Forsaking Our Rights for the Sake of the Gospel

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.

(1 Corinthians 9:1–19, ESV)

Living in America, the lens that I and most Americans look through is determined largely by our own experience in a nation that has determined certain rights and freedoms for its citizens. It is largely a privilege and blessings to living in the United States and to enjoy the freedoms that were won and defended for us.

And this outlook of freedoms and rights makes for a particular challenge at times when it comes to understanding the tension between being an American citizen and being a Christian. The Apostle Paul understood the unique opportunities that were afforded to him as a Roman citizen, and at times he made good use of those rights in order to carry out the ministry he had received from God. But at other times, Paul understood that asserting personal rights is not the way of Christ, and that sometimes the Christlike thing to do is to forego those rights in order to serve others and the gospel.

In the passage above found in 1 Corinthians 9, Paul is writing about the claims made by the false teachers who were benefiting financially from the church. He is turning their claims on their head in order to show the contact between Paul’s servant attitude and the self-serving attitude of the false apostles.

Paul had not taken advantage of any of the reasonable advantages, such as support of a wife, and financial support; although the false teachers had done so. Since Paul was their father in the faith, he not only had the right to financial support as their pastor, but even more so as the one who was the founder of the church in Corinth.

Yet, as he says in the second half of verse 12, the Apostle has been willing to forego this rightful claim because he loves the church too much to risk there being any sort of obstacle to the gospel. This truth extends Paul’s words of exhortation about the need to give up liberties in the name of love, and it further shows his heart as compared to the hearts of the false teachers. “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1Cor 12:9b).

Paul’s liberty refused, he goes on in the rest of verses 10-19 to demonstrate that his self-sacrifice and self-constraint is one more way that he can see the progress of the gospel go forth with greater vigor. Every obstacle, including denial of support and marriage, was worth it for Paul since it meant greater gospel effectiveness. Paul doesn’t say that all must do this, but he is compelled by zeal for Christ and joyfully gives up his rights for the Corinthians. How then could they say that Paul was the one who was “using” the church?

Paul was on a mission, in the truest sense. He wouldn’t let anything deter or damper progress for the sake of the gospel. For Paul, onward and upward was his motto and his aim was pure and his desire true.

Today in many ways it feels like the ministers of Jesus have lost much of this same focus and zeal. Administration, programs, buildings, budgets, church politics, self-promotion, and all other sorts of distractions have filled our time and stolen our focus. Paul was willing to leave it all behind in order to see people come to know Christ as Savior. Do we do the same? If we stripped back everything other than gospel ministry, what would be left? Maybe we should ponder this question as we prepare to enter into a new year, praying that the Lord would help us to “lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us,” and let us once again run with a freedom and with endurance the race that our Savior has set before us. That is true freedom.

A Properly Focused Desire

Are you focused this morning? Have you had your coffee and has it had a chance to begin working? Good.

Focused ambition and desire are powerful. Notice how focused the Apostle Paul was in these words: 

Philippians 3:13–14 NASB95

13 Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

The focused man or woman pushes out all other thoughts, all other competing desires, all other weights or obstacles to achieving what he or she desires. This focus is part of life for everyone, although we all admit that some things in life don’t always capture our heart in the same ways. 

In Proverbs 18:1-2, Solomon writes, “He who separates himself seeks his own desire, He quarrels against all sound wisdom. A fool does not delight in understanding, But only in revealing his own mind.” (NASB). Solomon speaks about the fool who is lead so strongly by his desire that he isolates himself from any sound counsel and only wants to talk about his own thoughts.

Sometimes we have to wonder what sparked these proverbs—what situation in life made them come to life in the words of the old man as he spoke them to his sons. Perhaps Solomon recalled the story of how David sinned with his mother Bathsheba,  and how badly that had turned out as God’s hand was heavy upon him. David had been so focused on his desire that he put everything outside of his mind until he had sinned against the Lord.

Or maybe Solomon was thinking of his brother Amnon, who desired his sister Tamar, and shamed her because his desire was so strong that he wouldn’t let anything stop him. Desire is a powerful thing, and our proverb reminds us that a strong desire accompanied with some poor choices can end in disaster.

Let’s learn from the fool and what he did that was wrong so that we can avoid making the same mistakes that might lead to our own destruction.

