The more I study the Bible, the more I am amazed at its ability to capture profound truths about human nature in a few words. One such amazing text appears in John 13:3-5. To worldly eyes, there seems to be an immense disconnect between Jesus’ self-perception and His actions. He thought to Himself that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was returning to God. In other words, Jesus was a being of incredible, astounding position and worth.
And yet, what does this being of incredible, astounding position and worth do? He takes a towel, girds Himself, and begins to wash the feet of His disciples. The One who ruled the universe took upon Himself the duties of the lowliest slave.
Human wisdom might conclude that Jesus washed feet despite His awareness of His lofty position. However, it is more accurate to say that Jesus washed feet because of His awareness of His lofty position. Because God had given Him everything, He had nothing left to prove about His status. His absolute security in God freed Him to perform a humble act of service and love. Foot-washing didn’t diminish Jesus. Jesus ennobled foot-washing.
In John 13:15, Jesus tells us that He did this as an example for us, and we ought to pay attention. However, that example does not lie in the expression of His humility and love. It lies in the basis of His humility and love.
The world is full of people who are constantly grasping and clawing for respect and status. This behavior, though, does not reveal true security and self-confidence. Instead, it bespeaks insecurity and lack of self-confidence. Those who insist that they are important and worthy of respect do not believe it themselves, and no amount of honor ever will assuage their self-doubt.
As Jesus frees us from so many things, He frees us from that. He knew that the Father had given all things into His hands, and from 1 Corinthians 3:22, we know that all things belong to us. We know that we are the adopted sons and daughters of the King of heaven, and shortly we will inherit everlasting glory with Him. No force in heaven or on earth can diminish our position or our value.
Consequently, we can smile serenely at threats to our self-worth that would devastate the worldly. Somebody insults us? We know better. Somebody steals from or defrauds us? We’ve still got treasure in heaven that they can’t touch. Somebody calls on us to do some demeaning thing? Big deal. If Jesus washed feet, we can scrub toilets.
No matter what happens to us, no matter what we must do, we still will emerge from it as sons and daughters of the King, destined to inherit everlasting glory. Like Jesus, then, we can live fearless lives of humility, compassion, forgiveness, and service. Let others fret over threats to their ego! We’ve got work to do.
The man is blessed in the Maker’s eyes
Who does not walk where wicked men advise;
He does not stand where sinners love to go,
Nor does he seek the scoffer’s seat below,
But in the law of God is his delight;
On it, he meditates both day and night.
This man is firmly planted, like a tree;
Beside the streams of water he will be;
His fruit will be abundant every year;
In time of drought, his leaves will still appear.
In all he does, whatever he may see,
His righteous work will find prosperity.
It is not so for those who disobey;
They are like chaff the breezes drive away.
They will not stand when judged, nor find a place
When righteous ones assemble in His grace.
The Lord regards the pathway of the pure,
But those who walk in sin will not endure.
I suspect that the longer a preacher works with a congregation, the more the congregation gets used to the preacher and can identify his particular hobbyhorses. That being the case, I’m sure that some of you, at least, have figured out that I’m particularly interested in fear. In my time, I’ve seen a dismayingly large number of people give in to fear in their spiritual lives, and whenever they do, it never works out well. Fear is a much bigger spiritual problem than we commonly recognize!
In fact, I think it’s fair to say that fear operates to destroy us in a particular way. This characteristic of fear is not an obvious one. Indeed, it leads to results that are the opposite of what we would expect. Nonetheless, it appears to me to be true.
What I see is this: whenever we give in to fear, we bring the thing that we fear upon us. When we sin because we are afraid of some outcome, we actually are inviting that thing to happen. I’ve seen this happen in real life, but it happens in the pages of Scripture too. This evening, then, let’s consider some unhappy people who fell before the rule of fear.
The first test case I want us to consider is SAUL. Saul has a problem with fear throughout his lifetime, but we see him sin because of fear for the first time in 1 Samuel 13:5-14. As I read this story, I honestly feel a fair amount of sympathy for Saul. He’s in a terrible situation! Saul hasn’t been king for very long at all, so he’s still unsteady on his feet. The Philistines are invading with a massive army. Samuel has told Saul to wait for him to come and offer sacrifices, but Samuel is nowhere to be seen. The people are terrified, and with every day that Samuel doesn’t show up, more of them desert.
