Posts Tagged 'Stewardship'

The Master Multiplier, Part 1

So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. (1 Corinthians 3:7 | NIV84)

God is a giver. The most famous verse the Bible confirms this fact:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 | NIV84)

It’s an amazing thing, this grace of God. We sing about it. We talk about it. And we thank God for His amazing grace. God, in His grace, gave us a Savior. But even after we’re saved, God just keeps on giving:

Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:16, 17 | NIV84)

Every good thing in our lives comes from our heavenly Father. He gave. He keeps on giving through all the days of our lives. But God is also able to do something else very interesting: He multiplies the good things in our lives and He multiplies the good things that we do in His Name. God is the “Master Multiplier” Over the next few weeks, we’ll look at this idea of God as the Master Multiplier and what that means for us.

A church in trouble

Paul founded the church in Corinth, the church to which this letter was written. It was a struggle from the very beginning for Paul. He had to support himself by making tents with a Jewish entrepreneurial couple, Priscilla and Aquilla. They had been kicked out of Rome when Claudius’ edict requiring all Jews to leave came into effect. While Paul’s reputation as a first-rate teacher of the Scriptures got him into the local synagogues to preach and teach, the more converts he won, the harder it got. Doors began to close. Opposition within the Jewish community began to grow. Not one to be told what do to, Paul simply turned his attention to the Gentiles in Corinth with Gospel. For two years, Paul and his business associates built up a strong, large church made up of both Jews and Gentiles.

Think about this. By the time Paul wrote this letter, the church was still very young, with no member in the faith for more than six years. With so many immature Christians, it’s no wonder the Corinthian church had so many problems. The Jewish-Christian members of the congregation were morally and ethically grounded in their Judaism, but they were in the minority. Most members of this large church were Gentiles who came straight out of paganism and were, essentially, starting all over again. These believers had NO relationship with the kind of morality and ethics that Judaism and, now, Christianity preached. For these Gentiles, immorality was the norm. Questionable business practices were expected. Their idea of marriage was not even close to the Judeo-Christian concept.

There wasn’t a lot of persecution going on in Corinth, and while that may have been a welcome change, the big problem in Corinth was one of ignorance. And make no mistake, it was a huge problem. Just think about how much of the Christian faith you knew about before your conversion. Most non-Christians have a pretty good idea what a Christian looks like; how they conduct themselves; even how they speak – the words they use and, of course, the words they don’t. The genuine Gentile believers in Corinth had no idea about Christianity, from either a cultural, linguistic, or theological standpoint. They were really struggling to “get it right,” in a very sensual, materialistic society, which is why Paul took so much time to pray for them and to write a series of letters to them, of which we have these two preserved for us in the New Testament.

Worldly Christians

As honestly ignorant as many members of the Corinthian church were, there were others who did get some things about the faith right.

Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. (1 Corinthians 1:7 | NIV84)

Even in their immaturity, the Lord blessed these people with the full gifting of the Holy spirit. But the problem was, as you might expect, their ignorance. They thought themselves very spiritual people, and because they had such an exalted view of themselves, they had actually begun to shun God’s wisdom and were just beginning to fall back into their worldly ways. They hadn’t grown in their faith.

Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly—mere infants in Christ. (1 Corinthians 3:1 | NIV84)

There’s an important lesson here for Christians in any church, in any age. Maturity doesn’t automatically happen to any believer. God saves you, and He gives you all the tools you need to grow in grace and in the faith, but it’s up to you to use the tools at your disposal. You need to become a good steward of what God has given you. God has given you His Word, the Bible, for you to read and study; that’s your job. God has given you the Church, a place where you can go and be taught and to learn, not only from Bible teachers and pastors, but from other members as you fellowship together. This is so important to grasp: Growing in the faith is YOUR responsibility. And if you’re not becoming a mature Christian, then shame on you. You’re no better than these lazy, deluded Corinthian Christians who thought they were “all that” just because God had blessed them with the Holy Spirit.

I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere men? (1 Corinthians 3:2 – 4 | NIV84)

For the two years he had been with them, Paul gave them “milk, not solid food,” as he should have done. New believers aren’t ready for hard teaching. But now, after the passage of even more years, they were still on the milk! They hadn’t progressed to the solid food yet and he was disappointed. They were still acting like worldly people – like the people they were before – and this worldliness had manifested itself in jealousy and strife. It was because of this worldly behavior that they were not mature enough for the “solid food” he was hoping to give them.

Here’s another lesson for the Christian today who is the member of a church: Problems in the church are always – without exception – caused by immature, worldly members. They don’t know how to behave; they are not becoming Christlike. They are still worldly. We today use the word “worldly,” but the word Paul used looks like this: sarkikos, which previous generations of Bible translators translated as “flesh,” because the Greek word as Paul used it means, “under the control of the fleshly nature instead of being governed by the Spirit of God.” How strange a situation was this in the Corinthian church? These believers had been filled with the Holy Spirit, yet they weren’t paying attention to God’s Spirit; they were bypassing Him and listening only to their sinful nature. None of them had to live like this, they chose to. They were worldly – fleshly – by their actions, which were determined by what they wanted to do.

Part of this worldly behavior was choosing sides: Some were all in for Paul and his teaching, others were wanting more of Apollos and his teachings. These were false loyalties brought on by the fact that these worldly, immature Christians had no clue about leadership in the church or how God works through His servants. In fact, Paul and Apollos were not gods to be served. They were servants of God, just like all Christians are. They were the instruments God was using, not the objects of anybody’s faith. And the truth is, what God gave to Paul and Apollos He has given to every believer: a witness to the power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Are you a good steward of that? Paul was. And so was Apollos. Both men were saved by grace and took their stories to the lost; to people they used to be like. And that’s really all every believer is supposed to be doing. Being a good steward of our salvation is sharing it with others; it’s telling the lost and dying of what Jesus has done for us.

But, we can’t do that if we’re immature, baby believers. Over in Ephesians 4, we read something very interesting:

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11-13 | NIV84)

That brief paragraph gives the purpose of the Church, which is essentially to build up its members, helping them to become mature in the faith. That word “mature” comes from a Greek word that has the idea of “complete, lacking nothing.” That should be the goal of all believers. Sadly for the Corinthians and for so many believers today, that’s not the goal at all.

God makes us grow

The controversy in the Corinthian church was over Paul or Apollos and who was the better servant of God. Sounds ridiculous to us today, but then all church controversies are ridiculous. The modern “cult of personality” continues to exist in the church today and is manifested in various ways but it all boils down to the same, immature behavior of members. Paul used an agricultural example his readers would have understood:

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. (1 Corinthians 3:6 | NIV84)

There are a couple of very important aspects to that verse. First, the obvious one: God’s servants all work together. That reminds us of this famous passage:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. (1 Corinthians 12:4-6 | NIV84)

Some people in the Church are gifted Bible teachers. Some couldn’t teacher their way out of a kindergarten classroom, but they’re generous to a fault. Others may be hospitable to the point where there are no strangers to them. The Church needs members with all kinds of gifts if it is to do its work in the community. So Paul and Apollos were two servants of God with differing gifts but God was working in and through both of them. That’s important: Men come and go, but God is the One working through all of them to the benefit of the Body of Christ.

