20-3 Urgent Response To The Gospel
And yet it shouldn’t just be the nearness of the Lord’s return that makes us urgent. Our decisions to give over each part of our lives, radically, to Jesus should be made not just because life is short and the Lord is at the door; but also because it might otherwise be too late to undo the damage a self-engrossed life has already caused, to the self and to others. Rebekah responded immediately to the call to go marry Isaac, in a story which is clearly to be read as an acted parable of the search for a bride for Jesus. Her ‘quick’ response is one of her characteristics (Gen. 24:18,20,26,46,64). Abraham likewise “rose up early” after his night time vision, requiring him to offer his son to God (Gen. 22:1,3). Joshua “therefore” started to attack the confederacy of local kings, in the middle of the night, immediately after God had assured him of victory (Josh. 10:9). David could write: “I made haste, and delayed not to keep thy commandments” (Ps. 119:60). We cannot be passive on receiving the opportunity to serve God. We will urgently seek to do something with what we have been enabled to do for the Lord: “The servant who got five bags went quickly to invest the money and earned five more bags” (Mt. 25:16 NCV). The law of the peace offerings was designed so as to encourage the person who decided to make such a freewill offering to execute immediately- they were to eat it the same day they offered it, and the sacrifice would be totally unacceptable if it was killed but left for some days (Lev. 19:5-7). If we have an impulse to respond to the Lord, we should respond to it immediately. This isn’t mere impetuosity. It’s a spirit of always having an immediacy of response, which empowers us to overcome the procrastination which holds us back so much.
The Lord spoke of each man who finds the Gospel as a merchant who comes across a pearl of surpassing beauty, and sells all he has to buy it. And again, He compares our ‘unexpected’ stumbling upon the Truth to a man who finds a field containing treasure, and immediately buys the field. The implication is definitely that the men involved urgently and quickly realized their assets in order to buy what they had come across. There is an implied speed of response, a concentration upon the task in hand to the relative exclusion of anything else. The Gospel is not to be responded to merely at the time of our conversion and baptism. Paul came to Rome to preach the Gospel to those there who had already been baptized. It is something which continually demands our response, with the same zeal of first love and conversion. The way the Lord called people in the midst of their daily lives, and they immediately “left all and followed Him” is surely recorded to set a pattern for all future response to Him (Mt. 4:22; Mk. 1:18). Those fishermen who left their nets had heard the message some time earlier, but the record is framed so as to stress the immediacy and totality of response to Him, in the midst of daily life. In a day when the complexity of modern living can become an excuse to justify almost anything as an expression of discipleship, we need to remember the starker simplicities of Jesus’ first call: “Follow me”. And the immediate response which was made to it. In this sense, Jesus through His word that makes Him flesh to us, i.e. an imaginable person…still walks up to fishermen, into shops, accountants’ offices, school classrooms: and bids us urgently and immediately leave behind our worldly advantage, and follow Him in the way of true discipleship.
This ‘quickness’ of response doesn’t necessarily mean that there ought to be a hasty response in the sense of a superficial one. The seed on stony ground sprang up quickly [although this could well have been a good thing- the problem was that the joyful response didn’t continue]; the man who built quickly on sand is compared unfavourably with the one who built slowly. The implications that we should respond ‘quickly’ to the Gospel surely mean that we should not have any element of indifference in our response to the call of God, and yet the foundations of a true spiritual life cannot be laid hastily. The Father drove out the tribes from Canaan slowly, not immediately- or at least, He potentially enabled this to happen (Jud. 2:23). But Israel were to destroy those tribes “quickly” (Dt. 9:3). Here perhaps we see what is meant- progress is slow but steady in the spiritual life, but there must be a quickness in response to the call of God for action in practice. Compare this with how on one hand, God does not become quickly angry (Ps. 103:8), and yet on the other hand He does get angry quickly in the sense that He immediately feels and responds to sin (Ps. 2:12); His anger ‘flares up in His face’.
