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Paul and Covetousness

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Just as we do today, the righteous men and women of the Bible struggled with temptation.  Sometimes, these struggles are well known, as with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  At other times, though, they can escape our notice.  For most of us, this is the case with Paul’s spiritual battle with covetousness.

Consider, for instance, his description of his own sin in Romans 7:7-8.  It may be that covetousness was the first sin that Paul remembered committing.  At the least, it’s clear from this that covetousness was a sin that he struggled with.  By his own admission, sin produced in him coveting of every kind.

However, Romans 7 isn’t the last thing Paul has to say about covetousness.  In fact, his relationship with money is a theme that runs through many of his letters.  In his discussion of the subject, we learn how he fought back against covetousness and eventually overcame it. 

This is both heartening and instructive.  From it, we learn not only that overcoming our strongest temptations is possible, but also some strategies on how to do it.  With this in mind, let’s consider the way that Paul dealt with covetousness.

First, we see that Paul PUT UP GUARDRAILS.  Consider his words in 2 Corinthians 8:18-21.  Contextually, this passage is about the collection and protection of the contribution for the needy saints in Jerusalem.  Paul didn’t put all that money in his own wallet and go sailing off toward Antioch by himself.  Instead, he asked churches who contributed to appoint men they trusted to travel with him and see that the money reached its destination safely.

Much of the time, we use this passage to show the importance of being above-board in the way we handle church finances.  That way, people can know that somebody isn’t siphoning off their donations.  However, there’s more to it than that.  Notice that Paul says that he’s concerned not only with what is honorable in the sight of men, but also with what is honorable in the sight of the Lord.  He wants everybody to see that he’s doing right, but he also wants to prevent himself from doing wrong.

If we know that there’s a sin that we struggle with, we ought to make practicing that sin as difficult as possible.  Consider, for instance, the famous Pence Rule.  Throughout his political career, Mike Pence has refused to meet alone with a woman who is not his wife.  He’s caught a lot of flak for that, but you know what?  If you’re never alone with a woman who is not your wife, you are never going to cheat on your wife with another woman. 

I think that’s very wise, and throughout my preaching work, I’ve tried to follow a similar rule myself.  Through the years, how many preachers have met their downfall over a woman?  I do not want to add my name to that list!  Whatever our weakness may be, one of the best ways to defeat temptation is to leave no room for it.

Second, Paul is willing to SURRENDER LIBERTIES in order to defend himself from sin.  Look at what he says in 1 Corinthians 9:13-18, 24-27.  A few weeks ago, Clay cited vs. 24-27 in one of his sermons, and in passing, he mentioned that he was using the passage outside of its context.  That got me to wondering what the context was.  How exactly was Paul disciplining his body to make sure he didn’t lose his soul?

I believe the answer lies in vs. 13-18.  He sets out the principle that men who preach the gospel have the right to get their living from the gospel.  However, he himself does not do that.  It would be 100 percent lawful for him to seek support from the church in Corinth, but instead, he preaches the gospel for free. 

Contextually, he gives two reasons for this.  First, so that he doesn’t hinder the gospel.  Second, so that he isn’t overcome by sin himself.  To put things another way, Paul doesn’t want to establish a financial relationship with the church in Corinth because he is worried that such a relationship will open the door for covetousness.  He would rather reject the money he can claim than give sin an opening.

In the same way, brethren, we need to be honest with ourselves about whether surrendering some of our liberties will help us in our struggle against sin.  For instance, there is nothing wrong with a Christian having a smartphone or having a computer in a private location.  I myself have both.

However, if you’ve got a porn problem, then it’s probably true that your smartphone or private computer (or both) are the gateways for your temptation.  Which is better, to forfeit a liberty we enjoy or to lose our souls because the liberty led us into sin?

Finally, Paul was able to TRIUMPH THROUGH CHRIST.  Let’s read Philippians 4:10-13.  This is a famous text, and it’s a famously misused text.  There are lots of people out there who think that doing all things through Christ means closing business deals or scoring touchdowns.

In the light of everything we’ve already studied this evening, though, it’s obvious that Paul is saying something completely different and much more powerful.  He’s saying that through the strength of Christ, he is able to win his battle against covetousness.  When he doesn’t have anything, no problem.  Through Christ’s strength, he can be content and not be greedy.  Likewise, when he’s fully provided for, no problem.  Through Christ’s strength, he’s able to defeat materialism.

