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The Uncertainty of Wealth

Monday, September 27, 2021

In 1 Timothy 6:17, Paul embarks on a familiar New Testament theme.  Don’t trust money; trust God instead.  However, his reasoning is different here than elsewhere.  Unlike Jesus, he doesn’t warn us that we can’t serve both God and Mammon, nor does he repeat his claim in Colossians 3:5 that greed is a form of idolatry.  Instead, he warns rich Christians away from trusting in riches because riches are. . . uncertain.

Uncertain?  That doesn’t sound so bad!  However, once we recognize how large a problem the uncertainty of wealth truly is, we will be far less inclined to entrust ourselves to it.

First, wealth is uncertain in prospect.  I know Christians who always have some new get-rich-quick scheme every time I talk to them.  So far, none of these schemes have resulted in riches. 

Sometimes, people’s hopes for wealth founder because of foolishness.  At others, they founder because of chance.  In 1993, some of the brightest minds in finance, including a Nobel Prize winner, founded a hedge fund called Long-Term Capital Management.  They thought they had discovered a way to get great returns without risk.  However, the wrong combination of financial crises in 1997 and 1998 destroyed LTCM.  It lost billions and was liquidated in 2000.

Similar dangers beset our hopes of holding on to the wealth we already have.  Ecclesiastes 5:13-14 comments on the tragedy of holding on carefully to one’s money, only to lose it through a bad investment.  This often is a modern tragedy too.  Con artists, needy relatives, negligent subordinates, and economic shocks all can part us from what we’ve earned.

Worse still, just as we can’t rely on getting wealthy or on keeping our wealth, we can’t rely on wealth to protect us either.  “Money is the answer for everything,” the Preacher scoffs in Ecclesiastes 10:19, and so it seems to the people of the world.  As long as you’re rich, your riches will keep you safe.

That’s not the case.  Many things can separate us from our wealth, and there also are problems that no amount of wealth can solve.  Money might buy the pretense of love, but it can’t purchase the reality.  God is more impressed when we give away our riches than when we accumulate them.  Some diseases remain stubbornly incurable no matter how much money we throw at them, and in the end, “rich dead man” is as much an oxymoron as “jumbo shrimp”. 

Basically, money is good for the little things in life, but it’s worthless for the big ones.  When we’re dying, none of us will look back in satisfaction on the things that money bought.  The people who build their lives around money, though numerous, are foolish. 

God is a much better investment.  Wealth is known for betraying those who love it, but He is known for being faithful to those who love Him.  He will never leave us, and there is no challenge too great for Him to overcome.  Ultimately, the treasure we lay up in heaven is the only treasure that matters.

The Portrait of the Elder

Monday, September 20, 2021

For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and its companion text in Titus 1:5-9 described as “the qualifications of the elder”.  With the best of intentions, brethren have combined the two lists and turned them into a checklist.  If a check mark is missing, a man isn’t qualified. 

Not coincidentally, this has led to a focus on the qualifications that appear most objective and binary.  Is the prospective elder the husband of one wife?  Does he have faithful children?  Is he able to teach (by preaching sermons or teaching adult Bible classes)?  The man with a wedding ring, dunked kids on a pew someplace, and a spot on the teaching roster is presumptively qualified.  We say much less about whether a man is sensible or not quarrelsome.

As straightforward as this approach sounds, it isn’t what the Scriptures call for.  This is evident from the fact that the 1 Timothy list and the Titus list aren’t identical, yet Paul wants both Timothy and Titus to appoint elders according to the lists they’ve got. 

Most notably, “faithful children” (THE qualification in the eyes of the American church) does not appear on Timothy’s list.  Its counterpart in 1 Timothy applies only to the control of children who are still under a man’s roof.  Thus, Timothy would have appointed elders in Ephesus without considering at all the qualification we consider most important.

Either the Holy Spirit missed something vital, or we are missing something vital.

It is far better to read these passages not as a list of qualifications but as two portraits of what an elder should look like.  They are not identical, but they paint a picture of the same kind of man—a man who is above reproach.  “Above reproach” isn’t an initial qualification in these texts; it’s a subject heading.  Paul is giving us some things to ponder as we consider whether a man lives up to God’s standard for an elder.

This approach accomplishes two things.  First, it introduces spiritual content into every item on the list.  The mere fact of being married proves nothing about a man’s irreproachability.  However, when we consider his devotion and his commitment to his wife (the literal Greek here is “the man of one woman”), that does speak to whether he is above reproach or not.

