bother) shuffled up on restaurant’s radio. I was unfamiliar with the song, but it was catchy and upbeat, so I snagged it from Apple Music. And listening to it again, this time more carefully, it hit me… For the most part, this song could describe me and Jesus.

And since then, two things have happened… 1) Turner’s song has been a fixture on my secular playlist, and 2) every time some totally random, secular tune like Nothing’s Gonna Stop us Now (Starship) or Eternal Flame (Bangles) pops up at McDonald’s (or wherever), I think about whether or not it could apply to Jesus.

I suppose I might be heading around the bend in my middle age, but I’m tempted to make some kind of crazy far-reaching claim like, “For the Christian, every love song is ultimately about Jesus!”

Let’s think about it…

Most “love songs” aren’t really about love

Sheet Music with Red RoseIn our culture, we have totally redefined the word “love.” And quite for the worse, I might add. Among non-Christians, and sadly even among many Christians I know, “love” has become one of the most overused, undervalued and misunderstood words in the English language. Our culture’s unarticulated, unthinking, autopilot definition of “to love” typically bears no resemblance to how God would define it.

First, it might be something like…

love (v.) — 1. To make someone feel gooey and squishy and happy by gratifying their immediate desires or impulses.

Examples: “I know my husband loves me, because he makes me happy.” Or even better, “in order to claim that you love me, you must unquestioningly approve of my choices.”

Implication: when I don’t feel gooified (technical term!), then you must not be “loving” me very well. And to tell someone they’re wrong is quickly moving toward “hate speech.”

Or, second, it might be…

love (v.) — 2. To observe the beauty, value or usefulness of someone or something, and consume it for oneself.

Example: “I love my wife, because she is so fun and beautiful.” Or, “this is the best cheeseburger I’ve ever had; I love it!”

Implication: when your benefit to me runs out, then so does my “love” for you.

Love Song HeadphonesBad news, friends… Both of these definitions have very little to do with love. Desire, maybe. Lust, possibly. Self-gratification, for sure. So, every song that’s about how hot the girl is or how great the sex needs to be or how thoroughly some person meets my immediate needs or makes me feel good…  Every song about my gorging myself on personal gratification… Not one such song in fact has much if anything to do with love. And that, of course, means that not one of them could ever be about Jesus.

Rarely is Jesus terribly interested in making you feel sappy-gooey-wonderful today by playing to your self-gratification. Rarely is He that invested in your having an amazing fun-filled next Tuesday because you get your fill of earthly things. And Jesus never has been and never will be your genie in a bottle or vending machine, eager to produce trinkets on command. When God blesses us with material things or emotional highs, they are secondary at best. They’re byproducts of His higher, greater purposes for us. Jesus — amazing Lover that He is — knows that the best gift He could give anyone is … wait for it … Himself. That’s what eternal life actually is, after all — simply being with Jesus forever. And this is better by far than any material blessing or temporary emotional high. It’s not about what Jesus does for us, it’s about who He is with us, in us … and what we can be in Him.

God wants your desires to be fully satisfied. He wants you to drink your fill of joy. More than you know, actually. But He also knows that such satisfaction and joy can only come from gorging yourself on Him. Everything else is a highly dissatisfying, joy-destroying saccharin-laced substitute.

So, no, lust songs and self-gratification songs don’t apply to Jesus. But what about actual love songs?

Then what would qualify as a love song?

footwashingWe saw bad definitions of “love.” What would be a better one? How about this…

love (v.) — 1. To consider another’s needs to be more important than one’s own. To put you before me. To choose you, when it costs me to do so. To defer to your preferences over mine.

And at its deepest, truest, the-way-God-models-it level, loving someone means…

love (v.) — 2. To create (produce) beauty, value or usefulness in someone or something by pouring yourself into them, so that who you are / what you have is sacrificed for their benefit.

The world’s warped definitions of love focus on consuming others — taking from them for the my sake. Real love, on the other hand, prefers others and gives to them — produces in others for their sakes.

Worldly love endlessly consumes, because the longing in our hearts we’re attempting to fill is shaped like God (infinite), but we’re trying to fill it with earthly things (finite). Real love endlessly produces, because its source is God Himself (infinite). We were made to be filled by Him, not by anything He created, and then overflow to others. This is possible, because God is an infinite supply and fills abundantly — to overflowing.