As we saw back in Romans 7, Paul had been haunted by the temptation to be covetous all his life.  By the time of Philippians 4, though, he has learned the secret.  Through Jesus, he can defeat any temptation.

Brethren, let’s pause for a moment to think about how encouraging this is!  This isn’t just about Paul and him overcoming his temptations.  This is about us and overcoming our temptations.  No, we aren’t strong enough on our own, but we will be strong enough if we seek the strength that Christ is eager to give.

Sometime this week, then, why don’t we all carve out some time to pray for that strength?  I don’t know what your greatest temptation is.  Maybe it’s covetousness, or sexual immorality, or porn, or drunkenness, or gossip.  I do know, though, that whatever it is, you can beat it through Jesus.  Work to get rid of it, but above all, pray to get rid of it, and He will bless you.

Psalm 135

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Hallelujah!  Praise His name!
Praise Him, servants of the Lord!
All who stand within His courts,
Let your praises be outpoured!
Praise the Lord, for He is good;
Glorify His lovely name;
Jacob is His chosen race,
Israel is His own to claim.

For I know that He is great;
High above all gods, He reigns;
As He pleases, so He does,
Ruling all as His domains.
From the distant ends of earth,
Clouds arise as He decrees;
He makes lightning for the rain;
Winds come from His treasuries.

Strong in Egypt, He destroyed
All the firstborn, man and beast;
In her midst, He sent His signs
On the greatest and the least.
Striking nations, killing kings,
To His own He gave the land;
Now recall His timeless deeds,
For His judgment is at hand.

Idols wear a human form,
But they cannot see or speak;
Those who trust the gods they made
Like them will be mute and weak.
All of Israel, bless the Lord,
Dwelling in Jerusalem;
All who fear Him, bless His name;
Hallelujah!  Honor Him!

Suggested tune:  MENDELSSOHN
(“Hark!  The Herald Angels Sing”)

The Meaning of "In the Garden"

Monday, December 14, 2020

Some hymns are lightning rods for criticism.  They contain an odd mix of attributes.  Something about them is strongly appealing enough that they are sung, while they contain something else that offends the sensibilities of other Christians.  As opposed to the bell curve of popularity that most hymns possess, these hymns have a V curve.  Either you love ‘em, or you hate ‘em!  In my experience, such hymns include “Days of Elijah”, “Thomas’ Song”, and the king of them all, “In the Garden”.

“In the Garden” has been part of the worship repertoire in every church of which I have been a member.  Nonetheless, it is the subject of frequent complaint online.  Some brethren believe it teaches direct personal revelation.  Others wonder how they can claim that their joy in Jesus is more than anyone else ever has known.

Many of these issues resolve themselves once we realize what the subject of the hymn actually is.  Those who are so inclined can find the words of C. Austin Miles, the author himself, at www.hymnologyarchive.com/in-the-garden.  To summarize, though, the hymn is about the encounter between Mary Magdalene and the risen Jesus in John 20:11-18, with the singer invited to put themselves in the position of Mary.

Thus, we sing about Jesus speaking to us because on that occasion, Jesus did literally speak to Mary.  The hymn insists that no one else ever has known such joy because Mary was the first person (probably) to see the risen Lord.  Everything in the hymn suddenly makes a whole lot more sense!

There is nothing particularly unusual about putting ourselves in the position of Bible characters as we sing.  None of us have a problem with singing “Dare to Stand Like Joshua” even though we are not literally “tenting by the way” (unless we happen to be on a camping trip).  As we sing “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”, we cannot literally see the blood flowing from the head, hands, and feet of Jesus, but we call each other to “See!” regardless.

We recognize that there can be considerable spiritual value in these imaginative flights.  The true problem with “In the Garden” is not that it adopts Mary’s point of view.  It is that you can read the lyrics and sing them attentively without having the slightest clue that you’re singing about Mary.  I myself did for decades before somebody clued me in.

