Today, I’ve been thinking about getting older.
Sometimes, when we get older, we think it’s our time to slow down. “After all,” we reason, “I’ve done my part. I’ve worked hard and paid my bills and raised my kids. I’ve done more than my fair share. Now it’s time for someone else to carry the torch and lead. I’m just going to kick back, relax, retire, and die.”
But that’s not the example we see from Scripture.
In AD 60, Paul was imprisoned in Rome. He was treated well and allowed to stay in his own house at his own expense, for two full years “preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him” (Acts 28:31). It was during this time he wrote his prison epistles: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon.
Paul was in his mid-sixties. About retirement age.
Paul was imprisoned a second and final time during the summer of AD 66. The cause of his arrest may be found in a statement Paul made in his final letter to Timothy: “Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm. May the Lord repay him according to his works. You also must beware of him, for he has greatly resisted our words” (2 Tim. 4:14-15).
This time, Paul was not allowed to remain under house arrest, but was thrown among the most vile of prisoners in the Mamertine prison or another such dark and horrid place. This prison was more like a dungeon, or a pit that could only be reached by a ladder or rope let through a hole in the floor above. There was little ventilation and sanitation was non-existent. If the idea was to reduce men to mere animals before they faced trial and execution, then the Romans did their job quite well.
It was in this desperate condition, accompanied only by Luke (2 Tim. 4:11), that Paul penned his last letter to Timothy. Paul was now in his late sixties, well past retirement age.
Paul’s Final Words
Paul begins what would be his farewell address to his beloved son in the faith, Timothy. In these final words, Paul urges Timothy to be bold in the face of opposition, knowing his own time was short.
2 Timothy 4:1-5 – I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. (why) For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.
Paul then turns to more personal matters. He reflects on his present situation, his past ministry, and the future glory he will share with Christ.
2 Timothy 4:6-8 – For I am (present) already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have (past) fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is (future) laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.
And then amazingly, in the midst of his deplorable conditions, Paul encourages Timothy to come to him, to the Mamertine prison, to help him continue in ministry.
2 Timothy 4:9 – Be diligent to come to me quickly.
Why would Paul ask that of Timothy? What possible ministry could Paul be undertaking? The Scriptures don’t say. But we can see that Paul clearly understands his time is not over and there’s still more work to be done. He knows there’s no retirement plan in the Kingdom of God. Paul’s not ready, like many of us, to kick back, relax, retire and spend the rest of his days cruising the Caribbean or watching reruns of the Andy Griffith Show. Even in the midst of unspeakable filth, in the throes of pain and suffering, Paul realized there was still ministry to perform for his Lord.
2 Timothy 4:10 – For Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica— Crescens for Galatia, Titus for Dalmatia.
The sad news is that Demas has forsaken Paul and abandoned him and the faith. In doing so, Demas will forever be remembered as one who did not finish well and inevitably suffered the certain fate that awaits all who reject the One who came to save them. The good news is that Paul, even in prison, seems to be directing missionary endeavors to support and encourage the churches in Asia minor. Paul is saying that “Creschen has departed (or, has been sent or dispatched) to Galatia and Titus (has been sent or dispatched) to Dalmatia” (2 Tim. 4:10). Paul later says he sent, or dispatched, Tychicus to Ephesus (2 Tim. 4:12).
Think about it. In the middle of Paul’s prison cell he is still ministering to others. Paul’s physical circumstances may have changed for the worse, but not his calling nor his faithfulness to that calling. Paul, in prison and approaching seventy, facing trial and death, in unspeakable filth, continues ministering to others. He remains faithful even when he has every reason not to.
We then have the verse that communicates more to me about the heart of Paul than any other in this passage. Here Paul asks Timothy to bring Mark with him when he comes. That’s the same Mark, by the way, that deserted Paul early in their first missionary journey (Acts 13:13). And it was the same Mark that caused Paul and Barnabas to exchange such sharp words with each other that they split as a team and headed in different directions (Acts 15:36-39).