Second, it requires us to confront the judgment-call nature of many of Paul’s criteria, which in turn points us to the holistic judgment call that he wants us to make.  Consider the “hospitable” criterion (which, unlike “faithful children”, appears in both lists).  Obviously, a man who isn’t hospitable at all shouldn’t be considered.  However, some elder candidates are moderately hospitable, while others are spectacularly hospitable.  As we are evaluating our men, “How much?” is an even more important question than “Whether?”

This allows us to take into account both strengths and weaknesses in our elder-assessment process.  No man is going to be perfect in everything, but his sparkling conduct in one area may compensate for a less impressive performance in another.  Maybe he doesn’t set the world on fire as a Bible-class teacher, but most Christians in the congregation are so used to being in his home that they come in without knocking.  All in all, he still measures up to the “above reproach” standard.

Portrait versus checklist is a big change in mindset for many brethren, but it’s a change we need to make to follow the Lord’s intent more closely.  When so many congregations suffer under the “leadership” of men’s meetings (which aren’t in the Bible at all), it’s a shame when we reject men whom the Holy Spirit would consider elder material.  However, when we apply the Scriptures rightly, as many congregations as possible will have the oversight God desires. 

The Goal of Our Instruction

Monday, September 13, 2021

In 1 Timothy 1:3-7, Paul distinguishes between bad teaching and good teaching.  The former category is much larger than we might expect.  It includes false doctrine, but it also involves empty speculation, fruitless discussion, and opinionated ignorance.  As a rule, brethren are alive to the dangers of the first of these, but we often don’t pay as much attention as we should to the problems that come with the other three.

As Paul describes it, empty speculation arises from paying attention to myths and endless genealogies.  In essence, this is spiritual reasoning without a solid Scriptural foundation.  It is speculative because it relates tangentially at best to the word of God, and it is empty because it does not help the hearers inherit eternal life. 

Such speculation is rife across the religious spectrum.  It arises from progressives who want to overturn divine commandments based on what they think they know about life in the first century as well as from conservatives who want to speak clearly where the Bible does not.  We may find its conclusions congenial, but it represents a trap for those who wish to follow Christ.

Second, we come to fruitless discussion.  Such discussion is fruitless because it does not achieve the good goals Paul sets out in v. 5.  It does not produce love from a pure heart, a good conscience, or a sincere faith. 

To put things another way, it does not transform our hearts to be like God’s heart, it does not instruct us in God’s commandments and how to obey them, and it does not show us that God is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.  These discussions often arise from nonbiblical sources (beware of studies on marriage and the family that do not cite Scripture!) or take the Bible and turn it irrelevant.  A discussion of the minutiae of ancient life 2000 years ago without any connection to anything is not spiritually beneficial!

Finally, we come to opinionated ignorance.  In this case, the problem isn’t the topic.  It’s the teacher.  He’s talking about a worthwhile subject, but he’s not doing so in a worthwhile way.  He doesn’t understand the word properly, but that doesn’t keep him from insisting on his conclusions obstinately.

As teachers, we solve this problem not by avoiding the area of study entirely, but by making sure that our understanding of it is good.  We must know both what we believe and why we believe it.  For instance, it’s not enough to cite 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 as an explicit authorization of a weekly collection for the continuing needs of the church.  It isn’t.  Instead, we must know how to use 1 Corinthians 16:1-3, along with passages such as Acts 4:34-35, 1 Corinthians 9:14 and Hebrews 10:25, to reach the conclusion that a continuing collection is authorized.  If we can’t work through the reasoning necessary to arrive at a conclusion, we shouldn’t be teaching the conclusion.

All of this makes preaching and teaching sound like a challenging work, and it is.  If we want to be useful in the kingdom, there are many pitfalls we must avoid.  Nonetheless, sound preaching and teaching is vital to the spiritual health of the Lord’s people, and if we carry out this great work with care and diligence, we will gain an everlasting reward.

Bearing a Different Gospel Beautifully

Monday, September 06, 2021

The apostle Paul was fond of sarcasm, not because he didn’t love people, but because he did.  When Christians he had converted turned aside from Christ, it drove him to distraction, and that distraction often found its expression in heartfelt exasperation. 

One such expression appears in 2 Corinthians 11:4.  In contrast to the stubborn resistance the Corinthians put up to Paul’s teaching, they listened eagerly to the false teachers who followed him.  Paul tells them that they bore a different gospel beautifully, implying that the attention they devoted to the workers of deceit was the attention they should have devoted to him.

