“You’re a teacher?”
That line of stunned but admiring disbelief is a centerpiece of both the new Indiana Jones film and much of the great mythic stories we enjoy. Whether it’s the fedora-wearing archaeologist who saves the world, or the mild-mannered newspaper reporter who is the son of Krypton, or the young youth who draws the sword from the stone, or the quiet hobbit who is called to defeat the evil ruler of Mount Doom, we look up to the individual who lives the extraordinary life.
But where does that leave the ten million teachers who are “just” teachers? The mailmen and mechanics and mothers who are not spending their weekends defeating KGB agents in the Amazon jungle with a whip and a grin? The men and women who are leading just “ordinary” lives?
It’s a subtle trap, but one that bears looking at: the trap of seeing ourselves as leading “ordinary” lives. For if we look at our life, the 9 to 5, paying bills, raising kids, growing older every year “ordinary” life, and compare it to the books and movies, we can convince ourselves that something’s wrong, that the life we’re living isn’t exciting enough and isn’t important enough for us. We think that we should be living an extraordinary life instead.
If we fall into this trap of the “Indiana Jones syndrome,” what are the results? The first will be discontentment with the life we do have, with a whole host of emotions like frustration or guilt or discouragment in tow. We might invest our energies in trying to create an extraordinary life, like a dream career change or a promotion that will end up in disaster. We might even try to find some adrenaline on the side to give our sagging ego a boost. It could be an all-consuming hobby, a spicy illicit relationship, or a soul-destroying addiction as a substitute for having missed out on that extraordinary life.
Are you wincing yet? Are you looking in the mirror and seeing yourself? I know I’ve longed to put the fedora on my head in the past, and seen the discontment seep into my soul.
What’s the answer? How do we escape from the Indiana Jones syndrome, from the dissatifaction of living an “ordinary” life? As with everything else, the answer lies with God. The apostle Paul gave a word picture about the “ordinary” life in 1 Corinthians 12:
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.
The Christians at Corinth all had the Indiana Jones syndrome; they were all wanting to lead extraordinary lives and be leaders or show off miraculous gifts. But Paul rebukes them. He says that just as a properly functioning body has different parts, the church as the body of Christ has different parts. By nature and by necessity the church has people leading more outwardly glamorous or extraordinary lives and others leading very “ordinary” lives. Every life is equally important in the Kingdom and equally valued by God, no matter how they look on the surface or are esteemed by the world. God in His love and His wisdom chooses the best life for each and every one of us.
There really is an escape from the Indiana Jones syndrome. We can rest in knowing there is no ordinary life that is lived for God. There is no “ordinary” cup of cold water given to another that will go unrewarded (Matthew 10:42). There is no “ordinary” hospitality given to a stranger that may not be to an angel (Hebrews 13:2). There is no bath in a “ordinary” river that may not result in a miracle (2 Kings 5).
If we will live it in Christ and for Christ, we all will experience an extraordinary life.
It shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but it still does. God delights to use a small step of faith to do something totally unanticipated for the Kingdom. Like the young boy who gave his fish and bread to Jesus, we often are not asked to do enormous incredible heroic life shattering things, but just small ordinary things in faith.
This week’s example: Beliefnet. I was surfing and stumbled upon their beta community feature, and I thought, “Why not put up a profile?” And of course, there was the voice of doubt saying, “Who will see it? What good will it do?” but still I thought, “It’s a little thing, it will only take a few minutes.”
Today, completely to my suprise, my profile was featured on the community landing page, and I’ve had over 200 profile views, made some new friends, and hopefully blessed and helped some people I would never otherwise have been able to. God is still in the business of building His Kingdom through our small steps of faith.
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Matthew 4:17
If you were asked to sum up what Jesus taught in only one word, what would it be?
“Repent.” I don’t think that’s the answer most people, Christian or non-Christian, would give. But every other teaching or command of Jesus has to begin with repent. Whether it is to believe, or love, or follow, in reality it must be “repent and believe” “repent and love” ”repent and follow.”
