Steward of the Mystery of God

Whenever I think of the word steward I think of the Lord of the Rings. In Lord of the Rings there is a character whose position is the Steward of Gondor. His job is to be the caretaker of his city, Gondor, in the absence of the true king. What I love about the concept of steward is that it is both, at the same time, a position of great authority and great humility. Paul speaks about his role as a steward of God’s mysteries and as such he has authority among the churches. But his authority is completely foreign to him–it is not his own. He is not there to teach of his own wisdom. He preaches the cross. Paul doesn’t go to the churches as he sees fit, rather he goes where God has called him. So as a steward he has power, yet it is humble through and through, for it is the power of God that he is entrusted with.

This is why Paul goes on in this chapter to say that he isn’t accountable to the church. A steward must be found faithful, but it is a faithfulness to the one who has given the power. Paul is a steward of the mysteries of God, and he is then accountable to God. God is the one who judges faithfulness. The churches do not judge him, Paul himself won’t even judge.

He wanted what wasn't his to have -- the big throne.

He wanted what wasn’t his to have — the big throne.

Going back to Lord of the Rings for a moment, the character ends up getting into trouble because he is not respecting the position he has and seeks to claim more power than is due to him. He wants to go beyond the authority he has as steward and rule on his own. He wants to occupy the throne of the king. In doing this he is not found faithful.

This is just what Paul is seeking to avoid. In verse six as he writes, “I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.” A steward that goes beyond what is written is going beyond the role of steward. It is dangerous territory of pride and ego. That is the downfall of the steward in the Lord of the Rings.

Paul’s intent should be ours, as well. We’ve been blessed with God’s word and what he has given us in it is sufficient. We veer toward sin when we step beyond Scripture and begin to speculate, innovate, or even delete. This quote from John Calvin from his commentary on the book of Romans says it well,

Let this then be our sacred rule, to seek to know nothing concerning it, except what Scripture teaches us: when the Lord closes his holy mouth, let us also stop the way, that we may not go farther.

God has entrusted us with much. He has given us his word but has also given each of us the life we live. To be found faithful we must seek to be good stewards, humbling acknowledging that all we have is truly God’s. We must also as stewards humbly accept what God has shown us and how he directs us, and make it our aim to trust his will, not looking to go beyond his perfect wisdom. After all, as we’ve learned in 1 Corinthians, our wisdom cannot compare to his own. God’s wisdom in the cross of Christ may seem foolish, but it is the power of God; it is our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.

If we are being built by God, what’s God’s building plan?

Paul writes how God is the one who truly gives the growth and we just take a part in being used by God, whether to “plant” or “water.” But what are we growing into? What is the building plan? It’s a humbling beginning to this chapter as we recognize our place before God. We can claim no credit for God’s work. We take a part, but God is the true actor. But as humbling as that is, we are then shown an extraordinarily privileged and high calling that God has for each of us. God is growing us and building upon us because, as it says in verse 16, we are God’s temple, the dwelling place of the Spirit of God. Paul writes, “For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”

plant and water

This is an amazing truth for God’s people. The temple had been the dwelling place for God. It had been a place among the people, but distinct from them. Only a select few could enter and even fewer still could enter the Holy of Holies. In all of creation this was the place of his presence. Now Paul writes that we are his temple. We are that holy place of his presence. The Spirit of the Most Holy God resides in us, in we who are in the foundation of Christ.

This past Sunday I preached on this text as well as a text from Daniel 7. Along with the strange visions of that chapter, we get a parallel picture of God’s craftsmanship, compared to what will ultimately be burned up, fade away, and be destroyed. We learn in both texts that what God builds, and builds upon Jesus Christ, is the only thing that will last. I wrote for the sermon:

“In Daniel, these great beasts look so powerful, but they will come to an end.
Only the kingdom of God will last.
The Son of Man will have all dominion, glory, and a kingdom that will last forever.

Likewise, the powers in our time will fall. They will not last. A life built upon them will not last.
But a life built by God, upon Jesus Christ will last.
Therefore your life will last, your life will be eternal.

