A Gentle Answer

 

As the unknown author of 1 Kings summarized Solomon’s great wisdom, he said that it surpassed that of all the sons of the east (1 Kgs. 4:30).  Then in 1 Kgs. 4:32 he said, “He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005.”  The book that we call Proverbs very likely contains most, if not all, of his wise sayings.  Most of Solomon’s proverbs are short statements that compare the benefits of wisdom with the consequences of foolishness.  The primary theme of this collection is to seek and to retain wisdom.  Those who are not willing to do so are characterized as fools and are warned of the danger of such folly.

Some of the proverbs are difficult for us to comprehend because they are steeped in the culture and the practices of the ancient Hebrews.  Others, however, are easily understood in any generation and in any place.  One of these timeless proverbs is found in Prov. 15:1.  Solomon said, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up strife.”  This is a theme that resonates with us because most of us have actually witnessed the truth of this statement.

How often has a simple misunderstanding or a minor disagreement escalated into a raging argument because the individuals involved spoke harshly to one another?  Such things have happened often enough in most people’s experience that we are not surprised when they do.  Too many times we allow our hurt feelings or our pride to spark angry words that just make the situation worse.  A Cold War-era cartoon perfectly captures what so often happens.  It showed a figure in a fireman’s suit spraying liquid on flames.  The caption said, “Again the Russian fireman rushes to the scene.  In his eyes, determination.  In his hose, pure gasoline!”

We generally expect that most people are going to respond in kind to any slight committed against them.  Although we expect it, we all know that it isn’t the best way.  We even have an adage to the effect that one can draw more flies with honey than with vinegar.  Even so, many people are unwilling to let such things go.  We think we must get our licks in, as it were, in our own defense, if nothing more.  The wise man Solomon would shake his head in wonder at our foolishness.

The counsel of the wise man is that we should respond in gentleness in order to avoid further unpleasantness.  This, too, is something most of us have experienced.  We have watched in awe as an angry situation is diffused by a calm and gentle response.  We have gone away from such incidents impressed with the wisdom and humility which kept things from getting out of control.

While all people can appreciate this principle at work, those of us who are Christians have an obligation to practice it.  We must do so, not only because it is the wise way of handling conflict, but also because of the example of our Lord.  Many times during the course of His ministry His enemies made scathing accusations against Him.  In none of these cases did the Lord lower Himself to the kind of slanderous words that were spoken against Him.  Instead, He always remained in control, and responded with words that made His opponents, and the people who witnessed these confrontations, think about what they had said and done.

The Lord could have called twelve legions of angels to His defense as He hung on the cross.  Instead, He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34).  If the Lord could give a gentle answer as He was being crucified, surely we can give a gentle answer in all our petty conflicts.

The Golden Rule

 

The largest single collection of the Lord’s teachings is found in the gospel of Matthew.  In chapters 5-7 Matthew recorded what we call the Sermon on the Mount.  In chapter 5 the Lord contrasted the standards which He expected His disciples to live up to with what they had heard from their teachers.  In every case His disciples were called to a higher standard than the common practices of first century Judaism.  In chapter 6 the Lord called upon His disciples to practice their faith sincerely, and to not be consumed with worry about their daily needs.  In chapter 7 the Lord exhorted His disciples to correct their own sins before correcting others.  He urged them to enter the narrow gate that leads to life, rather than following the crowds traveling down the broad way that leads to destruction.  He also taught them how to recognize false teachers, and warned them that only those who do the Father’s will are going to enter heaven.

In the midst of chapter 7 is one of the most basic principles of the Christian faith.  In Mt. 7:12 the Lord said, “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (NASB)  In this simple command the Lord revealed the core of what it means to love one’s neighbor as oneself.  In Mt. 22:35-40 the Lord said that the greatest commandment was to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind.  The second most important, He said, was to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

We call Mt. 7:12 the Golden Rule, a term that apparently was coined by Anglican theologians in the 17th century.  Skeptics sometimes point out that Jesus was not the first to express such a philosophy, but in so doing they ignore the fact that all other expressions of this principle come from a negative perspective.  For example, Confucius said, “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”  In the first century B.C. Rabbi Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”  The Greek philosopher Sextus said, “What you do not want to happen to you, do not do it yourself either.”

Although all of these statements predate the Lord’s ministry on the earth, they all fall far short of the standard to which the Lord called His disciples.  Followers of Christ are commanded to be proactive in a positive way toward others.  We are to do to them, and for them, what we would like done for ourselves.  By treating others with the love, kindness, courtesy, respect, and goodness that we desire for ourselves, we follow the Lord’s own example and honor Him by our obedience.  At the same time, our actions may draw the lost to salvation in Christ, which is the best thing we can do for anyone.