So, if a song is about being filled, it is truly a love song only if the source of filling is Jesus. In other words, such a song can only legitimately be about Jesus. To come at another person or thing fixated on how I can benefit from consuming their value is a fool’s errand. Come at God. Partake of His infinite beauty and value, and He will create in you a spring of living water, which overflow to everyone around you (John 7:38). Then come at others with a heart that desires to fill them — not be filled by them. And then, counterintuitively, you will receive joy and satisfaction you cannot otherwise know. That’s love. And nobody does loves — real love — like Jesus.

Jesus as a Lover?

For some, this might be getting a little weird. For those who care about Jesus at all, it’s probably pretty easy to understand the concepts of a God who is Creator, Savior, Lord (King!) or Father. But Scripture is clear that God is preparing us as a bride for Himself (the Father for His Son; Matthew 22:1-14). As the old hymn-writer says, Jesus is the lover of your soul.

Lover of my SoulIt was love that motivated God the Son to become a man, live among us as we live, and suffer the shame and torture of a criminal’s death. It was love that motivated the very creation of the universe, and is the reason that God sustains it. Don’t think for a moment that God gets something He needs out any of this. There wasn’t a think wrong with God’s character or happiness or sense of fulfillment when it was just the Triune God alone together in themselves. But out of His great love for us, which cannot help but overflow into giving Himself away, that God created the universe and is redeeming it. And not just content to have secured a “not guilty” verdict for us, God is about the work of perfecting us. He will resurrect our bodies, will renew the cosmos that we inhabit, and has promised to set us up as kings and queens, sharing in His glory and reigning over a flawless resurrected universe.

But wait, you might say… God is acting out of the love of a King or a Father or an Artist when He does these things. Yes, He is. But He is also acting as a passionate Bridegroom. Everything we know or experience on earth that has anything to do with love exists because it is a reflection of God’s perfect way of loving – first, within the Trinity, and second, the way He loves us. Marriage, sex, family, brotherly affection, friendship … everything loving is a reflection of God’s loving. Not just fatherhood or the love of an artist for his masterpiece, though those are also in play.

Jesus didn’t say, “I go to prepare a club house for you” (as a father would for his beloved child) or “I go to prepare a museum for you” (as a sculptor would for his life’s great work). He said, “I go to prepare a place for you [in my Father’s house]. I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). Wedding CoupleThis is speaking directly into the Jewish custom of the day. It is the language of a groom betrothed to his bride, who goes away for a year to add a room on to his father’s home, promising to return to sweep his bride off her feet, carry her away to their new home, consummate their marriage, and finally be with her forever in unparalleled intimacy. This isn’t the time to talk about the sexual aspects of marriage, though I really want to write about that someday, but still, we have little choice but to take Jesus at His word. He really does see us as His bride (e.g. John 3:29; Matt 9:15), and acts accordingly (e.g. Eph 5:25-27; Rev 19:7; Rev 21:2).

So in response, we need to treat Him as our Husband. He is the Prophet, the Priest, the King of the house. He is the Lover and Protector. He is the One who introduces us to His Father and proudly makes it clear… “This one’s with me … forever.”

This is the one for whom love songs are most definitely appropriate.

So, the next time you hear Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (Marvin Gaye) or Can’t Fight This Feeling (REO Speedwagon), or even as odd a song as Orange Sky (Alexi Murdoch), think about Jesus … whose whole life (and death) demonstrates the highest, truest form of love. If it’s real love you’re after, no one in this world compares to Him.

And that is worth singing about.

Love Song for a Savior

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the [One who turns away God’s wrath concerning] our sins.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (1 John 4:7-12)


Image credit:
1) Love song tape – Theodyssey Online
2) Sheet music with rose – hkepci.com
3) Headphones – Mirchi Love
4) Footwashing – TheMennenite.org
5) Jesus quote – Dominindo
6) Wedding – The Social Lit
5) Woman playing guitar – StartMarriageRight.com
Posted in Theology | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Upside-Down Kingdom

A sermon manuscript for Matthew 20:1-16,
prepared for Life Bridge Community Church
(recorded audio | sermon notes | parables study tool handout)

Introduction

As you know, we have been working through Jesus’ nine parables about the Kingdom of God. We were blessed to have Dr. Michael Vanlaningham teaching us for the last few weeks. This week and next, I’ll be concluding this series, and then Pastor Bob returns on June 3rd. I hope you are continuing to pray for him and for his time away on sabbatical.

