Issue #656 -------
April 24, 2015
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
When asked how he became a war hero, John Kennedy (1917-1963), the 35th President of the United States, simply remarked, "It was involuntary. They sank my boat" [Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days, chp. 4]. Yes, there are times when men and women are called to greatness involuntarily. They might have preferred, if given the choice, to have done anything, been anywhere, or even become anyone else. But, circumstances beyond their control or power compelled them, and, to their credit, they rose to the challenge placed before them. Such a man was Saul of Tarsus, who was most certainly on a much different path in life when confronted on the road to Damascus by the Lord Jesus and called to embark upon a new spiritual journey, one that would lead to suffering and death. It was not something this young man with a promising future in Judaism would have chosen for himself, if that choice had been his alone. Yet, after some serious soul-searching, he submitted his own will to the will of the Lord in the matter. And the rest, as they say, is history!
It might surprise some to learn that Saul (who would later be known as the apostle Paul) did not volunteer for this "assignment" to become Christ's ambassador of grace and a proclaimer of the Good News to both Jew and Gentile. It was not even remotely on his list of "life goals," and he repeatedly "kicked against the goads" (Acts 26:14) that were being employed to try and redirect his course. Yet, when finally compelled, he fully complied. In so doing, he became an example for all others over the centuries who have been similarly, and perhaps just as inconveniently and even involuntarily, called and compelled by Christ to a life-altering commission.
In Acts 9:6, after being struck to the ground and blinded, the risen Lord identified Himself to Saul and said, "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do" (cf. Acts 22:10). "Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of Me and what I will show you" (Acts 26:16). The life of this young man was about to take a dramatic turn, one not of his own choosing. Jesus told Ananias, the man sent to minister to Saul, "This man is My chosen instrument to carry My name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for My name" (Acts 9:15-16). He was chosen, appointed, commissioned; he was told what he must do. The Lord had stepped into his life in a most dramatic way, and He informed him that the path he was on would be his no more. He was being divinely redirected. In the first epistle from his pen, the apostle Paul noted, "God set me apart from birth and called me by His grace, ... revealing His Son to me so that I might preach Him among the Gentiles" (Gal. 1:15-16). Even prior to his birth, God had a plan for this man's life. Again, it should be emphasized that this calling and commissioning were not according to Paul's will, but the Lord's. He told the Philippians, "Christ Jesus took hold of me" (Philp. 3:12). When called by deity one is thereby placed under a great obligation to comply with that call and complete that commission. Paul understood this, and thus informed the brethren in Rome, "I am obligated both to Greeks and non-Greeks" (Rom. 1:14).
Although, as Paul later states to Timothy, "Christ Jesus our Lord appointed me to His service" (1 Tim. 1:12), he nevertheless had the free will to refuse that call and appointment if he so desired. The consequences of running from the Lord, however, have always been severe, as Jonah found out the hard way. No, Paul did not choose this direction for his life; it was chosen for him. Yet, he chose to submit his own will for his life to the will of God. Even God's own Son, prior to the cross, prayed, "Father, if You are willing, take this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Thine be done" (Luke 22:42). For true believers, "Thy will be done" is part of the Lord's Prayer (Matt. 6:10), and should rise from the heart to the lips of all who seek to serve, whether we fully understand that divine will or not. At some point during those 72 hours of reflection after his Damascus road encounter, Saul of Tarsus made a choice: he chose to submit his will to the Lord's will, and to surrender the remaining days and years of his life to his King.
With regard to this calling and commissioning, Paul made a very significant statement in his first epistle to the brethren in Corinth. He wrote, "When I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, for I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel. If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if involuntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me" (1 Cor. 9:16-17). Once again, Paul emphasizes the involuntary nature of his ministry. This wasn't a path he himself chose, but rather a path chosen for him by another (i.e., the Lord). Yes, he chose to submit to that call, but it wasn't a direction in life he sought. Therefore, he had nothing to boast about with respect to his work; he merely did his duty as a slave of the Master. Jesus laid out this principle in Luke 17 when speaking of masters and slaves: "Would the master thank the slave because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy slaves; we have only done our duty'" (vs. 9-10).