2 Timothy 4:11 – Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful (profitable, to furnish what is needed), to me for ministry (serving others, showing benevolence).
Note, Paul did not say Mark would be useful to him to meet his own personal needs, which must have been great. Nor did he say Mark would be useful to take care of Paul, or lessen his burdens, or comfort him while he suffered and languished in the Mamertine prison. No, Paul said Mark would be useful, or would furnish what was needed or lacking, in the lives of those Paul himself was ministering to— his fellow cell mates and possibly a guard or two. It was always for Paul, even in this late hour, about his love for Christ manifested by his ministry to others.
2 Timothy 4:13 – Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come— and the books, especially the parchments.
The cloak I understand. After all, it was probably quite cold in the prison, especially for a man of Paul’s age. But why the parchments? What did Paul need with them? They were for teaching, for his trial preparation, for the opportunity he saw to present Christ to those who would render judgment against him and decide his fate. He remembered what Jesus said about him, spoken to Ananias so many years ago, “he is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). And even in the midst of prison, at his final curtain call, Paul saw one more opportunity to fulfill his calling and faithfully serve his Lord.
At the age when most of us are tired and want to quit, satisfied and content with the memories of yesteryear, Paul urges forward. As long as there’s breath in his lungs, he will continue to proclaim the glories of Christ to anyone, anywhere, in any situation, no matter the costs. For Paul, his best days are from this day forward, no matter how dire this day seems. Even if this day begins chained to a wall, standing in human excrement, facing certain death, in the bowels of a Roman prison.
Convicting, isn’t it? Especially when you realize how we view aging and retirement today.
It’s my prayer that I will be more like Paul as the day of my departure approaches (2 Tim. 4:6). And I also pray I will not mimic most Christians I’ve seen in church, who have worked tirelessly for their retirement and, when it comes, when they now have all the time in the world to serve the Lord they claim to love, instead choose to spend that precious time for themselves, and not for Him or for others.
That’s not the New Testament model. Pray it doesn’t become the norm for each of us.
For the last couple of months I have been preaching about the Holy Spirit and His gifts, focusing on John 14 and 1 Corinthians 12-14, but specifically on 1 Corinthians 12:4-11. We have asked the Lord to show us what these gifts mean, are they all still operating in the church and, if so, what does that look like today? That’s right, we’ve dealt with all the controversial topics that tend to divide the body of Christ: second filling, baptism of the Spirit, Cessationism vs. Continuationism, the five-fold ministry, tongues and the interpretation of tongues, the role of apostles and prophets, if any, today, what is a word of knowledge and word of wisdom, and all the other crazy, scary stuff. It’s been quite an eye opening experience to see, not what I was taught in Seminary or grew up believing in a Southern Baptist church, but what the Scriptures actually teach regarding the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives and in His church back then, as well as today.
Naturally, in the course of this study on the Holy Spirit, we moved to the Acts to see how this was played out in the early church in real time. Last Sunday we preached about Peter’s sermon (Acts 2:14-39) and the amazing results of a 297 word message, excluding Scriptures, that was empowered by the very Spirit they received a few verses earlier (Acts 2:1-4). The Promise of the Father was given (Acts 1:4), and 3,000 people joined the 120 in faith in the risen Lord Jesus.
What an amazing day that must have been.
But now what? How do these 3,000 new believers, many from areas outside of Jerusalem (Acts 2:5-11), grow in their new faith? What are they to do? Where do they go? How do they learn? There would be so many questions each of them had. Where would they go to find the answers?
If they returned back home to Egypt or Rome, for example (Acts 2:10), who would disciple them? Who would teach them truth from error? They would be the only ones in their country that had received salvation as evidenced by the giving of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13-14). No one carried the light of Christ to their families and friends but them. No one was to speak into the darkness but them. They were alone. Uncertain. Literally babes in the midst of Jewish wolves. By returning home they were, in effect, being sent out as missionaries to tell others about the new life found in Christ— the Christ whom they knew nothing about other than what Peter had preached, and what they were just now discovering for themselves.