Why? Because to repent means to change your mind and then change your life, your actions. And all Jesus calls us to do is foreign to our fallen hearts and minds. We must repent, change our sinful mindset, agree with God, and then act. We must repent of our unbelief and rebellion against God, then believe. We must repent of our self-obsession, agree with God, and then love like God loves. We must repent of being boss of our own lives, agree that Jesus is Lord, and then follow Him.
And why repent? “For the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” There have been books written about what Jesus meant by “the kingdom of heaven,” but a good summary would be “life under God’s rule.” Actually living under God’s authority and commandments, following Christ, living as He would have us live, is a radically different and radically beautiful way to live. It is living in an entirely different kingdom, an entirely different plane of existence. As Charlie Peacock wrote, it is a completely “new way to be human.”
And, there’s only one way to move your life into this kingdom. Repent. And there’s only one way to keep your life in this kingdom. Repent. God speaks this verse to me every day: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Every day, the kingdom is waiting. I can live in it, and advance it by my faithful service. Or I can live in my own little feifdom, and advance whatever petty ambition or pleasure I choose. Jesus calls me. “Repent, today repent, for my kingdom is at hand.” Will I, today? Will I listen to Christ, see where I am following my own path, repent, and follow Him? Will you?
There is only one story that really matters: THE story of God reaching down into history to redeem a people for Himself. We live in that story, as we journey as vagabonds toward heaven. Four hundred years ago, a prisoner in an English jail retold THE story in such a fresh and masterful way that his words have been a bestseller ever since. That prisoner, of course, was John Bunyan, and his retelling of THE story was his masterpiece Pilgrim’s Progress.
Now, a master storyteller of our generation has taken his turn at retelling THE story with the novel Quest for Celestia: A Reimagining of the Pilgrim’s Progress. Patterned after the manner of Pilgrim’s Progress, Quest for Celestia follows a young man, Kadin, as his eyes are opened to a great quest to visit a glorious city. His perilous journey takes him through the same type of allegorical adventures and dangers that echo both Bunyan and every Christian’s life. Written in a fast-paced first-person style, this novel is an easy read akin to the Chronicles of Narnia. It has both a male and female protoganonist with a mild dash of romance thrown in to better appeal to readers of both sexes. Entertaining and inspiring, Quest for Celestia is a great read for young and old, both those familiar with Bunyan’s original masterpiece and those new to the genre of imaginative retellings of God’s redemptive story.
Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:1-3 ESV)
Wasn’t this a strange way for Jesus to start a conversation? A prominent rabbi comes in, and confesses to Jesus that he is a “teacher come from God.” At first glance, you might think Jesus might reply, “Yes, you’re right, you’re very perceptive.” “Yes, you have seen the truth.” or at least, “Why do you say that? Why do you think I am from God?”
But, as Jesus often did, he throws Nicodemus something seemingly out of the blue— “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Where did that come from?
If you examine Jesus’ conversations, He often challenged unbelievers along the path of their perceived but wrong opinions. To the rich young ruler he first challenged him about his notion of what being “good” was. To Nathanael he challenged his image of what the Messiah would be like. To the woman at the well he challenged her idea of what thirst was really all about. To Pilate he challenged his idea of how an innocent man would speak before him.
So Christ immediately challenged Nicodemus on his opinion of what spiritual sight was. Specifically, Nicodemus had studied the Scriptures all his life, and was intellectually one of the most learned men in Israel. In addition to his learning, he had lived an exemplary holy and pious life. If anyone in Israel was qualified to know who would be truly from God and who wasn’t, both Nicodemus himself and any other Jew would have said, “Yes, Nicodemus can see.”
But Jesus jumps in and in effect says, “You’ve just said you can see that I’m from God. But you can’t. You’re blind. All your knowledge and all your holiness can’t give you spiritual sight— only being born again can allow you to see the kingdom of God.”
This statement completely blows Nicodemus and his world away. The fact that spiritual sight can’t be attained though even his lifetime of diligent effort— he just can’t comprehend it (well, duh, because he doesn’t have any spiritual sight.) But the spiritual blindness of humanity is a fact. Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 4:4, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
It is only after God directly intervenes in our life through the new birth that we can see, as Paul says in verse 6, “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Nicodemus was convinced he could see spiritual reality, but he couldn’t until he was born again. When someone is born again, their eyes are opened to a whole new world of spiritual reality, just as in the movie The Matrix Neo sees his reality in a whole new and deeper way after he is reborn:
So, how should believers respond to this truth from John’s gospel?
