1.3 THE FOCUSED LIFE
The ultimate pattern for mission is in God Himself. His Name, YHWH, means ‘I will be who I will be / am who I am’. And the declaration of His Name is followed by statements of how He ‘will be’ grace, love, justice, judgment etc. (Ex. 34:5-7). He will work out His purpose of glorifying the characteristics of His Name. If we align ourselves with this aim of glorifying God’s Name, then our lives become focused, our aims and goals are clearer. Our baptism into the Name means that His mission, His restless, 24/7 working towards the goal of His glory filling the earth, becomes ours.
Various images are used in the Bible to bring home to us our sense of purpose. We are to see ourselves as soldiers disciplining ourselves for action, fighting in the only ultimately worthy cause with victory in sight; as slaves of a great Master; as athletes running a race. “Every man that strives in the games is temperate in all things. Now they do it to receive a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. I [Paul] therefore so run, as not uncertainly; so fight I, as not beating the air” (1 Cor. 9:25,26). Paul saw himself as very much in reality, and not just shadowing boxing. Why does he bother saying this- that he boxes not as one who merely beats the air? Surely because he perceived that many people don’t grasp the ‘reality’ of life. They think it’s all some virtual game, online rather than real life. But Paul saw the real issues of eternal life and eternal death very clearly. Those who responded to his preaching and teaching really would live forever; those who rejected it or fell away from it would ultimately remain eternally dead. Paul perceived that we are dealing with the ultimate of all realities: the love of God, His feelings for us, His mission and purpose for us, how every moment the King of the Cosmos is yearning for us, the life eternal, the sense of the future men might miss. And so Paul fought for it all, not uncertainly, and not as one who feels only half in reality. It was his life. “For me to live is Christ” was how he summed it up (Phil. 1:21). The early church likewise had “a single purpose” (Acts 2:46 ISV). They were exhorted “that with steadfast purpose they would cleave unto the Lord” (Acts 11:23). And right back at the foundation of God's Israel, they were taught: "You shall not take up the name of the Lord your God for unreality" (Ex. 20:7) (1). They were to see the ultimate reality required of those who bear God's Name.
But from where do we get our specific mission? Who is our pattern? Paul takes a prophecy concerning how Christ personally would be the light of the whole world (Is. 49:6), and applies it to himself in explanation of why he was devoted to being a light to the whole world himself (Acts 13:47- although 26:23 applies it to Jesus personally). Paul even says that this prophecy of Christ as the light of the world was a commandment to him; all that is true of the Lord Jesus likewise becomes binding upon us, because we are in Him. Note that Paul says that God has commanded us to witness; it wasn’t that Paul was a special case, and God especially applied Isaiah’s words concerning Christ as light of the Gentiles to Paul. They apply to us, to all who are in Christ. Because everything said about Christ is a commandment to all of us who are in Him. What would Jesus do, who would He be, if He lived in your street, did your job, was married to your partner, mixed with the guys you mix with? The answer to that is our mission. In this sense He has in this world no arms or legs or face than us. Paul was a placarding of Christ crucified before the Galatians (Gal. 3:1 Gk.); to the Corinthians he was “the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 2:10 RSV). There is a prophecy of the Lord Jesus preaching: “How beautiful are the feet of him that preaches the Gospel” (Nah. 1:15); but it is quoted in Rom. 10:15 with a subtle change of pronoun: “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach”. We are the Lord Jesus to this world, because we are brethren in Him.
Paul: Working Model
Paul felt very clearly his sense of mission. He speaks in Troas of how “none of these things move [deflect] me, neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy” (Acts 20:24). Some years later at the end of his life he could write that “I have finished my course” (2 Tim. 4:7). He didn’t let anything distract him- and our age perhaps more than any other is so full of distractions. Paul clearly had a purpose- to spread the Gospel in a semi circle around the Roman empire (2 Cor. 10:15), beginning from Jerusalem, through Asia and Italy, then Spain (Rom. 15:19), North Africa and back to Jerusalem. Speaking of how he planned his journeys, he comments in 2 Cor. 1:17: “When I therefore was thus minded, did I use lightness? or the things that I purpose, do I purpose according to the flesh, that with me there should be yes yes, and no no?”. Again we see a definite purpose, not the kind of human intention which vacillates between yes and no; for this is inimical to the person who has true purpose. The mission in our minds, the path ever before us, makes our decision making so much clearer than it is for those who dither over which flavour coffee to have tonight...
Truly could Paul say at the end: “But you have followed my teaching, my conduct, and my purpose in life; you have observed my faith, my patience, my love, my endurance, my persecutions, and my sufferings” (2 Tim. 3:10,11). And he is set up as a model for each of us (1 Tim. 1:16).