It was a recipe for colossal failure. Much like sending an eight year old to convince an atheist University professor of the validity of the New Testament text. They were vastly outgunned and woefully inexperienced in the things of Christ. They needed a time to grow, to mature, to understand what just happened to them. They needed time to come to grips with their faith in the Lord Jesus, and what that faith meant from that moment forward.
A New Home
So, most likely, many of them stayed. Where else were they to go to hear about the “wonderful works of God” (Acts 2:11).
Once, after Jesus proclaimed His unpopular, politically incorrect truth about the kingdom of God that offended the half-committed, many of His followers “went back and walked with Him no more” (John 6:65). Jesus had been telling them about the all-consuming relationship they were to have with Him. This new life they had experienced, this born-again reality was not like going to the synagogue once a week to dance around their Jewish maypole, feel good for a moment or two, faithfully perform their religious duty, and then go back to life as usual.
This was different.
Religion tries to make us feel good about ourselves by following some man-made ritual that, at least on the outside, makes us look better than we were before— especially when we compare ourselves with ourselves or with others who are struggling like us.
But this was different. Completely different.
What Jesus came to bring was a totally new life. The old man, our old life, is not rehabilitated or made better, or less offensive, by Christ’s sacrifice. He is put to death. Dead and buried. Just like Christ. Jesus sees nothing in us worth bringing into the new life He’s purchased for us (Isa. 64:4). Nothing. So all of the old man, the pride, fear, lusts, wants, desires, religion, rights, needs, literally everything— dies. Everything gets buried. Everything rots. And the new man, what Paul later called the “new creation” in Christ, is born again (2 Cor. 5:17). Born anew. Born from above. Resurrected to a new life (Rom. 6:4), created in the image, or likeness of God (Eph. 4:24), and secured by the indwelling presence of God Himself— in the person of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 1:13-14).
This was a message the religious crowd in Jesus’ day, and in our day, finds offensive. So they left Him to find another guru that was willing to teach what they wanted to hear, about how to have Your Best Life Now!
Look at the question of Jesus and the answer of Peter.
John 6:66-69 – From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more. Then Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also want to go away?” But Simon Peter answered Him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Also we have come to believe and know that You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Exactly. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68).
This was the same sentiment those who came to faith at Peter’s sermon most likely had. Why go back home? Back to what? People who don’t know what I now know, which is next to nothing. Everything has now changed. I’m a new man. I see things differently. And I now have needs I didn’t even know existed before.
“Lord, I need to grow in my faith. I need to understand more of You who re-created me into something new. I need to know what Your will for me is now. Where am I to go? What am I to do? I need to learn how to hear Your voice and recognize when You speak. I need to be taught how to pray? I want my faith to grow. I want to understand the gifts the Spirit has given me to exercise for You. Lord, I need to spend time in Your presence and at Your feet. There’s so much I don’t know. So much that seems confusing to me. Lord, if I may, these other believers are now my family. And this, Your church, is now my home.”
And so they stayed.
They Continued Steadfast
Notice what happened next.
Acts 2:42 – And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.
But there is so much more here than we read on the surface.
Do you want to know how these new believers spent the rest of their lives? Do you want to find out what made them the kind of people that turned the world upside down in the span of a few years (Acts 17:6)? Do you think we, as the church, can learn anything from the life they forged for us with the Spirit?
I do. But that’s something we’ll have to wait until tomorrow to discover together.
If your resolution this year is to “understand the fear of the Lord, and find the knowledge of God” (Prov. 2:5), then you must begin this vision quest by understanding how the if / then passages in Scripture work. Simply put, you do the ifs, and God provides the thens. One is contingent upon another. One comes first, and the other follows after. One is a condition that must be met, the other is the result of meeting that condition. One is your responsibility, and the other is His.
Consider this passage from Proverbs 2:
Proverbs 2:1-5 – My son, if (condition) you receive my words, and (if you) treasure my commands within you, (to what extent) so that you incline your ear to wisdom, and apply your heart to understanding; Yes, if (condition) you cry out for discernment, and (if you) lift up your voice for understanding, if (condition) you seek her as silver, and (if you) search for her as for hidden treasures; then (result of meeting the condition) you will understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God.
