Body Gifts

Selections from I Corinthians 12

Many years ago, Kathy decided that our church in Houston, which had not had a Vacation Bible School for many years, needed to have one. We had a small daughter of the age to go to VBS, and Kathy wanted her to have the experience she had as a child. Therefore, she organized the first VBS in our church in about a decade. She discovered she had the gift of leadership.  About five years ago, she went to a Missions Conference and learned about a disciple-making program. She came home, began what is now Salt & Light, and discovered that she has the gift of evangelism.

More than forty years ago, a young associate pastor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a person recognized to be on the fast-track to a large church, began an evangelism program. Another Presbytery found out about the program. The other Presbytery asked him to found a new church in Memphis, Tennessee. He went and the church grew. My friend didn’t know that he had the gift of apostleship, but he did.

We have a dear friend who, after years of Bible study, growing up in a Christian home, marrying a Christian husband, and raising a family, began to pray for people to be healed. Interestingly, a significant number of those people experienced healing. My friend discovered she had the gift of healing.

Shortly after the Second World War, a young soldier came home. After a few years, he began his own business. Over time, the business was able to support his family. He gave to the local church. He participated in stewardship, building campaigns, and other projects. When his church created something like our Family Ministry Center, he was a contributor. The choir of the inner city ministry sang at this funeral. He didn’t know it, but he had the gift of generosity.

This morning, we are talking about spiritual gifts. Spiritual gifts are important to the Christian life, and it’s important for us to have a handle on our spiritual giftedness. 

Text and Prayer

First Corinthians is one of the earlier letters of Paul. The Corinthian church was wealthy and charismatic. It was also undisciplined, self-centered, and unspiritual. Paul wrote First Corinthians to instruct the church how to overcome some of its problems, including the misuse of spiritual gifts.  First Corinthiansis a great text for churches in America, because we too are often wealthy and gifted, but self-centered and unspiritual.

Our text is from chapter 12. I’m not going to transcribe all of it, but only those portions that are pertinent to begin this blog. Hear the word of God as it comes to us through the Apostle Paul:

Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. … There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized byone Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink (I Cor. 12:1, 4-13).

Let us Pray: Eternal God, we thank you for the Spirit of Jesus that comes to us to save us, to perfect us, and to give us every perfect gift we need for the Christian life. Please come to us this morning and allow us to become ever more faithful children of the Father. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.

The Giver of the Gifts

In order to understand spiritual gifts, we should spend a few moments remembering that spiritual gifts are gifts of God. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God, sent by the God the Father through God the Son. In other words, the Spirit is God present with us. The Spirit is not something sent from God or an emanation from God; it’s God. The Spirit of God has always existed. It was brooding over the face of the deep before the world was created (Genesis 1:2) The Holy Spirit is the same spirit that inspired the Moses to write the Law, the Prophets to speak words of warning to people, David to be a good and faithful king, and Jesus to be born of Mary and to live his sinless life. 

Secondly, in First John we also learn that God is love (I John 4:8).  The word used is “Agape.” In other words, the Spirit is the unselfish, self-giving love that Christ showed on the cross, the same love that is faithful and redeems his people even when they do not deserve his love. This is important! God is love and always works for the benefit and best interests of others. Therefore, we can be sure that the Holy Spirit always works for the best interest of God’s people.

In First John we learn that God is light (I John 1:5). In other words, God is full, complete and perfect wisdom, the same supernatural wisdom through which he created the heavens and the earth and by which all things are sustained even until today. Because the Spirit is the Spirit of the creator God, we can be sure that the spirit always works in wisdom and never works in confusion, over-emotionality, or self-centered behavior.

We demean the Spirit if we make of the Spirit just a power, as people sometimes do. The Holy Spirit is powerful, but it’s much more than power. The Spirit is the wholeness of God come to be with us, save us, perfect us, and empower us. Just as the Father and the Son are persons, the Spirit is the personal presence of God with us..

