Sunday, May 6, 2018

Words that Edify – Ephesians 4:29

Our world is awash in words.  About one million books are published each year, about 2700 books per day.  Even more breathtaking is the fact that with the advent of the internet, this torrent of verbal effusion has increased with blogs: we are told that about two million blog posts are published every day!  Add to this the fact that each one of the approximately seven billion people on earth speaks on average about 370,000,000 words during their lifetime, and it is easy to see just how important words are to the human race.

It is this ability to speak that is one of the preeminent ways that humans are separated from the animals.  Language is tool that we take for granted, and yet it is something so profound that it is simply cannot adequately be described with a “bottom-up” explanation in terms of chemistry and physics.  Oxford mathematician John Lennox tells a story of a conversation he had with another scientist at the university.  This man was a chemist who subscribed to the idea that everything can be explained entirely in terms of scientific data.  Lennox pointed to the words on the menu at their table and asked him if he could explain the meaning (semiotics) of the words in terms of chemistry and physics.  The chemist immediately saw that he couldn’t – and not because of an inability on his part to explain it in those terms but because he saw that there is an intrinsic impossibility to explaining the meaning of language in terms merely of physics and chemistry.  Words and language and speech point to our wise and communicating Maker.

In other words, language is one of the ways we reflect the image of God.  And it is therefore a wonderful gift that we have been given and it behooves us to reflect this aspect of God’s image in ways that are appropriate and befitting.  It makes total sense, therefore, that having spoken of “the new man, which after God [in God’s image] is created in righteousness and true holiness” (ver. 24), he should then go on to remind us to “let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace to the hearers” (ver. 29).  In fact, if we look through this section of the epistle, we see that this emphasis on proper language is interspersed throughout these verses.  Verse 25, a proscription against lying and an exhortation to truth-telling, is a verse that deals with speech.  Then, in verse 31, Paul writes, “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, but put away from you, with all malice.”   In 5:3-4, Paul goes on to say, “But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks.”  Again, you see this emphasis upon proper speech.  It is clearly important.

Our Lord himself taught the importance of words, when he said, “But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.  For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy word thou shalt be condemned” (Mt. 12:36-37).  This a strong warning.  We tend to minimize the impact of our words, but our Lord warns us that we will have to give an account for the words we have spoken to God himself.  That is no light thing.  The reason he gives for this is that our words reveal who we really are: “A good man out the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” (Mt. 12:35).  You’ve heard the adage, “You are what you eat.”  Well, our Lord might have said, “You are what you speak.”  If you are bad, your words will reveal it and if you are good, your words will reveal that, too.  But the point here is that we need to watch our words because we will give stand before God in judgment over the words we speak.  Let us therefore make the prayer of the psalmist our own: “Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips” (Ps. 141:3).

However, not only are our words important in terms of our own accountability, but also because of what our words can do to others.  I think this is clearly one of the reasons the apostle introduces this injunction as this point.  Remember that chapter 4 begins with this emphasis upon the unity of the church.  Then the apostle goes on to say how our Lord has ordained the gifts in order that the church might grow in this unity.  And as the apostle goes on to develop the idea of the purity of the church in the verses we are considering, he has not forgotten the reality of the unity of the church.  Holiness is meant to serve the unity of the church, not fight against it.  Unity is best served by people who tell the truth, who aren’t ruled by their anger, who don’t take from others but who labor to give to those who need.  And unity is helped by those who watch what they say; who communicate is ways that are helpful, nor hurtful.  They don’t speak corrupt words, but words that minister grace to the hearers.

The apostle James also reminds us how important word are in this connection, especially in terms of the harm they can do to others.  He tells us that our words are like little matches that can burn down whole forests of trees (Jam. 3:5-6).  He tells us that the tongue is like poison; in fact, that they are full of poison (ver. 8).  Our tongues may be little and seemingly insignificant, but like a small rudder on a big ship, they can steer our lives in good or bad directions (ver. 4).  The great German battleship Bismarck was sunk because its rudder got stuck.  And we can absolutely destroy the lives of others when our tongues get stuck in the hateful and ugly and sarcastic position.

In fact, our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount warns us against murdering people with our words: “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill; and whosoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgment: but I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Mt. 5:21-22).  You can see this worked out in terrible ways in schools when kids bully other kids and those who are bullied end up isolated and alone and hurt, or worse.  Our Lord would have no problem calling this verbal murder.  It is wicked.  It happens not only on the playground; it happens every time any of us strike out in hateful anger with our words at someone else.  Note again, we see how our Lord reminds us not only of the terrible effect our words can have on others; he also reminds us of the judgment that is coming on us if we do not repent.

