An Asterisk Life

 

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “asterisk” in this way:  “The character (*) thought of as being appended to something (such as an athletic accomplishment included in a record book) typically in order to indicate that there is a limiting fact or consideration which makes that thing less important or impressive than it would otherwise be.”

The most famous example of this definition occurred at the end of the 1961 baseball season.  During that eventful year New York Yankees slugger Roger Maris chased the elusive single season home run record which was set in 1927 by the great Babe Ruth.  Ruth’s record was 60 home runs and on the final day of the 1961 season Roger Maris hit home run number 61 to break this record.  Ford Frick, the commissioner of baseball at the time, decided that Maris’ record should be noted with an asterisk because Ruth had hit 60 home runs in 154 games (the length of the season in 1927) and Maris hit 61 in 162 games (the length of the season in 1961).  The asterisk was later removed but for many years Maris’ record was not as highly regarded as it should have been.

During the infamous steroid era in Major League Baseball Maris’ record was obliterated by Mark McGwire, who hit 70 home runs in 1998.   McGwire’s record was then broken by Barry Bonds in 2001, when he hit 73 home runs in a season.  Many baseball purists believe that McGwire’s and Bonds’ records should be “asterisked” because of the PEDs we now know they were taking at the time.  The bottom line is that this record is forever tainted because of the “limiting fact or consideration which makes that thing less important or impressive than it would otherwise be.”

When we consider the definition of an asterisk in a spiritual context one biblical character immediately comes to mind.  Surprisingly, he was not one of God’s people, but a leader of one of Israel’s mortal enemies.  In 2 Kgs. 5 the scripture records the story of Naaman, who was living an asterisk life.  In 2 Kgs. 5:1 the scripture says, “Now Naaman, captain of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man with his master, and highly respected, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram.  The man was also a valiant warrior, but he was a leper.”

Naaman was a great man in every human method of measurement.  He held a high position in the army of Aram (Syria), and was a trusted lieutenant to his king.  He was a victorious commander and personally valiant in battle.  He was greatly esteemed in his nation because of his prowess as a warrior.  Naaman had everything going his way.  He was head and shoulders above everyone else in the service of the king of Syria.  But all of these accomplishments came with an asterisk.  Naaman was a leper.

Leprosy was a highly communicable and dread disease.  In the Law of Moses a leper was quarantined from the rest of society.  He or she had to live apart from the community and do everything possible to never come into physical contact with any other person.  The Syrians were not subject to the Law of Moses, but reason suggests that they also imposed restrictions upon lepers in their nation.  Thus, as great a man as Naaman was, he was severely limited in Syrian culture.  In addition to this, leprosy was a potentially fatal disease.  Under these conditions, Naaman’s accomplishments as a soldier were less important than they might otherwise have been.

Fortunately for Naaman, he discovered a way to remove the asterisk from his life.  In 2 Kgs. 5:3-14 the scripture relates how a slave girl from Israel who served in Naaman’s household told her master about the prophet in Israel who could cleanse him of his disease.  To his credit, Naaman believed the girl and with his king’s approval came to the prophet Elisha for cleansing.  After initially balking at the prophet’s command to “go and wash in the Jordan seven times” (v. 10), Naaman was persuaded by his servants to obey the prophet’s command.  When Naaman dipped seven times in the Jordan as the prophet commanded, he was immediately cleansed of this terrible disease.

After his cleansing, Naaman returned to the prophet of God and vowed to only serve the God of Israel from that time forward (2 Kgs. 5:17-19).  With his health restored, Naaman returned to Syria to serve his king.  Although the scriptures tell us no more about his life, we may safely conclude that Naaman lived the rest of his days without any limiting fact or consideration that made his accomplishments less important in the view of his nation.  In other words, Naaman no longer lived an asterisk life.

The lesson for each of us today is that we, like Naaman, are living asterisk lives so long as we are outside of Christ.  No matter what our accomplishments may be, no matter how good we may be, or the good we may have done, our sins are the “limiting fact or consideration which makes that thing less important or impressive than it would otherwise be”.  So long as we are still in our sins, nothing else about our life matters.  However, if we turn to the Lord in obedience to the gospel, then we can permanently remove the asterisk from our lives.  Like Naaman, if we wash, we will be clean.  In Acts 22:16, as Paul related the facts concerning his conversion to Christ, he told the Jews what the preacher Ananias commanded him to do after he had encountered the Lord on the road to Damascus.  Ananias said, “Now why do you delay?  Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.”

Don’t continue to live an asterisk life.  Obey the gospel, wash and be clean.

Bearing Fruit

 

On the night of His betrayal, the Lord spoke at length with the eleven apostles after Judas had been dismissed to complete his treachery.  John’s gospel is the only one that records what the Lord spoke on that occasion.  One of the most important parts of His instruction that night was His comments on the vine and the branches.  In Jn. 15:1-6 the Lord said, “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.  Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes it so that it may bear more fruit.  You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.  Abide in Me, and I in you.  As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me.  I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.  If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned.”