And the second point is the key point: God causes each man’s work to increase. That’s a very comforting thought. As we work for God, God makes us successful. We do what God tells us to do, and He’ll do the rest. Some of us are prone to discouragement because we think we are doing the work of God in our own strength. We aren’t. All we can do is all we can do, but all we can do is enough because God will take our best efforts and make them do even more.

That’s what stewardship is all about. We take what God has given us, whether it’s our talent or our time or our money, and if we use it for His glory, He multiplies it; He makes it do more and go further. He makes our talents touch more lives. He somehow makes it possible for us to do more in an hour for Him than what we can do in an afternoon for ourselves. He can take a $10.00 dollar donation and make it do the work of a $100.00. God is the great multiplier. All we have to do is be good stewards of what He has given us, and He will do the rest. It’s what stewardship is all about.

One More Kick At the Stewardship Can

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For the Christian, stewardship refers to the proper handling of what God has entrusted to us. And God requires all believers to be faithful stewards. In our final look at stewardship, we’ll look at the lessons learned by two men who were called to give an account of their stewardship.

Luke 12:16 – 21

Then he gave an illustration: “A rich man had a fertile farm that produced fine crops.” (Luke 12:16 TLB)

Jesus is about to tell a story. He did this often to help His listeners understand some point He was trying to make. This story of rich man, or more accurately, the rich farmer, is supposed to shed some light on this:

And He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.” (Luke 12:15 NKJV)

This single sentence states one of the most basic principles of the Christian faith. Yet, it is consistently ignored and bypassed from generation to generation in spite of the abundant proof of its truth. Every human being will eventually come to realize how unimportant “things” really are. It’s too bad that most of us figure it out only after we’ve lived a life acquiring them.

“Things” don’t make your life more valuable or full or rich. They are also incapable of making you happy or keeping you in peace. It’s interesting how phobic many wealthy people are. The abundance of “things” produces anxieties and discontent more often than they bring happiness.

It is this principle that Jesus told the story of the rich farmer to illustrate. The rich farmer ignored the principle, and as a result not only lost his soul but became for all time an example of the fool and one of the best illustrations of how NOT to live.

And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods.” ’ (Luke 12:17, 18 NKJV)

Talk about being self-centered! All those “I’s”! Here is a snapshot of the self-made man who had gathered all of his treasure on earth but had stored none in heaven. It brings to mind the famous epithath:

Here lies John Rackett,
In his wooden jacket.
He kept neither horses nor mules.
He lived like a hog,
He died like a dog.
And left all his money to fools.

So just what was wrong with the farmer, anyway? A lot of famers would want to be in this man’s position. Judging only by outward appearances, this farmer had done everything right. Outward appearances indicated this was one hard working, smart, honest, law-abiding citizen. He’s certainly not one to just “let things happen.” Here he was, making plans for the future, doing the responsible thing.

And yet there was something wrong with him. His abundant harvest was really God’s blessing – God’s gift to him. And because of that fact, the decisions he was about to make should have been spiritual ones. John Hagee once remarked:

Since my money is God’s money, every spending decision I make is a spiritual decision.

He’s right about that. The farmer was wrong in not realizing this. This abundant harvest was a test of this man’s character, the outcomes of which were eternal.

Let’s make note of the farmer’s shortcomings:

First, the farmer showed that he really didn’t know himself well at all. He failed to realize that he was mortal and that he wouldn’t necessarily be around to enjoy the fruit of his labors. He also didn’t take into account the fact that even though he had lots of crops, those crops did nothing for the health of his soul!

Secondly, in all of his “inner dialogue,” the farmer never once took into consideration how his wealth might help others in need. Certainly he didn’t appear to lack anything, but all around him were people less fortunate than he. What about them? Both in the Greek and in the NKJV, the “I’s” and “my’s” appear a dozen times. He could see nobody but himself. Poor schlub. He had no clue about the joy that results in giving to others.

Thirdly, the prosperous farmer neither thanks God nor glorifies Him. He never once mentions God or acknowledges Him in any way. The farmer is essentially an atheist.

‘And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry. But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’ (Luke 12:19, 20 NKJV)

In verses 17 and 18, the farmer is seen as a selfish, inconsiderate miser-type of person. But in these two verses we see him for what he really was: a fool. Anybody who lives a life without consideration for others and for God is surely the most foolish person who every lived. The height of folly is thinking any kind of material comforts would benefit the soul in any way. In the Bible, the “fool” is anybody devoid of reason. The farmer, then, by God’s own estimation, was a complete fool for three reasons:

* He forgot God

* He forgot his own immortal soul

* He forgot others

He thought he had a lease on life; that he was going to live as long as his wealth could hold out. He couldn’t have been more wrong. What he didn’t realize was that his soul was not his own; that God, its true Owner, had called for an immediate reckoning.

It would do all of us well to recall the words of the psalmist:

The days of our lives are seventy years; and if by reason of strength they are eighty years, yet their boast is only labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away. (Psalm 90:10 NKJV)

As for man, his days are like grass; as a flower of the field, so he flourishes. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. (Psalm 103:15, 16 NKJV)

The final verse of the story is Jesus’ summation and estimation of  people who lives only for themselves and who do not figure on God.

“So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:21 NKJV)

The rich farmer was not a fool because of his wealth. He was a fool because he thought of his wealth only in terms of himself. He had no regard for God.

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” (Psalm 14:1 NKJV)

Luke 16:1 – 13

Jesus now told this story to his disciples: “A rich man hired an accountant to handle his affairs, but soon a rumor went around that the accountant was thoroughly dishonest.” (Luke 16:1 TLB)

Here is a parable that a lot of casual Bible readers don’t get. Jesus in NOT commending crooked business practices. This particular steward is a crook, make no mistake about it. This crooked accountant was a man who followed the principles of the world. Christians aren’t supposed to be doing that.

The world would love you if you belonged to it; but you don’t—for I chose you to come out of the world, and so it hates you. (John 15:19 TLB)

Jesus is not wanting His disciples to be shady operatives like the steward is in the parable. But we are supposed to learn a lesson about stewardship from him.

“So his employer called him in and said, ‘What’s this I hear about your stealing from me? Get your report in order, for you are to be dismissed.’” (Luke 16:2 TLB)

As happens to all who take advantage of others, the dishonest steward got found out. The boss wanted a complete financial report. The manager was caught and his days were numbered. What would he do?

“The accountant thought to himself, ‘Now what? I’m through here, and I haven’t the strength to go out and dig ditches, and I’m too proud to beg. I know just the thing! And then I’ll have plenty of friends to take care of me when I leave!’” (Luke 16:3, 4 TLB)

He was in a pickle, that’s for sure. Too proud to dig and too ashamed to beg. But not above stealing. The man determined to use the few hours of employment he had left to win the friendship of some of his boss’ debtors, so that after he was dismissed he would have a few friends that would take care of him.

“So he invited each one who owed money to his employer to come and discuss the situation. He asked the first one, ‘How much do you owe him?’ ‘My debt is 850 gallons of olive oil,’ the man replied. ‘Yes, here is the contract you signed,’ the accountant told him. ‘Tear it up and write another one for half that much!’

“ ‘And how much do you owe him?’ he asked the next man. ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ was the reply. ‘Here,’ the accountant said, ‘take your note and replace it with one for only 800 bushels!’ (Luke 16:5 – 7 TLB)

What a piece of work this guy was! He was making his master’s debtors personally indebted to HIM by lowering their indebtedness. It’s the Godfather philosophy at work, “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours,” only in reverse. In other words, he was doing them a favor because pretty soon he would be asking something of them.

