Eager to obey the voice of the Master

While I was walking in my neighborhood, I passed a man sitting on a bench in his yard. About ten feet away from the man was his dog, a German Shepherd. To the casual observer, the dog appeared to be doing nothing at all, but I sensed that the dog was actually waiting for a command from the man, his master. Although apparently relaxed, the German Shepherd had its ears cocked and tuned to any utterance from its master, ready at any instant to do whatever was commanded. As I thought about that, I realized that the dog is made for no other purpose than to obey a master. This German Shepherd has no goal in life and, by itself, no inherent reason for existence. But when the dog has a master who commands the dog for the master’s pleasure, then the dog has a purpose.

THE NEED FOR A MASTER

As I contemplated these things, I began to see that the life of every person is similar to life of a dog in this sense, that as the dog seeks a master to give its life meaning, so the human being is adrift in the world until he submits to God to direct his life. We have been created to serve our great God and to obey His commands.

MAN, THE HIGHEST CREATURE

Now, to some, this sounds preposterous and maybe a little insulting. Man is the highest of the creatures on the earth, the only one created in God’s image. Man has intellect and volition and is able to comprehend both the future and the past. Man has been able to accomplish phenomenal things in every conceivable field of endeavor. And all of that is remarkable and certainly sets man apart from the rest of the creation.

MAN, THE MORAL CREATURE

But the fundamental difference between human beings and the rest of the created order is not man’s intellect but is man’s morality. Man is the only creature that is morally aware, so that man is responsible to God for his moral judgments and his actions. He has been created by a holy God to obey His Creator’s commandments and to live in harmony with his holy God and to enjoy fellowship with Him forever. When a man submits to God as his Master, then that man has peace and purpose.

MAN, THE FALLEN CREATURE

Now, we know that most human beings do not submit to God as their Master. This is because man is a fallen creature and has rebelled against God. Man is born as a sinner and therefore refuses to submit to God. The natural man rejects God as his Master and instead chooses to do whatever he wants to do. In this sense, then, natural man is similar to the German Shepherd without a master. Both have a life without purpose.

REDEEMED MAN, THE BORN AGAIN CREATION

But there is good news! For even though man is born into this world as a sinner and as a rebel against God, he can be born again and can be made into a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). In the analogy with the German Shepherd, as the dog can find a master and be trained to obey him, so a human being can believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and can obey Him as Master. The person who submits to and obeys Jesus Christ is a person who has found meaning and usefulness in this life and eternal life in the world to come.

Here are some illustrations of how this analogy might work.

A dog who has submitted to a master and is well-trained does not evaluate the commands of the master. The dog simply obeys the master’s command as issued and leaves the reason for the command up to the master. In other words, the dog does not need to understand the reason for the command to obey it.

In the same way, the disciple of Jesus should not evaluate the commands of the Lord or delay obedience until they understand the reasons for the commands. They should be as Abraham when he was told to take Isaac to Moriah to sacrifice him there (Genesis 22:1). Abraham obeyed, even though he could not have understood why the LORD would give him such a command. The disciple of Jesus obeys by faith, even if they don’t understand.

As I have already argued, a dog’s life is relatively useless without a master to give it direction, but with a master who will train the dog, the dog can be very useful.

In the same way, a man is relatively useless until he is called to salvation. In fact, often without the Lord’s call a person’s life is destructive and negative and worse than useless. In Matthew 20:1-15, in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, the owner of the vineyard goes repeatedly to the marketplace where the workers are just standing around doing nothing. This is an illustration of our life before we know Jesus as Lord and Savior. No matter our labors before Christ, we are simply standing idle in the marketplace. But once we are figuratively hired and sent out to labor in the vineyard, then our lives are useful as we produce fruit for the Kingdom.

The dog who is properly trained by its master seeks only the approval of its master. It may be friendly to other people, but its primary motivation is to please its master.

In the same way, the disciple of Jesus who has submitted to Christ seeks the approval of Christ above all things. His primary aim is to hear from the Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

The trained German Shepherd waits for its master’s commands. Remember the dog on the lawn beside its master. Even though apparently at rest, the dog was actually in focused anticipation for any command from its master.

In the same way, the disciple of Jesus eagerly reads the word of God so that he may know the commands of the Lord. The trained disciple seeks the Lord’s commands so that he may eagerly obey.

When the trained dog hears the voice of its master, it goes from dead still to obedient action in a moment. Just so, when the trained disciple discerns the voice of the Lord, he moves into action without hesitation.

