Monday, July 18, 2011

Matthew 4: The Complete Sufficiency of Jesus


"It is written."

The first recorded words of Jesus' after His baptism reflect a principle we will see over and over in His ministry. He didn't come on His own agenda. He consistently reflected the heart and will of His Father.

This principle is key to understanding Jesus' ministry - but also to understanding our own. For ultimately, our goal should be the same as His: to follow where God is working, do what He is doing, and say what He is saying.

In the context of the temptations of Jesus in this chapter, these words speak of the sufficiency of God. "It is written" is in the perfect tense, meaning, "It has been written and stands written." In every case, what God said was sufficient for what Jesus faced. It was more than enough.

That's been a principle I've been (re)learning lately. I've recently faced the reality that we live in a "never enough" society. Many businesses run around the clock; the Internet has made it easily possible for ministry to do the same. It seems that from the world's perspective, no matter how much we pour out there is always the possibility for more. Most employers will not question you for working through lunches or after hours - in fact, to get ahead it's frequently expected. As a wealthy man once said when asked "How much money is enough?" - "Just a little bit more." We so easily buy into that mindset.

And yet I can't find anywhere in Scripture that testifies to the "never enough" mindset reflecting God's heart. In fact, quite the opposite - whenever God is behind something, it is always more than enough. Think with me of a few examples: Manna in the wilderness. Loaves and fishes for a crowd of thousands. 12 men chosen to "turn the world upside down". In every case, more than enough. In fact, the only time I see Him expect more is when He asks us to give Him more of ourselves - in that case, He wants ALL of us. And even that is for our good - so He can fill us with His Holy Spirit which equips us to pour out His love in our world.

"Never enough" thinking is not of God. Even when applied to "religion", its source is the world, the flesh, even satan. But when God is behind something - even natural things - it is always more than enough. The Spirit-filled life equips us for more than enough for the temptations, the trials, and the opportunities to serve that we face every day. Like Jesus, we can hold onto the truths that are written, and know that the same God who was sufficient for Jesus is more than enough for us.

Ultimately, that's the lesson for me in Jesus' temptations. The author of Hebrews says that His temptations should encourage us to draw near to God (Hebrews 4:15-16). Similarly, as we share in His sufferings we gain an authenticity in our ability to comfort others (2 Corinthians 1:3-4). In the midst of it all, His Word will be more than enough for us. HE will be more than enough.

Just as Jesus left the time of temptation with intentionality and purpose - bringing light into great darkness by His presence; calling the disciples to follow Him; and holistically ministering to the physical and spiritual needs around Him - so our awareness that all God gives us is more than enough should lead us to look outward. For God doesn't ask us to solve all the problems of the world. He just asks us to yield to Him, so He can fill us with His Holy Spirit, become more than enough for all our spiritual and physical and emotional and relational needs, and with the overflow, bless a needy world, one person at a time.

And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us. (Romans 5:3-5 NASB) 

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Looking back and looking forward

Don't say, ‘Life was better in the “good old days.” What happened?'
Wisdom does not lead us to ask that question.
Ecclesiastes 7.10 (ERV)

I am a huge believer in learning from history. Context is a key word in my life, and I wholeheartedly agree that we can avoid repeating errors or reinventing the wheel if we take time to study the historical context of a given situation. We can build on past successes and learn from past failures. The problem is that, as in so many other things, we tend to extremes. We either shun the past as archaic and only teaching us what not to do - or we glorify it and make it an ideal to which we must strive to return. I see this tendency in the political realm, in the educational realm, and even in the church realm. 

A deeper look at a couple of examples from "the good old days" underscore the wisdom of Solomon's words. We often imagine homesteading and the westward expansion as times of vibrant growth and  incredible opportunity. We wonder if we could have had our own "Little House on the Prairie" - failing to realize that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her books to champion the very opposite of "free land" but instead to show through a child's eyes the hardships that homesteading brought and the power of family and faith to overcome those hardships. 

Similarly, you may have heard your parents say, like mine, that "life was better in the 50's" and if we could just return to those days when "everyone" was publicly Christian and there was prayer in schools, life would be idyllic. The reality is that life in the 50's brought its own set of problems and challenges - its own rights and wrongs. The same public acceptance of faith that supported Christian prayer in schools also, in many cases, turned its back on civil rights and allowed segregation to continue. There was a strong "us vs. them" mindset that is memorialized forever in pictures out of Little Rock Central High School. Things needed to change.

Unfortunately we make the same mistake in looking at God's global purposes. As we awaken to the reality that He is up to something far bigger than our corner of the world, we sometimes glorify believers in other cultures, or persecuted believers, or missionaries throughout history. We speak in awed tones about those who awaken at 4 a.m. to pray; who are in prison today; those who packed their belongings in a casket; who persevered despite a spouse with mental illness -- we begin to think that there is no way we can serve Him well and effectively where we are. Missions becomes an ideal rather than a daily reality. We forget the words of Paul: 
From one man He made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from any one of us. (Acts 17:26-27)
God CHOSE when and where we live. All the "nations" (literally people groups) are divinely placed to maximize the likelihood they will reach out to Him. We each have a very definite role to play in that process, and much to learn (both good and bad) from those who have gone before, but we err when we elevate anything to a level God never intended. We really err when we let it become a stumbling block to our own effectiveness in His kingdom purposes. 
What does the Bible say we are to learn from these past heroes? Hebrews 13:7 tells us to "Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith." Their FAITH - not necessarily every decision or method. 

Looking back is helpful to help us learn instruction (1 Corinthians 10), gain encouragement and be reminded of God's character, or be strengthened by others' faith. Looking around at other expressions of worship or persecuted believers likewise brings important lessons. C.S. Lewis noted that reading old books serves as a corrective to the blind spots of our own era. Likewise, looking at believers in other contexts can help us better discern those elements of our faith that are cultural and not biblical. But from Genesis to Revelation, God's word is forward-focused-- moving toward a culmination of all things in Christ. Keep pressing on for that upward call!

Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
Philipians 3:13-14 (NASB)