However, our words are not just important because of the damage they can do.  Thank God, our words can also be good words, helping words, healing words.  The word Paul uses here is the word, “edifying,” which, as we know, means to build up.  We can tear down with our words, but we can also build up.  Remember what the apostle said back in verse 15: “But speaking the truth in love, [we] may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ.”  The letter to the Hebrews encourages us to “exhort one another daily, while it is called today, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13).  Exhorting, of course, happens as we speak to one another.

The danger we face when we realize just how dangerous our words can be is to talk as little as possible, or not at all.  There is a whole order of monks who take a vow of silence.  You will note that the apostle does not follow up the prohibition to speak corrupt words with an exhortation to silence.  No, the solution to evil speaking is not refusing to speak; the solution is to speak, but to speak “that which is good to the use of edifying.”  Silence may be golden at times but silence all the time is not only not good, it can be just as harmful as saying the wrong thing.

This then leads to the question: how are we to order our speech?  Let us follow the apostle’s order here and consider first the negative prohibition and then the positive exhortation.

First of all, the apostle writes, “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouths.”  The word for “corrupt” means rotten, harmful, unhealthy, diseased.  It refers to the kind of speech that characterizes those who are yet in the flesh, who are still walking in the vanity of their mind, whose understand is still darkened, who are alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them because of the blindness of their hearts (Eph. 4:17-18). 

What characterizes such speech?  Well, I would say the first thing that characterizes it is that it is centered on the self.  The thing that Christ redeems us from is ourselves.  We are by nature consumed with ourselves, we are selfish creatures, and no where does this manifest itself more clearly than in our speech.  You hear it in those who always want to talk about themselves or want to direct the conversation to their own interests or towards themselves.  And when others talk, they are always wanting to butt in grab the attention of everyone.  They can’t wait until someone else has stopped talking so they can dominate the conversation.  It is perfectly ugly.  We all recognize how awful it is.  There is a comedian, Brian Regan, who has made a whole skit around this.  Look it up on YouTube under “the ME monster.”  “Me monsters” are every where and if we have been redeemed by Christ, one of the ways this should manifest itself is in selfless speech.  We should recognize that we are not what people need.  Christ is what people need, and our words and speech need to be such that people are not pointed to ourselves but away from ourselves to Christ.

Another thing that corrupts our speech is making light of sin.  The apostle will go on to say that “it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret” (Eph. 5:12), by which he is referring to “the unfruitful works of darkness” which we are to reprove, not repeat (ver. 11).  Joking about wickedness is not harmless.  To celebrate sin is to indoctrinate our hearts into thinking that sin is not really that big of a deal and to deceive ourselves into thinking that God doesn’t think anything of it, either.  It is to make ourselves think that sin is not really that bad.  It inevitably leads people, whether ourselves or others, to indulge in behaviors that God hates.  More than that, it will cause us to belittle the cross.  You cannot value the gospel and snicker over sin.  It’s why the hymn says, “Ye who think of sin but lightly, nor suppose the evil great, here may view its nature rightly, here its guilt may estimate.  Mark the Sacrifice appointed! See who bears the awful load!  ‘Tis the Word, the Lord’s anointed, Son of man and Son of God.”  How can we look at Jesus upon the cross, bearing our sin, and then joke about it?  It just shows that we do not really appreciate what he has done for us.

Another characteristic of corrupt speech is thoughtless speech.  Talking without thinking about what we are saying.  It’s like pointing a gun in someone’s face without any appreciation that it could go off.  Though total silence is not the appropriate solution to sinful speech, yet we ought always to weigh our words before we speak.  Contrast this to what the apostle exhorts us to do: “But that which is good to the use of edifying.”  Now the Greek literally says here, “but if there be any good [word] for the building up of the need.”[1]  In other words, in contrast to thoughtless speech, we are to think of the need that exists in front of us and speak so as to meet that need.  Or, as the ESV puts it, we are speak “as fits the occasion.”  Again, when we are speaking in appropriate ways, we are thinking of others.  We are not just talking to hear ourselves speak. 