The Gifts of the Giver

The precise gifts of the Spirit are another area in which there is often misunderstanding. In Romans 12, in First Corinthian’s 12, and in Ephesians 4, there are lists of gifts of the Spirit. In various other books of the Bible there are references to gifts being given to the people of God (See for example, Exodus 31:1-6 and First Peter 4:10-11). Interestingly, the lists are completely not identical. In other words, all of the lists represent major some of the gifts given by the Holy Spirit. No list is exhaustive. There are gifts that some people recognize that are not listed. For example, the supernatural ability to create worship music or art in worship is a gift, but it’s not in any of the lists. [1] God gives many different to his people.

This morning I want to look at some of the major gifts our members might have found in today’s passage and affirmed in other places in Scripture.

  • Wisdom is the ability to understand the way the world works and discern practical, achievable solutions to the problems of life. 
  • Knowledge is the ability to understand the deep things of Scripture, of God’s nature, and of God’s creation. 
  • Faith is the ability to look at discouraging circumstances and uncertainty while maintaining the confidence and trust in God. 
  • Teaching is the ability to communicate the truth of Scripture in ways that people can understand. 
  • Prophecy is the ability to apply the truths of Scripture to world events. 
  • Discernment is the ability to discern good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood. 
  • Speaking in Tongues is the ability to speak in a heavenly language. 
  • Interpretation of Tongues is the ability to interpret to understand the deep things spoken in a heavenly language. 
  • Helps is the practical ability to help other people in need. 
  • Leadership is the ability to lead people towards a common goal. 
  • Administration is the ability to manage the business of the people of God.
  • Encouragement is the ability to encourage those who are discouraged so that they can live out the Christian life. 
  • Generosity is the ability to give above and beyond what would be expected of a normal person to meet the needs of others. 
  • Apostleship is the ability to plant new churches to allow the kingdom of God to grow. 
  • Pastoring is the ability to shepherd God’s people.

If you want to know more about your own spiritual gifts and how they might be used, in the email of the week from our church there is a link to a spiritual gifts inventory. If you go on the Internet, there are many such inventories. [2]

Years ago, I took my first spiritual gifts inventory. Not surprisingly, my number one gift was teaching. As the years have gone by, God has given me other gifts, including the gift of prayer, counseling others, and pastoring a local congregation. Just because you have a particular gift today does not mean that that it is your only gift, or that God does not intend to give you other gifts in the future. God is a perfect giver—and God never stops giving gifts to his people (James 1:7).

The Motive of the Giver.

Most church leaders who have led for any length of time, including charismatic pastors, have a degree of suspicion about some people as regards spiritual gifts. Sometimes, the existence of a gift makes a person proud or difficult. Sometimes, the existence of a gift will make a person think that they are better than others. Paul experienced the very same thing!! The church in Corinth was a gifted church, but their gifts had made them proud. Those who had special gifts thought they were better than others. Part of the reason Paul wrote the Corinthians was to remind them that all gifts are necessary for the body of Christ (I Cor. 12:7).

This is why humility and love are so important in using our spiritual gifts. In Romans, just before Paul speaks of spiritual gifts, he warns the Romans not to be puffed up about the gifts, but instead to serve one another in humility (Romans 12:3). This past week, I was visiting with a friend from another state about a person we both know well. This person has leadership gifts. Unfortunately, after years of leadership, he is still immature. He’s left more than one church. He has divided more than one congregation. This highly-gifted, intelligent individual is not yet capable of using his gifts to build up the body of Christ without causing problems.

You see, God has a reason for giving spiritual gifts: God wants to build up the body of Christ. The gifts are given so that the entire body of Christ might reflect the nature of God. We are giving gifts of wisdom because God is the only wise God Romans 16:27; Jude 1:25). We are given gifts of prophecy, because God is the god of the prophets (Hebrews 1:1). We are given gifts of pastoring, because God is the good shepherd (John 10:11). We are given the gift of mercy because God loved us so much that he said his Son to save us (John 3:16). All the gifts are necessary. None of us has all the gifts, because God wants to create a family in which everyone is necessary. The gifts of the Spirit are given to build up the body of Christ and to show us how dependent we are on one another.

The Goal of the Gifts

At the end of today’s chapter, Paul urges the Corinthian’s to earnestly desire the greater gifts, especially love (I Cor. 12:31). Here is how Paul concludes his teachings on the gifts of the Spirit:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part,but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love(I Corinthians 13:1-13).