As you can see, the promise of understanding the fear of the Lord and finding the knowledge of God only comes after the if conditions are met. One is contingent upon another. Meeting the if condition is the key that unlocks the then promise, If I want to understand the fear of the Lord and discover the knowledge of God, then I must meet the condition set forth to receive that promise. It is foolishness, according to this passage, to assume we will receive the promise without meeting the condition.
Some promises in Scripture are granted without a condition being met.1 Others, most in fact, have a condition attached to them. For example, our salvation is based on meeting a condition:
Romans 10:9 – That if (condition) you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and (if you) believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, (then – result or promise) you will be saved.
Note that salvation comes after the condition is met. Repentance and the acknowledgement of Christ as Lord is mandatory, not optional. You cannot come to faith in Him any other way. This is an if / then passage about salvation.
If / Then Passages
But there’s so much more. Take a look at a few of these if / then passages. See if you can begin to understand how important your part is in receiving the promises of the Father.
Matthew 6:14-15 – “For if (condition – your action and responsibility) you forgive men their trespasses, (then – the result or promise from God) your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if (condition – your action and responsibility) you do not forgive men their trespasses, (then – the result or promise from God) neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”
If we desire forgiveness from God, we must first forgive others. First the condition, then the promise. How important is it for me to forgive others who have wronged me? It’s vital. For without meeting the horizontal condition of forgiveness between me and another, God is not obligated to fulfill the vertical condition of forgiving me for my sins and transgressions. This is not something to play around with. This if / then condition has lasting, eternal consequences.
John 15:10 – “If (condition) you keep My commandments, (then – result) you will abide (rest, dwell, make your home) in My love, (example) just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love.”
How do I rest and abide in the love (agape) of Christ? And how can I experience the abiding presence of that love like Jesus had with His Father? By meeting the if condition of the if / then promise. By keeping His commandments. By doing what He tells me to do. By loving Him through my obedience and not living a life of rebellion, apathy or arrogance. After all, Jesus also said in another if / then passage, “If you love Me, (then) keep My commandments” (John 14:15). Which means, if I love Him, then I will show my love for Him by keeping His commandments. And if I don’t love Him, then I won’t keep His commandments. Or, more frightening still, if I’m not keeping His commandments, then I must not love Him at all. Which means our love for Christ can be clearly seen by our obedience to Him. Not in our words, but in our actions (Luke 6:46).
We’ll close today with just one more. This if / then promise was spoken to Martha at the tomb of Lazarus right before Jesus raised him from the dead in the sight of all.
John 11:40 – Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if (condition) you would believe (then – result) you would see the glory of God?”
Jesus was about to raise a man back to life who had been dead and buried four full days. It was to be a powerful testimony that Christ is God and can do all things. For me, it’s one of the greatest miracles in the New Testament. But Martha would fail to see God in any of this unless she believed. She was in danger of becoming hard hearted and spiritually blind, much like the Pharisees and others who made up the religious establishment of that day, to what was about to take place. Instead of experiencing the glory of God, she would go back to her home unchanged, unmoved, and further away from the One who raised her brother from the dead. Why? Because of her lack of belief. Jesus’ words to her were simple, “If you believe (the condition that unlocks the revelation of the glory of God), then (the result of her faith and belief) you will see the glory of God.” And the opposite is also true. “If you do not believe (condition), then (result of lack of faith) you will not see the glory of God.”
The spiritual magnitude of this momentous event for Martha was contingent on her belief— on the if part of the if / then promise from Jesus.
Are you beginning to see the importance of these overlooked if / then promises in Scripture? Good. Because there are hundreds of them.
For the next few weeks we’ll be looking at the if / then passages found in Scripture to discover what part we must play in receiving the promises from God. Why? Because fulfilling the if part is something we can do. It’s something we can get better at. Something the Lord has left in our hands. Obedience to His Word is our responsibility. And the promises for obedience, the results of the if / then promises in Scripture are, honestly, overwhelmingly wonderful.