I think it would be helpful to begin today with a very brief update on our current progress through this series. Here’s a summary of the parables we’ve studied so far.

Kingdom Parables Summary Slide

We don’t have enough time to dwell on this or go into detail, but we’ll make this slide available from the website for your review on your own this week. In general, I hope you are beginning to see some patterns in these parables. For example, notice how King Jesus repeatedly expresses that He is growing His kingdom and will in the end separate those who are His from those who are not. In general, as you study these parables, you should be asking yourself, “What does this parable tell us about the King and His Kingdom?”

Today, we are studying the parable of the day laborers in Matthew 20.

An Introductory Hermeneutical Comment

Hermeneutics (n.) – a formalized approach to interpreting Scripture

Hermeneutics FunnyLike I said, before we dive into the text, I want to share a hermeneutical tool which will be useful in interpreting Jesus’ parables in general, and this parable in particular. An important question we must answer when interpreting parables is, “How deeply do I dig into the details of the story for the lessons its teaching?” We need guidelines for determining which details are important.

For example, in the parable we’re going to look at today, Jesus explains that a landowner goes to the marketplace several times throughout the day to recruit day laborers to work in his vineyard. We could ask all kinds of questions about this, such as:

  • Why a vineyard and not a wheat field?
  • What is the significance of the specific times or the number of times he goes to the marketplace?
  • What does owning a vineyard say about the social status of the owner?
  • Etc.

But are these good questions? Is Jesus intending for us to delve into these details and search for meaning in them? I contend (and most scholars agree) that he does not. These details are just part of a good story.

To determine which details are important and how deep we should dig, here is a useful guideline:

The key lesson(s) taught through a parable
are closely linked to the key character(s).

In other words, it is typically recommended that we extract one or two principles associated with each of the main characters in a parable, and understand the other details of the story to be the background or context for these characters’ interactions.

So, with that said, let’s pray and then dive into the Parable of the Day Laborers.

Prayer for Illumination

Father, we are so thankful for your word and for the opportunity to gather together around it as your people. Would you open our eyes to see what you have for us today? Speak to us clearly, so that we may understand your will and your ways. Strengthen us, so that we may be obedient and faithful to do what you command. Give us grace to trust you in all things.

Thank you for your Spirit, who reveals truth to us, including the interpretation of parables and the illumination of your word in general. Do that work for us today, and be glorified in our time together.

We pray these things, knowing that you hear us and love us and give us all good things in Jesus. It’s in His name that we pray.

Amen.

The Parable of the Day Laborers

Vineyard Workers

Open your bibles with me to Matthew 20:1-16, and follow along, as I read from the ESV…

The kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” So, they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.”

When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.” But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”

So, the last will be first, and the first last.

Master of the House: Observations and Interpretation

The first character we meet in the story is the master of the house. He’s the main character and represents God Himself. I’d like to make two observations about him.

Observations

1. The Master of the House aggressively seeks laborers for his vineyard.

The master of the house is ostensibly a wealthy landowner. He needs workers to help him tend his vineyard. Like any agricultural endeavor, it’s a seasonal business, so he doesn’t employ workers year-round. Instead, he hires them only when he needs them – a few days at a time, mostly during planting and harvesting.

It was common in Jesus’ day to visit the town’s marketplace to hire these kinds of workers. The “marketplace” was the 1st century’s equivalent to classified ads. Workers would be hired in the morning, work through the day, and (if their employer obeyed the Mosaic law) be paid at the end of each day. They may or may not be hired again the next day, but there is no long-term arrangement. This is strictly temp work for a single day.

In 1st century Israel, the workday was 12 hours long, lasting from 6am (roughly sun-up) to 6pm (roughly sun-down). So, when the bible mentions the hours of the day (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc), it is a means of counting through the 12 hours of the workday, beginning at 6am.