“The rich man had to admire the rascal for being so shrewd. And it is true that the citizens of this world are more clever in dishonesty than the godly are.” (Luke 16:8 TLB)

Obviously the rich man knew the books had been cooked and he knew what his now-former employee had done, so that makes this statement kind of shocking. It may well be that the rich man got rich using the same tactics his one-time manager had just used on him. According to the (low) standards of the world, the crooked manager did a shrewd thing. Remember, this is the same world that hates us Christians. The world makes up its own rules; it isn’t obligated to obey God’s rules. So, according to the way the world does things, this crooked former employee was pretty slick indeed.

But in paying a compliment to the rascally manager, Jesus was really saying something very uncomplimentary about His followers. What He essentially said was that unbelievers use their money more wisely than believers do. Or, stating it another way, in worldly matters worldly people often show more shrewdness than God’s people do in matters affecting their eternal salvation.

For unless you are honest in small matters, you won’t be in large ones. If you cheat even a little, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities. And if you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of heaven? And if you are not faithful with other people’s money, why should you be entrusted with money of your own? (Luke 16:10 – 12 TLB)

The main point of story is that Christians are stewards of material things, since we are living in a material world. But, as believers we don’t actually own anything. God does, and we are responsible to Him for how we use His “things.” Jesus was dismayed that the non-Christians seemed to be better at that than we Christians are.

Jesus’ words slap us across the face. Sometimes we try so hard to be the kind of “Christian” we think we should be that we miss the obvious things we should be doing. Maybe Billy Graham’s thoughts can drive home Jesus’ teaching;

If a person gets his attitude toward money straight, it will straighten out almost every other area in his life.

Amen to that.

The Pastor and His Congregation

BeFunky_20140612_153907000_iOS.jpgThe church of Jesus Christ is not just an organization; it’s an organism. It is always growing and maturing, reaching out replicating itself all over the world. But it is also an organization made up of a leadership structure and members. During this Stewardship Emphasis Month, we’ve considered what causes a church to grow: the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. As each member learns how to submit himself to the Holy Spirit within him, he will learn what gift or gifts he has been endowed with, and he will learn how to use those gifts in the most effective way within his church to the benefit of his congregation. All members of the church, from the pastor on down, have a responsibility to be faithful to the moving and direction of the Spirit in this regard.

Beyond this purely spiritual dimension, lies another aspect of a healthy church. It involves the pastor and his congregation, each recognizing their respective roles within the dynamic of the local church. The Bible doesn’t say a lot about the roles of the pastor and his congregation, but what it does say is very significant. God’s people are described as “sheep” in the Bible and our Lord as the “Shepherd,” or if you will, the “Head Shepherd,” with pastors functioning as His “under-shepherds.”

Peter wrote about the pastor and his responsibilities:

And now, a word to you elders of the church. I, too, am an elder; with my own eyes I saw Christ dying on the cross; and I, too, will share his glory and his honor when he returns. Fellow elders, this is my plea to you: Feed the flock of God; care for it willingly, not grudgingly; not for what you will get out of it but because you are eager to serve the Lord. Don’t be tyrants, but lead them by your good example, and when the Head Shepherd comes, your reward will be a never-ending share in his glory and honor. (1 Peter 5:1 – 4 TLB)

And Paul, not to be outdone by Peter, penned this about the congregation:

Dear brothers, honor the officers of your church who work hard among you and warn you against all that is wrong. Think highly of them and give them your wholehearted love because they are straining to help you. And remember, no quarreling among yourselves. (1 Thessalonians 5:12, 13 TLB)

In considering the roles of pastor and congregation, we’ll take these passages as jumping off points.

Part One: What the church may expect of their pastor

Believe it or not, your pastor is God’s gift to you, assuming he is in your church by the will of God. Don’t believe me? Feast your eyes on this:

It was he who “gave gifts”; he appointed some to be apostles, others to be prophets, others to be evangelists, others to be pastors and teachers. He did this to prepare all God’s people for the work of Christian service, in order to build up the body of Christ. (Ephesians 4:11, 12 GNB)

Yes, the pastor is a gift to a congregation, but he has his hands full. He has a job to do: to prepare you, his congregation, to serve the Lord with an eye to building the church.

To that end, what can you, as a member of a church, expect from your pastor?

Your pastor should be called by God

Any pastor who is not behind the pulpit God wants him to be behind shouldn’t be there. Natural talent notwithstanding, the pastoral ministry is a calling first and a profession second. All believers are called to serve the Lord, or course, but only a select few are called to stand behind a pulpit. This was something the apostle Paul understood:

For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. (1 Corinthians 9:16, 17 NIV)

Like Paul, we whom God has chosen, feel compelled to preach. Preaching is something your pastor must do. Verse 17 is a bit difficult to understand, but turning to The Living Bible, it’s paraphrase clears Paul’s meaning up:

If I were volunteering my services of my own free will, then the Lord would give me a special reward; but that is not the situation, for God has picked me out and given me this sacred trust and I have no choice.

If your pastor is truly called of God, he’ll feel the same way.

Your pastor should be in your church only because that’s where God wants him to be

You, as a member of a congregation, have every right to expect that your pastor is in your church because your church is where God wants him to be. A pastor should never leave a church or accept a position in a church because of the money or the benefits. And he should leave a church only after a lot of prayer and clear direction from the Lord to do so; after the Lord has taken the burden for that particular congregation away.

Salary may be important. Working conditions may be important, especially when the pastor’s family is taken into consideration. As Paul wrote:

Pastors who do their work well should be paid well and should be highly appreciated, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching. For the Scriptures say, “Never tie up the mouth of an ox when it is treading out the grain—let him eat as he goes along!” And in another place, “Those who work deserve their pay!” (1 Timothy 5:17, 18 TLB)

Pastors are not oxen, but Paul’s point is well taken. But do you know what your pastor’s real reward is? It isn’t his paycheck. Again, Paul wrote:

What pay do I get, then? It is the privilege of preaching the Good News without charging for it, without claiming my rights in my work for the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:18 GNB)

You see, Paul knew it was his right as a Christian preacher to expect to be paid, but he said his real reward was in the ministry of the Word itself. That’s the attitude you may expect from your pastor, if he is called by God to be filling the pulpit in your church.

Your pastor should be an example of godliness

A congregation rises or falls to the spiritual example set by its pastor. Your pastor may or may not be an accomplished preacher or teacher. But if he is a godly man, that will make all the difference in the world. A godly pastor doesn’t mean a perfect pastor. Your pastor may make his fair share of mistakes. But if he is a man of God, he will always make things right; he will always be learning and growing and going back to God for direction, inspiration, and forgiveness.

You can expect your pastor to be a man of prayer. Behind every sermon or Bible study should be hours of prayer. It takes time to pray, but faithful prayer always pays off. But the pastor doesn’t only pray for his work; he prays for his flock. Mind you, you and your problems are not the reason God has called your pastor to your church; he is there because God put him there, sometimes for reasons known only to Him. But you are his responsibility while he is there. And a good pastor will feel the burden of what’s burdening members of his congregation. The only way to deal with that is through time spent in prayer.

Sometimes church members wonder what the pastor does all day. If your pastor is a contentious man, he will be a man of prayer and prayer will take up much of his day.