Tomorrow we’ll begin looking at the if / then promises found in the Proverbs.
1 – For example, God’s promise to Abraham is not conditional on anything Abraham would, or would not do (Gen.12:7). See also Gen. 12:1-3; 13:15-16; 15:18-21; 17:6-8; and 35:11-12.
What if God was bigger than the box in which we try to place Him? Wouldn’t that be incredible? You and I both know that He is bigger than anything we can imagine. But nevertheless, we have a tendency to always try to place Him in a box that allows us to understand Him on our terms.
Think of the boxes in which we try to place Him. We have our experience box that rejects God moving in any way other than what we have experienced in the past. This box makes our experience with Him as the defining element of His character and the full expression of His will. God can never be bigger than He has been in our past. He becomes one-dimensional, myopic, and is not allowed to do anything that makes us feel uncomfortable or stretches and expands our faith.
We have our denominational box that limits God to the tenets of our theology, our sacred creeds, or our agreed upon statements of faith. But this box assumes we know all there is to know about the Unknowable One, the One who defies human description. This box cannot be true. For how can the created know all there is to know about the Creator, no matter how infested the created is with pride and arrogance and self-exaltation?
Then we have our spiritual maturity box. This box states that the way God is dealing with us right now, at this present moment, at our current level of maturity, is how He deals with everyone. Why? Because we can’t accept the fact there may be others who are more mature than we are in the things of the Lord. That would make us feel uncomfortable. Or, worse yet, convicted. And there are other boxes we conjure with different labels. We have our faith box, our feelings box, and the like. But God cannot be contained by the constraints of our fear or insecurity.
God is beyond all that. He’s incredible. He’s beyond comprehension. He cannot be understood or described by mere human words. It is foolishness to assume we can know the Almighty and all His ways. Why? Because He says about Himself in Isaiah,
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,” says the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Often we find ourselves hamstrung and impotent in our spiritual lives, when compared with Scripture, because of the limitations we place on our God by the box we try to force Him into.
The Early Church
We see God do incredible things in the book of Acts— unparalleled things compared to what we see Him doing in the church today. Because that fact alone makes us feel so uncomfortable, we go to great lengths to try to convince ourselves that His moving like He did was for them alone, at that time in history, but not for us today. Why? Why would we assume that? Then we go through great theological gymnastics to somehow try to prove that the “abundant ” life Jesus promised (John 10:10), as revealed to us in the book of Acts, was only for them, and not for us. They got to experience true intimacy with the Lord, and we are left standing alone, jilted at the altar.
But what if all that changed?
What if we got the opportunity to be able to see God for who He really is? What if we began to understand the Holy Spirit as being more than just an attribute of God, or a characteristic of God, or just some innate power coming from God that we ask for when we need it? What if our eyes were opened and we began to see and experience the Holy Spirit as Jesus revealed Him? What if we truly believed, and rested on that belief, that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth that will “teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you” (John 14:27)? What if we took Jesus at His word when we said, “It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper (the Holy Spirit) will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7)?
How would that change your life? And how would it change your experience with His church?
These are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself of late. In all my years of ministry, I’ve had the nagging feeling that I’m missing something, that I am somehow coming up short. I’ve felt there’s more to this life in Christ than what I was taught in Seminary or that I have experienced in all my years in church.
Have you ever felt the same?
Do you see how the church is portrayed in the book of Acts and then wonder what happened between then and now? I do. And it drives me to hunger for more of Him.
What if we had the confidence, as the Scripture states, to go “boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16)? Not just mental assent to the truth of this verse, but to know this truth deep down where our hurts and fears reside. What if this promise became a living reality in our lives?
What if we really believed that God loves us, no matter what, and listens to our prayers? Would that change your prayer life? It would mine. Would you seek Him first in your frustrations and disappointments, or would you continue to try to manipulate people and circumstances to your own advantage?