Nearly everyone is aware of the Golden Rule.  Very few, it seems, actually live by it.  We should not be surprised that unbelievers do not live by it.  After all, they are still in their sins, and have no concept of the kind of sacrificial living to which Christians have been called.  Even so, the Lord requires His disciples to follow this principle in their dealings with everyone, whether they are believers or not.

This being the case, how much more so ought Christians to live by the Golden Rule when dealing with each other?  In Gal. 6:10 Paul said, “So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, and especially to those who are of the household of the faith.”  We cannot be acceptable to our Lord if we do not treat others in the way that we would have them treat us.  We can be doctrinally correct in every detail, but if we do not live by the Golden Rule, it means nothing.  Therefore, let us be “golden” in all our relationships.

To Serve Or To Be Served

 

As the Lord taught and preached in the first century, He was the living fulfillment of all the prophecies regarding the Messiah who would redeem mankind.  Even though His many miraculous works testified to this truth, many people refused to believe in Him because He did not meet their expectations of what the Messiah should be.  He came from humble origins and sought none of the trappings of power which were common in that time, and which were the core of the Jews’ expectations regarding the Savior.

Even the twelve men chosen by the Lord to be His apostles struggled with these things.  On more than one occasion the Lord scolded them because they were vying among themselves to see who would be number one.  In Mk. 10:35-41 James and John asked Jesus to elevate them to positions of importance, one on His left hand and one on His right, in His glory.  This made the other ten men angry and they became indignant with James and John.

In response to this incident, the Lord told them that they were acting just like the rulers of the Gentiles.  The world’s way was to strive for prominence, but it would not be this way among His disciples.  He told them that the one who wanted to be first among them must be the slave of all.  Then, in Mk. 10:45 the Lord said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”  It took a long time for the twelve to learn this lesson, but they eventually got the message.  After the Lord’s ascension into heaven, they did indeed become servants and, with the exception of Judas, spent the remainder of their lives living up to the Lord’s admonition.

This is a principle that is often lost on modern believers.  Too many today treat the church as though it were a religious version of the “Make A Wish Foundation”.  They shop for a church with a laundry list of services that they want the church to provide for them.  They enter the worship assembly expecting to have their every desire fulfilled, like patrons in a restaurant.  They listen to the sermon, not to be encouraged toward righteous living, but in hopes of being entertained so they will feel good when they leave.  If the church doesn’t meet their expectations, they move on to the next one, and the next, until they find what they want.

The Lord’s teaching and example, however, stand in stark contrast to this attitude.  True believers do not come to Christ in order to be served.  They are moved by what the Lord did for them by shedding His blood on the cross for the forgiveness of their sins.  As a result, they know that they must serve Him.  They do this by serving each other, and by doing all within their abilities to help the church.  A true believer comes to the church with an eye toward what he or she may do to facilitate the church’s work.

In order to be the kind of disciple the Lord intends us to be we must take a different view of the church than most do.  To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, we must ask not what the church can do for us, but ask what we can do for the church.  Instead of expecting the church to wait on us hand and foot, we should be looking for the ways in which we may serve the needs of the church.  We must do this because the church is us, and it can only do what we ourselves do.

The Lord said that to be great in the kingdom we must become servants.  When we humble ourselves and serve rather than being served, we honor our Lord, and we fulfill His expectations for us as disciples.

Salt & Light

 

The largest single collection of the Lord’s teachings is what we call the Sermon on the Mount.  It is recorded in great detail in Matthew’s gospel, chapters 5-7.  In this great discourse the Lord laid the foundation of what would be required of His disciples.  Very early in His discussion the Lord used two important images to illustrate the effect He expected His disciples to have on the world.  These images are salt and light.

In Mt. 5:13-16 the Lord said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has become tasteless, how can it be made salty again?  It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men.  You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”

The imagery of salt and light are powerful illustrations because of what they do and how they work.  Salt essentially has three effects.  First, it is a preservative.  It has long been used to cure meat where there is no means of refrigerating or freezing it.  Second, it enhances the flavor of the foods on which it is applied.  Many foods, like eggs and potatoes, taste much better with a little salt on them.  Third, salt causes thirst.  Anyone who has eaten a salty snack food knows this is true.  The reason salt has these effects is because it is chemically different from the items on which it is placed.  If it were of the same composition as these foods, it would make no difference in them.