Your pastor should be faithful in his ministry

Some of the laziest people I know are in the ministry. It’s easy to be lazy in the ministry. Pastors get a month or more off every year. They don’t work Monday’s. They take long lunches. They go to conferences umpteen times a year. They “work from home.” Right. And congregations in all likelihood have been conditioned to maybe criticize his long sermons but to never do more than that. How many times have you been told this verse applies to so-called men of God:

Touch not mine anointed, and do my prophets no harm. (Psalm 105:15 KJV)

Fact is, that verse has nothing to do with your pastor. You have the right to expect your pastor to be faithful in his ministry while he is in your church. He should prepare and preach sermons he himself has written with you in mind. He should visit the sick when needed and pray for them.  He should make the time to listen and advise when called upon. He should be honest with how he spends his time. He doesn’t punch a time clock and most pastors don’t answer to anybody. It takes a lot of discipline to be faithful in the ministry. It’s not easy. But if a pastor will honor both his God and his congregation, he will be found faithfully discharging his call.

Your pastor should take his job seriously, but with a spirit of good cheer

The pastorate is great profession for men who like to work as little as possible. Or for men who like a sense of power. Or for men who like lord it over other men. But for those of us who take the calling seriously, we understand that the responsibility of shepherding God’s flock is heavy indeed.

Obey your spiritual leaders and be willing to do what they say. For their work is to watch over your souls, and God will judge them on how well they do this. Give them reason to report joyfully about you to the Lord and not with sorrow, for then you will suffer for it too. (Hebrews 13:17 TLB)

As a pastor, I can tell you that there isn’t a day that I don’t think about this verse. Every night I replay what I did that day, hoping it was enough for the souls in my charge.

That’s not to say I don’t have a good time doing what I do. There is great satisfaction – personal and spiritual – in the pastorate. No other profession allows a person to be involved in and to watch the spiritual growth of people like pulpit ministry affords. It’s an honor to preach and teach a congregation the Word of God. But it is a dreadful responsibility. There will come a day when I and others in my profession will be called to give an account. The writer to the Hebrews pleads with his readers, as I plead with my congregation, to live lives that will cause me, their pastor, to give a positive report to the Chief Shepherd.

Biblical Church Growth

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Back in the late 1950’s, Universal International released one of my all-time favorite golden age science fiction movies: The Incredible Shrinking Man. Because of a freak accident – sailing his boat into a cloud of radio activity, because that happened so often in the 1950’s – a man begins to shrink. He gets smaller and smaller until he literally vanishes. It’s a creepy film, and of course it’s preposterous. But back then, Universal International made a fortune cranking out these types of crazy, highly entertaining sci-fi movies.

Equally as creepy, but not at all preposterous, is the phenomenon of our times: the incredible shrinking church. Never before in the history of the America has the church of Jesus Christ had less influence than it has today. Almost without exception, although there are some, every denomination in this country is experiencing a decline in membership. Some are declining fast. The Presbyterian Church (USA), for example, is disappearing before our very eyes after committing a kind denominational suicide. But they aren’t alone. Name any mainline denomination you can think of, and you may be sure their numbers are shrinking.

Generally speaking, the influence of all institutions in this country is shrinking. We’ve entered a very cynical phase in American history, or maybe even world history, where people no longer trust or even respect once-venerated institutions. Trust in the government, for example, is at a historic low. That’s understandable given the many scandals of late and the glaring incompetence on constant display in Washington DC. Trust in the media has never been lower. Who thinks they are getting the straight scoop in any newspaper or TV newscast? Banks and insurance companies are not trusted. And forget about “big pharma!” Jack Weinberg, a student activist and advocate of free speech on the campus of Berkeley back in the mid 1960’s, coined the phrase:

Never trust anybody over 30.

Well, he’s now in his 60’s and he is in good company insofar as his philosophy is concerned. These days, nobody trusts anybody or any institution, including the church. And that’s a big reason for the decline in membership.

It’s interesting to see how different churches have tried to buck this shrinkage trend. We have the oddball “seeker sensitive” movement and the unlikely “non-church church” movement. We have denominations that have become so worldly, anybody deviant may join in. We have churches that resemble concert halls and pastors that resemble aged rock stars. Churches do these dopey things to attract more members.

Not that there is anything with wrong with church growth. The Lord wants His people to grow individually and He wants them to grow corporately. He wants His Church to grow and He has given special gifts to churches to make sure that growth occurs:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:11 – 14 NIV)

The last phrase there, “each part does its work,” is important. It says every church member is to use his spiritual gift or gifts within the context of his local church. When that takes place, the church will grow. There is never an exception to this. But it’s not automatic. When church growth doesn’t occur, there may be a reason for it:

They have lost connection with the head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow. (Colossians 2:19 NIV)

Again, it’s that last phrase that’s important: “God causes it to grow.” That’s not an insignificant point. It’s God who causes a church to grow. But, as Paul told the Colossians, if we lose our connection to the Head of the church, Jesus Christ, we won’t grow. When we don’t grow, at best we become stagnant, and at worst we turn into “the incredible shrinking church.”

We don’t want either of those things to happen. And they are both completely avoidable.

Each member must do his share

A church will grow – it must grow – when each member does his part as a member of the Body of Christ, not just a member of his local church.

From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:16 NIV)

You see, Paul understood the life of the Church in organic terms, not in organizational terms. A truly healthy church lies within the purview of the Holy Spirit working through each member of the Body of Christ. In other words, while it is correct to say, “God builds His church,” it’s not correct to think He does it in a vacuum. God does build His church, but He does so through its members, as they exercise the gifts He has given them.

These spiritual gifts, by the way, are within every single born again believer. There isn’t a Christian alive who has no spiritual gift. All Christians have been given spiritual gifts to varying degrees for the sole purpose of building up his or her church. That being true, each member of the church has a job to do that goes beyond warming up a pew every Sunday.

God has given each of us the ability to do certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, then prophesy whenever you can—as often as your faith is strong enough to receive a message from God. If your gift is that of serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, do a good job of teaching. If you are a preacher, see to it that your sermons are strong and helpful. If God has given you money, be generous in helping others with it. If God has given you administrative ability and put you in charge of the work of others, take the responsibility seriously. Those who offer comfort to the sorrowing should do so with Christian cheer. (Romans 12:6 – 8 TLB)

In this passage, Paul describes a total of seven spiritual gifts that have been distributed to members of the church. There are other spiritual gifts mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament (see the lists in: 1 Corinthians 12:8 – 10, 28, 29; Ephesians 4:11), but my point is each member has a function within his or her church. When a member fails to exercise his or her gift or gifts, something will be missing from that church – something God wants that church to have. When a Christian fails to affiliate himself with a local church, it’s not an exaggeration to say that that Christian is robbing a church of something God intends for it to have. A Christian who habitually skips church services is selfish and narcissistic, caring only about himself. If he cared for other Christians, he’d be in a church and he’d be exercising the gifts God has given him.

Don’t believe me? Read on:

Don’t just pretend that you love others: really love them. Hate what is wrong. Stand on the side of the good. Love each other with brotherly affection and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy in your work, but serve the Lord enthusiastically. (Romans 12:9 – 11 TLB)

Contextually, this takes place in a church. There is more to the church than a place where offerings are taken up, couples are married, and then buried. The church is the one place on earth where a Christian may participate fully in the ministry of Jesus Christ through the gifts of the Holy Spirit.