First, we need to be thankful to God that He has in His mercy chosen to allow us to have spiritual sight.
Second, we need to pray and strive to use this spiritual sight, to see the Kingdom of God as we journey in this world, in the situations we deal with and the people that we minister to.
Third, we need to know that the battle to bring people to see the Kingdom of God, to see the truth of the gospel, is not just a battle with their emotions or minds or wills, but with spiritual blindness, a battle where we must pray and ask God to remove their blindness and grant them spiritual sight.
And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’ And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, looking at him with sadness, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:18-24 ESV)
At first glance it looks like Jesus is telling this man that all he has to do is sell all his possessions to gain eternal life. But look closer. Jesus is simply giving him an example of why he can’t inherit eternal life. It’s as if I went to a NBA coach and asked him, “What must I do to be on your basketball team?” Let’s say this coach wanted me to try and see how hopeless it would be for me to be a NBA player, and he said, “Let me see you dunk a basketball.” I might become “very sad,” because I would realize there was no way I could dunk a basketball. Obviously, I can’t be in the NBA just because I can’t dunk a basketball— that’s just an example. I can’t be in the NBA because my entire being would be a complete failure in a NBA game. I don’t have what it takes.
In the same way, Jesus just took an example, an example he knew would sting this man’s heart, an example of how “no one is good except God alone,” how there was no way in his own efforts this man could merit eternal life and enter the kingdom of God.
The actual “one thing” the man lacked was the ability to value Jesus and the treasure of heaven above this world. The man turned away, because he knew that he didn’t, indeed he couldn’t value Jesus above all. So it is with all of us— we all lack the ability to value God above anything and everything else in our lives. Humanity lost the ability to choose God above all the moment that Adam and Eve chose the fruit above God.
The good news of the gospel is that God has made a way for our hearts to be regenerated, a way through faith in Christ for us to be born again so that we might once again learn to cherish Him above all else. This one thing we all lack and can never attain God Himself has graciously provided for us if we will come to Him in faith.
- Drink wine socially?
- Smoke a fine cigar?
- Wear my hair long or short (depending on my gender, that is)?
- Sport a tattoo?
- See that really good war movie that happens to be rated R?
- Have a television in my house?
- Send my kids to public school, private school, or homeschool?
- Listen to music that isn’t “Christian” (however you define that term)?
- Vote Democrat or Republican?
- Tithe on net income, gross income, or not at al?
- Use this or that version of the Bible?
- And the BIG ONE for tonight—Is it wrong to stay home from church to watch the SuperBowl?
As the above list illustrates, all of us live with a set of personal convictions—our views of what is right and wrong, what we feel is pleasing to God or not, what we are comfortable or uncomfortable in doing. Some issues are very crucial, like it is wrong to murder. Others are not quite as crucial, like there’s just something not right about cheering for the Yankees. Some things are based solidly on Scripture, some are based partially on Scripture, and some are just a personal thing between God and the person.
If you start a list, every person could probably come up with hundreds of items that together form what they feel is right and wrong, a blueprint of how they walk with God according to their conscience. Here’s the rub: every single person on this planet has a different list. If we asked enough questions, we would find differences in everyone’s personal convictions.
The question then becomes, what is the proper place of personal convictions in the Christian walk and in the church? And how do we handle interacting with our brothers and sisters in Christ who have differing personal convictions—which actually means everybody, since everybody has differing personal convictions? Those are the questions that Paul answers in Romans 14.
First, let’s deal with two things that Paul is NOT talking about, because this passage has often been misused. Paul is NOT talking about doctrinal issues. Paul throughout his writings takes a strong stand against anything he sees as inaccurate doctrine. This “as long as they believe in Jesus that’s all that matters” stuff would have repelled Paul as much as it repels me—truth matters, and people who do not know the truth are making a fatal, eternal error. Now many of these areas of personal conviction get a “correct doctrine” or “that’s what the Bible says” label in order to give ammunition to the argument, but by doctrine I mean the truth about the nature of God and the nature of salvation, which has nothing to do with any particular lifestyle conviction unless God has specifically spelled it out in Scripture, like murder, lying, sexual sin, or the like.