What if we truly believed what it says in Romans about each of us? God tells us “the Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs— heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16-17). Do you feel like a child of God? Do you think of yourself as a child of God? And more than that, do you live like an heir of God and a joint-heir with Christ? But that’s who God says we are, no matter how strange and foreign it may seem.
Back to Acts
Together, we’re going to take the book of Acts and try to understand it through new eyes. Not our 21st century eyes of doubt, cynicism and failure, but through the eyes of the Spirit and in childlike, trusting faith. We want to see the Lord for what He says, and what He does, and believe His words are true for us today. We want to understand the book of Acts as not some ancient story about how the church was, and can never be again, but for how things should be. How things could be. And hopefully, how they are.
We want permission to be able to dream again.
So join with me as we strive to uncover the truth about who Christ is and how the Holy Spirit works in our life by looking at an in-depth study of the church in the book of Acts.
It should be quite a ride. I hope you’ll join with me.
For they will be a graceful ornament on your head,
and chains about your neck.
We live in a time where people fight for equal rights. The right to vote, the right to work, the right to say what we want, marry who we want, do what we want, the right to live, and the right to die. It seems like we all want to be equal in our own eyes with everybody else with no one standing out among the crowd and no one having more than another.
This drive for equality has now invaded almost every facet of our lives. We don’t give trophies to the winners in Little League Baseball anymore. Why? Because everyone must be equal, which means no winners and no losers. So everyone gets a trophy for just participating, for simply showing up, for buying a glove and a pair of cleats. And by not honoring the winners, the ones who deserve the honor, who earned the recognition, it’s somehow supposed to make us all feel special.
We have to dumb down the tests in school because some students work harder than others and are more concerned about their grades and future. And others… well, not so much. So we make the tests easier and more generic for the less motivated students so they won’t feel bad or marginalized when others are rewarded for their diligence and study. After all, everyone should get an A. Everyone should feel good about themselves and no one should do any better than anyone else. Why? Because we’re all striving for equality. And equality always tends to settle at the lowest common denominator.
But that’s not how life functions in the real world. It’s the best and brightest, the ones who work the hardest, the ones who put in the long hours, and the ones who continually strive to learn more who are rewarded with the raise, the promotion, and the corner office. It’s not the sluggard, the lazy, the half-hearted that’s honored in our society for their accomplishments. The rewards and accolades go to the few who work diligently for them, and not to the many who don’t.
And as sobering as it may sound, the Kingdom of Heaven functions in much the same way.
The Rewards for Obedience
The father and mother in this Proverb have implored their young son to stay the course and keep focused on the things in life that really matter. They know that he is about to enter into the fallen world of sin and deceit and deception and they are giving him their final words of affirmation to keep him strong whatever he may face.
The father tells him: “My son, hear (or, listen and obey) the instruction (or, discipline, correction, chastening) of your father, and do not forsake (or, abandon, walk away from, to ignore) the law (or, direction) of your mother” (Prov. 1:8). In other words, remember how we’ve raised you. Remember what you’ve been taught. Remember the truth and do not walk away from it chasing other idols the world will try to tempt you with.
Remember and stay strong.
But why? Why should the son listen to the “instruction” of his father and follow the “law” of his mother? What will he gain from placing himself in a position that is sure to bring about ridicule and rejection from his peers? What’s the pay-off for this young man? What’s the upside from living a sin-free, committed life in Christ?
Proverbs 1:9 – For they (the “instruction of your father” and the “law of your mother”) will be a graceful ornament (or, a garland, wreath, a decorative headpiece worn as a sign of approval, honor, favor and acceptance) on your head (as a crown), and chains about your neck (or, a necklace of remembrance).
The graceful ornament symbolizes wisdom and prosperity coming from the father to the son and are his for the asking, if he obeys. It is, in a sense, the son’s reward for listening, heeding and obeying the words of his father.
Which leads us to draw a few conclusions about rewards and also raise a few questions.
