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The Wrong Kind of Ambition

Saturday, May 30, 2020

“For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every evil thing.”

(James 3:16

There is such a thing as healthy ambition. For example, one who aspires to the office of an overseer desires a good work (1 Tim. 3:1); we ought, like Paul, to make it our ambition to be pleasing to God (2 Cor. 5:9); we are commanded to make it our ambition to lead a quiet and dignified life working with our hands and minding our own business (1 Thess. 4:11).

But there is an evil kind of ambition that is self-centered, self-serving and self-important. The word eritheia is used seven times in the New Testament, each time in connection to the Church’s ruin and division. In Romans 2:8 it is used to describe those whose ambitions are “selfish” resulting in the severe judgment of God. In 2 Corinthians 12:20 it occurs in the middle of a string of sinful behaviors (“disputes” NASB) that are ruining the unity of the Corinthian church. 

This is not surprising considering eritheia’s presence in Paul’s representative list of the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:20 where it is again translated “disputes” (“strife” KJV, “selfish ambitions” NKJV). Paul used it to describe those who preach with the wrong motives (Phil. 1:16) and live with the wrong spirit (2:3). James indicted the divided Christians he wrote to on the same grounds of harboring “selfish ambition” (Jas. 3:1416) that characterized wisdom which is not from above but is “earthly, natural and demonic.”

Obviously, eritheia is no good and tears up God’s work of uniting humanity in the body of Christ. Discovering the origins and evolution of this word further help us understand its New Testament uses and the dangers of “selfish ambition.”

Eritheia was derived from erithos which was a perfectly respectable word in its day, meaning “a day laborer”. The word was specifically connected with spinners and weavers of wool (erion) which is where eritheia finds its derivation. It then came to mean “labor for wages.” What’s so wrong with a person being paid for honest work? (1 Cor. 9:1-14) Here we begin to see the degeneration of a good word into an evil one that parallels the uncanny human capacity to turn a good thing into a bad thing.

Eritheia began to take on the meaning of work that is done purely to get a paycheck and nothing else; that kind of work underneath which is no spirit of service but only one question: “What do I get out of all this?” The word then came to describe people who were running for political office, not out of a sense of civil duty and service rendered to the State, but purely for their own selfish profit (honor, wealth, power, etc.). Some things don’t seem to have changed much.

Again, eritheia took on two additional nuances of meaning later on. First, it came to be used to describe political party squabbles; the kind of jockeying for a better position of power which has become so common in secular and church politics (see Lk. 22:24). Second, it took on the meaning that the New Testament writers have used, namely that “selfish ambition” which any concept of love, honor or service is absent. 

Eritheia is the self-centered, ‘me first’ politics that destroy God’s building, ravage God’s vineyard and divide God’s body. Churches that have divided over various things can probably trace the schism back to its source and find eritheia alive and well on one or both ‘sides’ of the issue.

Corinth had divided into factions just like our secular politics, red and blue, liberal and conservative. Each side was more concerned with their own position of primacy all the while Jesus, their exalted ‘Lord,’ took a back seat. Paul’s writings to them were to help these squabbling spiritual infants to see their ugly factious behavior through the lens of the cross. Surely they would see eritheia has no place in the body of Christ!

Certain preachers, like those Paul encountered in Philippi, preached the gospel not to spread the blessing of salvation in Christ to serve their fellow man but purely for selfish motives (Phil. 1:15-18). They were preaching Jesus as Lord but their heart wasn’t motivated by love to exalt Jesus but rather by eritheia to exalt themselves. Many preachers today fall into the same trap of displaying their own piety and knowledge in preaching. We must discipline ourselves lest we too be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27). As one commentary stated, no preacher can show at one and the same time that he is clever and that Christ is wonderful.

Selfish ambition is characteristic in Paul’s works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21) and in James’ wisdom from below (Jas. 3:13-18). It is characteristic in us when we measure things by how we can personally benefit. May Christ help us crucify this ugly behavior which is so flagrantly out of step with His gospel of selfless sacrifice!