As we consider these words, most of our attention focuses on the question of what it means to “bear fruit”.  For generations of Christians in the last one hundred years this question has been answered with a single statement:  “The fruit of a Christian is another Christian.”  This is a simple, easy to understand, and quantifiable answer to the question.  Whoever first made this statement undoubtedly believed he had captured the heart of the matter.  However, as this answer was repeated from person to person and congregation to congregation, an unintended consequence arose.  Many Christians became burdened with the idea that the only way one may bear fruit in Christ is to convert lost souls.

There is no question that saving the lost is indeed bearing fruit.  This is the expected result of preaching the gospel, as the Lord enjoined upon us in the Great Commission (Mt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15-16).  But, is this all the Lord meant by this statement?  Is our bearing fruit only to be measured by the number of souls we have converted?  If we are honest with ourselves, many Christians have never had the joy of seeing one obey the gospel primarily because of our personal teaching and influence.  Some faithful Christians, in spite of their best efforts, have never been able to persuade a lost soul to obey the gospel.  Are we then to judge them as unfruitful and thus in danger of being cast into the fire?

In the larger context of the New Testament the answer to this question is an unqualified “No!”  The most similar imagery of bearing fruit is found in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  In Gal. 5:22-23 he said, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”  When we study this statement we typically speak of bearing the fruit of the Spirit.  In other words, one whose life is filled with the Holy Spirit will exhibit these qualities as evidence of His presence with him.  We correctly observe that one whose life is not characterized by these qualities is not bearing the fruit of the Spirit.

Bearing the fruit of the Spirit shows that one is growing and maturing in the faith.  It shows that one is serious about his commitment to the Lord, and is striving to be all he is capable of being in the Lord’s service.  One who is thus growing in the faith may indeed persuade others to become Christians as well, but he might also never bear that kind of fruit.  The parable of the sower (Mt. 13:3-9) certainly suggests this. The sower sowed the seed, but three of the four soils were unproductive, through no fault of his own.  The lesson from this parable must be that not everyone will obey the gospel.

Our job is to sow the seed (God’s word, Lk. 8:11).  If we do this, we have fulfilled our responsibility.  What happens thereafter is outside our power and control.  Indeed, Paul made this very point in 1 Cor. 3:6.  He said, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.”  In other words, the outcome of our sowing does not determine if we have borne fruit or not.

Is it not likely, then, that bearing fruit in Christ must not be judged solely by the number of converts one has made?  Indeed, even in the context of Jn. 15 the emphasis seems to be more on personal growth and maturity than on the multiplication of numbers.  This is not to suggest that we need not be concerned about converting the lost.  Rather, it is to suggest that if we are growing and maturing in the faith in accordance with our gifts and abilities, then we are indeed bearing fruit in Christ.  If we are faithful to the Lord and are dedicated to serving Him to the best of our abilities, we are bearing fruit and the Father will prune us so we may become even more fruitful in His service.  If we bear fruit on this level, we will faithfully sow the seed of God’s word, and He will cause that seed to grow in good soil.

If We Never Meet Again

 

This is the pulpit of the 4th & Bois d’Arc Church of Christ in Pecos, TX, where I preached for sixteen years.

I presented my final sermon there on August 26, 2018.

The following is my final bulletin article as the preacher for the 4th & Bois d’Arc Church of Christ in Pecos, TX.

 

One of the most moving songs in our hymn books is entitled, If We Never Meet Again.  The words and music were written by Albert E. Brumley in 1945.  Brother Brumley was one of the most prolific songwriters in churches of Christ, with over 800 songs to his credit, including, I’ll Fly Away, which is one of the most-recorded hymns in history.  Since its publication, If We Never Meet Again has been a staple in hymn books and a particular favorite among older Christians.

In this song Bro. Brumley captured the sentiment we all experience when we are about to separate from loved ones for the last time.  Our hearts ache because of the impending separation, and our love for those we are leaving makes us yearn for the time when we will be with them once again.  These feelings are especially deep when we have lost a loved one to death.  Bro. Brumley’s song is particularly comforting on such an occasion.

The stanzas say:

“Soon we’ll come to the end of life’s journey, And perhaps we’ll never meet anymore, Till we gather in heaven’s bright city, Far away on that beautiful shore.  O so often we’re parted with sorrow, Benedictions often quicken our pain, But we never shall sorrow in heaven, God be with you till we meet again.  O they say we shall meet by the river, Where no storm-clouds ever darken the sky, And they say we’ll be happy in heaven, In the wonderful sweet by and by.”