But note first, we are not talking about salvation, which is given as a gift, freely, based on faith in the completed work of Christ on the cross as the payment for the penalty of our sins. No, in that we are all equal. We are simply one hopeless beggar telling another beggar where we found bread. What we are talking about are the rewards based on what we have done with the gift given us by Christ. How faithful have we been in Him while living on this side of eternity? And in regards to that, we can surmise the following:
One, the reward is conditional. If the son listens and obeys, the reward is his. And if he does not, does he still receive the reward? And if so, on what basis? Maybe for just participating? For simply being a member of the family? For being on the team? The context would say, no.
Two, the reward is for him alone. Nowhere is the promise given to the lost or disobedient or to those who are not the father’s sons. Does that mean that not everyone is entitled to this reward? Is it exclusive, reserved for some but not all and given only to the ones who meet the requirements of obedience? The context would say, yes.
Three, equality is not the issue. The reward makes the son special in the eyes of the father. It’s a recognition of his grace, favor, love and acceptance of the son based on the son’s faithful adherence to the instructions of the father. Does this mean not everyone is equal in the eyes of the father? Does it mean there will be some who receive rewards and some who do not? And, if that is true, is the granting of rewards primarily based, like in this verse, on obedience to the father? The context would say, yes.
In the New Testament we discover there are five crowns that the Believer can receive. But note, the operative word is can. These crowns are not guaranteed for just showing up. In fact, the word used for “crown” is stephanos and doesn’t refer to a Kingly crown as a Monarch would wear, but a “crown or wreath or garland that was given to the victor in the public games.” This is more of an overcoming crown given to those who have trained, fought well, and won. In Scripture we find what is called the “imperishable crown” in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25. Next, there is the “crown of rejoicing” in 1 Thessalonians 2:19. Then the “crown of righteousness” in 2 Timothy 4:8, the “crown of glory” in 1 Peter 5:4 and finally the “crown of life” in James 1:12 and Revelation 2:10.
These crowns are not guaranteed for just participating, they are given to those who have met some sort of requirement. They are rewarded to those who have distinguished themselves among others. They are not for everyone, but for the few, those who have earned them. For example:
1 Corinthians 9:24 – Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but (who) one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it.
This verse implies there are some who will not run the race heartily and will not obtain the prize or crown. The admonition is for you to be different, to not be like the crowd, to run to win.
2 Timothy 4:8 – Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to (who) all who have loved His appearing.
But what if you don’t love the reality of His appearing? What if you’re so enamored with this world you are of no good to the Kingdom? What if you love this world (1 John 2:15) and not the certainty of His appearing? Do you still qualify for the crown?
James 1:12 – Blessed is the man who (what) endures temptation; for when (what) he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.
And what if you do not endure temptation, what happens then? Are you still given the crown? Or have you, by your own actions, disqualified yourself for the prize, the promised crown, by not meeting the requirements? And what are the requirements of being “approved’? Is it simply our love for Him? And, if so, how is that manifested daily to make us approved or accepted in Him?
Many of us who have been brought up in the “everyone is equal so there’s no need to try too hard” morass of our fallen culture have come to believe that working for crowns or rewards is a futile effort since we don’t get to keep them anyway. After all, Revelation 4:10-11 shows the twenty-four elders, which represent the church, the redeemed, you and I, actually “casting their crowns before the throne” in a profound act of worship.
We then reason, “So if I’m going to cast my crown, my reward that I worked real hard for at the feet of Jesus, geez, like what’s the point? Then I’ll be just like everyone else who doesn’t have a crown. So why try? Why should I work for something I can’t keep? Seems like a big waste of time to me.”
But that only shows the depravity of our love and commitment to our Lord. We give Him the glory with our lips as long as we can keep the rewards to make us feel special and important among our friends. And how selfish is that?
But don’t be deceived. Salvation is a gift given freely by grace through the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus. In this, we are all equal. But what we do with that gift, how we live our lives in Christ and for His glory, is another matter indeed. And to this fact, the Scriptures have much to say about how truly unequal we may be in His Kingdom. Consider these passages:
Matthew 5:12 – “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, (why) for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
But “great” is a relative term. Great is compared to something less than great. Those who are persecuted for the name of Christ will have a “great” reward in heaven compared to other rewards or compared to those who receive no rewards. In other words, their reward will be greater than others. Otherwise, why the admonition to be “exceedingly glad” in the face of horrific persecution and even death?