The Jewish Workday

As you can see on the diagram, the master of the house goes out repeatedly throughout the day (marked by red diamonds). He even makes a final attempt in the 11th hour, almost at the end of the work day. These frequent trips to the market were very unusual, so it’s clear that he is aggressively seeking laborers. He could have gone out once in the early morning (or for that matter, not at all), but instead he chooses to spend his whole day recruiting. He is obviously quite invested in giving the most people possible the opportunity to work.

2. The Master of the House pays his laborers in an unexpected way.

Denarius

Silver Denarius ca71 AD, Roman Imperial Vespasian

Notice in v2 that when the master goes out early in the morning to find workers, he agrees with the first batch on a wage. This was also very common. A denarius was commonly paid as the wage for a day’s labor. It was about US$90 in today’s terms. As the day wears on, however, the master of the house ceases to name a specific number. Instead, he agrees to pay them “whatever is right” or “fair.” This would have been considered unusual. But the laborers evidently take the man at his word – he must have had a good reputation – that he will pay them fairly, and they head off to work. So it’s not until evening comes, when the master of the house prepares to pay the laborers, that things start to get exciting.

As we see in v8, the master lines up the workers to be paid from the last hired to the first, which strikes us as odd, if not wrong. Surely the guys who have been sweating all day in the hot sun would have the honor of lining up first, getting their wages, and getting home to their families, right? But the master doesn’t do that. Instead, he intentionally organizes them in a way that doesn’t make sense to his listeners in order to create a teachable moment.

Then, in a shocking move, the master of the house pays all his laborers the same wage, regardless of how long they’ve worked (see vv9-10). And this is where the trouble begins. But we’ll save that for when we discuss the day laborers. For the moment, our concern is to interpret the master’s actions.

Speaking of which, let’s get to it. There are three points of interpretation I’d like to make…

Interpretation

1. God is actively seeking citizens for His Kingdom

Father Runs to Prodigal Son

God is not hiding. He’s not passive. He’s not playing games or being cryptic. The Psalmist writes that the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19). The Apostle Paul wrote that God has made Himself obvious throughout creation (Rom 1:20). The author of Hebrews said, “Long ago God spoke to the fathers by the prophets at different times and in different ways. But in these last days, He has spoken to us by His Son [who is] the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature” (Heb 1:1-3). We even have the Scriptures – God’s word in written form, readily available and accurately preserved. What more could we ask?!

Like a loving father who desires to be reconciled with his lost children or a bridegroom passionate about His bride, God pursues us. In Jesus’ parable, God relentlessly comes to people and draws them to Himself. In the same way, He is calling each of us. From the earliest moments of human history to the very last hour before Jesus comes again someday, God is seeking worshippers and children and citizens who will live under the rule of His Son Jesus in His Kingdom. That’s the kind of God He is.

And a side note… If you haven’t personally responded to Him, if you aren’t sure you’re a citizen of God’s Kingdom, don’t leave today until you’ve settled that important issue. Come talk to me or any or the pastors or elders about it. Don’t leave without coming to Jesus!

2. God’s Kingdom is revealed in the whole story (not just in the denarius)

It’s easy to read this story and identify the Kingdom of Heaven with the wages paid to the workers. That’s partially correct, but the denarius isn’t the whole story. Jesus didn’t say that “the Kingdom of God is like a denarius that is paid to day laborers…” He said the Kingdom of God is like this whole story.

We have to navigate several dangers here. We don’t want to read this story as if Jesus is describing the Kingdom of Heaven as a reward for our work, as if, somehow, we could earn salvation by our labor in the vineyard. That is not at all what this story is about.

We should also avoid translating “work” in the story to directly mean “work” in God’s kingdom. This parable is meant to be an allegory about what it means to walk with God and live as a citizen of His kingdom. In the allegory, the great blessing God gives to us is not just the denarius, it’s also the “work” itself. To work for the master of the house is, allegorically speaking, to live under the rule and reign of King Jesus, which is life the way it was meant to be. It is inherently, exceedingly, incomprehensibly valuable in its own right, and we should be just as eager to attain it as God is to offer it to us.