This reminds us to end where we began: with love. Love is the source of the gifts and love is the goal of the gifts. The gifts are nothing without love.

Without love, none of the gifts are worth anything. The least gifted person in our church with the most love is greater than the most gifted person with the least love. Let me say that again: the least gifted person in our church with the most love is greater than the most gifted person with the least love.

Amen.


[1] Spiritual gifs inventories often differ depending upon what group or denomination is preparing to list. Those who are secessionist (believing that the sign gifts ended at the when the Bible was completed) often leave out healing, speaking in tongues. etc. Charismatic groups almost always include the so-called “sign gifts.” Nearly all mainline spiritual gift inventories include music and other spiritual gifts that are not listed in the Bible.  This seems to me to be consistent with Scripture. The lists contained in Holy Scripture are illustrative of the giftedness God intends for his people.

[2] See, http://gifts.churchgrowth.org/spiritual-gifts-survey/ (Downloaded October 20, 2018). There are many fine inventories online and in books and pamphlets. In my experience, despite the differences among them, there is a consistency of result. For example, I still test highest for teaching in most inventories.

Generous Living

A “Sermon on the Amount”

There is no character in Scripture more fascinating than Abraham. For those of you who don’t know his story, a brief introduction will help you understand what a wonderful passage we are studying in this blog. The story of Abraham begins with the death of his father. Terah. Abraham’s father was the head of what a Bedouin-like tribe we know as the “Hebrews.” They had begun their journey near Babylon, in the Ur of the Chaldees. In Haran, near today’s Damascus, Terah died (Genesis 11:27-32).

Abraham was now the head of the family. By now, Abraham was well-along in years. He was comfortable. He lived in or near a relatively wealthy city. However, Abraham had a problem: he and his wife Sarah were without children. He had no heir to whom to leave his property, position, and responsibility. 

One day, when Abraham was already an old man, the Lord came to him and told him that, if he would go from his home to a land which God would show him, the Lord would give him descendants and bless the whole world through him (12:1-3). Scripture tells us that Abraham believed God and so by faith and trusting in God went from Haran in order to receive the promised blessing. This action of Abraham resulted in his becoming a hero of the faith, whose trust in God is used over and over again as a symbol to faith all believers should have (Genesis 15:6; Habakkuk 2:4; Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6; Hebrews 11:8-10, 17-19).

When Abraham left Haran, he took with him Lot, his nephew. He also took along his cattle and sheep all of his belongings his wife and his family. Anyone who’s ever seen a travelling Bedouin group can imagine many people walking through the desert with camels and donkeys carrying their belongings as they led their herds of goats and sheep along the Fertile Crescent south towards what we today know as “Israel.”

Eventually, Lot and Abraham had so many sheep that their herdsman were constantly fighting for grassland and water. If you remember from our series on the 23rdPsalm, sheep graze land almost to the stubble of the grass. Therefore, it is necessary to move them from field to field. You just cannot have too many sheep grazing together in a single area.

Therefore, it was necessary for the Lot and Abraham to separate (Gen. 13). Given the choice by Abraham, who might have chosen the best land for himself, Lot chose a fertile area in southern Judea near the Sodom and Gomorrah. He eventually moved into Sodom. Later, the king of Elam and his allies made war against the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah and their allies (Gen. 14). (These kings were really little more than chieftains who controlled a particular city and the surrounding land.) Eventually, Lot was captured with his belongings and wives and taken into captivity (14:11).

Upon hearing this, Abraham gathered up 318 men and fought a battle, rescuing Lot, recovering his belongings, and capturing himself a great deal of booty. Today’s text takes place after that battle, as Abraham meets a mysterious figure called “Melchizedek” on his way home.  Melchizedek, whose name means “King of Righteousness,” was the king of Salem. We think that Salem was in the same location as modern Jerusalem. Their meeting probably occurred somewhere near that spot.

In the New Testament, Jesus is called a “Priest after the Order of Melchizedek.” You see, Melchizedek was not in an Aaronic priest of the law of Moses. He lived hundreds of years before Moses. Melchizedek was a priest of the Most High God prior to the Law being given and prior the Jewish priesthood. Similarly, Jesus was not of the tribe of Levi; he was of the tribe of Judah, in the line of David. Yet, on the cross, he demonstrated himself to be our High Priest. Jesus is a King of Righteousness, having fulfilled the law by his life and sacrificial death.