A dog that has been properly trained will attempt to obey the master’s command, even if that obedience results in the dog’s death. For the dog with a master, obeying its master is more important than life itself.

Likewise, the disciple of Jesus joyfully obeys the Lord regardless of the circumstances. This is captured in the words of the apostle Paul, “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

SDG                 rmb                 11/19/2021                 #457

An exchange for your soul (Matthew 16:26)

This is another post from the series “A life spent for the King,” based on Matthew 16:24-27. We have already looked at Matthew 16:24 (October 26), where we saw that the disciple who would follow Jesus must submit to Jesus, must willingly take up the cross that Jesus gives him, and must obediently follow Him wherever He leads. In Matthew 16:25 (October 31), we discovered that finding meaning and joy and peace in life depends upon surrendering our lives into Jesus’ hands. Thus, paradoxically, we find our life by losing it for Jesus’ sake.

Today we will examine the next verse in the passage, Matthew 16:26.

“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”

Whatever you are pursuing in life should be evaluated in light of these two profound questions.

Consider Jesus’ first question:

“What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”

A CHOICE TO MAKE

Jesus’ question makes clear that everyone has a choice to make. Will you live your life to gain much in this world, or will you live your life to gain the kingdom of heaven? Will you gain the world and forfeit your soul, or will you forfeit the world and gain your soul? There are two, and only two, options. You either gain the world and forfeit your soul, or you forsake the world and follow Jesus Christ. One or the other, and the choice is yours. And you must choose.

Now, some will say, “I don’t know what you are talking about. You say that I must make this choice between ‘the world’ and my soul, but I have never done that.” Oh, but you have made the choice, and you have chosen the world. The default position is to seek to gain much in this world and to be indifferent to the state of your soul. We are all born into this world as natural people with a love for the world and, unless there is a life-altering encounter with Jesus, we continue that way until death. So, for the one who is not aware of making a choice, you are gaining the world and forfeiting your soul. And this is most people. A look at their lives reveals that they are consumed with the pleasures and concerns and activities of this life and are indifferent to their eternal destiny and to the state of their own soul.

But Jesus is not speaking primarily to those who are gaining the world and who are indifferent to Him. We remember that Jesus’ first question here is directed at those who wish to come after Him (16:24) and so, Jesus is telling them what it will cost to follow Him.

16:24 – Deny yourself. Take up your cross (Will you suffer for Me?). Follow Me (wherever I lead).

16:25 – Surrender your life (soul) into My hands. Lose your life (soul) for My sake.

Now (16:26) He says that all your priorities must change. Your desires for material gain in this life must be forfeited. “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ” (Phil. 3:7). Your natural desire to preserve your own physical life must be exchanged for a love for Christ. “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). The desire to have material wealth and to accomplish impressive things and to indulge in the world’s pleasures (1 John 2:15-16) will endanger your soul (life). Jesus must reign as unrivaled King of your life so that you willingly forsake this present world. The one who would come after Jesus must “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness,” and trust that “all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). This is what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

So, Jesus’ first question asks, “Does the evidence of your life affirm that you are ‘fixing your eyes on Jesus’ (Hebrews 12:2), that you are living in this world, but you are not of this world, ‘having confessed that you are strangers and exiles on the earth’ (Hebrews 11:13)?” This is Jesus’ first question.

Now consider Jesus’ second question:

“Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”

A POOR EXCHANGE

The Lord’s second question reveals the spiritual and eternal nature of the choice every person makes with the way we choose to live our lives, and also implies the disastrous consequences of a life without Christ.

As we have already said, the way you choose to live your life is eternally significant. For what are you exchanging your soul? To live your life without Christ as you pursue your own kingdom is to gain nothing and to forfeit your soul. You have exchanged that which is most precious for rubbish that will burn up at the Judgment.

THE JUDGMENT

And it is toward the final judgment on the Last Day that Jesus is pointing. Jesus will speak about the Judgment in our next verse in this series, Matthew 16:27. For we must be certain of this: a day is coming when all will stand before the judgment seat of God (Romans 14:10). Jesus warns about this terrible judgment throughout His earthly ministry, telling us in advance that everyone must be ready because everyone will certainly be judged. Are you living your life in light of “that day,” or are you living your life at the expense of your soul?

