Monday, October 26, 2009

Glorify Your Father

I’ve been preaching through I Peter, looking for, among other things, the missional elements in this blunt and powerful epistle. From that perspective 2:12 looked like a gimme. How much more missional can you get than to exhort your readers to “live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us?”

With their usual genius for discovering the obvious, the commentaries all note the similarity between Peter and Jesus in the Sermon On the Mount, where our Lord commands his followers to “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). But then I found two difficulties in interpretation. 1) What is the missional point of a life of good deeds if the poor, benighted pagans don’t wake up and recognize their source before the judgment day? And, 2) What kind of good deeds will cause unbelievers to look past the doer in order to praise the Father in heaven?

Fortunately, I was able to dispose of the first difficulty rather quickly. “The reference to glorifying God suggests that the salvation of Gentiles is in view,” writes Thomas Schreiner in the New American Commentary Series (volume 37, page 124). “Typically, in the New Testament people glorify God or give him glory by believing.” In other words, those who see the Christian’s good works and believe in Jesus while still alive will bring glory to God on the judgment day.

But that still left me wondering how to serve in such a way that unbelievers recognize and praise God. After much prayer I decided to look to Jesus as my example and teacher (I can hear the chorus of “duhs” already). Here is what I found.

  • When seeking to serve in such a way that people praise God for it, those whom we serve have to believe that we are serving them only because they are loved. And for that to happen they have to believe that they are loved and accepted as they are. This is not impossible. The gospels tell us that Jesus was a “friend” of “sinners,” using a word that means hardened sinners, people devoted to sin. Yet Jesus found a way to befriend such people. He was good to them because he is good, like God, who “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt. 5:45). To be like Jesus we have to learn the indifference of true love. We have to learn to love without the slightest concern for who is being loved, or for what benefits may come back to us. Only then will the world recognize God in us. And by the way, isn’t that Jesus’ main point in the last few verses of Matthew 5?
  • In a related matter, the people we serve must become convinced that only the love of God can explain our commitment (II Cor. 5:14). They need to know, for instance, that we are not looking for their votes. Nor are we trying to get them to attend our church. We must be very clear that we are not trying to sell them anything or make a reputation for ourselves. If the slightest hint of an ulterior motive crops up they may go ahead and accept what we are offering, but they will not glorify the Father in heaven.
  • Our service must be infused with a level of joy, peace, hope and other godly character qualities that can only be explained by a vital relationship with God. No one ever served God without stirring up opposition somewhere. This was especially true for the first generation of Christians who, in the persons of Peter and John, could not even heal a lame man by the temple gate without getting themselves thrown into jail. But at their trial even the priests had to admit that Jesus had made a difference in their lives: “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus” (Acts 4:13).
  • Our service must be done from the heart as an act of worship. Worship and service are two sides of the same coin. We worship God as we serve him, and we serve him in worship. This matters because it balances the first point, the one that says we should be true friends with unbelievers. Without the focus on God provided by worshipping him, we risk failing to give a clear call to unbelievers to repent and believe in Jesus as Saviour and Lord. We can easily fall into the trap of serving sinners in such a way as to enable them to maintain their life of sin and rebellion.
  • Our service must have an element of sacrifice about it. (See the second point above.) But let me offer a warning. Here is where Jesus’ admonitions to give in secret and pray in secret (Matt. 6:1-6) become relevant. The moment someone realizes we’re making a great sacrifice we risk losing the ability to point them to God. It’s possible they will remain impressed by what we’re doing for them, but our ultimate purpose may be lost.

I have become convinced that a missional approach is necessary if we are serious about building Christ’s Kingdom in North America. We must commit our very existence to the proposition that all intellectual arguments for faith notwithstanding, people will not believe unless they perceive the presence of God in the work we are doing. Even Jesus was driven to this extremity as he defended his divinity before his own disciples: “Just believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me. Or at least believe because of the work you have seen me do” (John 14:11, NLT).

This must become the goal of our lives; that people would come to believe in Jesus because of the work they see us do. No other form of evangelism will succeed with any degree of consistency.

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