Response To The Word
There is an idiom in Scripture which concerns running. To ‘run’ is sometimes used to describe a man’s response to God’s word (Ps. 119:32,60; 147:15; Amos 8:11,12; Hab. 2:2; Jn. 8:37 RV; 2 Thess. 3:1 Gk.)- it must be a running, active, speedy response. Dan. 12:4 seems to imply that in the last days, God’s word will be clearly understood by the brotherhood and therefore many will “run to and fro” in response. The more clearly we understand and perceive God’s word, the faster we will ‘run’ in response. We cannot separate our Bible study from our actions. This is why we should not only do our Bible readings daily, but study and pray and strive to understand…so that we will be the more motivated in practice. It is all too easy to be apparently zealous for good causes, as are many unbelievers, because of the needs of the moment, because we are in a situation where we would feel awkward not to enthusiastically respond…but the only true and lasting motivation for good works is an understanding, a purely personal understanding, of God’s will for us. When the shepherds were told that Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, they “quickly” went there- for they believed what they had understood (Lk. 2:16). Paul “immediately” went to preach in Macedonia after seeing the vision suggesting he do this (Acts 16:10), just as he “immediately” began his initial preaching commission after receiving it (Gal. 1:16).
We need to ask ourselves whether or how often we allow His words and the imperative of all that we see and know in Him actually concretely change us. Do we do something or stop doing something in response to Him? When we learnt the Gospel, we were baptized. We got wet, we went under water. Because we understood that His death and resurrection demanded this of us. We translated passages like Mk. 16:16 into actual concrete practice. But our response to the word of God must continue. Yet we are held back by our past, and by our whole humanity. People do not immediately / quickly respond to the new wine of the new covenant because, the Lord piercingly observed, they think the old was better (Lk. 5:39). He perceived, with His amazing penetration of the human psyche, that there is a conservatism deep within us all that militates against the immediate response to Him and the new wine of His blood / sacrifice which He so seeks. Yet once we have made this immediate response in a few things, it becomes easier to get into an upward spiral of response to Him. We become truly a new creation in Him, breaking constantly with factor after factor in our past, which has previously defined us as persons. Quite simply, we become new persons, with all the rejection of the ‘old’ ways which this requires.
Sadly we are too often empirical learners. We learn by experience that fire is hot, so we better not touch it. We learn by our failures, that this or that sin isn’t really worth it. But one of the things I most respect about the Lord is that He never learnt empirically in this sense; He understood the Father’s word, and acted accordingly. And so it should be with us. If we truly believe the Bible is inspired by God’s Spirit, just one word from Him is enough. What He teaches we ought to immediately accept, to the extent that day by day as we hear His word in our daily reading, those principles become the immediate and defining features in the very core of our personalities.
Note that the Lord sends out His disciples to reap- not to sow. He knows there are people out there waiting to be reaped- He doesn’t merely commission us to go out and throw a bit of seed around in a vague hope that something may come of it. Far too many a preaching campaign and bill distribution has been characterized by this approach. But we’re going out to reap, not to sow. This alone should create an urgency within us, to spread the word. Our sense of urgency will be related to our faith that in fact our preaching will bring results. The urgency of the call to preach is taught by the way that the Lord called men to go preaching at the most inconvenient times for them. The Lord even insisted that a man not fulfil his most basic Jewish duty- to bury his father (Lk. 9:61)- but rather go and preach the Gospel immediately. The poignancy of all this becomes the deeper when we realize that in first century Palestine, burial took place on the day of death. The son had just that day lost his father, and was willing to miss the traditional six days of mourning to go preach for the Lord. But no, the Lord wanted him to go there and then, immediately. No delay for anything was possible in the light of the knife-edge urgency of sharing Christ with others. And it was whilst Simon and Andrew were in the very act of casting their net into the sea, snap shotted in a freeze-frame of still life, silhouetted against the sea and hills of Galilee, that the Lord calls them to go preaching (Mk. 1:17). The Lord surely intended them to [at least later] figure out His allusion to Jer. 16:14-16, which prophesied that fishermen would be sent out to catch Israel and bring them home to the Father. And He called them to do that, right in the very midst of everyday life. His preachers were like harvesters working in the very last hour to bring in the harvest- in fact, the harvest was spoiling because it’s not being fully gathered. The fault for that lies with the weak efforts of the preacher-workers (Mt. 9:37). They were to go on their preaching mission without pausing to greet others, such was their haste (Lk. 10:4 cp. 2 Kings 4:29). The Greek word translated ‘greet’ also carries the idea of joining together with others. People rarely travelled alone unless they were in great haste, but rather moved in caravans. But for the Lord’s messengers, there was to be no loss of time. Every minute was to be precious. In a world full of time wasting distractions, information we don’t need to know… this is all so necessary. No wonder that when those men finally came to themselves, realized their calling, and hurled themselves in joy at this world after the Lord’s ascension… they preached repentance, immediate conversion and quick baptism, right up front.