The chorus says:

“If we never meet again this side of heaven, As we struggle through this world and its strife, There’s another meeting place somewhere in heaven, By the side of the river of life; Where the charming roses bloom forever, And where separations come no more, If we never meet again this side of heaven, I will meet you on that beautiful shore.”

For some, the words of this song bring back memories of loved ones, long-departed from life, whom we will never meet again this side of heaven.  The faithfulness of these loved ones while they lived tells us that we can only see them again if we, too, are faithful to the Lord.  Therefore, when we sing the words of this song, this truth should move us to greater diligence in our Christian walk.

There is no more comforting thought than the promise of scripture that the redeemed will have a sweet reunion in heaven at the end of time.  In 1 Th. 4:16-18 Paul said, “For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up other with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.  Therefore comfort one another with these words.”  We may never see one another again before that time, but the joy of that meeting will far outweigh the loss we feel in the meantime.  This truth should compel us to take the words of this song more seriously than we may have before.

As we consider the words of this song, we are compelled to take stock of our lives.  Are we living in such a way that we may truthfully sing, “If we never meet again this side of heaven, I will meet you on that beautiful shore”?  If so, then we may sing with all the fervor within us, and in full confidence that it will happen.  If not, then we must repent and turn back to the Lord before it’s too late.  Life is too short, and eternity too long, to risk missing the great reunion by the side of the river of life.

Until we meet again, may the Lord keep you in His watchful care.  God bless you!!

The Work of Ministry

 

Someone once said that the work of preachers is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.  While this is almost certainly an over-simplification of the work of ministry, it does capture, at least in part, the spirit of this work.  We absolutely see this principle in the work of the Old Testament prophets.  The messages they brought to the people of God sometimes comforted and encouraged them.  On other occasions they scolded and chastised to try to bring the people back into faithful service to God.  The work of the apostles and other preachers, as it is recorded in the book of Acts, suggests that this work did not change in the transition from the old covenant to the new covenant.  It was then, and still is, hard work that takes a toll on the one who undertakes it.  Even so, there have always been, and Lord willing there always will be, men who are willing to take on this challenging work.

One of the greatest challenges preachers and churches face is properly defining what that work should be.  When left to our own devices, we may expect far too much or far too little from preachers.  Fortunately the scriptures give us the direction we need in this regard, if we are willing to let them set the bounds of this good work.  Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus have long been used to set the parameters of the work of ministry and their contents should guide us still today.  However, we find an excellent summary of the work of ministry in Paul’s farewell to the elders of the church in Ephesus.

In Acts 20:17-35 Luke recorded this final meeting between the great apostle and these shepherds.  He had worked with them longer than with any other church of which we have record.  At the time of this meeting Paul was hurrying to Jerusalem where he would undergo great hardship.  He knew he would never see these men again, so he spoke with them one last time.  His words to them show us what the work of ministry should be.

First, Paul reminded them that he had persevered through all kinds of trials as he worked with them (Acts 20:18-19).  Too many men are unwilling to work through the rough spots with a congregation.  Paul shows us that the work of ministry is to persevere through all such things.

Second, he reminded them that he had taught them everything they needed to know from God’s word (Acts 20:20-21, 27).  Too many men lose sight of the big picture and focus instead on their pet themes, or on what the congregation wants.  Paul shows us that the work of ministry is to proclaim the whole purpose of God (Acts 20:27).

Third, he warned them to be prepared to meet every spiritual challenge that would arise in the future (Acts 20:28-31).  Too many men are so focused on being a spiritual fireman that they fail to teach the church how to meet these challenges themselves.  Paul shows us that the work of ministry is to equip the saints for every good work and to discern right from wrong.

Finally, when all was said and done, Paul commended the elders of Ephesus to God and to the word of His grace (Acts 20:32).  Paul knew he would never see these men again on this side of life.  They could fulfill their responsibility as shepherds only if they depended on God’s word.  Too many preachers assume that they are indispensable.  Paul shows us that the work of ministry is to point God’s people to the implanted word which is able to save their souls (cf. Jas. 1:21).

May all who preach commit themselves to the work of ministry, as the scriptures define it.  If they do so, they will be the kind of ministers the Lord intends them to be.  May all God’s people commit themselves to expect ministers to do the work of ministry as the scriptures define it, nothing more and nothing less.  If they do so, our churches will be what the Lord intends them to be.

Just Do It!

 

One of the most famous advertising slogans of all time is Nike’s “Just Do It!”  Next to its “swoosh” symbol, these words are Nike’s most recognizable trademark.  As a slogan it perfectly fits the bill.  It is concise and memorable, and it encapsulates the culture of the company it represents.  Nike wants its customers to believe that their products will enable them to reach any goal, and “Just Do It!” unquestionably conveys that idea.

