Enduring Struggles

The Regrettable But Inevitable Conflict

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So far this season, I’ve been reading, studying and writing each week on each chapter from Matthew’s Gospel that lines up with the Baseball Chapel schedule for the 2019 season. And while reading one chapter a week is sufficient and a good habit for many of us to develop, it is also easy to lose sight of the big picture perspective of what Matthew is doing in his Gospel when we are only reading one chapter each week. This week we are in chapter ten, but this chapter (like any other chapter) is best understood in the context of everything that has come before it.

In the first three and a half chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, he intentionally links Jesus to the story of the Hebrew Bible by portraying Jesus’ birth as a new genesis and describing him as coming out of Egypt, through the waters and into the wilderness to be tested. Then when we get halfway through chapter four, Matthew shifts his focus to the launching of Jesus’ message and ministry with these words:

From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”

Matthew describes Jesus’ “kingdom ministry” by listing three specific things that Jesus was doing:

Jesus went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people (4:23).

This three-fold description of Jesus’ mission creates the formula for understanding what Matthew records in the next few chapters. In chapters 5-7, Matthew records a big block of teaching that shows us what Jesus went around teaching and proclaiming, and then in chapters 8-9, Matthew records what it looked like when Jesus went around healing every disease and affliction among the people. This section (5-9) ends like it started with Matthew once again referring to this three-fold formula when he concludes:

And Jesus went throughout all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction (9:35).

All of this helps us better understand what we are dealing with when we get to chapter ten. Chapter ten is the second big block of teaching by Jesus (chapters 5-7 was the first), and it is a specific set of instructions that he gives his disciples on how to participate in the kingdom mission and what to expect when you do — some people will accept you and some people will reject you.

One big thing to notice at the beginning of this chapter is that Jesus gives his disciples the same message that he has been proclaiming and teaching (“the kingdom has arrived”) and the same healing power that he has been demonstrating (chapters 8-9). And Matthew records these instructions by Jesus in such a way that the principles go beyond his original disciples and provide instruction for all followers of Jesus throughout history on how to continue and carry out the kingdom mission that he launched.

That being said, here are three observations for us from these instructions given by Jesus:

First, as disciples of Jesus, we are supposed to be participating in this ongoing mission that Jesus and his original small group of disciples started. Being a Christian is not an insurance policy that secures you eternal life after death, and following Jesus is not primarily about how to go to heaven when you die. A follower of Jesus is someone who has sworn their allegiance to Jesus, who has submitted to his authority over their lives, and who has signed up to participate in the mission that he has launched. And a follower of Jesus participates in this mission by doing the same sort of things that Jesus was doing — teaching, proclaiming and healing.

Next, as disciples of Jesus, we should expect to be treated as he was treated. We will be accepted by some people, and it will encourage us to experience the blessings of their appreciation. However, we will also be criticized, mocked and rejected by some people too. We should expect this kind of treatment and not be so scared or cowardly that we try to downplay our allegiance to Jesus in order to secure the approval of others. Any attempt to keep our allegiance to Jesus private exposes where our ultimate allegiance lies — in our own well-being and in the approval of others.

And then lastly, as disciples of Jesus, we should show hospitality to and support other disciples of Jesus who are carrying out the kingdom mission. This is another practical way that we are to participate in the kingdom mission launched by Jesus. Even the smallest act of support for this mission is worth a reward in the eyes of God.

And so, let’s read this teaching of Jesus and remember that the day we decided to follow him is the day that we signed up to join the kingdom mission that he has launched. And let’s accept the fact that our allegiance to Jesus is going to regrettably but inevitably bring social and personal conflict on some level. As disciples of Jesus, we will be forced to make difficult decisions about where our ultimate loyalty lies. Let’s be wise about how we carry out this mission, and let’s stay focused on being faithful even if that means being unpopular.

Avoiding Criticism

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As followers of Jesus, we should never give people a reason to criticize us, but we shouldn’t compromise our commitment to Jesus in order to avoid criticism either. We should not be ashamed to be associated with Jesus.  

Jesus told his first followers: “Whoever is ashamed of me and my message; I also will be ashamed of him.” (Luke 9)

Today, I was reading Paul’s second letter to Timothy where he pleads with Timothy to not be ashamed of the negative stigma that may come with being loyal to Jesus. Paul writes in 2 Timothy 1:8:

"Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God."

Now, we have to put ourselves into this scene and in this story to really understand what Paul is saying here because the context is so different from what we have grown up experiencing here in our own country where following Jesus is not viewed as an offensive insult to the president or an unpatriotic act of defiance.