My point is that we need to look at the whole story, including the work in the vineyard, which represents life in God’s Kingdom.

And that brings us back to the question of how we interpret the master’s approach to paying the workers. As we saw, he pays each of them the same wage, regardless of how much they worked. This would have scandalized Jesus’ listeners, just like it does us. It just doesn’t seem right. And so, it prompts what I think is the key interpretive question for this parable…

The 800lb gorilla in the room is this question: Is God fair?

The 800lb Gorilla slide

This isn’t necessarily an easy question. I would say the answer is more complicated than a simple yes and no. So, let’s dig into it. I would start by confidently stating that God is unequivocally fair.

3. God is perfectly right in the way He responds to us

God is 100% perfectly just and righteous. There isn’t a single blemish or hint of corruption anywhere on His record. Every judgment He makes or has ever made about anything has been perfect and flawless.

But God’s dealing with us (like the master’s dealing with his workers) doesn’t appear to be fair, because in effect there’s a character missing from the story: Jesus Himself. If we leave out Jesus, then our works always earn their commiserate rewards. Specifically, the wages of sin is death (Rom 6:23). But Jesus changes everything. In the Kingdom of Heaven, God deals scrupulously fairly with us in Jesus.

God has meticulously accounted for every thought and every action ever undertaken by every human being who has ever lived. Sadly, most of these are crimes against Him (what Scripture calls “sin”), and not one stone will be left unturned by God in punishing those crimes. But the good news is that, for the one who belongs to Jesus, every ounce of the punishment we deserve for our sin has been poured out on Him instead of us. Jesus willingly, lovingly, astonishingly takes our place – if we allow Him to. And if He has taken our punishment on Himself, then when God turns to us, there is no account left to settle, no sins left to punish, no wrath left to pour out. Instead, the Father can welcome us into His family and invite us to dine with Him at His table. His response to us is entirely grace, always love, and lavishing us with good and undeserved gifts.

Because Jesus pays for our sins in our place, God gives all His children the same undeserved grace, regardless of our work or our circumstances. In the terms of the parable…

  • The work of the laborers is our participation in the Kingdom – it’s our worshipping God and walking with God and yes, working for God.
  • The denarius the laborers receive is the amazing grace God gives to us, not because of our labor – whether 1 hour or 12 – but because of Jesus.

Slide - Master of the House summarySo, yes, God is fair. And God is gracious. In this way, He is perfectly right in the way He responds to us: with both justice and grace. This is our third interpretive statement about the master of the house.

Day Laborers: Observations and Interpretation

Okay, that’s the master of the house. But he isn’t the only character in this story. Let’s talk about the laborers. What do we observe about them? Again, I have two comments I’d like to make.

Observations

1. The laborers all start out grateful.

The 6-7am crowd was thrilled to sign up to work for the landowner for a denarius. And after that, the workers continued to flock into the vineyard all day long, trusting the master of the house to do right by them. They all want to work, some probably desperately. We can imagine – as the hour grew later – that people would come to the marketplace with less and less hope that work would be found. And so, we can also imagine their gratitude each time the master appeared and offered yet another batch of workers fair wages to work the rest of the day.

But their gratitude didn’t last.pouty_face

2. The laborers end up grumbling.

They may have started out grateful, but many ended up grumbling. Look at vv9-12…

When those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”

When they applied their earthly sense of fairness to the situation, the master’s actions didn’t live up to their expectations, so they accused him of injustice. The workers were comparing themselves to one another and climbing over each other to get what they perceived to be their due.

We know our rights! This isn’t fair! How dare you mistreat us this way!

But the master of the house confidently responds that he has done no wrong. See vv13-14a…

He replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go.”

And he’s right. The first laborers, who worked all day in his fields, were paid exactly what they had agreed to, and the rest were paid more than fairly, even generously. The master of the house has indeed kept his word. The problem is that, as soon as the other laborers saw the last workers get a full denarius, they secretly changed the deal in their hearts. The master of the house promised them something, but they took in their surroundings and engaged their earthly wisdom to set aside his word and upgrade their expectations.

Interpretation

How should we interpret this? What does this say about us, about Jesus and about His Kingdom?

