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If you make much of yourself, you distract others from what matters most. But when God makes much of himself, he gives us what we need most.
How important to you is people’s approval? How important to you is faithfully obeying God? Sometimes we’re forced to sacrifice one in order to have or do the other.
The last time you faced this choice, which did you choose? Was your choice an anomaly, or did it follow a pattern of previous choices?
A good reputation is a very good thing — better than silver or gold, the Bible says (Proverbs 22:1). The apostles required people’s approval of the seven men chosen to ensure Hellenistic widows stopped being neglected (Acts 6:3). They required a good reputation of elders, both inside and outside the church (1 Timothy 3:2, 7), as well as of widows supported by the church (1 Timothy 5:9–10). Cornelius (Acts 10:22), Timothy (Acts 16:1–2), and Ananias of Damascus (Acts 22:12) are documented, in Scripture, as men who had good reputations.
We should want to be thought well of by others because of our integrity and the purity of our conduct. But it’s evil to want to be thought well of by others so much that, when push comes to shove, we compromise the integrity and purity of our conduct to get it.
And herein lies our significant battle: one we must wage against our pride. In order to follow Jesus faithfully, we must repeatedly die to our desires for people’s approval in order to be truthful and obey God.
When Good Is Very Bad
Consider this: the same God who commends a good reputation, also made this statement:
“Woe to you, when all people speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets.” (Luke 6:26)
What exactly did Jesus mean? He meant what the Spirit said through the prophet Jeremiah:
“From the least to the greatest of them, everyone is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:13–14)
In Jeremiah’s day — like in ours — prophets were saying false things in order to win the approval of people, especially the social and financial gatekeepers. Their goal was to obtain “unjust gain” — financial and likely a wide range of other benefits. Anything we value as a benefit we count as gain (Philippians 3:4–8).
What makes a good reputation a very bad thing? When a good reputation is a result of manipulating others for selfish ends. That’s what made the false prophets false.
Jesus’s point was this: anytime we sacrifice truth for the sake of our reputation, anytime we sacrifice obedience to God for the sake of others’ approval, we’re doing it for unjust gain — to obtain some benefit through dishonesty. And it is a spiritually dangerous transaction.
Jesus knows we face this temptation regularly. Our sinful pride is “greedy for dishonest gain” of all kinds (1 Timothy 3:8), and fearful to lose what gain we have. That’s why he warns us that if everyone speaks well of us, something is very likely wrong. We may not be following Jesus faithfully. We may be valuing the benefits we gain by pleasing people more than the benefits Jesus promises us.
When Bad Is Very Good
To help us test what we really value, Jesus juxtaposes his woe on bad good reputations with his blessing on good bad reputations:
“Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets.” (Luke 6:22–23)
Happy are we when our name is mud for Jesus’s sake. That’s a strange sort of happy. Exactly. It’s an otherworldly happy. It values the promise of heavenly reward more than the benefits we gain by pleasing the people who don’t love Jesus.
What makes a bad reputation a very good thing? When a bad reputation is a result of faithfulness to the truth and faithful obedience out of love for Christ. That’s what made the true prophets true.
Loving the promise of gaining the reward of God more than people’s approval has been the mark of God’s people in all of history. It is the testimony of nearly everyone listed in the “Hall of Faith” in Hebrews 11. They were people who sought a better country than exists on earth (Hebrews 11:16), who chose “to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:25), and who “considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of [the world]” (Hebrews 11:26).
The woe and the blessing are tests. This is one test: Are we happy, even when our reputation is trashed and our social and perhaps financial capital is devalued, because we choose the truth (John 14:6) and demonstrate our love for him by obeying him (John 14:15)?
This is another test: Do we ever experience this?
How we answer these questions reveals to some extent what we treasure. And if our answers are not what we wish they were — what we know Jesus wants for us — they can become, if we respond in faith, not condemnations but invitations. There are many more and deeper joys to be had than the paltry, hollow unjust gain we receive from cultivating bad good reputations. Jesus wants to give us, and is inviting us to receive, the eternal blessing of a good bad reputation. With all his heart he wants to say to us, “Rejoice and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven!” (Luke 6:23).
Most of us spend at least forty hours a week at work. So how do we leverage our time there to bring honor and praise to God?
Walking in the light is a matter of life and death for the Christian. If we don’t walk in the light now, we won’t later.
Grow in grace. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better three-word caption for the Christian life. It stems from a single text at the end of Peter’s second letter:
Take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 3:17–18)
Growing in grace has a context, and it’s not neutral. We are not given the option either to grow or stay the same, but to grow or be carried away. Grow or lose your stability. Grow in Christ or lose him altogether.