Text and Prayer

With this long introduction, let’s read and hear the word of God as it comes to us from Genesis chapter 12:

After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley).Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abraham, saying,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
    Creator of heaven and earth.
And praise be to God Most High,
    who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. Then, the king of Sodom said to Abraham, “Give me the people and keep the goods for yourself.”

But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to the Lord, God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth,that I will accept nothing belonging to you, not even a thread or the strap of a sandal, so that you will never be able to say, ‘I made Abram rich.’I will accept nothing but what my men have eaten and the share that belongs to the men who went with me—to Aner, Eshkol and Mamre. Let them have their share.” (Genesis 14:17-24).

A Tithe of Friendship and Gratitude

When people talk about tithing, and when pastors preach on tithing, they often begin with the later biblical passages after the law of Moses. They forget that tithing existed before the law of Moses. People have expressed their gratitude to God for the blessings of life since Cain and Able at the beginning of Genesis (Genesis 4:3-6). These were offerings of thanks and gratitude for the harvest God had provided. It is important that we remember that giving and tithing begins with gratitude.

In today’s passage, Abraham has fought a great battle against kings with superior numbers and better trained armies.  On his way home, he met Melchizedek, the King of Salem, a Priest of the Most High God and King of Salem. When they met, Melchizedek brought out wine and bread and they shared a fellowship meal.  The same elements Jesus used in the Last Supper as he instituted the meal as a symbol of our new fellowship with God by faith in Christ.

As was pointed out several weeks ago, hospitality is a big part of Middle Eastern culture. When Melchizedek, reached out in hospitality and friendship to Abraham, Abraham responded with gratitude by giving a tithe to Melchizedek. In this way, these two men were bonded together as friends by the terms of their culture. This is a wonderful picture of our relationship with God.

Abraham recognized that his victory was not of his own doing. He realized that God had delivered him from his enemies. That’s what Melchizedek, says in his blessing. In response, Abraham tithed to his new friend. Our act of giving should be motivated by the same features that characterize the relationship between Abraham and Melchizedek: God has opened up his heart to us and provided salvation to us, bringing us into his household. We’ve been made friends of God. In joyful gratitude for all that God has done, we open our hearts to God and give back to God from what we have been given by his grace.

A Tithe of Blessing

Wisdom literature teaches that we should honor the Lord with the first fruits of our wealth. When we do this, God promises we will receive a blessing in return. Here is how it is put in Proverbs 3:

Honor the Lord with your wealth,
    with the first-fruits of all your crops;

then your barns will be filled to overflowing,and your vats will brim over with new wine (Proverbs 3:9-10).

Wisdom literature is not a law or set of rules. Wisdom literature contains observations by the wise men of old about the results of human behavior given the nature of the universe and how God acts. [1] The wise men observed that generous people frequently received a blessing in return for their generosity. This was certainly true of Abraham!

Over the past week, I’ve had the opportunity to talk a number of our members about experiences they have had where God responded to their act of generosity by restoring to them as much or more of what they had given. Now, this isn’t a necessary thing. It doesn’t always happen. However, I can tell you, that in my life, I’ve been surprised how frequently exit generosity lead to blessings.

A Tithe of Trust/Faith

As time went on, the law of tithing was incorporated into the Torah. The word “Torah” is the Hebrew word we translate as “Law”. This is a good translation, but it leaves something out. The word Torah also means “Instruction”. If one reads the five books of the Old Testament known as the “Torah,” one immediately notices that the majority of the text is an historical narrative. It’s the story of God’s people as they live out the life of faith. The instruction we receive from the story is not law in the sense of rules. It is a way of life lived in faith and trust in the living God.

This is where we get to the next principle of stewardship and tithing: By the time of the prophets, the people of Israel were no longer respecting God, seeking the blessings of God, and responding to the grace of God by trusting God in all of life. Therefore, the prophets questioned the people and warned them about the consequences of their unfaithfulness and lack of trust.