SDG                 rmb                 11/5/2021                   #451

Maintain your zeal all the way to the end

I have been reading through J. C. Ryle’s book Practical Religion and have recently finished the chapter on “Zeal.” In his usual direct style, Ryle convincingly presents the case that the only way to run the Christian race is to run with effortful zeal. He presents example after example, both biblical and historical, that demonstrate that those who make a difference for Christ live with an abandoned zeal for the things of Christ. Theirs is an unclouded gaze that is set toward heaven which sees life as a brief window of time to be spent in undistracted devotion to the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:35).

This resonates with me. In our age of distraction and dissipation and dissolution, where it seems that all in our society is intentionally designed to obscure Christ and to lure people into the wasting of their lives, the believer needs to be spurred to action and encouraged to press on with zeal. We are those who are convinced that Jesus Christ is Lord, that He is King of kings and Lord of lords, that He is worthy of all praise, and that He is coming back soon to judge the living and the dead. He is the One who has died on the cross and He is the One who has been raised from the dead, and He is the One who now rules and reigns. We proclaim His name and call the nations to bow down to Him. We are those who declare, “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Therefore, in a world that is hostile to everything that I have just stated, the believer must be diligent to maintain his zeal without wavering.

Below are some of my own random thoughts on this subject.

My prayer – “Lord, let me never let up on the throttle! Let me never coast. Lord, fill me with Your Spirit so that I am useful until the day that I draw my last breath. Give me undimmed zeal. In Jesus’ name, amen.”

There is danger in coasting in the Christian race, even for a little while, and coasting poses a significant threat to your future usefulness. Reasons:

  • There is not one biblical reason to choose to coast, so any decision to ease up on your zeal is a decision against the Scripture. The Scripture speaks to the contrary and expects the believer to “die at their post.”
  • Because the flesh still indwells us, we are unwise to consciously reduce our zeal and “give the devil an opportunity” (Ephesians 4:27). Zeal for Christ suppresses the flesh, but reduced zeal gives the flesh breathing room. If given the chance, the flesh will kill your zeal for Christ and for His service and will turn you into a harmless pew-warmer.
  • The Lord rewards zeal, but He often withdraws His hand from those who desire to coast, and once His hand is removed, He rarely replaces it.
  • Human nature is such that when we decide to reduce our effort, even for a short while, it is difficult to get back on the track. This is seen in many human endeavors, but especially in our pressing toward the goal for Christ. The danger is that once we get accustomed to coasting, we find that our zeal has been lost. Once effort is reduced, we suddenly develop an aversion for work and an affinity for ease.

THE SCRIPTURE SPEAKS OF ZEAL

The Scriptures speak to this issue.

Ephesians 2:10 – “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Since God has prepared for us good works to carry out, we need to be zealous for good works to be sure that we do all the works that God has prepared for us.

Titus 2:14 – Jesus “gave Himself for us to purify for Himself a people zealous for good deeds.” According to this Scripture, Jesus Christ gave Himself to establish a people zealous for good deeds. This was not the only reason He gave Himself up on the cross, but it is certainly one reason. If Jesus died so that I would be a man zealous for good deeds, how can I be otherwise? My very identity is tied to my zeal. If I am not zealous for good deeds, where does that leave me with Christ?

Matthew 25:15 – The Lord gives to His people a certain number of talents, “each according to his own ability.” The thing is that you don’t know how many talents He has given you. You may live under the assumption that you are a one-talent person and so live with that level of zeal and effort, when, in fact, He may have given you five talents. He may expect much more from you than your effort produces. Therefore, better to spend all your energy for the greatest impact.

Nehemiah 6:3 – Nehemiah was building the wall of Jerusalem, which was certainly the work of his lifetime. To rebuild the wall of Jerusalem was the reason Nehemiah was created, and he knew that. So, when his enemies Tobiah and Sanballat invited him to come have dinner with them, he smells a rat and declines their invitation. But notice what Nehemiah says to them. “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” Nehemiah would not be distracted from his life’s work. In the same way, we should seek our “great work,” that work for which the Lord created us, and then live spending ourselves for that work.

2 Corinthians 12:15 – “I will most gladly spend and be expended for your souls.” Paul’s zeal for Christ manifested itself in the unrestrained outpouring of himself for other believers. Whatever he had and whatever he was, he eagerly poured out for the blessing and the encouragement of others.