Only that which is of God is forever, and your life can be in God’s hands. Your life can be forever, if it is built upon the one foundation: Jesus Christ. We are God’s building, his temple, and his craftsmanship is flawless. We live forever when we live a life in Christ.”

Paul, Apollos, and a long line of servants of Christ have served his Church. There have surely been many who have blessed you by similar service. But we know that through it all, by the Spirit, God has been working upon you and in to give you the growth. We are being built into his temple, a place of God’s very presence, and if that were not already amazing enough, we have a sure hope that God’s building, his people, are built to last forever.

Jesus May Be Mocked, But He is Always Worthy of Praise

When Jesus was crucified, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, it certainly appeared foolish. Here Jesus is seen as a common criminal, a failure, and powerless. In Mark we read these words of how he is mocked at the crucifixion:

And the soldiers led him away inside the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters), and they called together the whole battalion. And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.

Mark 15:16-20

That is our savior. Paul won’t waiver from this painful sight–the Messiah dying on the cross. It seems foolish. But it is our savior. It is love in action.

I thought I’d share a hymn that puts these two concepts together. Each stanza begins with what appears foolish: birth in a manger, a wandering existence with no home, his beating, and finally his crucifixion. But coupled with these scenes is the fact that such humble events do not diminish our Lord. Each stanza asks, “Who is this?” And the answer is always, regardless of circumstance, “our God.” We still praise him. Jesus Christ is the Son of God in these times and judging by the world’s standards, or by the world’s wisdom, does not fully comprehend his real power and glory.

Who Is This, So Weak and Helpless?

Who is this, so weak and helpless,
Child of lowly Hebrew maid,
Rudely in a stable sheltered,
Coldly in a manger laid?
’Tis the Lord of all creation,
Who this wondrous path has trod;
He is Lord from everlasting,
And to everlasting God.

Who is this, a Man of Sorrows,
Walking sadly life’s hard way,
Homeless, weary, sighing, weeping
Over sin and Satan’s sway?
’Tis our God, our glorious Savior,
Who above the starry sky
Is for us a place preparing,
Where no tear can dim the eye.

Who is this? Behold him shedding
Drops of blood upon the ground!
Who is this, despised, rejected,
Mocked, insulted, beaten, bound?
’Tis our God, Who gifts and graces
On His church is pouring down;
Who shall smite in holy vengeance
All His foes beneath His throne.

Who is this that hangs there dying
While the rude world scoffs and scorns,
Numbered with the malefactors,
Torn with nails, and crowned with thorns?
’Tis our God Who lives forever
’Mid the shining ones on high,
In the glorious golden city,
Reigning everlastingly.

You can also listen to the song here, in a rendition from Indelible Grace, sung by Sandra McCracken (although the video was not made by them):

A Mix of Boldness and Gentleness

Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, butaccording to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Titus 3:1-7

Paul urges gentleness for the believers in these churches. He does not want the Christians to be quarrelsome but rather courteous to others. By the early churches example of such humble love and service, many were impressed with the new movement of Christians.

It didn’t mean they were pushovers. Just before this section Paul exhorts them to be bold in the truth, not letting anyone disregard them. They are to teach and rebuke with authority.

In today’s church, especially as it acts more publicly, do we find such a balance? Is it courteous and nice to the extent that we disregard ourselves and our own teachings, not wanting to offend anyone? Or are we so bold about the truth that we lose all humility and kindness?

Paul wants them to be both, and the humility I think is key. He reminds Titus, “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.” How can we treat those who do not know Jesus Christ and his gospel when we are no better ourselves, save for the mercy of God? We should treat others well in hopes of impressing the love of Christ upon them, rather than condemn them as though we were in a position to be the judge ourselves. We all need the mercy of God, and that should be central to the message we carry to others, and to each other in the church.

Woe to Hypocrisy

Jesus comes down hard on the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23. They are guilty of hypocrisy as “they preach, but do not practice.” They lay heavy burdens upon the people, yet they will hardly lift a finger. These leaders love to soak up all the attention that their positions bring, presenting themselves outwardly as righteous. But in their hearts they are sinful. As leaders they are blind guides who close the doors of the kingdom on people, and under their leadership people fall further from the truth.

