"He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything."
Colossians 1:18

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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Grace in the Midst of Abandonment

(continued from The Grim Specter of Abandonment)

Taken as a whole, Paul's words in 2 Timothy 4 (which we examined in the last posting) suggest four attitudes which are right and becoming to a believer involved in the Lord's ministry (as all believers, by the way, should be).

1. Companions may come and go. An earlier statement by Paul had promised Timothy that persecution was a certainty for believers in the pursuit of godliness (1 Tim. 3:12). The most grievous barbs, however, often do not come at the hands of unbelievers, but of those within our very ranks. A foot soldier that rushes to meet the enemy is not surprised by a score of arrows thumping into his shield; it is the one that falls upon his back that perplexes and grieves him the most.

Paul's courageous scruples commended him to his God, but not always to his fellows. His boldness exposed sin, condemned false belief, and challenged true belief to greater faithfulness and godly pursuits. His gospel was keen and his standard was godly, as ours must be. If we are encouraging our fellow believers to pursue Christ with divinely-gifted strength, however lovingly, we are almost certain to lose a friend or two at some point (or at many points). Charisma and compassion cannot always salve the sting of conviction, even if that conviction was never intended, and though we may passionately communicate our best intentions, sometimes simply the exemplary (though imperfect) quality of our Christian lives will eventually compel certain others to distance themselves.

2. Compassion must continue toward our wayward brothers and sisters. Paul's considered response to the desertion perpetrated upon him by the Roman saints was to pray for their forgiveness from the Lord (v. 16).  We may conclude, then, that this act by the Christians in that city was indeed sinful and not merely poor or imperfect judgment, as only sin would call for forgiveness. Paul, however, was not entrenched in thoughts of revenge or personal undeservedness, but sought for the growth and benefit of those who had slighted him with their distance and quiet.

It is devilishly easy to be personally affected by the sins of others, especially when that sin crowds upon us, but frankly, any personal offense which we could muster is far outweighed by the affront to God which sin, by definition, constitutes. When we are humbly serving our great Lord, divine humility quiets our clamoring and injured pride, and when we feel the sting of sin against us, the need for comeuppance is far eclipsed by the urge to see this person right with the Master to whom we are enslaved. The slave does not trouble with any meager personal affronts when his or her loving Master has been offended.

3. One is enough if God is at work. Napoleon and Alexander could not conquer the smallest village without their armies, but such is not the case with almighty God. If God found Himself quite abandoned by the whole of mankind (which has never and will never happen), could He not breathe a word of authority such that the very rocks would proclaim His glory? Would the loftiest of peaks hesitate to move aside at the mere sound of His voice? Are the seas not sundered, and the flowing rivers not confounded, by His sovereign decree? He declares in His majesty, "Who has given to Me that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is Mine." (Job 41:11)

Paul's words are clear and decisive: "nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things." (Acts 17:25) Picture, if you will, this omnipotent, sovereign, self-existent God, at work through His people. Does He require a great host? Can human strength augment His might? No! He dispatches one prophet, solitary and unwilling, to a great pagan city called Ninevah, and an incomprehensible multitude is saved. If we find ourselves isolated in our kingdom work, we long for the blessing of fellowship, but we revel in the glorious blessing of God's continued faithfulness and assured purpose as we work!

4. The Lord's faithfulness is undiminished by the unfaithfulness of others. In this 2 Timothy 4 passage, Paul affirms God's faithfulness both in the short term (verse 17 - God stood with him, strengthening him for the complete delivery of the gospel to his opposers and keeping him from death) and in the long term (verse 18 - the Lord would continue to preserve Paul's soul unto a blessed and rich eternity, even against the evil designs of those around him, no doubt, in both the natural and the supernatural realm).

How pleasing it is to consider that when Christ said, "lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b), He attached no provisos. He did not pronounce, "I am with you, as long as you keep your companions and make it worth My while," but simply, "I am with you always." This is a momentous statement, pregnant with divine omniscience and immutability. Though a thousand dear companions turn aside and make scorn, envy, or apathy their camp, yet we will not despair, so long as sin has not adorned our hearts, and so long as our God carefully accompanies us, even as He has promised! His plans are as healthy and as certain as they were before the worlds existed.

There is a certain glory when God's people come together and harmoniously minister for His name.  We see God, the great Designer, the great Orchestrator, the great Leader, at work within His workers, and it charms our hearts as believers to behold this blessing.  There is a different glory, however, when God's people must soldier on alone, or as a band that is smaller than it once was.  Here the sufficiency, faithfulness, and compassion of the Sovereign come to the forefront, and though our hearts are freighted with fresh sadness, we nevertheless appreciate our God all the more in spite of, and even because of, the heaviness in our own hearts, and we continue on in the glad certainty of His continued graces. 


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