The evolution of this word is a commentary on human nature. It began by describing the work a man does for an honest day’s pay and came to describe the work which is done for pay alone. This word should warn us to be careful how we view our work. Do we go to work not only to provide for ourselves and our family but to also help with the needs of others? Are we laboring for our true Master and the true reward? (Col. 3:22-25). Let us not ask, “What can I get out of this?” and instead ask, “What can I put into this that will bring honor to Jesus?”

The Power of Music

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Joseph Fletcher, the Scottish political activist of the eighteenth century, once said, “Let me write the songs of a nation. I care not who makes its laws." Fletcher knew music can have a greater impact on the thinking and behavior of people than the laws they live under. He saw music as a powerful tool for political and social change. And it still is.

Music can inspire revolution because of its inherent connection to our emotions. As one man said, “Music is the language of the soul.” However, music’s ability to express emotion and connect with our hearts, is also a cause for warning. First, we will speak in the realm of music in general and then specifically of music directed toward God as worship.

The Power of Music in General

Every song carries with it a worldview, a philosophy, a way of seeing the universe. That message is birthed in the creative minds and skillful hands of the musicians. It is carefully crafted in the studios of Nashville, TN or Brooklyn, NY. Then it is digitally snipped, cut and packaged into its most palatable form by producers to be devoured by you, the consumer. 

Consumption of that message takes place in the most sacred human space, the heart. “Watch over your heart with all diligence," Wisdom says, "for from it flow the springs of life.” (Prov. 4:23) Wisdom warns us to be careful what we pour into that sacred wellspring. Exposure to and acceptance of the message a song is espousing will have consequences on our thinking and behavior (Mt. 15:18-20).

But lady Wisdom gives us both warning and instruction. Music should also be regarded as a gift from God. Our God is a musical, eloquent God, and has blessed many with the ability to create music. You may be able to bring blessing through the power of music to the hearts of others. Paul's words are a helpful filter not only for what we allow into our hearts but also what we are sending out from our hearts into the hearts of others: “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things" (Phil. 4:8). All our creative endeavors should be under the influence of the gospel. Do not use an attractive melody as a cloak for evil (cf. Gal. 5:13; 1 Pet. 2:16). 

Many forms of music have no lyrical content at all. Classical, jazz, and other forms of “music for music’s sake,” though without words, are not without power. See the difference in ideology between the two great German composers Ludwig van Beethoven and, a generation later, Richard Wagner for proof.

The Power of Music as Worship

Let’s move to the realm of music in the context of worship. God is praised with music. But what kind of music exalts the Lord of the universe? Notice the relatively few New Testament passages on song worship give little direction as to the form that music is to take. We are simply told to “sing” (Jas. 5:13) with the “fruit of [our] lips” (Heb. 13:15) “making melody with [our] heart to the Lord” (Eph. 5:19).

We are given freedom as to the form those “hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs” take as long as we “sing” them. Notice God emphasizes content not form. Our worship songs glorify God when their content is spiritual (Col. 3:16). The primary way worship music reaches us emotionally is through the message that resonates within our hearts as we sing. The form is secondary and should be in service to content. Good song writers know how to appropriately match melody and poetry.

Some contemporary trends in worship music have gotten away from this content-first, participatory approach in favor of a form-first, observation approach. The emphasis is less on instruction through content and more on producing emotion through the form of the music. Instead of thinking about the message of the song through the words, we are encouraged to feel the message through the form. In true worship, however, God wishes us to use music as a vehicle of expression that points to his glory. When the content of our worship music is given a back seat to form, the music no longer points to God but is, in a sense, pointing to itself. The music is no longer a means to an end (to exalt God and express truth) but becomes an end in itself, a subtle form of idolatry.

Because music has the potential to sound so beautiful we can become infatuated with form at the expense of content. This is no big deal with secular music but when it comes to worship music, content must precede form. In Amos’ day, Israel was “at ease in Zion” and had turned the worship of God into an exercise in self-indulgence. They were those who “sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music” (Amos 6:5). The prophet says “Woe” to them! (6:4). They had no awareness of the meaning and instruction of the psalms of David and sang them as idly as any other common song. 