In the first century, when people
heard the Gospel, they were generally baptized immediately. This
meant that the prison keeper was baptized in the middle of the night,
amidst an earthquake… in essence, people heard the message, and
responded immediately. We likewise heard of the Bible’s teaching
about baptism, and we did something concrete and actual- we got
wet. We went under the water. But we must ask ourselves whether
we are continuing to be responsive to the word of God which we become
increasingly familiar with as we read daily. Our very familiarity
with it can militate against a real response. When last did you
read / understand something from Scripture, and then get up and
do something real, concrete and actual about it? Remember
how Josiah discovered the book of the Law- and he then went on to
do something about it in practice. Reflect through what he did:
Passover kept in
The ‘high places’ and cults
The cultic stones /
Conjouring up the dead
Do you notice from where
in Deuteronomy he got those ideas? From chapters 12 and 16. My suggestion
is that he maxed out on that part of the ‘book of the law’ which
was read to him, and went and did it. The Lord in the wilderness
was likewise motivated by Deuteronomy chapters 6 and 8. From all
the Scriptures He could have quoted to refute temptation, each of
the three examples were from one or other of those two chapters.
So here we have two examples, Josiah and the Lord Himself, of men
who allowed Scripture to live in their lives, and who were immediately
motivated by it to tangible action. Theirs was not a religion of
fine Sunday morning words, intellectually admired and aesthetically
pleasing. The word should likewise be made flesh in us as it was
in the Lord. What is required is passionate, real, actual, tangible,
concrete action and re-action to what we read and understand.
Paul told the Corinthians that
he didn’t want them to be “ignorant” of the powerful implications
of the fact that they had been baptized into the Son of God, and
were on their way to His Kingdom, being in an exactly analogous
situation to Israel as they walked through the wilderness. He uses
a word which is the Greek word ‘agnostic’. He didn’t want them to
be agnostic, to be indifferent, to shrug their shoulders, at the
bitingly insistent relevance of the type to them. And that type
of Israel in the wilderness is most applicable to us, “upon whom
the ends of the ages are come” (:11) than to any other generation.
Indifference seems to have been a problem in Corinth as it is for
us. By contrast, God is provoke to jealousy by our indifference
to Him (1 Cor. 10:22), seeing every self-reliant act as an implicit
statement that we are “stronger than he”. And Paul himself could
share with the Corinthians that he ‘burnt’ every time a brother
stumbled from the way, feeling weak with the weak (2 Cor. 11:29).
He uses the same word he uses in 1 Cor. 7:9 about burning in unfulfilled
sexual lust. Time and again Paul uses this ‘agnostic’ word . He
would not have us “ignorant” or agnostic about the implications
of the basic doctrines we believe (1 Thess. 4:13; Rom. 1:13; 2:4;
7:1; 11:25; 1 Cor. 12:1; 2 Cor. 1:8; 1 Thess. 4:13), nor ‘agnostic’
to the fact we have been baptized and risen with Christ (Rom. 6:3).
These are all things that we are almost too familiar with; and yet
he urges us, down through the centuries, to never be indifferent
and agnostic to these things.
Living On A Knife-Edge
This urgency of our approach to preaching is in harmony with the generally urgent call to spiritual life which there is everywhere in the Lord’s teaching. He gives the impression that we are living life on a knife edge. He saw men as rushing to their destruction. We are the accused man on the steps of the court, whose case is hopeless. Now is the very last moment for him to settle up with his brother (Mt. 5:25 cp. Lk. 12:58). We’re like the unjust steward, with a knife at our throat because all our deceptions have been busted. Everything is at risk for the guy. Life in prison, goodbye to wife and kids, poverty… stretch out before him. He must get right with his brethren by forgiving them their debts. We can’t come before God with our offering, i.e. our request for forgiveness, if our brother has any complaint against us regarding unforgiveness (Mt. 5:23). Forgiving each other is as important as that. As we judge, so we will be judged. Our attitude to the least of the Lord’s brethren is our attitude to Him. There are likely no readers who don’t need this exhortation- to ensure that they have genuinely forgiven all their brethren, and that so far as lies within them, they are at peace with all men. At any moment the bridegroom may return…so have your lamp burning well, i.e. be spiritually aware and filled with the Spirit. Put on your wedding garment, the righteousness of Jesus, before it’s too late (Mt. 22:11-13). He’s just about to come. The judge stands before our door, as James puts it.