Several weeks ago, I was in a prayer meeting on Thursday evening with a small group of people. One of those people was Margie Townsend, one of the members of our Pastoral Search Committee. At the meeting, we talked and prayed about our church and giving. Margie reached into her Bible and gave me a card that Hu Auburn handed out in 1999, almost twenty years ago!! On that card is printed Malachi chapter 3 verse 10. It reads as follows:

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it(Malachi 3:10). 

Often, this verse is used to talk about the law of tithing. Notice, however, that obedience to the law is not the focus of the prophet’s words. What’s mentioned is the blessing of living joyfully in faith and trust in God, giving to God and expecting that God will meet our needs because we are his friends, his children, members of his family and tribe! Once again, there is a law, a teaching, and we ought to follow it. But, that is not the fundamental reason to give. The reason to give is in response to the blessings we have received from God, personal, spiritual, emotional, and material.

Jesus and the Tithe

Finally, this morning I want to talk about Jesus and tithing. Often, preachers, scholars, and others say that the Old Testament practice of tithing no longer applies in the New Testament or to Christians. For a number of reasons, I don’t think that’s correct. Fundamentally, the reason I don’t think it’s correct is because God hasn’t changed between the Old Testament and the New Testament. God wanted to bless his people and have fellowship with his people in the Old Testament, and God wants to bless his people and have fellowship with his people today! 

God wants to bless us to be a blessing to others today just as he wanted to bless Abraham. God wants us to be joyful members of his family as much today as he wanted the ancient Jews to be members of his family, so that they could be a blessing to others! He wants to bless the world through our faith, just as he wanted to bless the world through Abraham’s faith. God is the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

In a passage in Luke, Jesus was doing mighty deeds of power, driving out demons, and teaching with great wisdom. The crowds were coming to him, and of course the Pharisees weren’t always thrilled by his teaching or action. At one point, Jesus says the following:

Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone(Luke 11:42).

This passage undercuts those who believe that Jesus abrogated tithing as a practice for God’s people. Jesus is not criticizing the Pharisees for tithing. He is criticizing them for legalistically tithing, but neglecting to love others and do justice and love God first. 

Last week, John Murtha said something in our worship service that is very important: “We can give without loving but we can’t love without giving.” That’s exactly what the Pharisees were doing! They were giving without loving. They didn’t really love God or other people. What Jesus is saying is we should give, not legalistically, but out of the abundance of the joy of Christ in our hearts and the love we have for God and others!

Living as Grateful Friends of God

I want to leave us this today right where we began: Once upon a time there was a man named “Abraham”. God promised Abraham that if he would walk in trustful faith, he would bless him. Abraham responded to God in faith. God responded to Abraham’s faith. In the end Abraham received the blessing of the promised son. But he received something more, Abraham became a friend of God. Over years and years of walking by faith, Abraham’s personality became such that God called him his “Friend.” When we live like Abraham, walk in faith and living by faith, we also become friends of God. Tithing, you see, is simply a part of being a friend of God.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved


[1]G. Christopher Scruggs, Path of Life: The Way of Wisdom for Christ-Followers(Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014).

What Got in My Way

Once again, my computer has been hacked, and this story just appeared out of nowhere. Go figure.

Let me introduce myself: I am the person known as the “rich young ruler” or the “young man” who came to see Jesus. [1]. My story must be important because Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all report my interaction with Jesus (Matthew 19:18-30; Mark 10:17-31; Luke 18:18-34). By reading my story in the first three Gospels, you can learn a good deal about me.

The Rich Young Ruler

First, I was rich. In my day, riches were mostly an inherited thing. Many people like me lived in cities or towns, but we had farms in the country. Some of us had businesses in the city. I can’t remember exactly how I got my money, but I was wealthy. My parents had inherited wealth, and our family had improved upon it.

Second, I was young (Luke 18:18). In my day, it was hard to be a leader under the age of thirty.  In Jewish thinking, a male became a man at thirty. Perhaps it was for this reason that thirty was the age at which Jesus began preaching. In addition, thirty was the age a person like me might become a member of the Sanhedrin—the supreme council of my people. No one was made a leader before thirty or so. As far as I can remember, that’s about how old I was.

Third, I was a “ruler.” This could mean a variety of things. Perhaps I was a member of the Sanhedrin. That would have been quite an accomplishment! Perhaps I was a ruler of my local synagogue. That would still have been a great achievement. For whatever reason I was recognized as a leader.

