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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Notorious Reasonableness

It is all too easy in this life to gain a reputation for something that is not a positive thing.  Some are notorious hotheads.  Some are notoriously stingy.  Others are known for their shady dealings or gossip.
And some people are notoriously disagreeable.  They insist on their own way.  They refuse to prefer others even in simple things.  It seems that there were at least pockets of this kind of disagreeableness among the saints at Philippi.  Scattered throughout Paul’s letter to them, there are hints that the believers there were having a hard time getting along, and the source of this conflict was habitual self-seeking.
For example, read the first few verses of Philippians 2:
 1 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.
My paraphrase of vv1-2 would be, “if you guys are really Christians, it would bring me great joy for you all to get along.”  In vv3-4, he tells them exactly what he means.  He wants them to prefer one another and stop seeking their own way.  And then he gives the supreme example of the kind of humility to which he is calling them by describing Christ humbling Himself to take the form of a man and die for our sins. 
There are other signs in Philippians that there was discord among the saints.  Later in ch2, he writes: Do all things without grumbling or questioning.  Apparently, when people in the Philippian church didn’t get their way, they were in the habit of making noise about it, complaining and challenging one another. 
Still later in ch2, Paul commends Timothy to the Philippians, saying that Timothy is unlike all his other companions, who “all seek their own interests, not those of Christ.”  So even when Paul is not directly addressing the self-seeking of the Philippians, he is commending those who are not self-seeking.  It appears that Paul has this issue on the forefront of his mind.  And it is interesting that he juxtaposes self-seeking with Christ-seeking.  His comments about those who are self-seeking demonstrate that it is impossible to advocate for self and Christ at the same time. 
Toward the end of the letter, Paul refers to one specific pair of antagonists: 2 I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. 3 Yes, I ask you also, true companion, help these women…(Phil 4:2-3a).  There are at least two striking things about this passage.  First, the rivalry between Euodia and Syntyche was so serious that it not only needed to be addressed with specificity, but the church also needed to be called into action in the matter.  Second, the feud was so well known, that Paul didn’t have to say a word about the nature of the disagreement – everyone was already aware of the situation.  You could say that these women were notoriously disagreeable. 
All of this leads to a remarkable exhortation in 4:5a: Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.  It’s so easy to gain a reputation for something bad, but it takes time and consistency to gain a reputation for something good.  And here Paul has called the church to be notoriously reasonable.  Can you imagine preferring others to the extent that you acquire a reputation for it?  That’s some serious reasonableness!
Take a second to think about your own life.  Are you notoriously reasonable?  Or are there areas in which you are seeking your own way at the expense of others?  What are they?  If we are insisting on our own way, Philippians would tell us that we are not seeking the interests of Christ and that we should strive to be reasonable.
But how do we get there?  I think we can identify some clues in the letter that would lead us to conclude that the key is to find our joy and satisfaction in Christ.  I already noted above that Paul juxtaposed self-seeking with Christ-seeking (2:21).  Clearly self-seeking is what we are to put off, but in its place we should put on seeking the interests of Christ.  Serving Him.  Desiring Him.  Working to achieve His agenda and sacrificing our own. 
Another clue is in the first chapter where Paul describes his imprisonment for the sake of the gospel.  He notes that there are those on the outside who are seeking to share the gospel in such a way as to antagonize him.  His response?  Hallelujah!  “Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice” (1:12-18).  Paul was so intent upon seeking the interests of Christ that it bothered him none to be targeted by others.  Most of us would not have felt the same way.  But Paul provided a living example of what it means to be Christ-seeking instead of self-seeking.
There are other clues.  The next section in ch1 reveals that Paul would prefer to leave this world and go home to be with the Lord, but that he is willing to continue on this earth for “your progress and joy in the faith…” (1:19-26).  He was putting off his own interests and seeking the interests of Christ by serving others.
In ch2, where he explicitly calls the Philippians to seek the interests of others, he implies that in doing so they will be following the example of Christ, which results in His being glorified.  Again, self-seeking is replaced with Christ-seeking.
In ch3, Paul details his impeccable credentials as a Jew, credentials which he formerly used to seek his own interests and which he could still use if he so chose.  But he chose another way: Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord (3:8).  What was gain to him he considered rubbish compared to Christ.  It was because of his satisfaction in Christ that Paul was able to say, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (4:10-13).
But the primary reason we can know that the key to being reasonable is to find our joy and satisfaction in Christ is the immediate context of the command to be reasonable.  The exhortation to notorious reasonableness is bracketed by comments regarding the joy and closeness of the Lord:
4 Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. 5 Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand… (Phil 4:4-5).