As clouds drift lazily across the sky, the seasons of life come around, the
mediocre repetitiveness of life wears away at us… we can totally miss this sense
of urgency which there is to be in the true Christian life. The sheer, utter,
trivial boredom of our lives is shattered for ever once we realize this. Beneath
the razzamattaz and glamour and bubbly personality mask we try to wear, there
is a deep tiredness in this world. A tiredness with ourselves, with our society,
the streets we walk, the job we do, the mindset and worldview we’re in. It all
seems so much in the same groove, whether rich or poor, sick or healthy. But
the life Jesus taught and lived was in itself good news. Living life on a knife
edge of urgency, using every minute, going some place definite… with the commission
to go and reap a harvest of people for Him. Believe me, the people are out there.
Show a little faith. Roll down the window, let the wind blow back you hair,
and commit yourself to the road of purpose and commitment to the Gospel which
the Lord beckons you to. I know we’re all scared, wishing we were younger, more
outgoing, didn’t have such complex lives…but you were born to be God’s witness
in this world. He has a plan for you, people for you to reap in to the Kingdom.
And if we don’t give our lives over to His service, we’ll be sucked down into
the mire of an unfulfilled, uncommitted life. And even worse. Remember the parable
about the converted man, whose house is empty and clean. If he doesn’t let the
Lord live there, ‘Lord of every motion there’, the demons of his past will return
eve more strongly and take him over (Mt. 12:44).
The Lord further taught the intensity of the life He required by taking Old
Testament passages which refer to the crisis of the last days, and applying
them to the daily life of His people. Take Is. 26:20, which speaks of how in
the final tribulation, God’s people will shut the doors around them and pray.
The Lord applies this to the daily, regular prayer of His people- we are to
pray in secret, in our room, with doors closed (Mt. 6:6)- clearly an allusion
to the Isaiah passage. The preachers of His Gospel are His messengers / ‘angels’
reaping in the harvest and proclaiming God’s victory. And yet these are the
very things which the Angels are described as doing in the last day (Mk. 13:27;
Rev. 14:6-14). Yet we are doing it right now. In the preaching of the Gospel,
we are sharing with the Angels in their work. We’re in tandem with them. And
when the Lord taught that it was right to break the Sabbath because they were
in the business of saving life (Mk. 3:4), His words were purposefully alluding
to how the Maccabees had pronounced that it was acceptable for Jewish soldiers
to break the Sabbath in time of war, in order to save lives through their fighting
(1 Macc. 2:32). He intended His people to live as active soldiers on duty, at
war in order to save the lives of God’s people. Indeed, so frequently, the whole
language of the future judgment is applied to us right here and now. We are
living out our judgment now; we are standing as it were before the final judgment
seat, and receiving our judgment for how we act, speak and feel and are.
Not only are we living out our
judgment by how we preach; by presenting the Gospel to people we
are effectively bringing the judgment to them. Paul commented how
those who rejected his preaching judged / condemned themselves to
be unworthy (Acts 13:46). The preacher stands in the ‘highways’
(Mt. 22:9)- ‘the place of two roads’, the Greek means, i.e. the
place where two roads divide. This is what our taking of the Gospel
to people means. They are given their choice. We bring the crisis
of the judgment seat right in front of them, and they make their
choice. Thus in a village’s response to the Gospel, they divided
themselves ahead of time into ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ (Mt. 9:12-14).
The Lord called His followers to be “fishers of men” (Mt. 4:19).
The Qumran documents spoke of ‘the fishers of men’ as being those
who would condemn Israel in the last day(1); and yet
the Lord clearly had the idea that they were to ‘catch’ people out
of the ‘sea’ of the nations and bring them to salvation. So the
preachers as ‘fishers of men’ actually have a double role- as Paul
put it, to some our preaching is the savour of death, to others,
the savour of life (2 Cor. 2:16). Not only does this encourage us
as the preachers to plead with men to choose life rather
than death; but it is a sober reminder that we too face the impact
of the very Gospel which we ourselves preach, and must likewise
live lives of ongoing response. We preach, therefore, aimed at a
decision- not merely ‘witnessing’, nor simply imparting helpful
information. Our preaching of the Gospel of the Kingdom means that
that very Kingdom ‘comes near’ to people (Mt. 9:9), in the same
way as the judgment immediately precedes the final establishment
of that Kingdom, so we bring the immediate prospect of the Kingdom
right before men and women.
(1) See W.H. Wuellner, The
Meaning Of ‘Fishers of men’ (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967).