The irony is that the very thing that could have brought the Israelites out of their sin and closer to God (true, spiritual worship) had been perverted as a tool to gratify their own pleasure and pushed them further away from God. The warning stands today. If we "worship in spirit and in truth" (Jn. 4:24) worship will have its intended effects: God will be glorified (Rom. 15:6), we will grow closer to him and become more like him (2 Cor. 3:18), and unbelievers will see that “God is certainly among you” (1 Cor. 14:25).

Consecrating our Children

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Train up a child in the way he should go;

even when he is old he will not depart from it.

(Proverbs 22:6)

The Bible is full of wonderful instruction on family relationships, marriage and the rearing of children. Among the many verses that address parenting, Proverbs 22:6 is a classic. It teaches the general truth that if parents train their children to love and obey God when they are young they will grow up to love and obey God as adults. When this verse is read aloud to the church, however, it breaks my heart to see the pain on parents’ faces whose children have grown up only to leave the Lord. They blame themselves for not training their children "in the way [they] should go. Or worse, they blame God for not keeping his promise. But is this fair? Let's examine this passage in more detail to find out.

WHAT IS A "PROVERB"?

It is important to note what a proverb is. The word “proverb” comes from a root which means “likeness.” The related verb means “to be like, to represent, be comparable with.” For example, “Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish” (Psa. 49:12). The word "like" is the same word for "proverb." A proverb is an object lesson based on a comparison or an analogy (Psa. 78:2-6), a short, pithy statement (Ezek. 16:44) or a general saying (Deut. 28:37). In the Bible, proverbs are memorable sayings that, if heeded, generally turn out true in life.

So let’s revisit Proverbs 22:6. God is not making a hard-and-fast promise like “If you do A, the result will always be B.” Proverbs doesn't function as computer code for life. God’s wisdom in the book of Proverbs is given in short statements that capture a general truth about wise and godly living in poetic form. It is beyond the scope of any one proverb to exhaust the subject it addresses. You might say a proverb is the rule and not the exception (for the exceptions, see Ecclesiastes). So as a rule, if parents follow the wisdom of Proverbs 22:6a, then verse 6b will probably result. While a person's disobedience to the Lord may be attributed in part by a failing in the parents, it is not always necessarily the case. 

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO "TRAIN UP" A CHILD?

Wisdom teaches us to “train up” our children. This conjures images, at least in my mind, of training an animal to do tricks. This gives the impression that parenting isn’t too different than potty training a beagle. But this is missing it by a long shot. The verb translated “train up” can also mean “to dedicate” or “to consecrate.” The same word used in reference to children in Proverbs 22:6 is used to refer to dedicating a house (Deut. 20:5), the temple (1 Kgs. 8:63; Psa. 30:1), altars (Num. 7:10; 2 Chron. 7:9) and the town walls (Neh. 12:27). A related adjective describes men who have been trained, tried and experienced (Gen. 14:14).

So how does this all fit in with parenting our children? The proverb pictures a child whose parents dedicate him to the Lord. This certainly involves moral training and guidance but underneath it is a deeper desire to consecrate this precious gift of human life to the Creator’s service. This reminds me of Hannah’s attitude in 1 Sam. 1:11, “And she vowed a vow and said, “O Lord of hosts, if you will indeed look on the affliction of your servant and remember me and not forget your servant, but will give to your servant a son, then I will give him to the Lord all the days of his life...”

Hannah had the right mental picture of parenthood. Her inability to bear children like other women left her in humility and disgrace in society but it also gave her a deeper appreciation for children and a higher perspective on parenting. To Hannah, the life of a child was a gift from God meant to be given back to him in faithful service. 

IN WHAT "WAY" ARE CHILDREN TO BE TRAINED?