I cannot conceive of how miserable a Christian is who doesn’t go to church. The Spirit within him is grieving, and he can surely feel that. What kind of person can continually turn a deaf ear to the call of the Holy Spirit? What kind of person thinks nothing of grieving the Holy Spirit week after week after selfish week?

Every member is important!

Our bodies have many parts, but the many parts make up only one body when they are all put together. So it is with the “body” of Christ. (1 Corinthians 12:12 – 22, verse 12 cited TLB)

The church cannot do without a single member! You see, a church is like a human body. That’s why we call it “the Body of Christ.” The human body has all kinds of different parts and each part is important. In a church, there are all kinds of different people with all kinds of different spiritual gifts and all those people are important in the life of that church. Dr. McGee tells an interesting story about this very subject:

After I had spoken at a baccalaureate service in a prep school in Atlanta, I went to a doctor’s home for dinner. He asked me if I knew which was the most important part of my body while I had been speaking. I guessed it was my tongue. “No,” he said, “the most important part of your body today was a part nobody would think of. It was your big toe. If you didn’t have a couple of big toes, you wouldn’t have been able to stand up there at all.

Even members you never really see doing anything, may be doing a lot. We can’t all be preachers, thank goodness. We all have different gifts and they’re all important, otherwise they wouldn’t be in the church. Churches grow when members let the Head of the Church work through them.

Instead, we will lovingly follow the truth at all times—speaking truly, dealing truly, living truly—and so become more and more in every way like Christ who is the Head of his body, the Church. Under his direction, the whole body is fitted together perfectly, and each part in its own special way helps the other parts, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love. (Ephesians 4:15, 16 TLB)

There’s no selfishness there, is there? Christians – church members – are to worship together, exercising their spiritual gifts together, and growing in strength together.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12, 13 NKJV)

God is doing the work in us and through us as we participate in the life of the church. This kind of growth can’t take place outside of the church. That’s why you don’t find mature Christians out of the church. They’re the ones in the church.

Let us give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merciful Father, the God from whom all help comes! He helps us in all our troubles, so that we are able to help others who have all kinds of troubles, using the same help that we ourselves have received from God. Just as we have a share in Christ’s many sufferings, so also through Christ we share in God’s great help. (2 Corinthians 1:3 – 5 GNB)

There is no denying that something special – something supernatural – takes place in the church. Members are nourished from above and from within and from each other. With all that going on, that church is bound to grow, both spiritually and numerically. But if members don’t do their part, the church’s growth will be stunted. Fact is, the church is woefully handicapped by lazy or nonfunctioning members. Even the best of churches will never reach its potential when it is being hindered by selfish members, always wanting but never giving.

STEWARDSHIP EMPHASIS, Part 4

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LIVING IN THE PRESENT, LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

As we have been looking at various aspects of Christian stewardship, we touched on a number things. First, every single born again believer is a steward of the good things God has given them. Remember what we established:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17)

So, no matter who you are, what your income or your profession, if you are born again, God has given you “good and perfect gifts.” Those gifts take many forms, and while they may appear to come from other sources, like your employer or family or the government, if it’s “good and perfect,” it came from God. This means you have to be a steward of those gifts.

Second, if you are born again, you have been given another gift: the gift of salvation. It’s not something you earned or even deserve. God saved you out of mercy and grace. This means you have to be a steward of your salvation; it’s the one gift that the Giver wants you to give away. Being a steward of salvation means being an active soul-winner. It means sharing your faith with the lost. It means adding souls to the kingdom of heaven.

Lastly, we discovered that stewardship is really good management. Stewardship is shrewdly, cleverly, prayerfully, and deliberately managing the “good and perfect gifts” God has given us. As it relates to material things, it is carefully finding ways to glorify God with our finances and material blessings. Christians aren’t under the tithe, we aren’t obligated to give a certain percentage of our income to the church, but God wants us to give what we are able to give, after budgeting, planning and praying about it. Being good managers of what God has given us takes work and practice. It’s much harder than simply giving 10%; it’s giving from the heart, and it reveals just how serious you take your relationship with Jesus Christ and your commitment to the Body of Christ.

Good stewards live life with both feet planted firmly on the ground. They are aware of the world around them because they are always on the lookout for ways to glorify God in meeting a need or planting a seed. But good stewards, while they live in the present, are looking forward, to the future. This is the last phase of Christian stewardship.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he covers the full range of issues confronting the Church. He covers issues of personal and moral responsibility, answers liturgical questions about worship, and deals with the proper place and demonstration of the Spiritual gifts within a congregation. Near the end of the letter, Paul settles on a very important topic for discussion: doctrine.

Some Christians hate the word “doctrine.” That’s because they don’t understand that in a very real sense, the Church is an outward manifestation of the doctrines it holds. Any time a Church corrupts Biblically orthodox doctrines, it corrupts the Body of Christ. It presents a distorted image of Christ to the unbelieving world.

Paul begins his letter by stating the foundation of all his teaching and preaching:

but we preach Christ crucified… (1 Corinthians 1:23)

And he ends his letter by declaring the resurrection of Christ to be climax of that same teaching and preaching.

1. Corinthian stewards

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. (verses 1, 2)

The Corinthian church was a real diamond in the rough. Here was a large body of believers, excited about their faith, full of enthusiasm but lacking some direction and maybe some discretion. They were surrounded by pagans and heathens worshiping false gods. New converts filtered into the church constantly, sometimes bringing their unorthodox beliefs and practices with them.

They had received the Gospel of Jesus Christ at some point in the past. This was the Gospel that brought about their salvation. Paul wanted them to remember that. No matter what other smooth-talking teachers were peddling, the Corinthians needed to remember the first things first. No doubt some in the church had entertained some false teaching and it had caused them to doubt the Gospel, or at least question it.

But the majority of the believers in Corinth had “taken their stand” on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That powerful phrase means that these Christians had not only believed in the Gospel, but they had been good stewards of it. They had been proclaiming it in Corinth and other places. As Paul received the Gospel from Jesus, he passed it on to the Corinthians, and they had been passing it on to others.

For what I received I passed on to you… (verse 3)

And the Corinthians had been following Paul’s example. Good stewards all.

Part of the Gospel is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Some in the church were struggling with that aspect of the Gospel; they found the resurrection hard to swallow. Paul makes it clear that when it comes to believing the Word of God, it’s not like a buffet, where you can pick and choose what you want to eat, or in the case of faith, what you want to believe. When it comes to the Gospel and the Word of God, it’s an all or nothing proposition. We believe it all, or we are wasting our time.

2. Remembering the resurrection

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (verses 3, 4)

What Paul first taught the Corinthians didn’t originate with him, but came right out “the Scriptures.” Notice that phrase is repeated; the Corinthians, intellectual and well-read, needed to know that the Gospel, including the part about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, did not come out of his imagination, but from the Scriptures, ancient writings that had stood the test of time. Since the New Testament hadn’t been written yet, Paul was referring to the Old Testament, and probably had in mind passages like Isaiah 53 and Psalm 16. The Greek in these verses is almost poetic. The verb “was buried” is an aorist, meaning a finished, completed act in the past. The verb “was raised,” though, is in the perfect tense, indicating a continuing process. Jesus Christ, the risen Lord, is forever, continuously central to life. His resurrection two thousand years ago is still an event that impacts the world of men today.

The Corinthians needed to remember this fact. The resurrection of Jesus was not some fairy story. It has its roots in the eternity of God and in the history of God’s people as far back as Genesis.