Today, there are far too many Christians who bear a different gospel beautifully, and it is entirely understandable that they should do so.  In the sense of 1 Corinthians 2:14, the gospel is unnatural.  It does two things in particular that humans don’t like.  It demands that we do hard things ourselves, and it keeps us from adopting easy workarounds.  When a different gospel diminishes the former and permits the latter, we tend to bear it beautifully.

To see how this works, let’s pick a simple example:  hospitality.  The Bible commands us to be hospitable, a sacred tradition that stretches back to the days of Abraham if not earlier.  Hebrews 13:2 tells us that we should follow Abraham’s example because he entertained angels without knowing it.  This refers, I think, not only to the possibility of supernatural visitors but also to the impact that hospitality can have both on others and on us.

Hospitality reveals the generosity and kindness of Christ.  As we practice hospitality, we become more like Him.  It surely is a part of walking in a manner worthy of the gospel!

However, there’s a problem.  Hospitality is hard.  It goes against the grain of our culture.  Either we invest a lot of time in cleaning up and preparing a nice meal, or we expose our messy fast-food reality. We might even have to invite over a rampaging mob of church kids.  Not surprisingly, many modern-day Christians struggle to show hospitality.

There are two solutions to this problem.  Either we do better at hospitality ourselves (still hard), or we outsource hospitality to the church.  The latter is much more appealing.  Sustaining that fellowship hall at the church building will cost some money, but we have more money than time.  We drop a check in the plate, and we never have to open our home to anybody again.

As elegant as this solution seems, there are issues with it.  First, it’s different.  First-century Christians were in the hospitality business, but the first-century church wasn’t.  Second, the fellowship halls, gyms, and so forth might produce hospitality of a sort, but they don’t produce a congregation of hospitable Christians.  Anything that subverts the gospel goal of godliness is hostile to it.

Walking in the ancient paths is difficult and frustrating.  We are inclined to Americanize our faith by departing from it in ways that seem good to the wisdom of our time.  Consequently, the words of the agents of change often fall on receptive ears.

However, we do better to consider the wisdom of the One who laid out those ancient paths in the first place.  His ways are not our ways, and He always has reasons for His commandments and His silence, even if those reasons are not apparent to us.  Rather than bearing a different gospel, we should strive instead to bear our cross.

Finishing What We Start

Monday, August 30, 2021

All of 2 Corinthians 8-9 is taken up with Paul’s discussion of the collection for the needy saints in Jerusalem.  Paul envisions this collection as an opportunity to bridge the gap between Jewish and Gentile churches, so these two chapters contain a host of reasons why the Corinthians should contribute.  Many of these are specific to the subject of generosity and material things, but some are not.  In particular, Paul points out in 2 Corinthians 8:10-12 that the Christians there already had promised to contribute.  Now they need to finish what they had started.

This argument implies that Paul was concerned that the Corinthians would not, in fact, do what they had said they would.  This is a familiar spiritual problem, not merely when it comes to contributing to the Lord’s work (though it certainly shows up there!) but also in every other aspect of our walk with God.

How often have we resolved to begin a Bible-reading plan but give up on it after a couple weeks?  How frequently have we decided to have a discussion with a neighbor or friend about the state of their souls, yet never actually get around to it?  How many bulletin-board signup sheets have we filled out without following through on the commitment we made?  Our intentions are good, but our lives are unfruitful.

This is the thorny-ground problem from the parable of the sower in Mark 4.  The word has been sown in our hearts and taken root, but it is competing with worry, greed, and worldly desires.  Today, we can add plain old distraction to the list too.  All of us know the dispiriting feeling of getting online to accomplish something but spending the next two hours looking at bright shiny objects on social media instead!

All of this suggests that our follow-through problems are really overcommitment problems.  Paul was worried that the Corinthians wouldn’t have money because they had spent it on other things.  In the same way, we often don’t have the time and energy to carry out the Lord’s work because we have spent it on other things.  When we spend all day rushing around from morning till night, there’s no room for extra service to God.

If we want to solve this problem, we must beware of the allure of busyness.  American society is obsessed with busyness, and few among us are willing to tell our friends about how we spent a whole day doing nothing.  We feel pressured to cram in after-hours work, extracurricular activities for our children, and involvement in a million and one different projects and causes.

However, if we want to say yes to God, we must learn to say no to many of those things.  A life that doesn’t have space for work of eternal significance is a life that has too much in it.  If we want to finish what we start, we must make sure that the resources are in place to allow us to finish.  Only then will we be the fruitful workers in the kingdom that we want to be.

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