So here’s the scene: Paul is once again in prison for proclaiming the message of Jesus. But for Paul, being criticized, persecuted and even put in prison has just always been part of the deal. For Paul, suffering for proclaiming the message of Jesus is just normal and expected. And so that’s what he’s reminding Timothy — that suffering shouldn’t shock him. 

In Paul’s mind this kind of suffering is closely connected to Jesus’ own suffering. In Paul’s mind, if Jesus experienced the shame, humiliation and execution of the cross then his followers shouldn’t be afraid or surprised if they experience similar suffering for the sake of Jesus and his message.  

Now, again, this is hard for many of us to understand because this is just not our experience (and how thankful should we be that it’s not!?). But we can relate to what he’s telling Timothy here about not being ashamed.

Paul points out that there is obviously a negative stigma in Roman society to being associated with Jesus. And the same thing is true for us today in our society and even in this game. You’re not going to be persecuted or put in prison for it here, but people are going to put a negative label on you the more you associate yourself with Jesus or being a “chapel guy”. 

And so Paul’s words here to Timothy are just as true for us today. He tells Timothy to not avoid the unwarranted humiliation that comes from being associated with Jesus. He tells Timothy to endure all the humiliation and to share in suffering for the sake of Jesus and his message to the world. And again, he reminds Timothy of the power of God that is available to him and that is able to help him embrace this life of loyalty to Jesus.

Paul is pleading with Timothy to not compromise his loyalty to Jesus by trying to avoid the negative label that might come with being a follower of Jesus. 

And this is a temptation that we still face today. 

Many people try to say that their faith is personal or a private thing and that they don’t want to be pushy with their beliefs or something like that. It sounds humble and comes across as respectful, but lets just be honest, many of us keep our faith in Jesus to ourselves because we don’t want to get labeled with any of the negative labels that people put on Christians.

Jesus was willing to be crucified for us, but many of us are not even willing to be criticized for him.   

Paul reminds Timothy that God has given him the gift of his Spirit that now dwells within him, and it is a Spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-discipline. 

We have this same Spirit dwelling within us. It is God’s Spirit that leads us into becoming more and more like Jesus himself. And Jesus was not a man of fear nor was he ashamed of his life and his message.   

And so lets remember what Jesus has done for us and reciprocate that kind of love with a loyalty to him that is willing to be criticized and mocked and even persecuted if that’s what it comes to. 

 

The Secret of Contentment

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This week I've been reading through Paul's letter to the Philippians, and I came across a very popular verse that many of us have memorized (whether intentionally or not). However, we have to make sure that we understand what Paul is actually saying in this particular verse, and we have to be honest with ourselves about whether or not we are actually living out what it means when we quote it. The section in which we find this verse is in Philippians 4:11-13 where Paul writes:  

"Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me."

The Jesus-followers in Philippi had sent one of their members, named Epaphroditus, to take a financial gift to Paul to support him in prison. So Paul writes this letter and sends it back to the Philippians with Epaphroditus to say “Thank you for your generous support.” But he also wants them to know that he hasn’t been sitting around waiting or wondering when they might finally offer some support. He says, “I want you to know that I’ve learned how to be content in every situation and no matter my circumstances.”

The fact that Paul could be at peace and stay content in the midst of everything that he had experienced was an amazing mindset, but it’s also one that’s available to every other follower of Jesus as well.

And so, how can we get to a place in our own life where we can actually say with integrity that, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”?

And you see, that hits on the very thing that Paul has been teaching throughout this letter. He’s been pointing out that living as a follower of Jesus means that you begin to see your own life-story as a living expression of Jesus’ life-story. And so difficult times in life become times where we can experience a heightened awareness of Jesus’ love and presence with us. And this can give us hope and humility during times where things aren’t going as good as we’d like.

And so, Paul shows us throughout this letter that truly knowing and following Jesus is always a deeply personal and life-changing experience. It changes your mindset on life and your own view of yourself.   

As Jesus-follower, we must learn to view our life as not being our own.

We belong to our Lord.

Our life is no longer primarily about us; it’s about him.

And that’s what Paul’s been saying since the beginning of the letter. He says for me to live is all about Jesus and to die is a good thing. And so when Paul says here at the end of his letter that he has learned the secret of contentment, he is saying that the difficult times in life have become his greatest teachers and that they have taught him that the secret of contentment is simple dependence on God and devoted service to him. 

That is why he can say, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

This verse is probably the most popular Bible verse among athletes. Players put this verse on their gloves, on their shoes, in their social media bios and if your Tim Tebow on your eye-black. It’s a phenomenal verse, but we have to make sure that we understand what Paul is actually saying here and we have to be honest with ourselves about whether or not we are actually living out what it means when we quote it. 