I know that when most people think of filthy or corrupt speech, they think of certain words.  And certainly, we don’t want to use words that our culture views as “foul.”  That is corrupt speech.  As believers, we should avoid using these words.  I know some Christians have no problem using foul language, but in light of what the apostle says here and in 5:4, I don’t see why they don’t see a problem with this.  But hopefully you can see that this is a greater problem than what usually falls under the category of cussing.  Corrupt language is any way of talking that is inappropriate for image bearers of God.

How then are we to speak?  Paul writes, “But that which is good to the use of edifying.”  As we have already noted, Paul is saying that when we speak, we are to think of the needs of others.  So the first thing is that we are not to use our speech as a way to put ourselves on display.  We are to be thinking of others. 

This means that often before we speak we need to listen.  The proverb tells us that, “If one gives answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame” (Prov. 18:13, ESV).  Too often we do just that.  We jump to conclusions, and often the wrong ones, because we didn’t hear the other person out.  It is again a manifestation of our selfishness.  We are not interested in hearing someone out; we want to do all the talking.  And as a result, we end up making things worse instead of better.  We don’t consider the need and so we aren’t in a position to meet the need.

It also means that we are to apply wisdom to the situation to which we speak.  Again, to quote the Proverbs, “The tongue of the wise useth knowledge aright: but the mouth of fools poureth out foolishness” (Prov. 15:2).  In other words, it is not only that we need to use the right words and say the right things, but that we need to say the right things at the right time and to the right people.  “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver” (Prov. 25:11). 

Our Lord is the great example here.  We are told in the prophesy of Isaiah, in speaking of the Messiah: “The Lord GOD hath given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary” (Isa. 50:4).  He not only spoke the truth, he spoke the truth in such a way that it would minister grace to the hearers.  To Nicodemus, he speaks of new birth and argues from Old Testament metaphors of being born of water and Spirit.  To the woman at the well, he speaks of living water.  He knew exactly how to speak to them so that the truth would find a lodging place in their hearts.  Some people have the idea that as long as they speak the truth, they are in the right.  Such people often end up doing enormous damage.  It’s not that we should lie (see verse 25!), but that we should apply wisdom to the truth we share. 

We don’t want to be insensitive to the people to whom we speak.  For example, the first thing to do when someone is suffering from the loss of a loved one may not be to remind them that all things work together for good for those who love God.  It is of course true; but they may not be in an emotional frame to receive it.  The best thing to do in cases like that is just to love on that person.  Sometimes weeping with those who weep is far more eloquent and edifying than the most profound theology.  And then later, when they are able to receive it, rejoice with them in the amazing truth of Romans 8:28.

You also see this in the way the apostle Paul himself dealt with people.  To the Corinthians, he writes, “And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ” (1 Cor. 3:1).  He spoke to them as was appropriate for believers at their level of maturity.  To do otherwise would have been counterproductive. 

Don’t use truth as a bulldozer.  Be like Jesus and speak as fits the need and the occasion.  As the Scriptures prophesied of him, “A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench” (Mt. 12:20).

One more point: if we are to edify others, that means that we need to speak truth, and that means that our words need to be informed by Biblical doctrine and theology.  Let me draw an analogy between theology and history.  Why does history repeat itself?  Why do people keep doing the same stupid things over and over again?  Because they do not know their history.  Pharaoh wanted to kill the Hebrew children because he knew not Joseph.  People say all sorts of dumb things about war and economics and many other things because they aren’t aware of even recent history.  In the same way, people say all sorts of stupid things and give all sorts of dumb advice because they don’t have a Biblical framework for applying truth to people.  And this is because they’ve never appreciated the importance of sound doctrine. 

Sound doctrine!  Do you appreciate the meaning of that phrase?  The apostle talked about those things which are contrary to “sound doctrine” (1 Tim. 1:10) and commanded Timothy: “Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13).  “Sound” is the Greek word from which we get the word “hygiene.”  It means “healthy.”  Sound doctrine, sound words, are healthy words as opposed to rotten and corrupt words.  And they are rooted in correct and Biblical doctrine and theology.  You want to be healthy?  Then you need to live your life in accordance with sound doctrine.  It’s why the apostle would also tell Timothy about the false teachers, “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.  But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness.  And their word will eat as doth a canker” (2 Tim. 2:14-17).