Make It (More) Personal
The aggressive sway of this sin-sick world, and the power of the Spirit within us, affords Christians no place for standing still. We’re either growing or shriveling. Either being carried forward by grace or carried away from the truth.
True stability in the Christian life comes not from planting two feet and holding fast, but from putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward, one grace-empowered step at a time. A stable Christian is a growing Christian.
And such growth in grace is always personal: “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” This is not the knowledge of books and facts, but knowing a person. Christian stability and maturity happen not merely by learning doctrines, but by knowing a real person in and through doctrines — growing into Christ (Ephesians 4:15–16) and holding fast to him (Colossians 2:19).
But how do we grow into Christ by grace?
Pure Spiritual Milk
When we pay close attention to the context of 2 Peter 3:18, and turn to the one other place where Peter talks explicitly about growth, we glean one clear and essential principle for what it means to grow in grace:
Put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation — if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (1 Peter 2:1–3)
We pick up a how of this growth in grace, or a main ingredient. Peter calls it “the pure spiritual milk.” What our Bibles have as chapter 2 flows immediately from the end of chapter 1, which makes the reference of “pure spiritual milk” plain: “the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). But what does Peter mean by “the living and abiding word”?
God’s Word in the Gospel
First, just two verses later, Peter says, “This word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 1:25). First and foremost, “the pure spiritual milk” by which we grow in grace is what we know as “the gospel” — the message of God’s goodness toward us in Christ. Despite our sin and endless failings, God has shown us love, and made a way for us to be right with him, through the sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection of his own Son. In Jesus, God is fully and finally for us.
We grow in grace not by moving on from this good news that was preached to us, but by going deeper and deeper into that astonishing message. Christians mature not by moving on from the gospel into “deeper truths,” but by sending our roots deeper and deeper into the simple and unfathomable gospel of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness toward us.
But how will we, in grace, “grow up into salvation” by the gospel? Just parroting to ourselves a few simple lines of gospel summary over and over each day will not carry a soul in the long run. Canned, stale expressions of God’s goodness to us in Christ won’t feed and energize us for very long. Saying the same old truths, in the same old ways, will betray their richness and beauty. How will this gospel stay fresh to our souls? The second side of Peter’s “living and abiding word.”
God’s Word in the Apostles and Prophets
Peter knows that simply preaching the gospel to ourselves, with no fresh inputs, will soon run its course. His “pure spiritual milk” invites us into a rich theology of God’s word and grace toward us, which brings us back to the end of his second letter. What kind of “word” is in view when Peter makes his “grow in grace” statement in 2 Peter 3:18? The words of God in Scripture.
Peter has just mentioned Paul’s letters, “which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures” (2 Peter 3:15–16). The unstable twist the Scriptures. But those who are stable and mature, growing in grace, do not twist the Scriptures, but take them as what they are — the very words of God — and feed their souls on them. They receive God’s words as grace from God, not as burdensome, and find them life-giving, not life-depleting. Many “lovers of grace” tragically neglect God’s primary means of grace — his words — in the name of “grace.” In doing so, they forfeit and diminish the very grace they claim to love and live by.
Peter gives us his summary of God’s “word,” old and new: “Remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles” (2 Peter 3:2). Prophets and apostles. Old Testament and New. God means for us to grow in grace by rehearsing what God himself promised through his prophets and now has fulfilled in his crucified and risen Son and revealed through his appointed spokesmen, the apostles.
God gave us a sizable Book full of predictions and fulfillments, full of promises and directives, full of grace and truth, that we might grow in grace.
Grace of Words, Words of Grace
The apostle Peter, and the living Christ through him, hasn’t left us without direction for how to “grow in grace.” God has given us his own word — in the gospel of his Son and in the Scriptures of his Book — all to be received together in the community of his church (1 Peter 2:5, 9–10; Ephesians 2:19–22). Yes, indeed, in Christ you will grow. You must. The Christian life never stands still. And God hasn’t left us without an abundance of grace for precisely that — in his word.
No matter how prone we may be to pit the grace of God and the word of God against each other, they always go together. Hearing the voice of our God in his word is never at odds with living by his grace. And true grace never shuts the mouth of God or stops our ears to his words. What priceless grace that God speaks to us and reveals himself, his Son, and his will for us. Living in light of his grace is never at odds with hearing him speak in his word.
We will experience no lasting and genuine growth in the faith without the main ingredient of God’s living and abiding word.
Aim to be humble rather than defensive when it comes to criticism. Only then will we be able to listen to their words and change if we’re wrong.
God must love whatever is most valuable in the universe — otherwise, he’d be an idolater.
“I’ve come to see that part of my calling here is simply to be a person of hope.”