This is not such an issue when it comes to “In the Garden” itself.  A congregation that has been enlightened (by a bulletin article, say) can sing the hymn with spirit and understanding.  It does, however, highlight an important trait of good hymns generally.  They must be meaningful, and they must be clear enough that the singer can understand the meaning while singing.  Hymns are no place for poetic obscurity!  As lovely as “In the Garden” is, it would have been a much better hymn if it had been a clearer hymn.  When it comes to hymns that share its faults without sharing its virtues, there are better choices.

All Things Working Together for Good

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Even in the often-difficult epistle to the Romans, Romans 8:28 stands out as a difficult passage to understand.  It appears to assert a Panglossian worldview—everything is working out for good!—even though we live in a world in which many things appear not to be good.  TV preachers seize on this text to promise future prosperity to the folks who send them money, skeptics mock (as Voltaire did), and many Christians are confused by the disconnect between what the passage appears to say and their own lived experience.

As is often the case in Romans, the best way to resolve this textual difficulty is to ignore the verse numbers and read the text in context.  When Paul says “all things”, he doesn’t mean literally everything that happens.  Instead, he refers to the previous 10 verses, in which he explains how three different things are working together for good.

The first of these things is the physical creation, which he discusses in Romans 8:18-22.  Paul is quite clear that the current state of the creation is not good.  It is futile, enslaved, and corrupt, and it groans with the pangs of childbirth.  Paul was no Pollyanna.  He knew, probably better than we do, that this is a fallen world.

However, he also points out that the state of creation is not hopeless but hopeful.  It groans because it anticipates the revelation of the sons of God.  Additionally, in that day, creation itself will be released from corrupt slavery to glorious freedom, as per the promise of the new heavens and new earth in 2 Peter 3:13.

Second, Paul acknowledges in Romans 8:23-25 that we ourselves groan.  We experience the first fruits of the Spirit now, but we anticipate the redemption of our body.  Because of our hope, we persevere through suffering.

Finally, Paul explores the groaning of the Holy Spirit in Romans 8:26-27.  Once again, we see a problem with fallenness and failure.  We don’t know how to pray as we should.  However, the Spirit intercedes for us so that the prayers we cannot express are presented before the throne of God anyway.

Thus, Romans 8:18-27 presents us with three groaners:  the creation, we ourselves, and the Spirit.  However, Paul wants us to understand that these groans are hopeful.  Why?  Because God is working in all of these things for good.  The creation will reveal the sons of God and be freed.  Our bodies will be redeemed.  The Spirit will render our prayers intelligible.

Does that mean that everything in our lives is going to go the way we want it?  Of course not!  However, the things that matter are in place, and through them, God will accomplish our salvation.

The Problem with Gambling

Tuesday, December 08, 2020

In April of last year, the state legislature of Tennessee legalized online betting on sports.  On November of this year, four online sportsbooks were approved to operate in Tennessee for the first time.  Not surprisingly, since that time, we’ve been bombarded with ads trying to entice us to gamble on sports.

Even at a practical level, gambling is not something I would advise others to do.  As the saying goes, the house always wins.  If they didn’t win, they wouldn’t go on operating, would they?  The way to get rich from betting on sports is not to bet on sports.  It is to operate one of those sportsbooks!  I wouldn’t bet on sports even if I were an atheist.

Of course, I’m not an atheist, and there is a moral component to this too.  Gambling is unwise, but we also must ask if it is immoral too.  In fact, I’m preaching this sermon because one of the elders asked me to explore the spiritual aspects of gambling.  All of us have heard that gambling is a sin, but what do the Scriptures say?   This morning, then, let’s consider the problem with gambling.

Our examination of this issue must begin with REASONING FROM THE SCRIPTURES.  We see an example of Paul doing this in Acts 17:2-3.  There, of course, was nothing in the Old Testament that out-and-out said, “Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah.”  However, there are hundreds of prophecies about the Messiah in the Old Testament, and Paul, using those prophecies as a starting point, reasoned from them to that conclusion.

Reasoning from the Scriptures is something that we are expected to do.  After all, Jesus condemns the Sadducees in Matthew 22 because they did not reason from the story of the burning bush to the conclusion that there is life after death.  However, all of us know people who have reasoned from the Scriptures to conclusions that were false.  Probably, we’ve even done that ourselves.