It’s why the apostle John wrote: “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God.  He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son.  If there come any unto you, and bring not the doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him Godspeed: for he that biddeth him Godspeed is partaker of his evil deeds” (2 Jn. 9-11).  There are a lot of people, even in the church today, who think that where you come down on doctrine is unimportant.  These verses tell a different story.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that we have to fight about every difference of opinion.  Paul and John were opposing false teachers whose teaching was overthrowing the faith of some in the churches.

But even with these allowances, we need to understand that the reality is that all Biblical doctrine is important, and your spiritual health is to a large extent dependent upon how you are living in accordance with sound doctrine.  You are not going to edify yourself or others if you are not speaking in accordance with sound doctrine.

Now, why are we to do this?  “That it may minister grace to the hearers.”  To link this up with the previous point we were just making, I want to point out that the grace that is being ministered here is God’s grace, and God will not send his grace down channels of false doctrine. 

But this underlines the reason why our words are so important.  If you are a believer, your words can become conduits of grace, God’s grace.  God works through his people, we are his instruments.  And one of the primary ways he ministers through us to others is through our words.  This is a wonderful motivation.  Think of it: to be a co-worker with God.  To help him advance his kingdom and cause.  It doesn’t take a lot of education to do this.  It doesn’t take a lot of time or money.  All it takes is a willingness to speak truth wisely, discerningly, lovingly, carefully, evangelistically.

And as believers, we should want to do this, since it was probably someone’s word that opened our eyes and hearts to the life-giving gospel.  The man God used to bring truth to me was Arthur Pink, through his book The Sovereignty of God.  Pink’s own story is instructive.  Raised in a Christian home in Victorian England, Pink abandoned the faith of his parents for a cult.  But his father never gave up speaking truth to him.  One evening, as Pink came home to prepare for a speech he was to give at a meeting of spiritists, his father was waiting for him.  Pink rushed by him as quickly as possible, but his dad was able to get in the words, “There is a way that seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof is the way of death.”  Pink was not able to get these words out of his mind, no matter how hard he tried.  For three days he wrestled with them, but in the end, he was converted to Christ.  One verse from a father’s lips led to the conversion of his son, who in turn has influenced untold thousands of others, including myself.

But, of course the greatest reason we have for speaking truth is that God has himself spoken truth to us; preeminently in his Son, who is the Word of God, and these words are saving and life-giving.  He has spoken to us the gospel, the news that God sent his Son into the world to do for us what we could not do for ourselves: take our sins and atone for them, every single one of them, and to give us righteousness, and ultimately to bring us to God in the closest friendship forever.  May the Lord bless us to speak to others in such a way, that we show ourselves to be recipients of the gospel, and then to invite others to join with us in our journey to eternal joy and glory.

[1] Harold Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, p. 629.

Friday, May 4, 2018

From Burglars to Benefactors – Ephesians 4:28

There are a couple of things that immediately strike me as I consider this passage.  The first is that the gospel is powerful enough to take those who once were thieves and to make them members of the church.  Think about the kind of person you associate with robbers.  These are members of the criminal classes, people who have very little, if any, respect for their fellow man.  And yet, the apostle is addressing people in the church at Ephesus who once participated in that kind of life.  As John Stott so aptly put it, “none but Christ can transform a burglar into a benefactor!”[1]  And Christ does this.  He takes people from the darkest parts of society and remakes them into new men and women.  He takes people who took from others and recreates them into people who now give to the very people from whom they once stole.  I’ve seen elephants and lions, constrained by thirst, drink from the same pool of water.  There is an uneasy truce, as they eye each other while they sip up the water.  Some things can bring even enemies together in this world.  But the gospel does more than this: it takes wolves and lambs and causes them to lie down with each other in mutual friendship.  It takes enemies and turns them into brothers and sisters in Christ.

We need to remind ourselves of the power of the gospel.  It is so easy to look at people and to think they it would just be impossible for them to be converted.  We lose heart and fail to bear witness to the gospel because we don’t believe that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation.  We need to remember that our own conversion is just as impossible as that of anybody else.  Do you remember what our Lord said to the apostles after the rich young ruler walked away from Jesus’ call to come follow him?  “Verily I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven.  And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God” (Mt. 19:23-24).  The apostles, we are told, were astonished at our Lord’s indictment.  To them, this man was the paragon of virtue.  How could he be lost?  They asked, “Who then can be saved?” (ver. 25), to which our Lord responded: “With men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (ver. 26).  Salvation is an impossible thing, humanly speaking.  We cannot save ourselves.  But God can save anyone.  That includes the person you think would never listen to or receive the gospel.