Our car bounced down a dirt road in a small Middle Eastern town, seven of us packed into a five-seat sedan. A dim moonlight lit the blues and oranges of ramshackle gates guarding small properties.
The town sits on the northern edge of a “developing” country. But intermittent terrorist attacks and a limping economy make “disintegrating” seem like a more apt word at times. When locals meet a Western expat like the one driving our car, their surprise often breaks into a question.
“Why are you here?” they ask. “This country will never be fixed.”
This country will never be fixed. You don’t need to live in a broken country to know something of the same hopelessness — the desolating sense that some aspect of your life can never be fixed.
For many of us, pervasive, day in and day out brokenness has turned our youthful boast that “nothing is impossible with God” into a weary “nothing is ever going to change.” You might not voice it out loud, but you’ve come to expect that God will not answer prayer, much less “rend the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1), and that brokenness will dominate your life’s headlines until your obituary takes its place.
It might be a broken country, where terrorists’ bombs explode every attempt at systemic development. Or a broken marriage, where mistrust has evicted tenderness from the home. Or a broken ministry, where the word seems to land only on the path with the birds. Or perhaps just a broken soul, where darkness has extinguished the last shreds of light.
In the wreckage of that kind of brokenness, we feel entirely justified as we adopt a hopeless view of our life. We might even call our hopelessness realism.
Scripture has its share of such “realists” — cynical characters who run life through the grid of despair. The Bible has its Sarahs who laugh at God’s promise (Genesis 18:12), its Elijahs who have eyes to see only God’s enemies (1 Kings 19:14), and its Thomases who resign themselves to death (John 11:16).
But more properly, the people of God are a people of hope. They’re the sort who lock eyes with our world’s fundamental brokenness, size it up from head to toe, and still step into the ring.
- Abraham looks at his barren wife and “in hope he believed against hope, that he should become the father of many nations” (Romans 4:18).
- Ruth turns her eyes from a dead husband to a new country, and tells Naomi, “Where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge” (Ruth 1:16).
- Habakkuk sees the Babylonian hordes coming to destroy his people, and still he sings, “I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:18).
- Micah collapses under the weight of his own sin, and yet he boasts, “When I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord will be a light to me” (Micah 7:8).
Each one of these saints knew what it was to stand neck-deep in brokenness. They felt the tension between God’s promises and their seemingly hopeless circumstances. And yet they still chose to hope that God could give “life to the dead and [call] into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). By faith, they banished despair as they grasped onto “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).
In other words, they were people who saw reality as it really is.
Heart of Reality
Each of the stories shows us that, when we welcome hopelessness and cynicism in the name of “reality,” we are not being realistic enough.
If you peel back the layers to get at the heart of reality, you won’t find a black hole of brokenness; you’ll find “the God of hope” (Romans 15:13). You’ll find the God who gives children to barren women (Genesis 21:1–2), the God who welcomes young widows (Ruth 2:20), the God who fills disillusioned prophets with joy (Habakkuk 3:18), the God who pleads the cause of his sinful people (Micah 7:9). And if you keep on looking, you’ll find the God who entered the very dungeon of hopelessness in Jesus Christ, and three days later shattered the door.
This world is not a Shakespearean tragedy, where fate wields his merciless scythe and leaves the stage full of dead bodies at the curtain’s close. No, this world is more like a comedy — not because it’s so full of laughs, but because it’s headed for a happy ending: a marriage and enough food to go around for eternity.
Christian hope, then, is not the kind that blindfolds itself to reality. It’s the kind that looks at a newly sealed tomb and says, “This story’s not over.”
People of Hope
Of course, the hope that sits at the heart of reality does not guarantee that all of the brokenness we feel will heal quickly — or even at all in this life. Your country might take decades to develop, or it might disintegrate further. Your marriage might take years to thaw, or the cold might settle in deeper. Your ministry might grow incrementally, or it might wither and die. Your soul might brighten by imperceptible degrees, or the darkness might linger until the end.
But the hope at the heart of reality does guarantee something: change is not only possible, but surely coming. Jesus’s empty tomb stands as a solid, immovable witness that brokenness is beaten. With the God of hope running the world, the risen Christ at his right hand, and their mighty Spirit living inside you, no brokenness can stand forever. One day, our hope will reach its fulfillment in the coming of the Son and the dawning of eternity, and he will speak the final word that exiles brokenness from the earth. No more splintered countries, no more icy marriages, no more floundering ministries, no more depressed saints.
And when we reach for that hope with the fingers of faith, we will live in today’s brokenness differently. We will straighten our backs, lift our chins, square our shoulders, and remain “steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58) — even in this world’s most hopeless circumstances. Our default response to brokenness will not be “nothing is ever going to change,” but instead “nothing is impossible with God.”