As one rising in the ranks of Judaism, the young Saul had much to boast about (Philp. 3:4-6; Gal. 1:14), but as a called slave of his risen Lord, Paul recognized there was no real basis for such boasting. He preached the gospel because he was called and compelled to do so. It was not his choice; it was chosen for him. Thus, if he is going to boast at all, he boasts in the One who called him (2 Cor. 10:17). The Greek word translated "compelled" in 1 Cor. 9:16 is "ananke," which signifies "forcefully placing a constraint upon" and "a compulsion; an obligation of duty" [The Analytical Greek Lexicon of the NT, p. 21]. As a result of the nature of his calling and commissioning, Paul declares his ministry to be "involuntary," rather than "voluntary" (vs. 17). The latter word is "hekon," meaning "willingly, voluntarily, of one's own will." It appears only twice in the NT: here and in Rom. 8:20 where we are told "the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the One who subjected it." Like the creation itself, Paul's subjection to God's will was not "voluntary" (in the sense that it was a direction in life he had selected for himself of his own will and design). Rather, he was under compulsion; he was subjected to God's will "involuntarily" (not of his own choosing). This is the Greek word "akon," which means "not of mine own will; unwillingly." It appears only this one time (1 Cor. 9:17) in the pages of the NT.
It is important to note something here: "These words are not to be explained of the spirit in which Paul fulfilled his ministry, but of his attitude toward the apostolic charge when it was committed to him" [Dr. Marvin R. Vincent, Vincent's Word Studies, e-Sword]. His life's work may not have been of his own choosing (he had other plans for his life), but once he was "seized upon" or "taken hold of" by Christ Jesus (Philp. 3:12), being subjected to the divine will, Paul submitted himself willingly to the task for which he was called. In this passage from Paul's first epistle to the Corinthians "we are provided with a rare insight into his motivations and self-understanding of his apostolic mission. His commission to preach was hardly a matter of choice; consequently, it certainly offered no grounds for boasting. But neither was it a matter of chance: he had been compelled by a divine commission every bit as overwhelming as that of Israel's prophets" [Dr. Carl Holladay, The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, p. 119]. When God calls, men must never decline! Indeed, our highest duty is to freely submit our own will for our lives to His will for our lives. "Stoic ethics, too, emphasizes that free obedience to deity is the essence of morality. This free submission to the divine will embraces suffering. The Stoic ideal is that the wise man should willingly accept his divinely imposed lot" [Dr. Gerhard Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 2, p. 469]. Paul freely accepted "his divinely imposed lot," and it did indeed lead to personal suffering, a partial listing of which one may find in the latter half of 2 Cor. 11. This, of course, would come as no surprise to Paul, for Jesus had previously stated to Ananias, "I will show him how much he must suffer for My name" (Acts 9:16).
With respect to the 1 Cor. 9:16-17 passage, "The apostle here affords us a passing glimpse of his own state of mind in reference to his high calling as a 'preacher of the gospel.' The revelation of the secret workings of an earnest human spirit must needs be deeply interesting to us, and most of all in the case of a man of such noble nature as Paul, and in reference to a matter of such supreme moment. We could scarcely have a finer view of the ministry of the Word, a finer model of right thought and feeling about it, than is presented in these simple but lofty words" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 19, p. 311]. It should ever be impressed upon the people of God that "preaching the Word is a work to which men are divinely called" [ibid], although there have always been those who seek this "business" for personal gain. Such are not called by God, but rather motivated by their personal lust for some material gain. Paul "had a real call to the ministry. Would that this were the case with every modern preacher!" [Dr. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, e-Sword].