1. Separation From Wise Counsel (v. 1)

Here is the first major mistake that the foolish person makes in regard to their desire.  They pull away from wise counselors and those that might be a good influence and speak truth into their life. Notice two things about this intentional withdrawal from friends and counselors:  

His Separation Is Self Imposed (v. 1)

This isn’t speaking about forced separation over long distances, or from circumstances. And it is’t speaking about counselors abandoning him. Rather it says that the foolish person has isolated himself on purpose! Why would he do that? Read on!

His Separation Is Self-Focused (v. 1)

The foolish person separates himself from wise counsel because he doesn’t want to hear what he is being told that would get in the way of his desire. Desire isn’t  necessarily a bad thing, but the fool has taken his desire and promoted it to the level of an idol. So many good gifts given to us by the Lord for us to enjoy in life are in danger of being elevated to an idol in our heart.

We aren’t told what the desire is in our proverb, which is best, because it allows us to watch out for these desires that take over our heart and begin to control us, even to the point that we begin to do nothing but seek after them. 

“Quarrels Against All Sound Wisdom”

The word in the NASB translated “quarrels” means to expose or lay bare, and is probably speaking of what a dog does when it snarls.  The NKJV says he “rages against” all wise judgment. And what is so offensive? Sound or Effective wisdom—a word that is often used in reference of God’s Word. The desire has grown into a monster in the heart of the foolish person. So much so that they are raging against good, sound counsel! They won’t hear it because “the heart wants what it wants”-which poet Emily Dickinson wrote in 1862. The heart may want what it wants, but it is foolishness to let the heart have everything it want. But when idolatrous desire has gripped a heart, all sense and logic and biblical wisdom is chucked out in favor of pursuing this thing lusted after.

What sorts of things could grip someone’s heart like this? Well I’ve already mentioned David and his son Amnon. So, relationships, and particularly sexual immorality can be included. But people make idols out of almost anything. Marriage, a good job, education, material possessions, fame, even ministry aspirations can all become so large in our heart that they take over and drive us so much that we stop listening to anyone that doesn’t agree with our plan, and we snarl and become angry at anyone who wants to counsel against what we want. 

Added to the poor choice of separation can be…

2. Talking When We Should Be Listening (v. 2)

For the foolish person, there is no talking sense to him. He is certain that his path is the right one and no one can persuade him otherwise. This is evidenced in this verse.

Not Interested in Learning

The fool finds no pleasure in learning to discern. Have you ever noticed that some people’s pendulum swings in wide extremes when they want something badly? It’s either all or nothing! Discernment in the Bible often speaks of an appreciation for the appropriate application of wisdom for the circumstance. The old fashioned word “prudence” meant to exercise caution-not rushing madly into a situation with passions out of control. But we live in an age where prudence is prudish, and having a life filled with drama is seen as normal.

The fool doesn’t want a wise counselor to come alongside to help them consider the reality of their desires and where the desire has become inordinate and dangerous. I have counseled couples not to get married because of some major spiritual and moral issues they needed to deal with, but they often do not listen. My wife has counselled young women who are more interested in being married than who they marry—having made marriage–a beautiful thing, by the way when kept in its proper place—into an idol.

Instead he is…

Only Interested in Giving His Opinion

Jonathan Akin says, “The fool has a closed mind but an open mouth, a small mind and a big mouth. He does not listen, but he is quick to tell others what he thinks. Pride is alive and well in his soul. He is convinced that what he thinks is what everyone else ought to think. He is too clever and cute for his own good.” [Jonathan Akin, Exalting Jesus in Proverbs, ed. David Platt, Daniel L. Akin, and Tony Merida, Christ-Centered Exposition Commentary (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 2017), Pr 18:2.]

I find that there is a sin that is most difficult to overcome by its nature—and that is the sin of being unteachable, a form of the sin of pride. The unteachable person is what the fool in vv. 1-2 has become. They have shut out the only possible help they have in favor of their own sinful counsel and the idol they are chasing after. Nothing can be said to them or done to them that will convince them unless they can come to see the way of their sin—and often times this only comes after they have been ruined by their sin and pride.

When David learned his lesson regarding his adultery with Bathsheba, he wrote two psalms. In Psalm 32:8-10 he wrote:

8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you. 9 Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding, Whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check, Otherwise they will not come near to you. 10 Many are the sorrows of the wicked, But he who trusts in the Lord, lovingkindness shall surround him.

So how can we combat this danger and have properly focused desires that aren’t in danger of taking over and bringing us to ruin? Well, I think there is much to be considered in avoiding the separation referred to in v. 1.