Now suppose someone was once a criminal and then came to Christ and wanted to join your church.  Would you be okay with them being a part of the church?  Would you mind sharing the same pew with them?  It’s one thing to subscribe to the power of the gospel on a theoretical level; it’s another thing to put it into practice.  I’m not saying we just accept a profession of faith without evidence of genuine conversion (we shouldn’t), but neither should we always be looking out the corner of our eyes at other Christians who have a different set of life experiences.

But there is another thing that strikes me as I consider this verse.  It is that sanctification is a process.  Yes, the gospel is powerful, but that does not mean that conversion does away with every vestige of sin this side of heaven.  Paul, writing to a church, puts in this exhortation, “Let him that stole steal no more.”  Now, I don’t think this means there were a bunch of people in that church who were shoplifting every time they went to the marketplace.  But I do think it means there were people in that church for whom stealing had been a lifestyle before their conversion.  Their conversion had been real, but it didn’t erase their previous lifestyle from their memories.  And some might be tempted from time to time to go back to that lifestyle, and so Paul writes this verse in the fourth chapter of Ephesians.

Now there are some things that you just can’t do as a matter of lifestyle and be saved.  Theft is one of these.  In another place, the apostle writes, “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God?  Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioner, shall inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).  You see that “thieves” is a part of this list.  If that describes who you are, you are not saved, and if you continue in this lifestyle, you will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But this does not mean that once you are saved out of these lifestyles, you will never be tempted to go back.  It may happen that way for some; it is certainly not that way for most of us.  We will struggle with sin until our dying day.

And that means we need to be careful about avoiding these two extremes.  One extreme is to say that as long as you’ve made a profession of faith, well then you are saved no matter what you do afterwards.  The Bible doesn’t teach that because the Bible recognizes the reality of a false faith, which the apostle James calls a “dead faith.”  Dead faith doesn’t save.  It’s not that these people were saved and then lost their salvation; the reality is that they were never saved to begin with.  “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all us” (1 Jn. 2:19).  Someone who tells you they are saved because they have made a profession of faith and been baptized and yet go on stealing from others is simply not saved.  Their faith is fake.

On the other hand, we need to beware of thinking that if you are saved, then all your problems with sin are over.  That is not taught by the Bible either.  “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1 Jn. 1:8).  Sanctification is a process.  When you are saved, you a put on a trajectory of spiritual growth.  But that does not mean there will not be times when we go backward.  Like a river, our general direction is consistent, but there are tracks of our life where, like bends in a river, we are for a time going in the opposite direction.  Someone may be saved out of a terrible lifestyle, and if they are saved, then the general tenor and direction of their life is going to be going in a direction away from that sin and towards God.  However, temptations may for a time bring them back to that sin.  If they are truly saved, they will eventually repent.  True saints persevere.  But the point is that just because they are for a time drawn back to this sin for a time does not mean their salvation is not real.

So, though we want to see evidence of a lifestyle of godliness for those who claim the name of Christ, neither should we be so harsh that every misstep is a reason for us to reject them as brothers and sisters in Christ.  The church has often been likened to a hospital.  A hospital is a place where sick people are (hopefully) getting better.  We are all sick people getting better through the work of the Holy Spirit in us, not healthy people coming to be admired.  No church is going to be in a position to disciple immature believers into mature believers if they are not willing to be patient with each other. 

Now those are some general principles that I see in this text.  But we must come down to the specifics.  And I want to immediately point out that these words are not just for thieves but for all of us.  It may be true that you are not a thief.  Very well, but what the apostle goes on to say is for all of us.  In these words, the apostle affirms not only the value of work, but also one of the chief reasons we are to work.  He continues in the pattern he has established back in verse 25.  He begins with a negative prohibition (“Let him that stole steal no more”), followed by a positive exhortation (“but rather let him labor, working with his hands the thing that is good”), followed by a reason for the exhortation (“that he may have to give to him that needeth”). 

Before we look at the specifics, I want to make the observation that true Christianity does in fact deal with the nitty gritty of our lives.  In other words, if we are following Christ, we are not going to be content to simply make a profession of faith and then get on with our lives.  Christianity is not Jesus tacked onto your life.  It is Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior transforming our lives so that we are being conformed into his image.  And that means that every aspect of your life is coming under the lordship of Christ.  In every aspect of our lives, we need to be asking the question, “How does this part of my life honor Christ as Lord and Savior?” 