We may still be a sorrowful people — burdened, broken, and beaten up — but we will not be a cynical people. We are a people of hope.
Fake Christians love darkness because it hides the sin that they love more than God.
Without God’s word, we cannot assess the gift of brotherhood as highly as we ought.
When I was asked to speak at a gathering of Bethlehem Baptist Church celebrating one hundred years of ministry between four pastors and their wives, I turned to Psalm 133. Two couples have served more than thirty years each, and the other two have served twenty each, for a total of one hundred years of fruitful labor. Their service is a priceless gift, and it is good for us to reflect, every once in a while, on unity and brotherhood in ministry.
Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing,
life forevermore. (Psalm 133:1–3)
So, consider three glimpses of the priceless gift of the unity among these four pastors, who, of course, could not have done what they did without their wives.
1. Unity is good and pleasant.
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!” It is good — it is what it ought to be. It is pleasant — it is what we want it to be. It is what God requires. And it is what we desire. It is their duty to be unified. And it is our delight that they are unified.
Not everything that God says is good is also pleasant. There are many things in life and in ministry that are good and right to do but that just are not pleasant to do. Unity among pastors is not one of those. It is a special kind of gift to a church. It is morally right, and a cause of great rejoicing.
Nothing satisfies the soul of a Spirit-filled church like the wonderful coming together of what ought to be and what we want to be in pastoral unity.
The unity of these pastors has been what it ought to be theologically — fully biblical; what it ought to be spiritually — going hard after all the fullness of God; what it ought to be financially — above reproach; what it ought to be sexually — unimpeachable faithfulness to their wives, and their wives to them. This is a good unity.
And it has been pleasant to us. Are not these four shepherds easy to like, easy to enjoy being around? Is it not pleasant that these shepherds are so easy to laugh with and cry with? Have they not pointed us to God and put us at ease a hundred times? And is it not pleasantly so that in their presence you do not feel that they are looking for your flaws, but ready to cover a multitude of sins?
“Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in gospel unity!”
2. Unity is precious.
“It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!” To be sure, this oil is precious. We have already seen: it is good and it is pleasant. That’s not the emphasis. What is? It’s on the head, then on the beard — not just any beard but the beard of the high priest, and then dripping off the beard onto the collar of his robe. What’s the point? This is excessive.
The unity — the good, pleasant unity — the biblical, theological, spiritual, ministerial oneness of the shepherds of the church — is an excessive gift to the church. It is more than we deserve. Remember that every day that goes by when these brothers are living and ministering in deep and joyful camaraderie, we are receiving a gift way beyond what we deserve.
If the oil is wonderfully fragrant, and if it is soothing to the sun-parched skin, and if it is full of symbolism of divine anointing, the point here is that this unity is all of that excessively. If we experience this from our pastors, it is more — excessively more — than we deserve. You should be affected by this when you shake their hands.
3. Unity is life-giving.
“It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion! For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.”
Follow me carefully. Mount Hermon was the highest mountain in Israel. Its dew and gentle rains kept the hills alive with moisture. One hundred and twenty miles to the south is little Mount Zion, Jerusalem, the city of David, the holy place where people met God in his tabernacle. Unity among brothers is like the life-giving dew of Hermon settling on Zion. Why is it like that?
The last two lines of the psalm begin with “for.” So here comes the basis of this comparison. The unity of brothers is like the life-giving dew of Hermon settling on the mountains of Zion “because there [in Zion] the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” Picturing unity as life from on high, settling on the place where people meet God, is a perfect picture because there — just there — God gives eternal life.
God-centered, Messiah-exalting, Scripture-saturated, gospel-shaped unity among brothers is the presence of divine life — eternal life — in our churches. Christ commanded life at the grave of Lazarus. And there was life. God commanded life, and these pastors lived and became one in that eternal life — all for our good and pleasant and excessive blessing.
Deep in the Mind of Christ
It almost goes without saying that unity among brothers and sisters does not mean having the same tastes and preferences on a hundred issues. For example, when Paul says in Philippians 2:2 that we should be “of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind,” he is not referring to favorite music, favorite food, favorite sports, favorite clothes, favorite authors, and favorite charity.
The “mind,” “love,” and “accord” that are supposed to be the same are described in verses 3–8. They are the mind-set of counting others more significant than yourself, and looking out for the interests of others, and reflecting the mind of Christ in his self-emptying servanthood. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who . . . emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant . . . ” (Philippians 2:5–7).
The precious, pleasant, excessive blessing of unity on a church staff is more than this. But not less. And this humble, servant mind-set is the heart-key that unlocks the door of reconciliation over and over again, and makes a hundred years of sweet partnership possible. May God grant every church to sink its roots deep in the mind of Christ that moved him from the highest place to the lowest for the sake of love.