Naturally, Saul is afraid, and because he is afraid, he does something that he knows is wrong. He offers the sacrifices himself. Is this understandable? Absolutely. Does that make it right? Absolutely not! In fact, this is one of the characteristics of fear that we need to watch out for: it makes sin appear excusable. We think it’s OK to do something we normally wouldn’t do because we’re afraid. However, God does not want us to show fear in doing wrong. He wants us to show faith in continuing to do right.
As Saul’s faith would have been rewarded, his fear is punished. Samuel appears just as he finishes the burnt offerings. Remember how the rule of fear is that you bring the fear upon you? Look at it here. Saul offered the sacrifices because he was afraid of losing his kingdom. Now, Samuel tells him that because he offered the sacrifices, he will lose his kingdom. Because of his sin, Saul must face the very thing he was afraid of.
Our second illustration is ZEDEKIAH. Here, turn with me to Jeremiah 38:14-23. You know, it’s interesting. We think of the books of Kings and Chronicles as books of history, and Jeremiah as a book of prophecy, but Jeremiah contains much more detail about the end of the kingdom of Judah than either 2 Kings or 2 Chronicles. This story is one of many that are recorded in Jeremiah and not elsewhere.
In any event, during the final siege of Jerusalem, at a point where Jeremiah already has been imprisoned for telling the truth, Zedekiah secretly summons him. He asks for a word from the Lord. Jeremiah tells him that if he wants to survive and wants the city to be spared, he needs to surrender immediately.
However, Zedekiah is afraid. He is concerned that if he surrenders to Nebuchadnezzar, the Jews who already have gone over to the Chaldeans will abuse him. Jeremiah tells him that won’t happen, but he can tell that Zedekiah doesn’t believe him, so he warns the unhappy king that if he does not surrender, he will be taken, the city will be burned, and his household will be destroyed. Sadly, this is the way things play out. As the next chapter of Jeremiah reveals, Zedekiah tries to flee but is taken. In punishment, the Babylonians kill his sons before his eyes and then blind him so that it is the last thing he will ever see.
The tragic story of Zedekiah illustrates a particular kind of fear: the fear of dealing with the unpleasant consequences of sin. Zedekiah was a wicked king, and Jerusalem was under siege in the first place because of his wickedness. It was time for him to face the music, to do what he could to make his peace with the Babylonians and with God. However, he was afraid to do that, so he lost everything that remained.
So too for us. There are times when we also must face the music. It can be really painful to work through the consequences of our sin, but if we refuse, the consequences will be even worse.
Finally, let’s consider THE ONE-TALENT SERVANT. We see his story in Matthew 25:14-18, 24-27. This is a familiar parable, and we’re only considering the unpleasant part. Elsewhere, the five-talent servant and the two-talent servant work to earn more and are rewarded. Here, rather than seeing opportunity like they did, the one-talent servant sees only the prospect of failure. He is worried about being punished by his unsympathetic master, and his fear paralyzes him. He buries his talent, and when the master returns, he tries to argue that his failure is his master’s fault because his master made him afraid.
What’s the outcome? We should be starting to see the pattern by now. Saul was afraid of losing his kingdom, sinned, and lost it. Zedekiah was afraid of being tortured, sinned, and was tortured. Similarly, the one-talent servant was afraid of being punished, disobeyed, and was punished. He gave into his fear and brought the thing he feared upon himself.
Today, we must beware of the fear of failure in serving the Lord too. How often do we see some spiritual opportunity before us, but we are afraid of failing, and so we don’t take it? Let’s think about this. Yes, if we take action for the Lord, we risk failure. However, if we never do anything, we guarantee failure. Nobody ever succeeds at what they refuse to attempt!
There are times when serving God demands that we step into the unknown. That’s not easy or fun. I’m here to tell you, brethren, I’m a conservative soul. By nature, I hate taking risks like that! However, if we allow Satan to use our fears to keep us from acting, none of us ever will accomplish anything for God at all.
Through the years, God has managed to hammer a few insights about the Bible into my thick head. One of them is that in the gospels, the order of stories matters. It’s common for the Evangelist to arrange material so that a text offers commentary on what precedes and follows it.
Reading the gospels in this way widens our focus. Rather than merely considering what a passage says, it’s important for us to ask what its context says about it too. Often, the writers do not spell out these connections (just as Jesus did not spell out the meaning of the parables for the multitudes), but when we make them ourselves, they give us a deeper insight into the Scriptures.