I think the big take-away here is that the God’s kingdom functions according to different rules than we might be tempted to believe. It’s a kingdom that, from our earthly perspective, is upside-down. We can’t judge God’s ways by our earthly perspective any more than the laborers could rightly judge the master of the house by theirs. Participation in the Kingdom of God means an upside-down approach to life.

I realize that this is a very broad and general conclusion. Learning to live differently in light of God’s Kingdom is the Spirit’s life-long work of sanctification in us. For our purposes this morning, I think the question is: What are the specific applications of this concept that flow from this particular parable?

Slide - Laborer summaryI see two, which are closely linked to the two rhetorical questions the master of the house asks the laborers at the end of the parable. We’ll consider these two points of application as our take-aways from this message, and then we’ll close.

Application

1. Surrendering our Judgments to God’s Authority

Look at vv14b-15a. Still in character, the master of the house asks the laborers who are grumbling against him,

“I want to give this last man the same as I gave you. Is it not fitting for me to do what I want with what is mine?” (my translation).

Funny JudgeCan’t you just hear the incredulity in this response? The master is displeased and somewhat amazed at his workers’ wrongheadedness. He fulfilled his promise to all these workers and was in most cases very generous, but they’re grumbling instead of being grateful. They think they know better than he does.

This story should hit pretty close to home. We all do this. It’s so easy to think we know better than God does, though we’d likely never admit it out loud. It’s easy to exert our earthly wisdom to determine what’s generous or right or fair, even though we know so very little about the world around us, when it comes right down to it. When something happens that hurts us or which we don’t like, we can think, “If I was in charge, things would be different!” That is dangerous and foolish thinking. God is preeminent and sovereign. Everything belongs to Him, including you and me, and He is perfectly justified in doing whatever He pleases with what is His. That’s not only His right as the all-powerful Creator of the universe, but the fact is that whatever He chooses to do is inherently just and fair by definition, because God Himself defines justice and fairness by His actions.

It’s God’s job to rule the universe, not ours. Our role is to submit to Him. If we want to participate in the Kingdom of God… If we want Kingdom citizenship… Then we have to be comfortable with an absolute monarchy. Jesus is a sovereign, all-powerful King who loves you and would adopt you into His family, but He’s a sovereign, all-powerful King nonetheless. We can’t have your own little kingdoms or our own little standards for goodness on the side. If we try, then they become competitors to His rule, and that won’t turn out well. We don’t get to exert your own authority or assumptions or aspirations about how the universe should work. It is fitting and proper for God to do whatever He pleases with what is His.

So, the question is, “Will we surrender our judgments to God’s authority?

White FlagThe Kingdom of Heaven is only fit for those who will.

Keep in mind… It’s not just that in any battle, God always wins, so it’s foolish to contend with Him. But we should want God to win. We must choose to believe that God is good and right in everything He does. This is an exercise in training our minds to align with reality. Compared to a great many of our earthly judgments and perceptions, reality is upside-down.

  • It may seem like a good idea to prefer my judgment over His, but it’s not.
  • Sin may seem attractive, but it will actually destroy you.
  • Your circumstances may seem particularly undesirable, but the truth is that everything that comes to us passes through the hands of the all-powerful, all-wise Father who loves us.
  • It may seem like you have to be better or work harder for God to love you, but you don’t.
  • It may seem like you can’t be happy or can’t change, but you can.

I could go on and on, but the point is that we have to surrender our judgments and declare God to be right. And that is great news, because we are not wise. Only God is wise. Only God is a perfectly just judge, and only Jesus can be King. Stop trying to figure everything out, and just run to Him. Stop letting your heart overrule Him. You have to lead your heart! Trust His word … do what it says … no matter what it costs. No one whose hope is in Him will ever be put to shame!

Okay, last point of application…

Surrendering our “evil eye” to God’s Goodness

Covetousness Evil EyeThe other half of v15 is the master’s second rhetorical question. He asks, “Do you begrudge my generosity?” (ESV). Nearly every translation I consulted renders this phrase differently. So, again, I’ve created my own translation, which is what you see on the screen.