Finally, I was religious. I was what you would call an “observant Jew.” In my day, we were called “Pharisees.” There were over 600 laws in the Torah my people followed. I tried to follow all of them, faultlessly. And actually, I was pretty good at it. 

Scripture and Prayer

I want to tell you about my contact with Jesus. Before I do, I’m going to read my story from your Bible. As I said, my story appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but I’m reading from Matthew.

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

“Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

 “Which ones?” he inquired.

Jesus replied, “‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother,’and ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“All these I have kept,” the young man said. “What do I still lack?”

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.”

When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first(Matthew 19:16-30).

Prayer:Lord God: please come by the power of your Holy Spirit that in the hearing of this story our souls might be changed and become more like you. In Jesus name, Amen.

My Encounter with Jesus

As best I can remember, my story occurred while Jesus was traveling around the Judean countryside preaching the gospel (Matthew 19:1; Mark 10:13). People came out from surrounding cities and towns to hear him. While Jesus was in my neighborhood, being curious, I went to hear what he had to say. I was impressed! I was a very serious Jew. I respected the Pharisees and the leaders of my people, and I believed that our scriptures provided way to eternal life. But, like any serious person I had my questions.

As I listened to Jesus answer questions from the religious leaders, I began to feel that he might be right. For example, when our religious leaders were questioned Jesus about divorce, instead of answering according to our laws, he answered according to the heart. He pointed out that most of the time the reason we get divorced has to do with hardness of heart (Matthew 19:1-12). So much of our religion had to do with externalacts of righteousness that we forgot the heart. Jesus seemed to always point to the heart.

Some of you might be like me. You haven’t accepted Jesus, but you’re interested enough to listen. Frankly, that’s just fine!

Jesus’ Response to My Question

Like some of you, I was confused by the words of Jesus. Sometimes, it seemed to me that Jesus was teaching that the moral law was not important. When I got my turn, I asked him, “Good Teacher, What good deed must I do to inherit eternal life?”(Mark 10:17; Luke 18:18). You see, as a Pharisee, I believe in the resurrection of the dead, and that those who are righteous would experience eternal life. I also believed that obeying the moral law was the key to Eternal Life.

Jesus made a surprising answer to my question! He asked me why I called him good, since only God is good (Matthew 19:17). He didn’t answer my question, something he did on and off to other people, for example Nicodemus (John 3). I did not understand at the time, but I think I do now: Jesus was pointing out that all of us are sinners. No human being is ever completely good. We all have our faults. At the time, I was prideful about what a good person I was. I didn’t understand human nature. But, I do now. I was not as good a person as I pretended to be.

As if to show me that the law was important, he shared that I should obey the Ten Commandments. He told me I should avoid stealing, lying, adultery, murder and the like (v. 19). This is where I made a mistake that showed my pride. I actually thought that I could go through life and obey the law of God perfectly, earning my salvation. Today, I know that’s not possible.

But that day, instead of admitting my human frailty, I told Jesus that I had obeyed all the Torah since my earliest days (v. 20). While it’s true that I had never murdered anyone, I certainly had been angry enough to murder. While it’s true that I had never committed adultery, I had looked at women with lust. While it’s true that I was not a liar, it’s not true that I always told the truth. Jesus knew all this about me. He knew I was trying to be good; he knew I was a nice young man. Your scripture says that he loved me, and he did (v. 21).

Then, Jesus then said something I didn’t expect. He told me that I only lacked one thing: I needed to go and sell all my possessions and give them to the poor (v. 21). I and, everyone around me, thought this was unusual. You see, in my culture wealth was seen as a sign of righteousness. [2]. Our wisdom literature is full of promises that, if one is righteous, one will become wealthy (see Proverbs 3:9-10). However, Jesus could see what the people of my country often could not see: Wealth can become an idol, something we worship. To be frank, that was my problem. I was proud of the fact that I came from a good and wealthy family. I was proud of my possessions and position in society. My wealth had become a kind of power over me.