Thus, even though reasoning from the Scriptures is required, we also must regard our conclusions with skepticism.  We can fail to take into account everything that the Bible says.  Indeed, we even can deceive ourselves into reaching the wrong answer.  We must do it, but we also must do it carefully, and beware of regarding our conclusions with the same certainty as what the Bible directly states.

Gambling, of course, is an area where we must reason from the Scriptures.  Gambling certainly existed in the first century.  After all, we see the Roman guard gambling for the clothing of Jesus.  However, nowhere does the Bible condemn gambling as a sin per se.

Once some Christians realize this, they start jumping up and down and saying, “See?  I can gamble!  There’s nothing wrong with it!”  However, whether they know it or not, they have reasoned from the Scriptures to reach that conclusion, and the absence of a direct condemnation is not all the evidence there is.  Before we conclude that gambling is innocent, we need to consider the whole counsel of God.

In this regard, we must consider the importance of GUARDING AGAINST GREED.  Look at the words of Jesus in Luke 12:13-15.  This context is not about gambling at all.  It’s about a couple of brothers fighting over their inheritance.  However, Jesus warns us not only against that form of greed but against every form of greed.

That raises an important question, though.  How do we know when we’re being greedy?  After all, all of us want and need money.  I care very much that my salary is deposited into my bank account every week.  That’s not sinful; after all, the Scriptures tell us that the worker is worthy of his wage.  What’s the difference, though, between that and greed?

I think the answer is that greed arises when we start caring so much about money that we stop caring about others.  I care about being supported, yes, but I work throughout the week to give you value for your money.  Indeed, I try to give you more than you’re expecting.  Back when Larry still owned SCT, I know that he cared about those accounts receivable.  However, because he’s a good man, I know that he also cared about providing good service for his customers, so that everybody benefited, not just him.

The same thing is true when I buy and sell on the stock market.  Sometimes you’ll hear people say that stock trading is gambling because of the risk, but that’s not true.  The problem with gambling is greed, not risk, and buying and selling stocks isn’t necessarily greedy.  When I buy a stock, there’s a fair exchange.  They get the money they wanted more than the stock, and I get the stock I wanted more than the money.  Everybody benefits.  That’s the way the free market works!

Gambling, though, is different.  Unlike free-market exchange, gambling is a zero-sum game.  When we buy and sell goods and services, there are two winners, but with gambling there is always a winner and a loser.  If I had made a bet with Derrick on the outcome of the Alabama game last Saturday, he would have been the winner, and I would have been the loser.  He would have gotten all the money, and I would have ended up with nothing.

You see the problem?  When we actively want to hurt somebody financially for our benefit, or if we even don’t care that we are hurting them financially because we have benefited, we care more about money than we do about them.  That’s greed, and that’s a sin.

What matters then, is not the gambling per se.  It’s the greed, and that means that we must SPEAK TRUTH IN OUR HEARTS about whether we are being greedy or not.  Look at Psalm 15:1-2.  As the psalmist makes clear here, this is a big deal!  If we aren’t honest with ourselves about our motivations, self-deceit will separate us from God.

Is everybody who gambles necessarily acting out of greed?  I’m not willing to say that.  For example, I can remember that during one debate tournament in high school, I found myself playing poker for pennies between rounds.  I didn’t care whether I won or lost, which probably is why I lost.  If I had won, and somebody had asked me for the fifty cents or whatever, I would have given it to them.  I admit that I was being dumb, but I don’t believe I was being greedy.

However, I believe that the great majority of the time, when people gamble, greed is involved.  The key question to ask, I think, is, “Would you be gambling if there were no prospect of winning anything?”

Sometimes, the answer is yes.  At that debate tournament, I would have been happy to play cards with no stakes.  The money wasn’t my idea. 

Usually, though, the answer is no.  Think about online sports betting.  You don’t have to bet on sports to be a passionate sports fan.  The important thing about sports betting is not the sports.  It’s the money, and wanting to win that money at others’ expense is greedy.  The same holds true for playing the lottery, going to a casino, and a host of similar activities.

This is not an analysis that I can force on anybody else.  You can go off and bet on the Vols game while insisting all day long that it’s not about the money.  We must remember, though, that self-deception is sweet for now, but an eternity in hell is bitter.  Let’s be people who speak truth in our hearts, both about greed and about everything else.

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