This process is particularly fruitful in Matthew 25. Even though Matthew presents all this material as part of one long discourse, we often don’t study it that way (except maybe at the end of a book study on Matthew when the teacher is desperately trying to reach Matthew 28 by the end of the quarter). We know the parable of the virgins, the parable of the talents, and the throne scene, but rarely do we tie all three of them together.
However, when we do, an important message emerges. The parable of the virgins is about perseverance. We are supposed to be like the wise virgins who kept their lamps lit until the bridegroom arrived, rather than like the foolish virgins who ran out of oil.
The parable of the talents is about productivity. We are to imitate the five-talent and two-talent servants, who did something with what they had been given, rather than the one-talent servant, who accomplished nothing.
The throne scene is about compassion. Jesus wants us to see that caring for His brothers and sisters is so important that He makes it equivalent to caring for Him. Our eternal destiny depends on the way we treat one another.
When we consider these three messages together, it answers questions that each individual message leaves unanswered. If we want to be like the wise virgins, in what should we persevere? Contextually, the answer is that we should persevere in taking advantage of opportunities to care for one another. If we want to be productive like the faithful servants, what does that look like? Contextually, it looks like caring for one another until the end of our time on earth. If we want to minister to one another’s needs, how should we do that? We should do it by continually taking advantage of opportunities for service.
Interestingly, this combined analysis leads to different applications than the ones we usually make. For instance, we generally read the parable of the talents as being about staying faithful (continuing to show up for services, not falling away) rather than serving faithfully. It’s a lot less demanding that way! However, when we pay attention to the full message of the Lord, we better understand the path that He would have us walk.
Compared to practically any other historical account in my experience, the Scriptures generally and the gospels in particular are very terse. The Evangelists write as though the Holy Spirit were charging them by the word. They condense stories to a few paragraphs and character sketches to a few words.
Even though these words are extraordinarily elegant and well chosen, at times they leave gaps in our understanding, especially when it comes to elements that readers 2000 years ago would have understood without further explanation. Just as we can refer to the Statue of Liberty or the White House without having to explain those structures in great detail to an American audience, the gospel writers assume familiarity with the landmarks of first-century Jerusalem. Unless we make an effort to include geographical understanding in the way we read the gospels, sometimes we’re going to miss the point.
In this week’s Bible reading, there are (at least) two places in which a grasp of Bible geography helps us to take hold of Jesus’ meaning. The first occurs during the story of the barren fig tree in Matthew 21:19-22. This text is often misappropriated by the name-it-and-claim-it folks who seize upon the message of v. 22 and insist that we are guaranteed to get everything we pray for, provided we pray in faith.
However, this interpretation fails to recognize several things. First, Jesus isn’t randomly venting His spleen on a poor unoffending fig tree. Instead, He is acting out the conclusion to the parable of Luke 13:6-9, a parable told against God’s unproductive people. In destroying the actual fig tree rather than giving it one more year as in the parable, He is announcing that time is up and the Jewish nation is going to be destroyed.
In this context, the discussion of “this mountain” in Matthew 21:21 takes on a whole new light. Jerusalem, after all, is built on a mountain. As Jesus and His disciples were leaving the city, its prominence, especially the prominence of the Temple Mount, would have been obvious. Jesus, then, isn’t telling His apostles that they will have the power to rearrange random topographical features. Instead, He is revealing that they will participate in the overthrow of the Jewish religious aristocracy that controlled the Temple Mount, and if they prayed, God would give them the help they needed.
A similar analysis applies to the parable of the vineyard in Matthew 21:33-46. Once again, Jesus’ words are referential, this time to the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7. In Jesus’ repurposing, though, the problem isn’t unproductive soil, as in Isaiah. Instead, it is those who are controlling the vineyard and misappropriating its fruits.
The way Jesus opens the parable leaves no doubt about the identity of the guilty parties. To us, the details about the wall, tower, and winepress seem insignificant. However, Jesus is relating this parable inside the courts of the Temple, so that the wall becomes the wall of the temple, the tower becomes the Temple, and the winepress, the purification basin in the courtyard. It is easy to imagine the Lord gesturing to these features as He speaks! Once again, an understanding of geography makes His meaning clear, and it is certainly true that at the time, His enemies did not miss it.