In the sporting world, which is Nike’s chosen niche, “Just Do It!” zeroes in on the heart of competition. Many people talk a good game, but precious few can actually back up their words with their performance on the field.  This is generally the difference between champions and also-rans.  The champions get it done, while the also-rans make excuses as to why they didn’t.

“Just Do It!” is more than a sporting motto, however.  It is a fundamental character principle that applies in every aspect of life.  Children learn this truth when their parents deflect their excuses for not doing their chores, or their homework, or some other task that has been given to them.  Students learn it from teachers, who are not impressed with, “The dog ate my homework”.  Employees also learn it from supervisors and bosses, who are concerned only with results.  The truth is, no one appreciates an excuse maker.  We reserve our esteem for those who do what they say they will do.

There is no area in which the “Just Do It!” philosophy is more apropos than in spiritual matters.  The inescapable conclusion of scripture is that only those who “do” are going to be rewarded by the Lord. When the Lord concluded the Sermon on the Mount He said that the one who does the will of the Father in heaven will enter heaven (Mt. 7:21).  In Mt. 7:24-27 He went on to say that the one who hears His word and does it is like the wise man who built his house on a rock.  His house will stand all the onslaughts of life.  He also said that the one who hears His word and does not do it is like the foolish man who built his house on the sand.  His house will fall, and he with it.

During the ministry of Elijah the prophet laid this principle before the people of Israel.  In 1 Kgs. 18:21 he asked them, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions?  If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.”  Their silence in response to this question indicated their lack of commitment at that moment.  In essence, the prophet was telling them to “Just Do It!”, whatever their choice might be.  One cannot waver in response to God.

When asked what the greatest commandment was, the Lord said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt. 22:37).  Later, on the night of His betrayal, the Lord said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (Jn. 14:15).  This is what loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind is.  This is what the Lord requires, and there are no excuses for failing to do so.  We either do it, or we don’t.  It’s just that simple.

Our Lord did all the hard work of salvation, the things that we were incapable of doing.  He went to the cross and shed His blood to pay the penalty for our sins.  He didn’t make excuses, He just did it.  What remains to be done so we can enter heaven is well within our ability to do.  Our Father in heaven wishes for all of us to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4).  Therefore, let’s stop making excused.  Let’s “Just Do It!”

Approved Workers

 

Many commentators refer to Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus as the Pastoral Letters.  This is because these letters are viewed as instructions for preachers.  This designation has been assigned to these letters for so long that it is virtually impossible to speak of them in other terms.  Nevertheless, even a cursory reading of them reveals that most of Paul’s instructions apply equally to all members of the body of christ, not just to preachers.  Among his admonitions that apply to all Christians is the command to study God’s word, so we will be approved by Him and will handle His word accurately.  In 2 Tim. 2:15 Paul said, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.”

The clear implication of this command is that Christians are expected to become proficient in the use of the scriptures.  Such proficiency cannot be achieved without diligent effort.  The KJV rendition of this verse uses the word “study” in the place of “be diligent”, and this certainly captures the idea of the form that our diligent effort must take.  We cannot be proficient with the scriptures if we do not spend time in them, both reading them and meditating upon their message.

One aspect of this command that might easily be overlooked is the connection between our diligence with God’s word and our approval by Him.  Paul said we are to be workers who are approved by God.  This approval is given only if we accurately handle His word.  We cannot accurately handle God’s word, however, unless we devote the time and energy necessary to equip us to do so.

The imagery of an approved worker is significant.  We recognize it in all aspects of life.  One cannot be confident in a repairman who seems unacquainted with the tools of his trade.  A workman who lacks rudimentary knowledge of his craft will not be approved of by his employer, and he will not long remain employed.  We, as consumers, do not tolerate a workman who doesn’t know how to use the tools necessary to do his job.

This being true, we should be just as dissatisfied with ourselves about our skill in using God’s word.  Too many of us are so unfamiliar with the scriptures that we have no idea how to accurately handle the word of truth.  Too often we depend primarily on the preacher to guide us through the difficult waters of life.  When a spiritual question arises, we ask the man whose business, we believe, it is to know God’s word.  Unfortunately, this is not what Paul had in mind.

To be approved workers before God, each of us must be diligent with God’s word.  The writer of Hebrews told his readers that they would become mature only through practice with God’s word, by which they would train themselves to discern good and evil (Heb. 5:14).  Thus, in order to be approved workers, we must study God’s word consistently and systematically.  We must study God’s word contextually; that is, seeing what it meant in its original setting and then applying that lesson to today.  We must also study God’s word reverently.  We cannot cherry-pick our way through the scriptures.  All scripture is inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  The contents of scripture are exactly what God has revealed so we may be approved of by Him.

Therefore, let us, like Job, treasure the words of His mouth more than our necessary food (Job 23:12).  Let us learn and become proficient with “the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (Jas. 1:21).  If we do so, then we will be workers who do not need to be ashamed, and we will be approved by God.