Light is just as powerful an imagery.  Light enables us to see in situations in which we would otherwise be unable to see.  Light facilitates and sustains life on the earth.  Without light, life on earth would be impossible.  Light also lifts our spirits and often takes away our fears.  It has this effect because light dispels darkness.  It does so because it is the exact opposite of darkness.  Where light shines there can be no darkness, and darkness can only exist where there is no light.  The two are mutually exclusive.

When these images are applied to Christians, we can easily see why the Lord used them to refer to His disciples.  We are different from the world because our sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ (Acts 22:16).  Like salt, we are a preserving agent in the world.  God spares the world because of His people, who are trying to lead the lost to salvation.  We also enhance the world by our presence in it because of our godly examples.  Our godly way of life leads others to thirst for God’s truth, and the salvation that may only be obtained in Christ.  We make the world a better place by being salt in it.

In a similar way, as light we shine the good news of Jesus Christ and His salvation into the darkness that has enveloped the world.  As we reflect the light of our Lord by our godly lives, we expose sin for what it is, and we show the way to eternal life through Jesus our Lord.  We show those who are stumbling in the darkness the narrow path that leads to life.  In these ways we make the world a better place by being light in it.

When the Lord used the imagery of salt and light to describe His disciples He didn’t say that he hoped we would be salt and light.  Neither did He say we ought to be salt and light.  He said we are salt and light.  By virtue of having been purchased by His blood we have been made into salt and light by the will of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  This is what we are, and this is what we must be in order to please Him.

(Note:  The picture above is a salt shaker with an LED light inside it.  My son made this to portray the imagery of salt and light)

Courageously Committed

 

The period of the Judges was the most chaotic era in the history of Israel.  The atmosphere of this time is summarized in the final words of the book of Judges.  In Jdg. 21:25 the scripture says, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes.”  During this time Israel would rebel against God and suffer punishment from Him at the hands of a neighboring nation.  Then they would cry out for help and God would deliver them by means of a judge who would then lead Israel in a period of peace.

One of the most fascinating events in this period was when God called Gideon to deliver Israel from the Midianites.  The record of this incident is found in Jdg. 6-8.  When Gideon accepted God’s commission, he called the people of Israel to fight against the Midianites.  32,000 men responded to his call, but God told Gideon that this was too many people.  In Jdg. 7:1-7 God put Israel through several tests in order to show them that He alone would deliver them.

The first test was a simple one.  God told Gideon to tell everyone who was afraid to go home, and 22,000 men departed.  This was still too many people, so God told Gideon to take the remaining 10,000 men to water.  As the men drank water, God selected 300 who drank by cupping water in their hands and lapping it from there.  All the others were sent home.  God then instructed Gideon to arm the 300 men with trumpets, torches, and empty pitchers.  These would be the weapons by which Midian would be defeated.  The end of the story is that God brought about a great victory and Israel enjoyed forty years of peace thereafter.

This incident is a study in levels of commitment.  All 32,000 men who initially responded to Gideon’s call were committed enough to answer the call.  However, 22,000 of them were cowardly in their commitment.  That is, they were so fearful that the Lord could not use them.  The 10,000 who remained after the fearful went home were more committed than they, but 9,700 of them were carelessly committed.  That is, when they went for a drink of water they threw caution to the wind as they drank.  These men literally stuck their faces in the water as they drank and were therefore unprepared if an enemy should attack them.  Their careless commitment made them unusable for the Lord’s purposes.

The 300 who remained were the most committed of all who answered Gideon’s call.  They were courageously committed.  We know this because they were willing to go into battle carrying nothing but a trumpet, a torch, and an empty pitcher.  In other words, they trusted God to the point that they would put their lives on the line to fight in the manner He prescribed.  Thus they became tools in God’s hand to win the victory that brought peace back to Israel.

In application, the same levels of commitment that marked Gideon’s army are found within the body of Christ today.  All Christians have shown that they are committed to the Lord by virtue of their obedience to the gospel.  However, some are cowardly in their commitment.  They are fearful of offending unbelieving family and friends and their service to the Lord suffers because of it.  Others are carelessly committed, letting their spiritual guard down, leaving themselves vulnerable to the temptations of the devil.  Neither of these is particularly useful in the Lord’s service.  Those who are like Gideon’s 300, however, are courageously committed.  They are unafraid to stand up for the truth, and they are willing to serve the Lord with the tools, and according to the commands, that He has provided.  By their courageous commitment the Lord continues to win victory after victory over Satan and his minions.  Let us all, therefore, strive to be as committed as Gideon’s 300.