There’s one other thing about what Jesus said that was unusual: Nowhere in Jewish scriptures does it ever say that a person must give away his wealth to receive eternal life. As I pondered what Jesus asked me to do, I realized again that he was pointing beyond the law to the condition of my heart. Jesus wanted my heart to be fixed on God and God alone. He was warning me that anything that got between me and God was trouble. He knew I couldn’t give away my money, so he directed me to the condition of my heart. I went away sad. I knew that if this is what eternal life would cost me, I couldn’t do it.

The End of the Story

I went away sad.

Neither the Pharisees nor the disciples could believe their ears! This is where Jesus spoke one of his most famous phrases: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God”(v. 25). The disciples were amazed and disturbed! (v. 26). If a rich man, who to our way of thinking had been blessed by God for his righteousness, could not enter the kingdom of God, who could?

Jesus had expressed a great truth: It is hard for people who have money to not make money and idol and miss God’s kingdom(v. 23). Now, as your pastors have told you, the Kingdom of God is a mysterious thing. While it’s true that we experience eternal life when we die, the Kingdom of God is something we can experience right now. The Kingdom of God exists wherever and whenever God is in control. The Kingdom of God exists in every heart that accepts Jesus, follows Jesus, and puts God first. It doesn’t exist perfectly this world, but it does exist.

After sharing how hard it is for rich people to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus got to the point: He told his disciples, “With man it is impossible but with God everything is possible”(v. 27). The point Jesus was trying to make is that we cannot find God’s kingdom, either here on earth or in heaven, by our own power. We need the grace of God. That’s why Paul says that we are saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8). That’s why the Reformers said we were saved by grace alone! We are completely dependent upon God eternal life. This was the point all along: God’s grace can do what we human’s cannot hope to do, rich or poor.

Does this mean that it doesn’t matter what we do in this life? Jesus answered that question. When Peter mentioned that he and the rest of the disciples had left everything for God, Jesus encourage them, telling them that no one who follows him and gives up everything to do so will receive a reward (Matthew 26-31).

A Final Word

Well, that’s my story. The people always ask pastors if they think that I eventually came to the Lord Jesus and received the gift of eternal life. The Bible doesn’t say, and I’m not going to say more than the Bible says. What I can say to you is what I’ve come to understand over the centuries: Money is powerful. [3]. It has the power to distort how we relate to God, our friends, our families, our coworkers, and our fellow citizens. Money can become a God. It had become my God.

We can worry too much about the future. Your pastor is at retirement age, and he’s told me that he worries about money much more now than he ever did when he was twenty-five years old! Jesus reminded us that we should not worry about the future. The future is in God’s hands. God has provided for the birds of the air, for the animals on the land, and for the fish in the sea. As Matthew says, we don’t need to worry about these things. (4:25-32). If we put God first and seek God’s Kingdom first everything we really need will be provided for us. We may not get rich, as I was, but we will have everything we need (v. 33).

There is something else we need to remember: Money doesn’t last forever. One of the Wisdom writers, the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that we are all going to die.  We are all going to leave our money to someone else, and a good bit of the time that someone else will waste the money we worked so hard to gather. [4].  All this means that we need to keep our money in perspective. We need to use it wisely in this life, and remember that it is not of eternal  value. Part of using it wisely is not to allow it to dominate are thinking, our time, our talents, and or energy. When we do that, we make a great mistake. I know this, because it happened to me.

Amen

Copyright 2018, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved


[1]. There are many good commentaries on the Gospels that give insight into this story. I have consulted William Hendricksen, “Matthew” in New Testament Commentary(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1973). While I do not necessarily agree with everything in any commentary, this is a good commentary that I frequently consult.

[2]. See,Christopher J. H. Wright, “The Righteous Rich of the Old Testament” in The Other Journal https://theotherjournal.com/2010/08/05/the-righteous-rich-in-the-old-testament/(Downloaded September 27, 2018).

[3]. See, Jacque Ellul, Money and Power(Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1984). This book is absolutely the best treatment of the power money has over us and it’s spiritual danger to Christians.

[4]. Wisdom writers understood that all the blessings promised were uncertain and passing. Wealth, even as a blessing from God, cannot satisfy the desire of the human soul for eternity. It belongs only to this earth. See, Ecclesiastes 1:18-26; 3:9-19; 5:8-6:12.