The second thing that Paul is NOT talking about is any type of agreed upon standards for those in spiritual authority. If a pastor has a conviction that he should not drink alcoholic beverages because of his position, or if a elder board decides that all in positions of leadership should tithe, Romans 14 has bearing on their decisions but does not specifically speak to them, because this chapter is speaking to all members of the body as a whole, and does not specifically forbid or endorse holding leaders to a “higher moral standard.”
That said, let’s get into the meat of this important teaching:
In verse 1 Paul lays straight into the problem that the Roman church was having: they were welcoming people of differing personal convictions into their church fellowship, but then “laying into” them about their convictions. “We welcome you with open arms, but now that you’re here, here’s the list of things you have to get straight!” Have you ever been in a group of believers that ever either gave you that feeling or actually handed you a list? Have you ever heard a sermon where the pastor “worked in” a little aside about some moral standard you should or shouldn’t hold? Paul sharply renounces this behavior then spends the rest of the chapter explaining why it is wrong in the whole context of dealing with personal convictions and the Kingdom of God.
First, Paul gives two examples of hotly contested personal convictions that were particular problems in the church at that time. He mentions the problem of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. For some believers, they felt this meat, which was ceremoniously given to idols then sold at a cut rate in the local market, was tainted by false religion and/or a poor testimony. Other Christians thought they were just getting a great deal on some steak. The second example was regarding observing special days(probably Jewish feast days). Here again, some thought it appropriate and God-honoring to hold these feast days, while others thought it smacked of rules-based religion.
After giving these examples, Paul launches into a discussion which bounces back and forth among several concepts, which I will coalesce into three main points:
1. The Proper Use of Personal Convictions
It is important to note that Paul just doesn’t say “you all should just iron out all of your differences and decide to agree on one thing.” That’s NOT the right answer, even though our pride makes us think it is (and wants to iron out what everyone else has wrong!). Instead, Paul urges the Romans to deal with their personal convictions according to three principles:
- Let your convictions be reasoned—in verse 7 he urges each person to be “fully convinced in his own mind.” Paul instructs us to think seriously and prayerfully about our personal convictions, to know why we take a personal stand about an issue and be comfortable in it.
- Let your convictions be personal—in verse 22 Paul wants our faith(our belief in the rightness of our position regarding the ethics of a practice) to be between ourselves and God, a private matter.
- Let your conscience be clear—In verse 22 he says that we will be happy or blessed in what we have been able to approve (in the Greek literally tested or assayed to be true) for ourselves.
2. The Misuse of Personal Convictions
Most of Romans 14 deals with Paul’s answer as to the mishandling of personal convictions, both of your own and that of others. His main points are:
- Do not judge another’s convictions—Paul warns against judging in v.1, v.3, v.4, v.10, and v.13. Paul’s basis of this command is that we do not have the authority to do so—we are not in authority over another believer—only God is (v.4, v.12) Paul’s original command in verse 1 states to not try to argue anyone out of their convictions. David Brown in his commentary on Romans 14 says that accepting a brother in Christ whose convictions are different than mine is NOT “for the purpose of arguing him out of them; which indeed usually does the reverse.”
- Do not hurt anyone by your convictions—Paul warns that we can destroy another person’s faith by careless & selfish use of our own convictions. In verse 15 it says literally that if we offend someone in this way that we are “love walking not”—and I really like the way the Greek phrases it—”love walking”—that should be the way we should always be walking in this life, to be thinking, planning, speaking, acting all from a basis of love. In Newell’s Romans commentary he notes that “walking in love is not easy, it is always costly to the one loving.” In verse 21, Paul lists the ways we hurt people by our convictions: (1) causing them to stumble–something we do causes someone else to fall away from their stand in the faith (2) offenses—this is not hurt feelings per se, but if someone ends up sinning(causing an offense) because of another’s behavior (3) making weak—this word is rendered sick in other places in the Greek, meaning that our self-centered flaunting of our convictions can make others spiritually sick and weakened.