1 Corinthians 3:14 – If anyone’s work which he has built on it (what) endures, he will receive a reward.
And if it doesn’t endure? Exactly.
Matthew 16:27 – “For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each (how) according to his works.”
And that reward is applied “according to his works” in differing degrees based on differing degrees of works. Just like it is in the real world.
You also have Jesus rewarding the faithful steward of ten coins with “being over ten cities” and the faithful steward with five coins of “being over five cities” and the unfaithful steward entrusted with one coin with nothing (Luke 19:15-26). Jesus even went so far as to reward the steward with ten cities even more by giving him the one coin from the unfaithful servant. Was that unfair? Was Jesus playing favorites? What about the faithful steward who was given five coins? Was there something wrong with him? Or was Jesus simply rewarding the most faithful with more?
And so it is with you and I in His Kingdom.
Jesus is Coming Soon
Jesus is coming soon and He is bringing His rewards with Him. He says so in Revelation 22:12: “And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to (who) every one (how) according to his work.”
That’s “everyone according to his work.”
To those who “hear” and are faithful to listen and obey “the instruction of your father” and not “forsake the law of your mother” (Prov. 1:8), the reward for their obedience will be a “graceful ornament on your head, and chains about your neck” (Prov. 1:9). Why? Because our Lord is a “rewarder of those who diligently seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). He rewards the diligent, the committed, the single-focused, the sold-out, the passionate, the faithful, the devoted, those that seek Him “as the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God” (Psalm 42:1). But He never promises to reward the slack, half-hearted, lazy, slothful, indifferent, or the apathetic. Never. And neither would you.
Those that put heaven first and this life last will see great reward. And those that don’t, will suffer shame.
As C.S Lewis said, “If you read history, you will find that Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.”
Let’s strive to be so heavenly minded we are of no earthly good.
Will you join with me?
1. What are you committed to? What’s the driving passion of your life? Be honest with yourself. You don’t have to give the Sunday School answer. Do you know what you’re committed to? And, if so, how do you know?
2. How much time do you spend on what you’re committed to? How much of your life is tied up in that pursuit? Can others see your commitment? And are you known to others by that very commitment? How has that passion impacted the other areas of your life?
3. Have you received any rewards for your passions? Have you received any notoriety or recognition because of what you’re committed to? How did that make you feel? Was the feeling lasting? Was the end result worth the time you spent to get that special recognition? Was it all worth it?
4. Have you thought about how temporal and short-lived all the things we’re committed to in this world, either good or bad, truly are? Our jobs, our degrees, money, fame, a good-looking physique, a new car, stylish clothes, a fat retirement account, a second or third vacation home? Even if those things are noble causes like ending world hunger or bringing about world peace, it will still all pass away. Have you considered the only wise thing to commit your life to is the reality of the next world, the eternal world, and your life in Christ? And, if so, what are you waiting for?
5. On a scale from 1 to 10, how would you rate God’s wisdom in your life right now and in your decision making process? What was it yesterday? Are you growing in the wisdom of God? And, if not, why?
Next Step Challenge
Take your Bible and look up the five crowns listed in the New Testament and read them in context. You will find them below.
1 Corinthians 9:24-25
1 Thessalonians 2:19
2 Timothy 4:8
1 Peter 5:4
James 1:12 and Revelation 2:10
What are they saying? Can you obtain these crowns for yourself? And, if so, how? What would you have to do or not do to meet their requirements? Are you interested? Does this seem like something to commit some time and introspecting to?
And, if not, why? What is more important to you than receiving a reward from the Lord Jesus and joyously, as an act of worship, giving it back to Him? Won’t you feel embarrassed to have nothing to cast at His feet?
And if so, what are you prepared to do about it?