God has given us a community of Christ called the Church. He has surrounded us with believers—some more mature whom we need, and some less mature, who need us. Listen as Paul describes this wonderful reality in Eph 4:11-16:

11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.

So much can be said from this passage, but for now, understand this: we need one another. We need each other to help us. We need the Word, we need the Spirit, we need Jesus and the Father, but we can never forget that there is no such thing as lone ranger Christians. We need one another.

And as we help guard one another, we will find that our desires will more easily find that they are properly focused for the glory of God and the blessing of one another.

The Sweet Perfume of Godly Counsel

“Oil and perfume make the heart glad, and the sweetness of a friend comes from his earnest counsel.” Proverbs 27:9 (ESV)

When I was still dating the young woman who would become my wife, I somehow stumbled upon a breed of roses that were both beautiful and fragrant, called “Sterling.” They were deep lavender in color but had the strong perfume of rose that I had never smelled in most other roses that could be purchased from the florist.

I’m not a rose expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I know what a rose should smell like. Most roses today that you can purchase either don’t have any smell, or worst, have a musty smell that to me smells of mildew. Perhaps it is because of the process of breeding to get larger varieties that last longer, or maybe it is some other reason, but I had stumbled across a rose that was both beautiful to look at and had a perfume that was deep and rich.

These sterling roses instantly became my wife’s favorite for the reasons I have just mentioned. But over time this particular breed of rose became harder to find and even now are almost impossible to buy anywhere without a special order from a flower shop. I’m not sure why this is the case, but they are rare. The rarity and perfume of the sterling rose reminds me of Proverbs 27:9.

Indeed the perfume of flowers make most people’s heart glad. Thousands of romantics and lovers can attest to this fact. But this proverb takes that reality and applies it to the sweetness of a real, deep friendship.

Whereas the sterling rose finds its sweetness in its perfume, the source of a friend’s sweetness is found in his “earnest counsel.” Although the translations vary, the main meaning seams to be clear enough—a friend’s counsel is sweet like perfume and for the wise person who accepts it, it is not an offense, but a welcome joy.

Unfortunately, like my wife’s sterling roses, the acceptance of the fact that counsel from a friend is sweet, is becoming more and more rare. It only takes losing a friend, finding your counsel received poorly, a relationship ending in awkward silence, or even a response of heated anger to realize that it might be better to just keep our counsel to ourselves.

But this isn’t the way of Christ. As Shakespeare has written, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” so too godly, loving counsel that is repugnant or refused by a foolish friend is still sweet perfume that honors the Lord when spoken. But this Sort of friendship is like the roses that we have today—large, deep in color, beautiful to look at in a vase, but when you go to this rose and take a good, deep smell—the stench of mildew fills your nostrils!

We live in a world where the path of least resistance is the path well travelled. Why bother, when it seems that no good comes from risking the loss of a good relationship? But with the loss of these good, honest conversations comes the loss of the sweetness of earnest counsel and truly deep friendships. And it is this sweet speech that is not only needed by our friends, whether they want it or not, but it is the true beauty and sweet perfume that this world needs to see right now.

Friendships without honest and loving counsel are like roses that smell of mildew. They look good from afar, but they do not carry the perfume that should accompany their beauty. May the friendships of Christians both look and smell beautiful.

Popularity Doesn’t Equate with Truth

“Moreover, Jehoshaphat said to the king of Israel, “Please inquire first for the word of Yahweh.” Then the king of Israel gathered the prophets together, about four hundred men, and said to them, “Shall I go against Ramoth-gilead to battle or shall I refrain?” And they said, “Go up, for the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.” But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not yet a prophet of Yahweh here that we may inquire of him?”” (1 Kings 22:5–7 LSB)

As I was reading the passage above, I noticed something I hadn’t seen before in my previous readings in 1 Kings.

King Jehoshaphat requested that King Ahab first inquire about the will of God before agreeing to go to war with him. Ahab obliged by calling 400 so-called prophets who told him that the Lord approved of the war.

But Jehoshaphat was not fooled. Something didn’t sit right with the message these prophets gave. The text doesn’t tell us why, but Jehoshaphat didn’t accept these 400 prophets as speaking from the Lord. As a matter of fact, this is what caught my eye.