Isaiah 6:8 – “Here am I. Send me.” In this scene, the prophet sees a vision of the Lord in the temple, lofty and exalted, and he is ruined. In the misery of his sin, he cries out to the Lord for mercy and the seraphim takes away his sin with a burning coal. It is then, after his sin is cleansed, that Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord calling for laborers to go. “Here am I. Send me.” In the zeal of his cleansing, and in his joy for now being in fellowship with the Lord, Isaiah gives the Lord a blank check for his future service to the Lord. The prophet gives no conditions to his service, and no limitations. Anywhere, anytime, for however long, he is available to be sent. And this is the normal zeal for the believer. We have been cleansed of a terminal stain and have been placed in the service of the Lord. With zeal, therefore, we give ourselves away to the Lord for as long as He sees fit to use us.

Philippians 1:21 – “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” No comment is required to understand the zeal in this statement.

2 Timothy 4:6-7 – “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith.” The apostle Paul is drawing near to the end of his life. Shortly, the Roman guards will lead him away to his place of execution and his faithfulness will be sealed by his death. But Paul’s zeal has had its full expression. He will have been poured out. There will be nothing left. He has held nothing back in reserve. All will have been expended for Christ. This chosen instrument will have accomplished the work he was given to do. At some point in his journey, Paul realized that zeal is only for this life. It is only now that you can pour yourself out for Christ. Only in this fallen world can you be exhausted and expended, so Paul decided to be exhausted and expended for his Savior.

Let us imitate Paul’s zeal.

SDG                 rmb                 8/6/2021                     #427

The American Christian and persecution (2 Timothy 3:12)

The disciple of Jesus in America is at a distinct disadvantage because of their religious context. What I mean is that the American follower of Jesus comes to faith and lives out their faith in circumstances that are not only very different from those of most of the rest of the world, but also in circumstances that are in many ways foreign to the teaching of the New Testament. Although the cultural environment in America is changing with astonishing speed, the basic mindset of virtually all professing believers in this country is that being a Christian is an honorable and respectable thing, and that our freedom to practice our faith in the Lord Jesus without fear is an inalienable right. The American disciple of Jesus assumes that, as long as he is not too vocal about his faith and as long as he remains winsome and respectable in public, he will be able to go peacefully to his pleasant, pretty church building on Sundays and worship the Lord Jesus unhindered.

OUR ASSUMPTIONS HINDER US

But it is these basic assumptions which hinder our willingness, and thus hinder our ability, to take risks for our faith. The follower of Jesus described in the pages of the New Testament is one who has already given up everything to follow Jesus (Luke 5:11; Mark 10:28; Philippians 3:8), so, when they are called to take risks, they have nothing left to lose. The disciple of Jesus has already died: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). For the one who has already died, the risk of death holds but a feeble threat.

But when Jesus personally called the “rich, young ruler” to follow Him, the risk of losing everything was too high (Luke 18:22; etc.). The Son of God in the flesh gave this man a personal invitation to eternal life if he would but give up all his possessions and the man chose the possessions and refused eternal life. The comfort of his possessions and his easy way of life and his prominence in the community and his respectability and his reputation in the synagogue all hindered him from following Jesus. He simply had too much to lose. Eternal life wasn’t worth the risk. Are we any different?

The life of the New Testament disciple of Jesus is a life that takes intentional risks so that his King may be glorified and so that others can enter the Kingdom. The lives of the believers in the New Testament were inherently risky, and the stakes were high. But, generally speaking, our lives as disciples of Jesus in America are intentionally safe. We have been raised in a Christian culture that avoids risks. With very few exceptions, our role models in the American church are not those known for taking risks. Since our role models avoid risks, and since the overall Christian culture prefers prudence to reckless abandon, we play it safe and continue to believe that persecution is something that happens “over there.” We continue to believe that we can live godly in Christ Jesus and not be persecuted.

DENYING THE BIBLICAL FACTS OF PERSECUTION

The background of the American disciple of Christ almost prevents the acceptance of the biblical facts of persecution. The biblical fact is that Jesus calls all His followers to forsake everything for His name and for the sake of His kingdom, but the American disciple, without even thinking about it, translates that into something like, “Jesus wants me to read my Bible, go to church, and be faithful in my giving.” The biblical fact is that “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12), but the American Christian immediately interprets persecution as something like the people in your office thinking you are weird because of what you do on Sundays and because they have heard you mention the word “God” in conversations. The idea that simply telling your parents that you have become a follower of Jesus could result in them beating you, calling you a traitor, an infidel, and the scum of the earth, and possibly even killing you, is outside the American believer’s imagination. Most American pastors would consider it absurd if someone suggested they could go to jail simply for preaching the gospel in their church. This is not because their faith is small or because they are not true believers or because we are unaware of the experience of many suffering believers in the world. We have this mindset in America because believers here have been protected, and even lauded, by a constitution that has been upheld ever since this country was founded. Not only that, but Christianity has been and still is the dominant religious expression in the country. Many of those expressions are stagnant, apostate, or even heretical, but in this country, a “religion” that is somehow associated with Jesus is still viewed as generally virtuous.

