Sunday, May 27, 2018

On the Mount (32)

The world is brim-full of good causes. There’s no end of things with which a genuine altruist may busy himself in seeking to do good to his fellow man.

In the Christian life, few truly “good” works involve status or recognition, but those which do almost always attract the worst elements. Simon the magician was so entranced at the prospect of being able to confer the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands that he begged the apostles, “Give me this power also.” Likewise, the seven sons of the Jewish high priest Sceva got excited about driving out evil spirits.

You may remember both stories ended badly for the would-be doers of good.

Sure, these would have been good works, but they were also public, visible, miraculous demonstrations of power that drew attention and conferred respect. Who wouldn’t want to be doing THAT kind of Christian work?

Well, perhaps anyone who grasps what really matters to God.

Ahead By Centuries

Some parts of the Sermon on the Mount are less applicable to present-day Christians than others. Here in Matthew 7, for instance, verses 15-20 mostly relate to first century Jewish followers of Christ and those who came to know him through their testimony. They speak to modern believers indirectly and only by application, especially those of us who have yet to set eyes on a genuine prophet.

The verses which follow these remain solidly connected to the preceding passage; however, they look forward to the time when the angels will separate wheat from weeds in the kingdom of heaven, and God’s great harvest will finally be brought in. They have remained relevant going on two millennia.

Weeds Being Weeded

Unsurprisingly, some of the “weeds” object to being bundled and burned:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ ”
“That day” will come, maybe sooner than later, and those who use the name of Jesus Christ today still need to be sure they stand in a genuine relationship to him. Thus, while the Lord’s examples are drawn exclusively from the first century (prophesying, casting out demons and performing miracles), those who falsely use his name provide an indirect warning to each of us in the present age.

In the Spotlight

Many are still drawn to Christian work today for the same reasons as Sceva’s sons and Simon. No such attraction is presumptively spiritual in nature. A regular pulpit gig, even in front of a small audience, pays the bills and it sure beats factory work. It also confers a degree of respect and spiritual authority. TV evangelists and the other media personalities of Christendom rake in millions and jet-set their way around the world. The Christian music business is no license to print money, but it too provides a measure of ego-gratification for those who crave the spotlight. None of these activities sets off first-century-type pyrotechnics like driving out evil spirits, but we cannot deny that all appeal greatly to certain elements in the visible kingdom.

But it is not the doing of so-called “Christian work” that pleases God; rather, it is the doing of work that the Father initiates.

In Your Name

The phrase “in your name” occurs three times here. Those who use it are claiming to have performed the work of Jesus Christ on his behalf.

The Lord made a number of promises about things done in his name:
“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.”

“You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”

“In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.”
Here it is evident the name of Jesus Christ is not some kind of verbal formula to be regurgitated in the presence of God in order to produce the result we want for ourselves; some magical incantation like “abracadabra”. A prayer tendered in such a spirit self-evidently fails to produce the things asked for. Rather, we are asking on his behalf.

Not a Formula

John 14:26 makes this meaning more explicit. The Comforter, the Lord Jesus says, is to be sent by the Father “in my name”, meaning “to do the work that I am currently doing”. He operates on behalf of the Son in the Son’s absence from this earth.

When we understand this, the things we ask God for will change radically. Rather than being personally focused, they will revolve around beseeching the Father for the things the Lord Jesus himself most desires. Perhaps it is for this reason that the corporate cry of the Church in prayer is “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is what the Son desires for his Father, and we get the privilege of voicing his request.

To prophesy, cast out demons, perform miracles, preach, teach or do anything else “in the name” of the Lord Jesus carries the same meaning. It is a bold claim to have been doing what Jesus Christ himself would be doing if he were still present with his people.

As the sons of Sceva proved when they used the name of Jesus like a formula, such a claim may be true, or it may be utter balderdash. Those using his name may well not know him at all.

A Distinction with a Difference

Consider two NT uses of the phrase “in my name”:
“For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray.”

“Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”
In the first instance, the title of Christ is invoked presumptuously, and those who do such things will reap their reward. In the second instance, a child is quietly embraced and cared for in the name of Christ. No immediate accolades redound, but the work of God is truly being done, and his name, if it is actually said at all, is at least not being misused.

The Will of My Father

We can also confirm with confidence that the latter usage of the name of Christ is in fact the will of the Father, and that those who do the Father’s will give natural evidence of their relationship to both the Father and to the Lord Jesus:
“For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Those who do the will of the Father stand in contrast to those who merely DO, and attach the name of Christ to their actions. Doing the Father’s will is fundamentally an act of faith, as its rewards are often to be garnered well down the line. It is initiated by an act of belief,
“Then they said to him, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.’ ”
and it is maintained by an active belief. Faith without works is dead, as James declares.

Sons and Sonship

The parable of the two sons strongly suggests that it is not those who pay mere lip service to the Father’s will but those who obey it who are ultimately the recipients of God’s blessing, even when they do God’s will grudgingly and while dragging their feet. The son who went to the vineyard to work demonstrated he was his Father’s son indeed.

The will of the Father is not always initially pleasant, as seen in the Garden of Gethsemane, but it is always ultimately blessed. Seeking it is also the source of all good judgment, because the son or daughter focused on their Father’s will is entirely without the distraction of self-interest. Further, seeking the will of God is the source of all clarity about the word of God.

Lord, Lord

The word epizeuxis comes from the Greek epizeugnumi, which means “fastening together”. It refers to a figure of speech in which a word is repeated for emphasis. It especially connotes vehemence.

“Lord, Lord,” cry the pretenders. The double “Lord” tells us they are no longer kidding around. Perhaps we can hear the anguish in their tone on the brink of a lost eternity.

In contrast, those who characteristically do the Father’s will always have the confidence of relationship. The hymnwriter says, “We as sons cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ ”

In my book that beats “Lord, Lord” any day.

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