And this of course applies to our work.  It is simply inconceivable that our Lord would have nothing so say about our work, especially considering the fact that it takes up so much of our lives.  He does, and this text will help us to see how we ought to think about it.

First of all, we see in this passage that God values work: “let him labor, working with his hands the thing which is good.”  Now, I think it’s important at the very beginning here to note what Paul does not say about work.  He does not limit the value of work to distinctly Christian ministry.  Throughout history there have always been those who make it sound like if you are not in the ministry, then you are somehow a second-class citizen of heaven.  In fact, in Paul’s day some took this even further and went to the extreme that they quit working altogether to wait for the kingdom of God!  Such people did not get a commendation from the apostle but rather a rebuke: “For yourselves know how ye ought to follow us: for we behaved not ourselves disorderly among you; neither did we eat any man’s bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us.  For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat.  For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies.  Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread” (2 Thess. 3:7-12). 

“Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven” does not mean to abandon your earthly responsibilities.  Nor does it mean that you have to be a preacher or a missionary in order to do something that honors the Lord.  It means that, as the apostle would say to the Colossians (addressing the slaves): “and whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not to men” (Col. 3:23).  We sanctify our work when we do it unto the Lord.  You may have an unbeliever as your boss, but as a Christian, you are to recognize that you ultimately serve Christ, no matter where you work.  And if you work with that mindset, you are seeking first the kingdom of heaven, whether you are an accountant or a school teacher or an entrepreneur or whatever.

Of course, there is also the opposite danger, although this is not likely to come from believers, though even they can adopt this attitude.  It is the attitude that Christian work is not really work, and that those who go into the ministry are somehow avoiding working a real job (especially when this involves raising support).  This is equally wrong.  We need pastors and missionaries and the Bible says that “if a man desires the office of a bishop, he desires a good work” (1 Tim. 3:1).  And believe me, it is work.  Those who do Christian ministry right know it is not a sinecure.  And we need pastors and missionaries.  And so we need to encourage young people who are considering a life in Christian ministry.  As our Lord himself said, “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few; pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth laborers into his harvest” (Mt. 9:37-38).

God values work.  It is something that even man in his innocence, before the fall, was tasked to do.  “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15, ESV).  Before sin, before the fall, man was supposed to work.  It is part of what God made us to be: he made us to work and keep things.  God did not make you to sit in front of a computer and play video games in your parent’s basement.  He made you to take something like a garden and work and keep it.  Work is not bad, it is not sinful.  Work is something that God made us for.  Work is good.  Work is sanctified by God’s plan for mankind. 

And it’s important to understand that sin did not take work and make it bad.  It’s not like work was good before the Fall but now it’s bad.  No, sin did not take work and make it bad; sin took work and made it hard: “By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread” (Gen. 3:19, ESV).  Work is hard, that is why it is called “labor,” but that does not mean it is bad, or that its hardness gives us a reason not to work.

In fact, when Paul describes work, he describes it in terms of labor.  The word Paul uses in Eph. 4:28 is connected to the idea of tiring out, or growing weary, through work.  One commentator writes, “The point is that the labor exerted is exhausting.  In this context the stealer used to obtain things with little effort, but with the acquisition of the new person all things are acquired with labor that requires much effort.”[2]  Christianity is not a life of ease, and this is true in our work as in all of life.  Conversion does not release us from weariness and labor; conversion sanctifies that weariness and labor so that it is not longer done in vain.  It is worth something because it is done for the Lord, and “whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free” (Eph. 6:8).

If you are a Christian, then you are to put in labor and effort into your work.  That means that if you are a student, you don’t take shortcuts in your studies.  You master the subject you are being taught.  It means that if you are employed by someone, you don’t steal your employer’s time by doing things that are not connected with your work.  It means that you do the very best job you can do within your abilities.  If you are self-employed, it means that you do the very best job for your customers.  Whatever you do, as Scripture tells us we are to do with all our might.

Now we shouldn’t read too much into the phrase “working with his hands the thing which is good,” as if to say that only manual labor honors the Lord.  The point is that God expects us to work hard at our jobs, whether it involves mainly our minds or mainly our hands. 