The focused life is far simpler to live than the selfish, unfocussed life. Which school for our kids? The one which will be best for them spiritually. Which music to listen to? The type which helps me be more spiritually minded. How much time to spend online? Enough for communication and gathering needed facts, or mindlessly sitting on Facebook and drifting around the net? How to react when the phone rings at 03:30 a.m. and wakes us up? The focused mind will stumble out of bed towards it eager for the opportunity which the call may give to glorify the Name. The mission-less mind will moan and groan about whoever is daring to disturb their sleep. Spend 20 minutes discussing which chocolate is more tasty, or be so focused on the Lord’s work that what tickles which taste buds becomes an irrelevancy? What to do as we have to wait outside an office for an appointment for 10 minutes? The focused mind sees a great opportunity to read some verses from a pocket Bible, to pray. The unfocused person will instead fret under the irritation of having ‘nothing to do’. They will wonder whatever to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon; the focused mind will scarcely notice the weather. How to spend our retirement? Eagerly move up a gear in our service of God… or fritter away golden years? What to do with some unexpected money- go out for a meal, or give it to the Lord’s service? Which jacket to buy- the nice expensive one, or the cheaper one and use the difference for the Lord? In all these questions, the focused believer, the disciplined mind, will instinctively and quickly choose correctly. Every time.
Anyone with a true sense of mission will at times meet obstructions in their path Moses is a classic example. His true greatness, like ours, is seen when we don't permit the hour of defeat to divert us from the path or to permanently drown us in despair. Those who let this happen lack a sense of mission. And life is littered with them, from alcoholics to the billions of empty minds sitting watching TV or the internet tonight in a state of passive depression. Luke's Gospel describes the Lord as ever "going up to Jerusalem"- even when He was actually travelling away from Jerusalem geographically. Luke clearly perceived the way that the Lord's face was set to go to Jerusalem and die there. Any travelling the other way was only in order to ultimately get there. When He finally exhaled in the words "It is finished", He knew that He had achieved what He had always been travelling towards. The sense of being aligned with the Father’s purpose was what inspired the Lord at perhaps His lowest point: "Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name... For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world- to bear witness to the truth." (Jn. 12:27,28; 18:37 ESV). We are asked to take up His cross; a highly conscious act which demands our 100% commitment. If it doesn't, the invitation, the words used, have no meaning. Having a sense of mission, knowing we have given our lives to achieving what God wants and is behind, enables us to see all setbacks in a positive light. The breakup of personal relationships, financial crises, illness, lack of response in one field, betrayal, rejection, incomprehensibly unreasonable attitudes of others against us… all these things “work together for good” in the final picture. Thus Paul reflected: “the things that have happened to me have really helped the progress of the gospel” (Phil. 1:12). If we are truly focused on God’s agenda, knowing we have His backing, then all setbacks, even our death itself, will be understood by us as all for the ultimate advancement of the aims we are working towards. It’s a battle, a war, a campaign, a race, which we can’t ultimately lose. With God on our side, we have to win. And we shall.
Paul urged Timothy to not get sidetracked- especially by those “occupying themselves with myths and endless genealogies. These things promote controversies rather than God's ongoing purpose” (1 Tim. 1:4 ISV). Living as we do at a time of information explosion, we can likewise be distracted by peripheral details and thus deflected from the essence of our mission in this world. She said that, we suspect from website X that Y probably believes Z... and before we know it, our spare evening, our hours, our days, are gone. Gone forever. We each have an individual set of opportunities, potentials, divine intentions for our service, some uniquely personal way in which we are to fulfill the overall mission of God. Heb. 12:1 could imply that before each of us an individualized racetrack is set, and we are to run that race having laid aside every distraction. Ask God to reveal to you His intentions and specific plans for you.
The parable of the talents is naturally relevant to our theme. Note how valuable just one talent was- equivalent to 20 years earnings of a working man (2). This seems to me to be an element of unreality in the story, that flags up a lesson. The point is, we have been entrusted with a huge amount. We tend to see it as something ordinary; that we have a faith, a denomination, just like many others do. But the personal, individualized gift which we have been given is simply huge. Imagine if you were given say $1 million to use for the Lord’s service. You’d be quite busy working out how to spend it all. But the point is, we have each been given far more than this. The parable has specific application to our witness; for it was just prior to the Lord’s departure that He gave us the great preaching commission, corresponding to how in the parable, the Master leaves His servants but just beforehand, gives His servants the talents to go and trade with. Hence the one talent man is criticized for not having lent the talent on usury, a practice which Jews could only practice with Gentiles. He should’ve taken his talent, the riches of the Gospel, to the Gentiles. And yet I’d suggest that 21st century disciples aren’t one talent people. We have been given so much- not least literacy and having the Bible in our own native languages.
Time and again, David takes comfort that “The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me” (Ps. 138:8). God will fulfill His purpose for us- if we align ourselves with it, and thus see in everything that happens in our lives His will being forwarded. We can choose to not align ourselves with His will. The Pharisees rejected the purpose of God against themselves by not being baptized by John (Lk. 7:30 ESV). His will is not that we should sit around doing Sudoku, watching movies, bantering on the internet, trying to get as much money as possible to finance our nice meals, expensive coffees and designer clothes. His will, as expressed in His very Name, is that He ‘will be’ grace, love, care, justice, salvation, righteousness, all over the world and to every man and woman. If these things are our focus, our mission, our purpose, our passion, our underlying heartthrob, if His will is behind our will… then everything somehow comes together for us in a dynamic and fulfilling existence, both in this world and in the life eternal. And God yearns that we might have a spirit like this: "He yearns jealously over the spirit that He has made to dwell in us" (James 4:5). And be sure that He will be ever working in our lives to try to get us to have this focus.
(1) This is the preferred translation of many Jewish scholars. See Umberto Cassuto, A Commentary On The Book Of Exodus (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1997) p. 243.
(2) William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), p. 879.