…and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. (verse 5, 6)

Not only did the Scriptures teach the resurrection of Christ, but the risen Christ actually appeared to some pretty important people. Pillars of church, men who would have been well-known to the Corinthians and respected by them, all saw Jesus alive after He had died. Peter and the Twelve—the fathers of the Christian church and its leaders all saw Jesus with their own eyes. But it didn’t stop there! Over 500 hundred other men saw Jesus, and most of those eye witness were still alive, just in case anybody in the Corinthian church wanted to check on Paul’s claims.

Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. (verses 7, 8)

Paul mentions James, the half brother of Jesus and stalwart of the Church and all the apostles as being eye witness of the risen Lord. Last, Paul mentions himself. He also saw the risen Lord. This is significant, for he did not believe he saw Jesus in a vision, but that he saw the risen Lord, in Person, in all His glory. Paul was the last human being to personally see the risen Christ, and he refers to himself as “one abnormally born.” That’s a curious phrase, which refers to an abortion or an untimely birth. What does he mean by this? Paul came to know Jesus Christ as Savior suddenly, violently, while he on his way to do harm to the Church. The 12 apostles, on the other hand, traveled with Jesus, they were taught and trained by Him, and finally commissioned. They were disciples (learners) before they became apostles. Paul was confronted by Jesus, converted by Jesus, and commissioned by Jesus all at once.  Even though his experience was completely different from theirs, he saw the risen Lord just as surely as they had. The resurrection of Jesus, and Paul’s vivid memory of it, propelled Paul in his ministry.

3. Clear-headed service

The resurrection completely turned Paul’s life on its head. He never forgot it, and he always remembered to preach it. But he also remembered what he was when he met Jesus:

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (verse 9)

Paul knew he could never outrun his past, and he probably knew some in the Corinthian church questioned his apostolic credentials. Rather than hide his past, Paul used it as a way to glorify God. He, like any sinner, deserved exactly no mercy from God. Thank God, He doesn’t treat us as we deserve to be treated, rather, he treats us with mercy and grace. Paul had no inflated view of himself, but that didn’t stop him from getting on with the work to which God had called him.

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. (verse 10)

What a great attitude Paul had! No matter what his past—from a student of religion in Jerusalem to the days he spent persecuting the Church, to his life as an apostle and missionary to the Gentiles—it is by God’s grace that he was he was. God’s grace flows in the lives of all who serve Him. And because he was faithful in his service to God, Paul could say that not a drop of God’s grace had been wasted on him! As God poured His grace into Paul, Paul yielded himself to the Lord in humble service. As he lived, traveled, worked, and preached, he did so by the grace of God.

In fact, Paul thought he personally worked harder than any of the other apostles! We have no idea what they were doing since the New Testament doesn’t tell us. Is Paul bragging here? Not really. Paul was making it clear to any doubters in Corinth that he never shirked in his responsibilities to God. The other apostles worked hard, but he worked harder! He was just as committed to the cause as they were, and then some. But it wasn’t him, it was God’s grace working IN him.

4. A view ahead

Some believers in Corinth doubted the whole idea of resurrection, Jesus’ or ours. Paul made it clear to them that it was seeing the resurrected Christ that changed his whole life; it was what motivated him to do the good work. But resurrection is more than looking back, it’s looking ahead.

Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed—in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. (verses 51—52)

In that last day, when the Lord calls believers to Himself, the dead will be resurrected! The perishable (the dead) will be turned into imperishable. The mortal (the living) will be turned into immortal. The idea is that at some time in the future, all believers, those who have already died and those who are still living, will be changed when Jesus returns. In the case of the dead, they will be resurrected. The Corinthians needed to know that the resurrection of the body is all part of the Gospel. Remembering Christ’s resurrection and looking forward to our resurrection is a power motivator in serving the Lord!

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain. (verse 58)

Because we have this sure and certain hope, the Corinthians could stand firm, or “steadfast.” Nothing in this world should have been able to move them from their faith in the Gospel. That phrase, “stand firm” means “to stick to it” and refers to personal faithfulness. To be “unmovable” suggests faithfulness during the hardest of times, even in the face of opposition and false teaching. If the Corinthians, and all believers, could maintain their faith in the whole Gospel, from salvation to resurrection, then they would be able to remain faithful no matter what. Not only will believers remain rock solid in their relationship with Jesus Christ, but they will be workers—good stewards for the Kingdom of God. To be “given gully to the work of the Lord” means going way, way beyond the minimum requirements; gladly doing more that is expected.

As far as Paul was concerned, then, a good steward is a Christian who, (1) believes in the whole Gospel from start to finish, (2) stands firm in that faith come what may, and (3) serves God “above and beyond” because they know what’s at stake here, and what will be waiting for them in the day the Lord calls them home.

STEWARDSHIP, Part 3

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STEWARDSHIP IS MANAGEMENT

2 Corinthians 8:1-9

If the concept of “stewardship” is something you find difficult to understand, try using a different word, like “management.” As Christians, we have been given “every good and perfect gift” from God the Father. Regardless of where you work, or whose name is on your paycheck, if you are a Christian, God is the source of your income. Regardless of where you went to school, if you are a Christian, God allowed you to get your education. Whatever good things you have in life – your job, your talents, your marriage, your children, your income or wealth – they came to you from God the Father.

Our job as Christians is to “manage” those gifts so as to bring glory to God and bless others. This “management” (or stewardship) is to be deliberate and planned. Good managers don’t just happen; they learn; they learn by doing and by living. Ultimately, Christians learn how to be good managers of their various gifts through careful study and application of the Word of God.

Being a good manager was a big deal for the apostle Paul. He left a legacy – his writings and teachings – that demonstrate how seriously he took his job as a manager for God. His traveling companion/friend/personal physician/some-time biographer, Luke, also testifies to how diligently Paul tended to his duties of managing what God had given him. Part of those duties was seeing that needs among God’s people were being met. Chapter 8 of 2 Corinthians shows how Paul dealt with this in practical ways. Through careful and diligent planning, Paul had organized a massive relief effort for the needy believers in Jerusalem among the churches he founded in Galatia, Achaia and Macedonia. It was a Herculean undertaking and a dangerous one, as Paul found out in his travels to pick up the offerings from these various churches.

As we approach this chapter, we need to remember that at least a year prior to its composition, Paul had asked the congregation in Corinth to contribute to the offering week by week and to have a delegation ready to travel with him back to Jerusalem.

Now about the collection for the Lord’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made. Then, when I arrive, I will give letters of introduction to the men you approve and send them with your gift to Jerusalem. If it seems advisable for me to go also, they will accompany me. (1 Corinthians 16:1-4)

As it turned out, after a year, the church had barely started on this relief effort. So Paul penned this chapter to prod them on. And it’s a good thing he did! Chapters 8 and 9 of 2 Corinthians contain the bulk of New Testament teaching on giving. There are NO rules for Christian giving, but there are principles. Some Christians teach that we should be tithing, but that’s not the rule for today. It may be a good principle for some to follow, but it’s not a rule. Instead of the tithe, we should be focusing on “grace.” In Paul’s teaching on giving, he never mentions the word “tithe” once, but “grace” he mentions seven times.