The only caveat Paul places here in his exhortation to work is that we are to work at “the thing which is good.”  In other words, not all work is good and therefore not all work is something a Christian can do.  We cannot as believers do anything that compromises our integrity or is at odds with the gospel.  If my boss asks me to lie or to steal or to cheat, as a Christian I simply cannot do that, even if it costs me my job. 

And then we see the reason for work: “that he may have to give to him that needeth.”  There are all sorts of wrong reasons why people work.  Some people find their identity in their work, so that if you took it away from them they would simply go to pieces.  God did not make you to find your identity in your work.  Adam and Eve found their identity in being created in the image of God.  Their work in the garden was simply an expression of that identity.  As believers in Jesus Christ we are being re-made in the image of God.  Therefore, we are to find our identity in Christ, not in our jobs.  Your job was never meant to fill up your life with meaning or to give you ultimate satisfaction, and if you seek that in your work, you will end up sorely disappointed.  Only Christ can fill up our hearts.  Therefore don’t measure yourself by your employment.  Don’t compare yourself to others you make more than you or do something which has a greater cultural appreciation.  If you are in Christ, you can push a broom for the kingdom of God.  The richest person in the world has nothing on you if they have not Christ.

Beware therefore of being a workaholic.  There is a balance between working hard at our jobs and being consumed by them.  Those who are consumed by their jobs so that they neglect other equally important areas of their lives (like family, their personal devotional life, etc.) have probably fallen into the trap of seeking their identity in their work.  The reality is that if I am a Christian, I do not have to outperform others, I don’t have to work to get the attention of other, and I don’t have to work so that people recognize my work and give me rewards.  I don’t have to do this because I don’t need the acceptance of men: I am fully accepted already by the God of the universe through Christ.  My job doesn’t need to fill out the meaning of my life because Christ has already given that to me.

Why then are we to work?  To give to those who need.  Of course, the first place to which we give is our own family: “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (1 Tim. 5:8).  But I don’t think that is primarily what Paul is talking about here.  He is talking about people who work hard at their jobs so that they not only have plenty for themselves and their family, but also for others who are in need. 

Here is what the apostle is saying.  He is saying that the gospel completely changes the outlook of the Christian.  Before they were saved, they thought only of themselves.  They stole, they took from others in order to benefit themselves.  They didn’t respect others, their persons or their property.  But the gospel introduces this tremendous change in the outlook of the believer.  They no longer think of themselves and their needs and their wants and their comforts; now they think of others and how to help and minister to others.  Now they want to weary themselves with work – not so they can build a big retirement account and retire early and buy vacation homes and go on cruises – but so they can give to others who have less than they.  Their thought is of others.

And what induces this change of mindset?  The gospel.  For the essence of the gospel is this: “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).  Our Lord was infinitely rich and glorious in heaven with the Father.  He gave all that up for a time, he became indescribably poor.  We will probably never understand, at least on this side of heaven, what Christ forsook when he was born in Bethlehem.  The step from heaven to earth was an infinite drop.  Why did Jesus do this?  “That ye through his poverty might be rich.”  As the Shorter Catechism puts it, his poverty was being born in a low condition, undergoing the miseries of this life, the wrath of God, and the cursed death on the cross, in being buried and continuing under the power of death for a time.  He did that for his people.  He took their sins upon himself so that they might have his righteousness and eternal life in the presence of God forever.  He took the worst thing in the universe upon himself (the wrath of God upon sin) so that we might have the very best thing in the universe (perfect fellowship with God forever).

If we believe this, then, how could we not image this to others, however faintly we can?  “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves.  Look not every man on his own things, but every man on the things of others.  Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation, and took upon himself the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: and being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:3-8).  A person who does not want to give to others knows nothing of the redemption that Christ accomplished on the cross.

And ultimately, all that we do as Christians is meant to be a picture of the gospel, because God’s heart is to see his people gathered through the gospel into the church.  The amazing thing is that no matter how much we have taken in sin, God is still willing to give salvation to those who believe in his Son.  He takes thieves, and the despicable and outcasts of society, and brings them into his family and gives them eternal life and joy in his presence.  May we know the Giver of salvation and may we know how to imitate him to others.

[1] John Stott, The Message of Ephesians, p. 188
[2] Harold W. Hoehner, Ephesians: An Exegetical Commentary, p. 625.

Sealed and Standing (Rev. 7)

At the end of the previous chapter, when John sees the breaking of the sixth seal of the scroll, we see Christ coming again in judgment upon...