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” doesn’t mean that Jesus is going to help me become successful, get that promotion, get that raise, get that call-up or obtain all of my goals and dreams. When I say that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me it means that I have learned the secret of contentment; that true joy and peace and satisfaction in this life is found in a life that is lived with simple dependence on God and devoted service to him.

Perhaps the words of Sinclair Ferguson sum this up perfectly:

“Contentment is the direct fruit of having no higher ambition than to belong to the Lord at his disposal.”

 

God-Confidence in the Clutch

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The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines confidence as “full trust; belief in the power, trustworthiness, or reliability of a person or thing.” As professional athletes, confidence is often developed through the persistent challenging and testing of our athletic abilities. Over time, we reach a certain point where we aren’t afraid of stepping up to the plate when the game is on the line because we have been through this a thousand times before and proven that we possess the strength and ability to come through in the clutch. 

As those who belong to Christ, we are to possess a similar kind of confidence but a different source and foundation for this confidence. As Christians, our confidence in life does not rest in who we are and what we’ve done but rather in who God is and what He's done. Confidence in God is the key to truly experiencing His power and presence and the source of strength that we need to endure the times in life when our faith is tested. Therefore, the condition and strength of our God-confidence will always be directly related and affected by our perception and view of God.

In describing the faith of Abraham in Romans 4, the apostle Paul provides us with four big principles that describes what true confidence in God looks like. 

To begin with, true confidence in God is based on God’s Word. Despite his circumstances, Abraham was “fully convinced” that God was able and willing to do what God said He would do (v. 21). Most people find themselves struggling in faith and feeling let down by God because their faith is resting in 'their wants' rather than in God’s Word.

“Faith does not come up with things for God to do. Faith responds to what God wants done.” (Crawford Loritts from his book Unshaken) God is not in the genie business of granting wishes. God is in the sovereignty business of giving us His Word. Faith is not proposing our plans and expecting God to work for us. Faith is trusting God’s plan and experiencing God working through us.

The next principle that we see in this passage is that true confidence in God defies our circumstances. Abraham “believed against hope… He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb.” (v. 18-19) Abraham’s faith wasn’t naive. He considered the reality of his circumstances and yet confidently decided, “I’m going to believe God anyway.” 

Many times, out of fear of coming across as foolish, we attempt to make our faith more logical and reasonable. However, sometimes God may be calling us to a level of faith that seems ridiculous to those around us. 

Abraham and Sarah had no logical reason to expect a child at their age and with their history of infertility. Our confidence in God does not deny the reality of our circumstances. God-confidence reasonably considers the present situation and yet still leads you to confidently determine that “My circumstances do not define what God wants done in my life.” 

The third principle that we see in this passage is that true confidence in God is anchored in God’s sovereign power. Abraham rested His faith in the fact that God was the one “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (v. 17). We might need to be reminded that the adversity Abraham and Sarah had found themselves enduring was a crisis designed by God. 

God is the Author of our own individual stories and where there is great need in our life there is opportunity to experience the power and presence of God in a real and tangible way. The circumstances that we find ourselves in and the power of God that defies them are statements made by God concerning His ability, sufficiency and power to come through for us in ways that we simply can’t come through for ourselves. The process of waiting for God to deliver in the clutch is always a part of God’s plan, and as we wait in faith and confidence for something to happen, more than likely we will discover that God often changes us before He changes our circumstances. 

And the fourth principle that we see in this passage is that true confidence in God must be tested and used. The more Abraham considered his circumstances and the more that he pressed into the promises and power of God, “he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God” (v. 20). 

God-confidence is not merely believing a body of truth. God-confidence is experiencing and living out that truth that you claim to believe. God-confidence is not necessarily grown in the friendly confines of Bible study and Christian fellowship. God-confidence is grown in the trenches of being forced to trust Him to get you through the troubles or trials that you are currently facing. 

Therefore, God-confidence is based on God’s Word. God-confidence defies our circumstances. God-confidence is anchored in God’s sovereign power. And true God-confidence must be tested and used.

May we not waste our time when we find ourselves waiting on God to deliver. As those who belong to Christ, may we realize that true confidence in God is developed through the persistent challenging and testing of that confidence. May we seek to attain a certain level of God-confidence that overcomes life’s circumstances because we have been through these things before, and we have reason to rest assured in our God who has proven Himself willing and able to perfectly come through in the clutch and deliver what He has promised to deliver.