1. Dealing with a delicate subject, verse 1a

And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know…

The Corinthians knew they were in trouble when Paul began a sentence with, “And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know…” That is not a good phrase to read; it would be like hearing, “We need to have a talk,” from your wife as soon as you walk in the door after work. The Corinthians knew they were in trouble. Paul broaches a sensitive topic deftly. Even back then, talking about finances in church was just slightly less offensive than talking about sex, or kids making noises during the service.

It took Paul a while to get around to this discussion, and he probably didn’t want to. Matthew Henry comments:

How cautious ministers should be, especially in money matters, not to give occasion to those who seek occasion to speak reproachfully.

You have to read that sentence several times to understand what Henry is saying, and he’s 100% correct! Ministers have done a lot of damage in trying to educate their congregations in what stewardship and Christian giving is all about. Sometimes that damage is accidental, other times it’s planned, as ministers try to pry more and more cash from their people.

What we need to notice is what Paul wrote next.

2. It comes down to grace, verses 1b-2

And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.

What Paul wanted the Corinthians to know about was “the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.” What Paul is getting at here, as subsequent verses will show, is that he considered giving to be a grace. It is a grace of God. It is an attitude or disposition created in a believer by the Holy Spirit.

Paul is NOT saying that being generous is not normal. Lots of people are capable of being very generous, especially on the first Sunday of the month; especially when they are flush with cash. But these churches in Macedonia wanted to be generous in the midst of a terrible trial. They themselves were strapped for cash; they where having a terrible time, yet they wanted to give generously. That kind of generosity is NOT normal; it is not expected. This kind of generosity in a person or church can only be produced by the Spirit of God.

The Macedonian churches knew that in the midst of their problems, the Lord would never fail them. Because this was their conviction, their joy in Him was limitless. The contrast in this verse catches us off guard. Normally, the expected contrast would be between poverty and wealth, but instead, Paul introduces the contrast of abundant joy and extreme poverty. It’s hard to understand how, but affliction produces joy in the believer and joy and poverty produce a generous spirit.

But how bad had things gotten in the Macedonian provinces? Two hundred years before Paul set foot in them, Macedonia was swimming in the wealth produced by sales of gold and precious metals. Thanks to that abundance of natural resources, Macedonia was an extremely wealthy and prosperous area. However, the tide, as tides often do, changed. During Paul’s day, the Macedonian economy had deteriorated thanks in part to wars, barbarian invasions, Roman settlements, and cultural drift to the point where poverty had become a way of life in places like Philippi and Thessalonica.

Not so in Corinth. They had their trials, but their trials were of a spiritual nature. Materially the congregation there was prospering. In spite of their extreme poverty, the churches of Macedonia were lavish in their giving to the cause.

3. The real motivation to give, verses 3, 4

For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.

The generosity of the Macedonians was motivated by their desire to be a part of the team that was meeting the needs of the Lord’s people. The Greek structure of verse 3 is difficult, but the sense is that Paul himself was an eyewitness of their generosity. What he is telling the Corinthians is not second or third hand gossip.

Verse 4 has a number of important concepts relating to Christian giving:

(1) Privilege. The Macedonians understood what a privilege it was to share with fellow believers in need. The Greek word charis, “privilege,” refers, not to the gift, but to the act of giving. So, the grace of giving – the privilege of giving – has to do with the act of giving, not so much what is given.

(2) Sharing. The act of giving is connected with sharing one’s possessions with another. It implies fellowship with each other, rooted in fellowship with Christ. This is the giving that pleases God: when His children share with each other. Giving to anybody in need is always a good idea, but the supreme manifestation of the grace of giving is the giving that takes place within the Body of Christ.

(3) Service. Being part of “the Church” is far more than just having your name on membership roll. It is being a part of a group that is always reaching out to others with the love of Christ and by helping each other in humble service to the Lord. The local church is where this service begins; it is the place where we get to exercise our particular gifts of the Spirit and it’s the place where we can be the recipients of others’ gifts.

(4) The Lord’s People. Other translations use the word “saints.” We see how connected true churches ought to be. Saints meeting the needs of other saints is what the world is supposed to be seeing. The world should look in amazement at the loving concern believers have for one another.

4. More than money, verse 5

And they went beyond our expectations; having given themselves first of all to the Lord, they gave themselves by the will of God also to us.

The Macedonians were not just generous in giving to help the poor back in Jerusalem, but they went beyond all reasonable expectations. What does that mean? What were Paul’s expectations? Remember, the Apostle and his friends where traveling around to all these churches picking up offerings (money) for the mother church back in Jerusalem. So, Paul’s expectations would be simply receiving money from all these churches to bring back to Jerusalem. But in Macedonia, he got more than what he expected. They didn’t just give him a check, which they couldn’t really afford to do in the first place, but because the had “given themselves first of all to the Lord,” they gave more than just their material possessions to Paul. They gave joyfully. They gave enthusiastically. They gave to Paul as God had given to them.

We know from verse 8 that Paul is sort of “shaming” the Corinthians into carrying their weight:

I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others.

If Paul noticed what other churches were doing in His Name, is it reasonable to think that God also notices? How seriously would we take our “management duties” as Christians if we knew that God was comparing the sincerity of our love to others?

The Macedonians were dirt poor, but gave “beyond their ability.” But elsewhere in Scripture, Paul wrote this:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:8)

Is Paul contradictory with his advice to different church? Not at all! Paul is teaching exactly the same things Jesus tried to teach the rich your ruler:

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Matthew 19:21)

Jesus was NOT giving advice to everybody here, just to this one individual who had been coveting material wealth instead of spiritual riches. Neither Jesus nor Paul would ever want any believer to sell everything, go into debt, yet give the proceeds to needy believers. That is NOT good management of the resources God has given you! In fact, that’s foolish.  God has given YOU resources, first of all for YOU, to help you live an enjoyable life. But He wants YOU, freely and without restrictions, to become shrewd managers of those resources, so YOU can help other believers who may find themselves in need.

No New Testament writer ever suggests Christians should be tithing. Paul gives no percentages as guidelines for healthy giving. Why not? It’s because the Lord wants His people to SHOW Him their love and faithfulness. As we help another believer, as one church helps another church, we are doing the will of God. We should all be giving exactly like the Macedonians gave: joyfully no matter what our circumstances are. Remember what Paul wrote in the next chapter:

Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. (2 Corinthians 9:7)

Why cheerful? It’s because when you give in church, you are using that act (of giving) to joyfully worship God in gratitude to Him. All of our giving should come from the heart; we should never, ever, allow our giving to decided according to some rule or percentage set by some finance committee. Our giving should be an outward manifestation of the joy we have in the Lord. This was how the Mecedonians showed their love: they gave beyond their ability.

 

STEWARDSHIP EMPHASIS, Part 2

Matthew 20:20—28

There are two very important aspects of stewardship that cannot be stressed enough. First, before any Christian can think about being a good steward he must receive something from God. The Bible declares a truth that makes all Christians stewards:

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. (James 1:17)

No matter where that “good and perfect gift” seems to come from, its ultimate source is God! Whether you realize it or not, if you are a Christian, you receive things from God all the time. Given this, you must be a steward of all the “good and perfect gifts” you have received.

Second, stewardship is not a “church thing,” it’s a “life thing.” In other words, stewardship must be a way of life, not just something we do on Sunday. Giving of your finances is certainly part of stewardship—an important part—but it’s not the only part! God has called all believers to live as His stewards all the time, every day, in whatever activity they may be involved.