Again, it says in verse 7, “But Jehoshaphat said, “Is there not yet a prophet of Yahweh here that we may inquire of him?”” It is almost as if the king told Ahab, “Yes, yes, I have heard the popular opinion of all these men, but…don’t you have any actual prophets of Yahweh, or only these fakers? I’d actually like to hear what Yahweh has to say.”

Ahab doesn’t seem to be confused because he knows that his sleight of hand trick hasn’t worked. He knows that he has been keeping the good stuff in the back and hasn’t brought out the real prophet of Yahweh. Ahab wasn’t looking for truth, only for a confirmation of his preconceived plans.

You know, some people claim to want the truth, but they want their truth, as the current foolishness of our day would say. But the truth is a stubborn thing. Something is either true or it is not. And the number of people you get to back a lie doesn’t increase its truthfulness. A lie is always a lie no matter how many false prophets can lip-sync in unison the siren song of the culture or popular opinion.

We need to ask ourselves this as well. Do I really want to know the truth, or am I wanting to fit in, to follow with the cool crowd (whoever the “cool kids” might currently be)?

Appeals to “science” or straw man arguments, or the number of books written or Instagram followers may sway those who want to affirm their own preconceived notions, but popularity and doctrine don’t equal truth. Whether it is the cultural doctrines of gender politics, abortion, or feminism, or the theological doctrines of eschatology, pneumatology, or ecclesiology. Memes don’t prove the truth. Mic drop blog posts and Facebook rants bring more heat than light.

What we need is to hear a true prophet of Yahweh speak. God has spoken, and He has done so perfectly in His Word. So, instead of gathering polemics and talking points from Fox News, CNN, Twitter, or YouTube, for those of us called out by Christ, let’s open our Bibles and listen to God speak.

Why Nobody Preaches “Be Like Samson”

For the last few days I have been reading the book of Judges, and I have particularly been thinking about the life of Samson. Although Samson often stirs up images that are more like the cover of a romance novel than a Bible character, it is the tragedy of a life thrown away that draws me in.

Even before his birth, expectations were high for Samson. His mother and father were visited by the angel of the Lord and told that their son would be used by God, but that they needed to raise him as one under the vows of a Nazirite. Normally, a person took on this vow for short while, but Manoah and his wife were told that this would be a lifelong commitment that he would need to make. No eating of any products derived from grapes—wine, juice, raisins, or even the grape itself. Along with this, Samson was not to cut his hair- ever. All of these things, in addition to the normal restrictions placed upon the Jewish people, were meant to demonstrate that Samson was set apart for a special purpose by God. Samson would be a sort of redeemer for his people, helping to free them from the oppression of their enemies the Philistines.

The problem was that Samson himself was not free. He may have had supernatural strength, but he was enslaved to his lusts. He may have been able to overpower a gang of men, but he couldn’t win victory over himself. He was his own worst enemy. Following the short life of this man, it quickly becomes apparent that when Samson sees something he wants, he will do whatever it takes to get it. He repeats a refrain that is seen often throughout the book of Judges, and he personalizes it-every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

It was not simply the cutting of his hair that caused this mighty warrior to fall. It was his lust for women, his raging anger, his disdain for purity-both ritual and spiritual, and his selfish drive to please himself. All of these came crashing down upon him like the building that took his life. Even Samson’s final (and only) prayer to God was laced with astonishing selfishness. This is the tragic result for not only Samson but for any of us that choose the foolish path of “following our heart.” Don’t do it. To follow your own heart is like cutting off the rudder on a ship and allowing the wind to blow the sails in whatever direction it gusts. A sailor that follows that practice will end up shipwrecked or lost at sea.

I’m not writing as one who has never followed his own heart. On the contrary, I have all too much experience in living the same way that Samson lived. I seek my counsel, and I go my own way. But it doesn’t take long before the initial satisfaction of my selfishness wears off and my foolishness reveals painful consequences. The only comfort and solution that I have found for avoiding this is to sail by a north star that is not within my own heart. The Bible gives me the wisdom and counsel that I need, not what I want. It speaks truth to my stubborn and deceptive heart. It points out the painful consequences and it shows me the true joy that can come if I will only trust the One who loves me more than I even love myself.

Samson’s life ended in tragedy, but my life won’t. My compass is set by Jesus Christ, and He will bring me home. I may put aside the compass now and then in my foolishness, but in the end, Christ will bring me into my heavenly port.

If you’d like to read about Samson for yourself, his story can be read in Judges chapters 13-16.