The “way” talked about in the proverb is a path, a road, a metaphor for the journey of life. We train our children by starting them on a path headed in a certain direction at a young age. Even though the proverb indicates there is a correct "way" children "should go," the proverb remains true no matter how you train your child. Generally, when we are set on a path as a child, whether that pathway is righteous (Prov. 13:6) or wicked (Prov. 12:26), we will seldom deviate from that path later in life. 

This proverb is a warning about the character forming habits parents instill in their children at an early age. They are “soaking up” how to live life based on what they see in mom and dad. Parents are setting their children on a trajectory, a heading, whether they know it or not. The Lord says through Ezekiel, “like mother, like daughter” (Ezek. 16:44) just as we say, "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree." As we stated before, there are exceptions to the rule, so don't be discouraged if you are ashamed of the tree you fell from!

Now, the “way he should go” is stated elsewhere in the book. There is a “way that seems right” to a person (Prov. 14:12) which, to the child, is often the way of “foolishness” (Prov. 22:15). It is the godly parent’s duty to dedicate their children to the Lord at the earliest moments of parenthood. Like Hannah, we should have a mind to consecrate our children to the Lord even before they are born and to see in every moment with our children an opportunity to shape their character. Continuing that act of consecration requires loving parental “discipline” along the “way” (Prov. 22:15; cf. Col. 3:21; Eph. 6:4). The NEB translates Proverbs 22:6a as, “Start a boy on the right road.” Sound wisdom and a dire warning all wrapped up in one statement. A true proverb!

Fully Integrated

Saturday, May 09, 2020

“He who walks in integrity walks securely, 

But he who perverts his ways will be found out.”

(Proverbs 10:9

Doctors may disagree on what makes a person ill and the cause of our sickness, but they are all united in what makes a person whole and complete. In other words, we may go into the hospital with one leg less but we will never leave with one leg more because doctors are all united in what a healthy body looks like.

Politicians see it the other way around. All politicians agree that the country is sick, but they can’t agree on what a healthy country looks like. What one political party suggests as a solution to the problem of societal sickness is viewed as worse to the other party than the present state of things. But conservative, liberal or moderate, politicians all agree that the country needs to be made whole.

We may never agree on what makes one physically incomplete or what makes a country politically whole but Jesus, the great physician and king of creation, knows what makes us spiritually incomplete and how we can be spiritually whole again. 

Jesus is in the business of making people whole again. He once “restored” a man’s hand “to normal, like the other” (Mt. 12:13; cf. 15:31). But the miracles were never supposed to be an end in themselves but rather a means to an end. The miracles teach us valuable lessons about what Jesus can do within us today. Each healing miracle of the great physician is a paradigm, a miniature picture or physical illustration, of how he can restore us to spiritual health and wholeness. In fact, this is the primary aim of Jesus’ mission, “to restore all things” (Mt. 17:11; cf. Col. 1:20).

This concept of wholeness and completeness brings us to an interesting word we find scattered throughout the Bible: integrity. Defined negatively, integrity means uncorrupted, undivided, sinless. Defined positivity, integrity means wholeness, completeness, oneness. 

So a person who has integrity is the same person all the time. He is fully integrated. This is the essence of God’s character revealed in his personal name, “I Am Who I Am” (Ex. 3:14). That is, whatever God is, he is that all the time. His character is changeless and eternally consistent (2 Tim. 2:13). With him there is “no variation or shifting shadow” (Jas. 1:17). He “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). He doesn’t behave one way with one group of people and behave another way with another group (see “Hypocrites!” Mt. 23). He is the epitome of integrity. 

But are we fully integrated humans? John is right when he described God as “love” (1 Jn. 4:8) because God loves all the time no matter what. Even his judgments are consistent with his love because love is integral to lis character. Can that be said of us? Could a person say, “(insert your name here) is love” and be speaking the truth? Is it even possible to be a fully integrated human? 