- Do not cause someone to violate their conscience—in verse 23 Paul specifically warns that “whatever is not from faith is sin”—and if we by example or goading or guilt cause someone to violate their conscience, we have caused them to sin against God, even though the thing might not be a sin for us. Brown’s commentary on this passage states, “with what holy jealousy ought the purity of the conscience be guarded.” Newell adds, “No one’s conscience but his own can direct him.” As brothers in Christ we ought to be helping others guard their conscience, not helping them sin against it.
I cannot say it enough: we cannot let the excuse of being “free in Christ” give us license to hurt someone. Martin Luther, in On the Freedom of a Christian Man, wrote, “A Christian Man is a most free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian man is a most dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
3. Above Convictions: Giving the Kingdom First Place
Finally, Romans 14 emphasizes that this whole area of personal convictions, while it has a proper place, should not be taking first place in our Christian life. Instead, Paul challenges us to subjugate our thoughts and actions regarding our personal convictions, just like every other part of our life, toward the “first place” of the kingdom of God. Paul stresses three things the kingdom is about:
- The Kingdom is About Pursuing Fellowship—verse 1 starts it out: Paul’s command is to welcome brothers in Christ, regardless of the weakness or strength of their faith, regardless of their personal convictions. Brown states, “Acceptance with God is the only proper criterion of right to Christian fellowship.” Our acceptance is to be born out of genuine love, compassion, and spiritual community. This teaching is summed up in chapter 15, verse 7: “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Catch that reason for welcoming all believers? The same one that should permeate everything we do? For the glory of God.
- The Kingdom is About Pursuing the Spiritual—verse 17 can’t make it much clearer—”For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Paul has spoken much of righteousness in chapter 8. In 8:4 he states that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” God indeed calls us to be righteous, but not the corrupted rules-based righteousness of religion, but to a life of right living, peace, and joy that can only come through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
- The Kingdom is About Pursuing Building the Body—Paul’s admonition in 14:19 is to pursue what makes for building up, edifying, or mutually upbuilding one another. The importance of building up each other is clear throughout Paul’s teachings, as he mentions it multiple times in Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Ephesians. (A word study on this particular theme is here.) God put us here and gave us gifts to serve Him, and one of the primary ways we serve God is to build up, strengthen, encourage, and help grow all the members of the body of Christ, no matter their thoughts on alcohol, hair, politics, or the SuperBowl—we are here to love and serve and build up every brother and sister who Jesus loved and gave His life for. Let us not let anything stand in our way.
R. C. Sproul Jr., director of the Highlands Study Center, has been writing thought-provoking stuff for years. He currently has a monthly column in the excellent devotional TableTalk, which I have used daily for 10 years or more. Tabletalk has consistently stretched, strengthened, and grown me in a way that no other resource has. Anyway, R. C.’s column this month categorized God’s purposes in a way that I hadn’t come across, and I thought it was so good that I (with his kind permission) share it with you:
God has three great goals as He acts in history. There are three certainties that have been planned from the beginning. First, He will gather a bride for His Son. There are precious few acts of God in space and time more precious than when He gives life to the living dead, when His Spirit quickens those chosen before all time. Second, He will destroy all His enemies. Psalm 110 tells us that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father until all His enemies are made a footstool. We serve a God of vengeance and destruction, to the praise of His name. He destroyed the Canaanites, and He still destroys His enemies. And third (of this we can be sure), He is about the business of purifying His bride. He acts in history so that history can reach its end, the marriage feast of the Lamb, when we will appear, without blot or blemish, and we, because we will see Him as He is, will be like Him.
One of the tenants of the study Experiencing God is that the servant obeys, then God works and accomplishes. So often we tend to search for God’s will with anxiety and trepidation—what if I don’t find it? will He ask me to do something I can’t or won’t want to do? Will I mess up? But searching for the will of a Father who delights in giving good gifts to His children should be like an Easter egg hunt—you have to look, but the “eggs” aren’t hidden to not be found, but precisely the opposite, in order to be found, and for there to be joy in the journey of finding them, joyous expectation of finding the egg and more joy when you find it and open the plastic egg and find the treasure inside. So God is with His children—when we walk with God and obey Him, we can do so with expectant joy that we will find His will and that it will be something wonderful for our lives and for the Kingdom.