One illustration Jesus uses works perfectly as an object lesson, one that I remember as a kid helping my mom get ready for a youth group session. Jesus says, “you clean the outside of the cup and plate, but inside they are full of reed and self-indulgence.” To recreate this, I went out in my backyard and was tasked to play in the dirt. A great task for a young boy. One cup was to be dirtied on the outside, but clean inside. The other was to look spotless externally, but filthy on the inside.

The trouble with the pharisees is that they work hard on the external appearances and do nothing in regards to their hearts. But Jesus has already taught that it is what comes from within that makes us clean (Matt 15:11). What is within them is unclean. If attention was paid to cleaning the inside, then the outside could truly be clean, as well. An even more severe description is then applied to these leaders. Jesus says that on the outside they appear freshly painted with new coats of clean, white paint. But this paint is only a thin facade that hides the fact that within is a tomb, full of bones and uncleanness. They are full of death, yet are tasked with helping the people live!

Their hypocrisy is the double standards that they apply and the two-faced life they live. They look one way, but act another. They instruct people to live in ways completely different from how they live themselves. They are hypocrites as they boast in themselves, yet they truly have nothing worthy of such boasting.

Certainly it is possible for Christians to be guilty of hypocrisy in just the same way. But Christians should not make claims about having attained righteousness on our own, nor having made ourselves completely void of sin. In a way we ought to know better than others just how sinful we really are. We then can’t boast in the ways the scribes and Pharisees do. We can only boast in Christ. Only he can make us clean. Only he can bring us to life, as though he were opening those tombs and giving life to dead bones. That’s what we boast in. Therefore it makes no sense to seek celebrity and fame for ourselves, looking for places of greater honor.

These woes are still warnings for us today. We should be on guard against such sinful tendencies we all have. We ought to preach and practice, humbly doing so with a gospel that is firmly rooted in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ, not our own. And as God does accomplish his transforming work within us, we can’t allow ourselves to be puffed up with pride. From start to finish it is God. Pride only interferes with that. Humility opens a person up to his work.

Humility also confronts hypocrisy as it is not afraid to let others see our weaknesses, since humility is not concerned with receiving praise. Rather in our weakness, humility knows that it is only God who is seen as strong.

Just to be invisible: Philippians and Humility

Philippians is a book that shows the great depths of Christ’s humility. Christ is the one who has the most reason to be proud, but instead he humbled himself more than any other. He came down to us from heaven, emptying himself and taking the form of a servant. Not only did he come to serve, but he came to die for the people he came to save.

Paul writes to the church urging us to follow Christ in this regard. He says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…” Then what follows it he powerful description of Christ’s humility.

But Christ does not end in a lowly position. His end is not the cross. He has been raised up and at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. This is quoted from the book of Isaiah, here in reference to Jesus and in Isaiah as a reference to God. Paul is making the case that it is right to worship Christ, to lift up his name. He is the Son of God.

In sight of this, how can we not be humble? God came to us, died for us, saved us, loves us. This is not something God had to do, but something he chose to do in his great mercy. We cannot live in light of this with conceit or pride. We ought to live like Christ, being like servants. If we are to make a name for anyone, it should be the name of Christ. Like John the Baptist our pursuit is to decrease so that Christ may increase (John 3).

We should put great effort and energy into spreading the name of Christ, all for the glory of God. Our work should be to shift focus away from ourselves and onto the one who has saved us.

Many women and men humbly serving one purpose.

I read this quote a while back and I think it is fitting. It is about orchestras and the way in which the best musicians come together not to bring attention to themselves, but to come together and make something greater than themselves. It’s from an article The Believer, which I’ve slightly edited, referring to the New York Philharmonic:

They were the top in their school and then the top at Juilliard and now they’re playing second cello. And the humility is as high as the musicianship. Let’s say you’re playing a Beethoven piece in a room where the same piece was played one hundred years ago. They’re sitting in the same chairs, wearing the same shoes and suits, playing instruments that are one hundred years old, playing the same sounds with the best conductor of their time, who is standing under photos of twenty of the greatest conductors. And when the music started playing, I had this idea that the music was coming through this little channel—for lack of a better word—for years and years. Musicians come and go and they’re stewards of the music for a brief period of time. But once the music plays—it’s really between Beethoven and the listener at that point. The musicians are there to get their … hands off of it. All that training! Thousands of hours! Sight-reading every day! All so they can get … out of the way because nobody gives a crap about them at all. The less you notice them, the better it sounds. I mean, it was the highest level of art in music that I’d ever seen, and it was performed by people who had spent countless hours of work just to be invisible.