I believe the answer is a resounding “No” outside of Jesus but an equally resounding “Yes” in Jesus (2 Cor. 1:20). The “old self” “corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit” (Eph. 4:22) is dominated by the desires of the flesh which are “in opposition” to those of the Spirit (Gal. 5:17). But Jesus can create a “new self” “in the likeness of God” who is fully integrated “in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph. 4:24). To be fully integrated apart from God is absurd. But by the grace of God in Jesus we can make real steps to be people of integrity.

In the passage we began with (Prov. 10:9) integrity means blameless in conduct. One who lives in a blameless way will live in security. He is certain of the course he is following and doesn’t have to look over his shoulder. He doesn’t fear retribution from man or God because he lives with integrity. Living with integrity is essentially living by faith or trusting obedience in God's word (Hab. 2:4).

By faith, integrity is achievable. David was a man of integrity (1 Kgs. 9:4). He even asked God to vindicate him on the basis of his integrity (Psa. 26:1,11). He called upon God to “search” and “try” his heart to “see if there [was] any hurtful way in” him (Psa. 139:23-24). Job was also a man of integrity. Even when the devil tried to crush him with evil, his wife railed against him and his friends accused him of living in some secret sin, Job held fast to his integrity (Job 2:3,94:68:2027:531:6, etc.). The apostle Paul spent much of his second letter to the Corinthian church defending his integrity because it had been called into question (see for example 2 Cor. 1:12-24). 

Integrity has a direct correlation to trust. It impacts every relationship in life. Friends cease to be friends when they learn that we lied to them, deceived them or acted hypocritically. A loss of integrity forfeits trust. The American public’s trust in their media, in their politicians, and in their beloved Hollywood idols has dissolved because of huge moral and ethical failings. Every relationship from friendship to government is shaped by the question, “Can I trust them?” 

The corrupt system of world under the power of the evil one is utterly irredeemable and irreconcilable (Eph. 2:21 Jn. 2:15-172 Pet. 3:7,10-12). It is reserved for the fires of judgment. However, those in Christ have passed from death into life, out of darkness and into light (Jn. 5:24Col. 1:13-14) where, by the power of forgiveness, we can grow into maturity, “to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ”, the only human who has ever been fully integrated (Eph. 4:13,16). 

Are you maturing in your integrity? Can others trust you and depend on you? Does your word count (Mt. 5:33-37)? By the power that works within all Christians (Eph. 3:20) we can be people of integrity and, in the resurrection and new creation, be fully integrated humans!

Connections with Elijah

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Elijah was a mighty prophet of the LORD who arose during a time of crisis in the northern kingdom. He courageously opposed the wicked leadership of Ahab and Jezebel and played a vital role in a significant victory over Baal-worship at Mount Carmel (1 Kgs. 17-18). He was a man of great faith but like all biblical heroes of faith (minus one) he was also flawed.

After facing some unexpected opposition from the queen, Elijah retreated from conflict and nearly cast aside his faith, looking to lay down his prophetic mantle prematurely (1 Kgs. 19:1-4). At Mount Horeb, God gently reminded him he was only one servant among many (1 Kgs. 19:5-14). He continued to serve God (1 Kgs. 21; 2 Kgs. 1) but he displayed moments of definite reluctance, perhaps even disobedience (1 Kgs. 19:15-212 Kgs. 2:1-10). When things happened the way he expected Elijah fulfilled his role successfully but when the going got rough he did not always handle the disappointment well, let alone smooth the way ahead for others! 

Elijah and Jesus the Messiah

Elijah appeared “in person” in the New Testament, standing on the Mount of Transfiguration along with Moses and Jesus (Mt. 17:1-13). The significance of this meeting is widely debated but the main point was to show that Jesus is far greater than both Moses and Elijah. Like Moses, Elijah explicitly prefigured Jesus. Like Jesus, he was a mighty prophet who embraced the Gentiles (Lk. 4:24-26). But there are implicit connections to Jesus as well. Angels ministered to them in the wilderness (1 Kgs. 19:5-8Mt. 4:1-11); they opposed Baal(-Zebub) and dealt with the possessed (1 Kgs. 18:20-40;2 Kgs. 1:2-17Mt. 12:22-28); they worked miracles of provision and healing (1 Kgs. 17:7-24Mt. 14:13-2115:29-39); in the end, they both ascended into heaven (2 Kgs. 2:11Acts 1:2). The portrait of Jesus in the New Testament is building on and perfecting the portrait of the great prophet Elijah in the Old Testament.