I can personally relate to Paul's sentiments, for I too was, and to some extent still am, a rather reluctant, involuntary minister of the Word. Such a life was the absolute LAST thing I ever wanted, and my studies at the university and then graduate school were preparing me for something different. But, God clearly had other ideas for me, just as He has had for many of you who are reading this. Albert Barnes (1798-1870) astutely observed, "Many a minister has, before entering the ministry, formed many other purposes of life; but the providence of God barred his way, hemmed in his goings, and constrained him to become an ambassador of the cross" [Barnes' Notes on the Bible, e-Sword]. Yes, I had other plans for my life, and there have been many times in almost 40 years of service to the Lord that I have longed to be somewhere else doing virtually anything else! Yet, "there is a divine must in the case of every true preacher" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 19, p. 309]. The love of Christ, and the calling of Christ, constrain me! Like Jeremiah, there are times when running a "lodging place in the desert for travelers" (Jer. 9:2) and walking away from cruel, critical "Christians" sounds very attractive indeed. But, when "I say, 'I will not mention Him or speak any more in His name,' His Word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones. I am weary of holding it in; indeed, I cannot" (Jer. 20:9). The apostle Paul was under "a divine must," as are many others who have answered the call of Christ Jesus. May we live up to our calling with the same grace as Paul, and one day be able to say at the end of our own lives, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith" (2 Tim. 4:7). In the interim, I "press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus" (Philp. 3:12-14).
From a Reader in North Carolina:
Just read your article "The Hallel From Hell: Reflecting on Psalm 150" (Reflections #655). To the point of your preacher friend who wished he could rip Psalm 150 from the Bible, I fear we all do that to some degree with what troubles us in the Scriptures. If we actually did edit out what we didn't want to believe or accept or felt uncomfortable with, many of us would be left with a much smaller volume to tote to church. And if we also removed the parts we were afraid to actually live out in our lives, some folks like me would be left with a pamphlet.
From a Reader in Washington:
"The Hallel From Hell" is another excellent and insightful Reflections, Al. Thank you! I remember, growing up, that if you happened to have a piano in your home, it was said to be a SIN if you played any hymns on it. As hard as I looked, I was never able to find any passage in the Bible that even remotely hinted at anything like that! Love ya, brother!
From a Reader in New Zealand:
Al, your study on Psalm 150 ("The Hallel From Hell") was a great article! Ignorance is such a sad thing: people who don't know how to properly divide the Word, and who are pattern-obsessed and performance-oriented. Thanks be to God for the Holy Spirit and for freedom. I am regularly sharing your Reflections articles with people here in New Zealand. God bless you.
From an Author in Texas:
Another excellent post, Al. Thank you for sharing this study of Psalm 150. It is interesting to note that Paul, when he wrote Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16, did not exclude "psalms." Yet, can you just imagine what would happen to a song leader in a church of the acappella persuasion if he announced Psalm 150 to be sung by the congregation?!
From a Reader in Canada:
I've often considered Psalms 1 and 150 to be "bookends" -- introducing and concluding the book of Psalms. The references to instruments calls to mind how instruments were used in all of Israel's life experiences. The Bible refers to the use of instruments calling people to worship, as well as serving as trumpets of war. Instruments celebrated the dance of life and expressed the sorrow of death. To me, the instruments of this psalm say: praise God in all of life's events, both in the sanctuary and in daily living.
From a Minister in California:
Excellent piece, Al ("The Hallel From Hell"). Isn't it interesting that our Pharisaic friends allow for using the instruments of pen/paper to praise God, and the instruments of recorders, microphones, hymnals, televisions, radios, and a host of others. BUT, they disallow the use of musical instruments, which in the hands of talented, dedicated artists offer some of the most soul-stirring praises known to man! Thanks for stirring my thoughts! Blessings, brother!
From a Reader in [Unknown]:
Thanks so much for your Reflections ministry. I have not been able to locate your response to the Special Request you sent out to your readers on May 24, 2007 with respect to a young man struggling with homosexual temptation. Would you direct me to that response? Thanks.
That response is: Reflections #305 ("The Nature/Nurture Dilemma: A Reflective, Respectful Response to Saints Struggling with Homosexuality"). -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in Virginia:
The congregation that we attend would be considered very liberal. Women read Scripture, lead prayers and songs, and serve as ministry leaders. Church of Christ visitors often leave our services and do not come back. The elders here are considering changing the name. What names are other Churches of Christ changing to? Thank you for your assistance.