The first half of the question is an idiom in the original Greek, and the word translated “generosity” in the ESV is simply the word for “goodness.” Literally translated, the question would be,

“Is your eye evil because I am good?” (my translation)

To say that one’s eye is “evil” means that he is perceiving something in the world around him, and choosing to respond to it in a sinful way. So, what the master of the house is really asking here is a corollary to his previous question,

“Are you responding sinfully to my goodness? To my generosity?” (my alternate translation)

The problem with the workers’ response is two-fold. We already saw that they were standing in judgment, wrongly, over the master of the house. But they are also wrongly comparing themselves to one another. Instead of being grateful for the work opportunity, or (gasp!) being happy for someone else with whom the master had been exceedingly generous, they’re grumbling and making accusations. Why?

Because everybody wants to be first.

back-of-the-lineAren’t we all like that? I want my way. I want what’s mine. I have to look out for #1. But that isn’t how life in the Kingdom of God works. Kingdom life is upside-down. We don’t call “unjust” what God has called “good,” and we don’t focus on our wants and needs while ignoring the wants and needs of others. We learn to love … to put others before ourselves. God’s children should be the most generous and loving and deferential people in the world. Unity should be our hallmark, precisely because we know how to love. You want Coke when I prefer Pepsi? Then I buy Coke, because I’m thinking of you. You like hymns when I prefer praise choruses? Because I love you, I’m voting that we look into used pipe organs. You want pizza tonight when I’d rather have tacos? Because I love you, I already have your favorite pizza joint on speed dial. Whatever the details of the moment, we are called to be citizens of a different Kingdom … a kingdom in which we take joy in getting to the back of the line, in seeing others ahead of us. It’s a kingdom that, compared to this world, is upside-down.

And by the way, if we learn to love like that, the world will beat down our doors to get even a taste of heaven.

So, the question is, “Will you surrender your ‘evil eye’ to God’s goodness?” Will you agree with him about what is good? Will you train your eyes to look at the world the way Jesus does and your hands and feet to do the things Jesus did? Because what He did, and what He wants us to imitate Him in doing, is to love our neighbors as ourselves.

This is the hallmark of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Conclusion

We’ll end here, because it’s where Jesus ended. Look at the last verse in our passage (v16). Having concluded His parable, He offers His listeners a single line of commentary. Jesus concludes by saying,

“So… In this manner… Those who are last will be first, and those who are first [will be] last.”

Whoever tries to claw their way to the front of the line, God will make sure that they end up last. When we grumble against God for exerting His sovereign authority, or call “evil” what He calls “good,” or fail to love others because our eyes are fixed on ourselves, then we sin and move away from God’s heart. We set ourselves at odds with God’s Kingdom. But conversely, in the end, King Jesus, with perfect justice and perfect grace, will move to the front of the line everyone who has surrendered their own kingdom to be ruled by Him.

And we will find on that day that, all along, this world was upside-down.

upside-down-castle

Let’s pray…

Father, your love is amazing! Your grace is enough! Your justice is utterly perfect. We confess by faith today what we cannot always see with our eyes: that you are good and everything you do is right … and that someday, you will be glorified in a way that is unmistakable and indisputable, when you return to reign on the earth in glory.

Jesus, we wait eagerly for that day, but let us not wait passively or question you because you have required patience from us as we wait. Instead, let us be quick to obey your word, to love you and to love those you’ve placed around us. Settle this teaching in our hearts that it may be at work every day in our lives, that the world may see you in us and find you through us.

It’s in your name, Jesus, God’s great Messiah, the King of kings, that we pray.

And all God’s people said…

Amen.


Image credit:
1) Kingdom Parables – Dan Pongetti, 300DPI
2) Parables summary / O&I slides – mine
3) Herm-a-what? – Jeff Davis blog
4) Workers in a vineyard – SmileWithFamily
5) Denarius – Ma-shops
6) Father runs to prodigal son – maasbach.com
7) 800lb gorilla – Daily Kos
8) Pouty face – gracelakeville.org
9) Funny judge – bankruptcy-law-seattle.com
10) White flag – Huffington Post
11) Covetous eye – Regeneration, Repentance and Reformation
12) Back of the line – Greg Schwem
13) Upside-down castle – housebeautiful.com
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