Elijah & John the Baptist

However, for all the connections to Jesus in the gospels, Elijah is more closely associated with John the Baptist. Elijah’s preparatory role to pave the way to God’s victory over the powers of darkness (1 Kgs. 19:15-18Mal. 4:1-6) is likened to John’s role as the forerunner to the LORD.  John appears on the scene before Jesus dressed like Elijah (2 Kgs. 1:8Mt. 3:4) announcing the coming kingdom of God and warning people to repent. It was John, not Jesus (Mt. 16:13-1627:45-49), who was identified as the Elijah to come (Lk. 1:11-17Mt. 11:1-917:11-13). This led some to think that John the Baptist was literally the Elijah from the Old Testament, which he flatly denied (Jn. 1:19-34). This confusion is understandable considering the peculiar circumstances of Elijah’s departure from this world in 2 Kgs. 2:1-18. John was not Elijah in any literal sense but he was Elijah in the figurative sense: he performed Elijah’s task without actually being Elijah.

Elijah & The Faithful People of God

Elijah not only functions as a type of Jesus and John but also of us. He was “a man with a nature like ours” (Jas. 5:17). He was one of the people of God. And we, as people of God ourselves, can learn many lessons from studying his story. 

  1. We learn how God works with the “remnants” of His people (Rom. 11:1ff). Elijah went up against 450 prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and he prevailed by faith in the power of the LORD. But he had sunken into a depressed state at the cave at Mount Horeb believing he was all that was left of the faithful. There are times we may feel we are all that are left of the LORD’s army. But there will always be a faithful few scattered throughout the world engaged in the same conflict against the powers of darkness (1 Pet. 5:9-10). God’s people have always been in the minority. Think of Noah, Moses and Aaron, Caleb and Joshua, Daniel and his three friends in Babylon, the apostles and early Christians. Most of all, think of Jesus, who was truly alone on the cross but who won the victory for all who put their faith in Him!

  2. We also learn about what it means to endure hardship “by faith.” The Hebrew writer references Elijah in a list of those who endured life’s difficulties by faith (Heb. 11:32-40). The Lord said that persecuted peacemakers are “blessed” because they are in the company of faithful prophets like Elijah (Mt. 5:9-12). We ought to “rejoice and be glad” when we are “persecuted for righteousness sake” “for [our] reward is great in heaven.” When we get backlash from the world for living out our convictions we are proving our spiritual DNA and are counted with the faithful.

  3. We learn about the power of prayer. Paul says we are to “pray at all times” (Eph. 6:18). James says we are to pray when we’re in trouble, when we’re happy, and when we’re sick (Jas. 5:13-14). James points out Elijah as an example of the power of faithful prayer. He was a man just like us, with the same spiritual resources. “He prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.” We should recognize that the power of prayer is available to all who are sincerely following the Lord and not just to a special few (Jas. 5:16b-18).

  4. One of the greatest lessons we learn from Elijah is to have a sense of perspective on one’s life of service to God. No one should think he is greater than anyone else in the kingdom (Rom. 12:3-81 Cor. 3:1-9Phil. 1:12-18). We are each only part of God’s plan and not the plan itself. Elijah needed some convincing of this at Mount Horeb but John the Baptist humbly grasped this truth right away (Mt. 3:11-1511:11Jn. 3:27-30). We must understand, while we all have an important place in the kingdom, that place is never ahead or above anyone else (Mt. 20:20-27). 

Elijah is a powerful teacher for us both in his successes and in his failures. God can work with imperfect people like us so long as we are humble and faithful to Him.
 

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