Those are things most Christians believe. What may surprise a lot of Christians is that the Bible teaches how God serves us and how we are obligated to serve others because we, ourselves, are served.

1. Perspective, perspective, perspective, Matthew 20:20, 21

In this incident, we are allowed a fascinating glimpse into the personal ambition of two of Jesus’ followers, James and John. It is recorded in Mark’s Gospel with a difference. There James and John make this request:

Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory.” (Mark 10:37)

Here in Matthew, it is their mother who makes the request:

Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” (Matthew 20:21)

In all probability, all three individuals were making the request of Jesus. But that’s not the really interesting thing about this incident. The really interesting thing is what came before the request. For that, we look at back at Mark’s account:

Then James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask.” (Mark 10:35)

Three things need to be noted about this strange request. (1) It reveals just how unspiritual these men really where! Can you imagine even thinking you have the right to ask this of Jesus? (2) They have very short memories in light of this teaching:

They came to Capernaum. When he was in the house, he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all.” (Mark 9:33—35)

And finally, (3) they were totally selfish. However, before we judge these brothers too harshly, we should take a look around at the state of modern Christianity, starting with ourselves. Are we any better than they? How many selfish prayers have we prayed lately? How many of us judge God sinfully because we are ignorant of His Word? We pray for things we have no business praying for, then we blame God instead of our own shortcomings.

These brothers and their mother, like so many believers today, viewed Jesus as a shortcut to getting what they wanted. Notice that she (maybe even the sons) couched their request of Jesus while worshiping Him:

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. (Matthew 20:20)

No doubt a lot of us worship Jesus with the exact same motive: to get something out of Him. Of course, we don’t word it like that! We think that if we make Jesus feel good with some singing or speaking in tongues, and telling Him how wonderful He is and how much we love Him, He’ll be more predisposed to giving us what we think we need. This mother’s request, by the way, was a perfectly natural thing for a mother to want for her children. What parent doesn’t pray for their child’s success, in school or in life?

The disciples had no perspective because they missed the teaching back in chapter 18. Back there, Jesus asked a probing question:

Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1)

Jesus answered His own questing using a young child to drive home the point:

I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3, 4)

The fact that two chapters later they’re asking the same question shows that they missed Jesus’ point completely! They did not notice Jesus’ attitude about His impending Passion and the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. James and John and their mother still thought it was all about NOW; all about THIS WORLD.

The three of them couldn’t have been more wrong.

2. Jesus tries again, Matthew 20:22, 23

We have to marvel at the patience of Jesus. His answer is short and priceless:

You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” (Matthew 20:22)

Jesus had been talking about His coming death but their minds were stuck on their “proper place” in the Kingdom. Our Lord told them they were asking their question in ignorance; they had no idea what He—or they themselves—were talking about! What Jesus said next should have hit them between the eyes: were they ready to die with Him? James and John wanted to share in their Savior’s glory, not understanding that part of being glorified was to suffer.

It’s a valid question that Christians should be asking themselves even today. Are we willing to suffer as Jesus suffered? Most of us want all the “good stuff” we can get out of a relationship with Jesus Christ, things like: eternal life, forgiveness of sins, promise of blessings, and so on. Rarely do we ever think that part of that relationship often involves suffering. Yet it does. We want to do all we can to avoid suffering and mitigate its effects on our lives, never stopping to consider that when we suffer for our faith or on account of our faith, we are being treated as Jesus was treated and that itself is cause for praise.

To their credit, at least we may say that these two men were as loyal as they could be to Jesus. But even then, the future would show that at this point in time, they were far too self-confident:

But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled. Then all the disciples deserted him and fled. (Matthew 26:56)

What Jesus said next should have been chilling, although these two men probably had no clue that Jesus was basically telling them their futures were bleak:

Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.”

James would be martyred (Acts 12:2) and John banished to the Island of Patmos. This is what Jesus was getting at; they certainly would “drink from His cup.” But beyond that, there is a vitally important meaning in what Jesus said for believers today. In terms of positions in heaven, Jesus would not be handing them out arbitrarily. When Jesus said He was leaving to prepare a place for us, He wasn’t talking about a place at His right or left hand. Those places of authority and responsibility in the Kingdom are places that we are preparing for ourselves.

Understand this: nobody can earn their way into heaven. Salvation itself is wholly a gift from and a work of God. We are saved by faith and nothing else. However, our reward or our position in the Kingdom is determined by what we are doing here and now. It is determined by our stewardship; the stewardship of our salvation.

The thing we must consider is what kind of “place” are we building for ourselves in heaven? How are you doing on racking up your heavenly rewards? Some believers don’t really care about those things. But regardless of what you think, you are determining your position in the Kingdom right now. Paul got it:

I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14)

The biggest problem with believers today is that there is no sense that anything needs to be accomplished for Christ beyond living a clean life. There doesn’t seem to be an urgency to spread the Gospel and win the lost for Christ. For too many of us, there is a complete disconnect between our life of faith and our life in the flesh. In reality, part of being good stewards is being stewards of all the good things we have received through Christ, starting with our salvation.

In the Kingdom of God, it’s not favoritism that determines rewards or positions, but fitness.

3. A new theology of service, Matthew 20:24-28

The other disciples heard the exchange between Jesus and James, John, and their mother and they were not impressed with James and John. They resented these two “sons of thunder” trying to gain the advantage with Jesus. In response to this indignation, Jesus called the 12 together to explain why the Kingdom of Heaven is so different from what people think it is.

Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— (Matthew 20:26, 27)

The Kingdom of Heaven, according to Jesus, is the opposite to any earthly kingdom. From earth’s perspective, the Kingdom of Heaven does everything backwards. The master is the servant. The first is the last. What a radical change of thought Jesus was demanding of His followers! But He demands the same radical change of thought in us today. We cannot apply worldly values to heavenly things or vice versa. We shouldn’t be desiring the same things out of our relationship with Jesus that we desire out of any earthly relationship.

“The way up is down” taught Jesus. The one who is the servant of all, or the one who is a committed steward of all Jesus have given Him, will be honored and rewarded.

Verse 28 is power-packed verse of New Testament theology:

…The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

This new way of looking at serving (stewardship) and greatness was perfectly demonstrated by Jesus. He came to serve, not to be served. This service had nothing to do with feeding the hungry or healing the sick, but everything to do with He Himself being a steward of the the salvation He had for all.

The word for “life” here is psyche; “ransom” is lytron, referring to money paid to a slave owner to buy their freedom. Jesus gave His life a ransom “for many.” Does this mean that Jesus died only for some, as taught by some churches? Not at all. The use of “many” here does not mean that Jesus died for only some (“many”). Paul certainly never thought that:

[Jesus] gave himself as a ransom for all people. This has now been witnessed to at the proper time. (1 Timothy 2:6)

The preposition anti is used before the word “many.” The very common meaning of anti is “instead of.” In some way that no human being can quite understand or explain, Jesus Christ gave His life a ransom “instead of many,” to set us free from sin and death.

Jesus was a good steward.

Are we?

Jesus is teaching here that He was willing to humble Himself to the point of giving His life. This attitude of stewardship must be reflected in His people. Christ’s sacrifice is unique. It can’t be copied. Our attitude must be the same as His. We, by God’s grace and with His help, must become stewards of the salvation that is ours. If you believe in John 3:16, you must practice 1 John 3:16!

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1 John 3:16)

Our gift of salvation is meant to be given away to those who need it.

 


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