If we strive to derive our joy and satisfaction in Christ, we are freed from self-seeking and are able to prefer others with fervor.  As long as He is near, we always have what we want most and are able to joyfully sacrifice lesser things. 
Are you notoriously reasonable?  If not, seek to find your joy and satisfaction in Him.  In time, your reasonableness with be known to everyone.  
Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Lingering Question from Matthew 13:1-17

In the message from Matthew 13:1-17 on Sunday, we looked at the dual purposes for which Jesus taught in parables.  Parables were designed to deliver the secrets of the kingdom of heaven to believers and to conceal them from unbelievers.  We noted that in concealing the truth from unbelievers, God gives them what they want.  Conversely, in revealing the truth to believers, God gives them what they want.  But I noted a question that still lingered in my mind: why do believers want the truth of the kingdom, but unbelievers don’t? 
Those of us who are “enthusiastically reformed” tend to run to such questions.  We can even be bothered by texts like the one we studied on Sunday because it teaches that the concealing of the truth is a response to unbelief.  We are uncomfortable saying that unbelievers don’t understand the truth because they don’t believe.  We reformed folks would rather say, “no, they don’t believe because the truth hasn't been revealed to them.”  And that is true – unbelievers don’t believe because their eyes have not been opened to the truth.  We should all affirm that as biblical truth.  But that is not the point that Matthew 13:10-17 makes. 
We all have our favorite topics, hobby horses, and soapboxes.  I once heard of a preacher who would conclude every sermon, no matter the text or topic, with, “And now, a few words on baptism…”  My tendency is to do that with the doctrine of God’s sovereignty, but I don’t ever want to be guilty of forcing every text into my systematic theology, or forcing my systematic theology into every text.  The main point of the sermon should be taken from the main point of the text.  That’s why on Sunday I shied away from answering that lingering question about why believers want the truth. 
But now that the sermon has been preached, let’s scratch the itch.  Why do believers want the truth and unbelievers do not?  The short answer is that some have been enabled to believe and to desire the truth and some have not.  The default condition of man is deadness in sin; rebellion against God; allegiance to the devil, the world, and the flesh; and complete self-deception (Rom 1:18-23, 28-32; 2 Cor 4:4; Eph2:1-3).  Man is unable to take the first step toward God or to please Him in any way (Rom 8:4-8).  It is God who must act upon the human heart to give repentance and faith so that the sinner might believe and be saved (Acts 5:31, 11:18; Eph 2:4-10; 2 Tim 2:24-26).  He acts in this way according to His own gracious choice (John1:12-13, 6:44, 6:65; Rom 8:28-30, 9:15-18; Eph 1:3-6). 
So the ultimate reason that some desire truth and that others do not is that God has graciously acted upon some and not on others.  This fits well with what we studied in Matthew 11:25-30 a couple of months ago.  God has graciously revealed the truth to some and justly concealed it from others.
Our passage on Sunday, Matthew 13:1-17, taught that those who have embraced the initial revelation of Christ (by God’s sovereign grace) are given additional revelation in the form of knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven; those who rejected that initial revelation (according to their own sinful nature) are denied any further revelation.  In other words, believers receive the temporal blessing of further revelation, while unbelievers receive the temporal judgment of an inability to comprehend any truth.  Matthew’s emphasis was not on God’s sovereignty over the believing or the unbelieving, but rather on the responsibility of man to believe and obey the truth.
Interestingly, Mark’s version of this story emphasizes God’s sovereignty rather than man’s responsibility.  Look at Mark 4:10-12:
10 And when he was alone, those around him with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11 And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables, 12 so that "they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand, lest they should turn and be forgiven."
Compare this with what we saw in Matthew 13:13: This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand.
Mark teaches that Jesus taught in parables so that the people would not obey the gospel; Matthew teaches that Jesus taught in parables because the people did not obey the gospel.  Which is right?  They both are.  They are simply emphasizing different angles of the same event.  Mark emphasizes God’s sovereignty while Matthew emphasizes man’s volition.  The Jews’ rejection of Christ was due both to the sovereign rule of God and to their own desire to disobey. 
Should it trouble us that Mark and Matthew do not emphasize the same thing or that they do not tell the story from the same angle?  Certainly not.  This is why it is a blessing to have four Gospels instead of just one.  Each Gospel writer wrote to a unique audience for a unique purpose to make a unique point.  We are beneficiaries of each.  When studying one, we should focus on its intent and message, allowing its unique context to inform our understanding and convey the Spirit-inspired point.  
Posted by Greg Birdwell