THE PROBLEM THAT WE FAIL TO READ OUR BIBLES

One of the reasons why professing American followers of Jesus have this unbiblical view of persecution and of the cost of following Jesus is that many professing believers are unfamiliar with their Bibles. In churches where the sermons are shallow and are not founded on the biblical text, and where Bible reading is not an expected part of Christian growth, the congregation will be ignorant of the prominence of persecution that is implicit and explicit throughout the New Testament. An ignorant congregation cannot be an obedient congregation, for you cannot obey what you do not know to be a command or an expectation. This woeful situation of biblical ignorance explains much of the worldly mindset that exists in American Christianity.

The solution for this problem is obvious. A church that claims to be Christian is a church that must preach the whole counsel of God so that the congregation hears the word of God properly taught from the pulpit. Churches that do not do this should repent and begin to be Bible-based churches. But also, the professing disciple of Jesus must hear from his church leadership that Bible reading is an expectation of every Christian, and then must begin to include serious Bible reading into their Christian discipleship. There is no discipleship without active, regular Bible reading. Without the regular intake of the Word, you will not grow.

THE PROBLEM OF HOW WE READ OUR BIBLES

For those disciples of Jesus who do read their Bible, there can be another obstacle, and that obstacle is the way most American Christians read their Bibles. It is hard to put this into words, but it is the tendency to read without feeling the full impact of the passage. It is reading how the apostle Paul was stoned by the people of Lystra (Acts 14:19-20) and they “dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead” (because he probably was dead!), and then not grasping the fact that the greatest Christian missionary was nearly killed many times and was eventually executed for the crime of preaching Jesus. It is reading how the apostles rejoiced because they were “considered worthy to suffer shame for Jesus’ name” (Acts 5:41), and then refusing to tell your friend that you have become a Christian even when he asks you repeatedly “What’s new?” It is reading Paul’s great declaration, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21), and then hesitating to go on a mission trip because of the possibility of contracting a disease.

We read our Bibles in a detached way, believing that these events in the Bible really happened as they are described, but not identifying them as anything that would ever happen to me. I see the suffering and the sacrifice of my heroes, and I see the world’s hostility against those that I admire for their personal holiness and commitment to Christ, and yet there seems to be a disconnect in my ability to see myself at the end of that spear. “Oh, I could never see myself doing that, but I admire these brothers that have this level of commitment.”

I don’t think that I hesitate overly long over these types of adventures because I am a spoiled coward, at least I hope that is not the reason. I think, I hope it is mostly the collective expectations of decades of “safe” evangelicalism that has rendered me a seeker of safety instead of one who gives up what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose.

PROPOSED SOLUTIONS: The solution to this problem is anything but simple and obvious. I think the solution will involve diligent searching for a strategy followed by lots of hard work at carrying out the plan. The first step to solving any problem, though, is identifying the problem, and then admitting that it is, in fact, a problem. Hopefully, this article has taken a step in the direction of identifying the problem for the American Christian.

The next step I would propose would be making a conscious effort to say “yes” to risky ventures for the kingdom of God before you fully consider the risk.

Another thought would be to say “yes” to any and all assignments you sense you are called to do without any consideration of the risk. That is, the only question you are seeking to answer is, “Has the Lord called me to this assignment?” Any risk is the Lord’s area of responsibility. Obedience to His call is my area of responsibility.

Another strategy is that of over-commitment. Make commitments that exceed your capacity and then trust that the Lord will expand your capacity.

Another thought is to explore areas of ministry that create fear and stress in your gut.

And I am sure that others can conceive of other ways to turn the average “play it safe” American disciple of Christ into a fire breather who would never shrink back.

“Some wish to live within the sound of church and chapel bell; I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.” C. T. Studd

SDG                 rmb                 6/24/2021                   #417