Many denominated (named) groups, not just our own, are beginning to drop the "brand names" and are adopting something more generic. The Grace Baptist Church here in town, for example, became Grace Church. Some are just taking the name of their city or community (Alamogordo Church) or their location within the city (Cuba Avenue Church). There are any number of possibilities, but the central idea is to convey to the public that those who assemble in this location have moved beyond sectarian loyalties and are simply seeking to be Christians. More and more people these days are looking for spiritual relationship rather than rigid religiosity, thus the community church concept is growing, while the more fundamentalist "brand name" (denominational) groups are slowly but surely declining. Those churches willing to adapt their traditions (while remaining loyal to Truth) are the ones gaining ground in their communities, while those groups refusing to change are declining daily. -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in Georgia:
You got my attention once again with this little sentence: "No instrument is in itself unsuitable." Isn't that the whole message of God's love for us?! Some of us are flutes, some pianos; some are flat, some sharp, and some are so out of tune they need to be left on the shelf ... and yet, God says His Son died for us all. None of us are worthy, but none of us are unsuitable. What an inspired thought, brother! P.S. -- I've long liked Blaise Pascal. His book "Pensées" is worthwhile to flip through. His most impactful quote (and he had many) to me was this one: "Compare not thyself with others, but with Me. If thou dost not find Me in those with whom thou comparest thyself, thou comparest thyself to one who is abominable. If thou findest Me in them, compare thyself to Me. But whom wilt thou compare? Thyself, or Me in thee? If it is thyself, it is one who is abominable. If it is I, thou comparest Me to Myself. Now I am God in all." This has often been a reminder for me not to use myself as some sort of measuring stick to compare others. That and my wife pointing out some obvious flaws with that approach!! Love ya, brother!
This brings to mind what Paul wrote to the brethren in the city of Corinth: "We do not dare to classify or compare ourselves with some who commend themselves. When they measure themselves by themselves and compare themselves with themselves, they are not wise" (2 Cor. 10:12). -- Al Maxey
From a Minister in Texas:
I am studying the book of Numbers, and I've noticed that in the moving of the Tabernacle the Kohathites were in charge of moving the holy articles within the Tabernacle. God specified that a blue covering be placed over all the items and then the leather outer covering, except that the brazen altar was to get a purple covering before the leather covering (Numbers 4). Do you know of any special significance to the color blue? I know that all the curtains had a blue looped border so that gold clasps could be used to fasten them together. Am I missing something here? I am accustomed to finding some spiritual significance to almost every detail in the Tabernacle. Thanks in advance for any enlightenment you may have on this "blue" thing!
It is pointed out by some that "the blue covering over the ark of the covenant was not covered with anything else (as were the other articles in the Tabernacle), thus making it clearly visible to all during marches" [The Ryrie Study Bible]. This was deemed the most holy article in the Tabernacle, and it had to be shown special care, thus it was clearly marked among all the items being moved. Blue cloth was also used to wrap other items in the Tabernacle, but they would then be covered with "hides of sea cows" (about which there is also much speculation as to identity). There is also mention made in this chapter of scarlet cloth and purple cloth. Why this diversity? What is the significance? No one is really sure, which means there is much speculation. "The variety of the coverings and their several uses speaks of a legitimate enjoyment of luxury in worship and a celebration of the presence of God. ... they all present a wondrous delight in serving in the presence of God" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 2, p. 734]. In other words, God wanted to provide a "pleasingly colorful" experience for those involved in service to Him, rather than a drab, dreary experience (or so goes the theory of some). Why the color blue? The most popular theory is that blue is the color of the heavens on a bright sunny day, and it directs one's attention upward to God and the Son (sun). Thus, what better color to cover the ark of the covenant (where God meets man). "As blue is the color of heaven, so the blue outer covering of the ark alone may signify that the greatest effort of the Church's teachers should be so to present the doctrine of God in Christ before men that it may appear clad in heavenly love and beauty" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 2, pt. 2, p. 27]. The reality, of course, is that we really don't know the answers to all these questions, and therefore speculations abound. What we can say with some certainty is that God intended for the position of the ark, during a move, to be clearly visible to all so that it could be shown extra care. The blue covering, therefore, set it apart from all the other covered items of the Tabernacle. We probably dare not assume too much beyond that. -- Al Maxey
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