We may know the name of an orchestra or even the name of the conductor. But can we name all the musicians whose work comes together to make something beautiful? That is how it should be in the church. We hope the church has made itself known for its great work and witness in this world, and certainly we hope the conductor, Christ, is known the world over. But our aim, as a second cello, should not be to draw attention to ourselves.

We are stewards of the gospel, stewards to the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He has entrusted us a great work to do for his kingdom. We ought to devote such countless hours to make Christ visible and ourselves invisible–at least compared to Christ. That is humility. May he be seen by what we do. May Christ’s name receive all glory for our labors. May Jesus Christ receive all praise.

Humility and the Wedding Feast

Luke 14 includes a parable about a wedding feast where Jesus teaches us to not seek out a place of honor for ourself, instead seek a humble position. The judgment on the proud is that they will be brought down, and the humble will be raised up. Jesus says, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Christians are called to be humble, just like Christ who humbled himself. We hear that lesson often, but how do we do it? Have you faced a time at work when you felt like you had to exalt yourself to gain the attention of superiors? Do you worry that if you don’t seek credit and put yourself out there to be noticed someone else will? How do we manage that cultural influence along with Jesus’ words?

Do we have the radical trust in God that he will lift us up and that his exaltation is far more important than any promotion? Is our goal in life to climb the ladder or to be a witness for Jesus and to serve others humbly at the station we are at currently?

Humility is not self-deprecation, but it is certainly not boasting. But it does have to do with moving the self out of the center and making that a place for Christ, and boasting in him. When we do so humility doesn’t become timidity, rather it gives great confidence because we find ourselves firmly fixed on Christ, caring more for his name receiving glory than our own.

The Story So Far, Week 4

This week we made it through some of the most monumental events in the history of God’s people: their captivity in Egypt, the Passover, and the Exodus. It was a lot to cover in only sixteen chapters. In Luke we see the birth of Jesus and John foretold, people recognize Jesus’ for who he is, whether it is Simeon or shepherds, and Jesus initiates his public ministry with fasting and teaching in the synagogue. We also read the first four of the psalms.

Like in the beginning of the Gospel of John, John the Baptist plays a large part in the opening chapters of Luke. What I love about him is his amazing humility. The people around him see his boldness and how he speaks with authority, and his followers don’t want anyone to detract from his notoriety, but John recognizes that he is only to prepare a way for Jesus. He is unworthy to untie Jesus’ sandals. John’s job, and a job he is delighted to do, is to point others away from himself and to Jesus.

It’s a humility that recognizes that we shouldn’t seek out glory for ourselves or try to claim credit for work that only God can do. God is the center of this whole story.

We see God as the main player in our Old Testament readings. Looking back to Joseph, we saw how only God could bring him from slavery into the courts of Pharaoh, and only God is able to do it again with Moses. Because of the persecution of the people of Israel, when he is just a baby, Moses is set adrift and found in a river. It is the daughter of Pharaoh who finds him, has him cared for, and makes him her son. Joseph and Moses have two very different ways to be brought into Pharaoh’s courts, but God is there in both.

When Moses is called by God to return to Pharaoh’s courts, to the very person who had sought to kill him, again it is only achieved because God is with him. God gives him words, God reveals his name to Moses, he promises he’ll work signs and wonders through Moses, and he even provides Aaron. Moses is a great character from our history, but like John the Baptist, his greatness is only in that he points others to God. There is no way Moses is taking credit for parting the Red Sea. His job is to make sure the world knows that it is our God who has done such a marvelous work.

That is our job as well. We don’t broadcast how great we are or what great things we have done. We just point others to our God and give him credit for all the good things that he has done.