The Relationship Between the Elders and the Members in a Local Congregation.

Healthy leaders lead to healthy congregations

If you were to list the ingredients for a healthy and vibrant church what would they be? What makes a successful church? Bob Russell in his book “When God Builds a Church” offers his insight on one of the major essentials for church health and vibrancy:

“When I’m asked to analyze why our church has grown so dramatically, I say there is one overriding reason God has blessed our congregation: excellent leadership. The elders…have consistently been an example of what godly leadership is all about.” 

He elaborates later on:

“Often we’re looking for gimmicks, programs, and ideas that will make our church grow, while God is looking for consecration and genuine commitment among the church’s leaders.” 

Alexander Strauch in his book “Biblical Eldership” writes the following:

“In a letter to a young presbyter named Nepotian, dated A.D. 394, Jerome rebuked the churches of his day for their hypocrisy in showing more concern for the appearance of their church buildings than their careful selection of their church leaders: ‘Many build churches nowadays; their walls and pillars of glowing marble, their ceilings glittering with gold, their altars studded with jewels. Yet to the choice of Christ’s ministers no heed is paid.”

I think Russel and Strauch are exactly right. The character and devotion of the eldership within the church will inevitably correspond to the church’ health and vibrancy. As Hosea remarks, “And what the priests do, the people also do (Hosea 4:9, NLT).” 

Furthermore, depending on the quality of the relationship between the elders and the congregation it can either ruin a church or energize her.

In the following I want to outline the relationship between the elders and the members in a local congregation as discussed in the New Testament.  Understanding the roles of the Elders and the members will help clarify the image of a healthy church.

Elders are qualified 

It seems to go without saying that an elder of a church is to be qualified in order to accomplish his ministerial tasks. But unfortunately I have experienced first hand men who were given the title elder without meeting biblical qualifications. And it is much more difficult removing a man from the position of an elder because he is not qualified than it is from simply holding off from placing one in that position.

This is precisely why Paul instructs us not to place men in leadership too quickly: Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure (1 Timothy 5:22)

The two list of qualifications for the church elder is found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
Jeramie Rinne in his book “Church Elders” offers a helpful summary of what these qualifications entail:

  • You want to be an elder
  • You exemplify godly character
  • You can teach the Bible 
  • You lead your family well
  • You are a male
  • You are an established believer

The importance of the godly character of the elder can not be overstated. Robert Murray M’Cheyne who was a preacher in the early 1800’s and died at the early age of 30 wrote these convicting words regarding church leadership:

“My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness. How awful a weapon in the hand of God is a holy minister.” 

Members Honor their elders 

Because God has ordained that godly men lead the church spiritually, it is also assumed that the members of the congregation honor them for that task. Notice Paul’s clear words concerning this duty of the congregation:

  • We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13)
  • Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (1Timothy 5:17-18)

Elders equip

Elders in the church are the equippers. Elders do not labor in the Word in order to spoon feed each member without any movement toward maturity. On the contrary, Elders preach and teach the Bible, in order to grow and equip the members to live out the truths of scripture. Look at Ephesians 4:11: 

  • And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.(Ephesians 4:11-14)

Members seek guidance from the elders

Because elders equip it is natural then that the members of the church seek spiritual guidance from their elders. Consider Hebrews 13:7:

  • Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith (Hebrews 13:7)

One interesting passage is James 5:14 on this matter:

  • Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up.(James 5:14-15)

Much can be said about this section of scripture but suffice it to say that a strong argument can be made that spiritual sickness is in the author’s mind here. If so, what we have is instructions for those in the congregation to take the initiative when they are spiritually down, to seek the elders for encouragement, and to be uplifted by prayer. 

Elders protect

A professor of mine in an introduction to Christian ministry class remarked that if we want to be successful in ministry we need to be as “gentle as doves; wise as serpents; and have the skin of rhinoceros!” Elders have to have tough skin in order to protect the flock of God. Thus, a third characteristic of the elder is that he protects the church. He does this in two primary ways; protection from incorrect doctrine and incorrect behavior. These may come from folks outside the church or inside the church. 

  • Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them (Acts 20:28-30)

Russell writes: 

“A growing church is frequently the victim of vicious attacks from the adversary. Satan hates an alive church and does his best to destroy it. You can bet that just when things begin going well in your church, you will encounter serious spiritual opposition. . such problems simply cannot be dealt with adequately without strong, though sensitive, leaders who do not shy away from confrontation.” 

Members hold elders accountable

One of the fears folks may have in joining a church is that they are called to trust and follow the leadership of individuals that may have the potential of falling short in their calling. Are church members simply to obey elders who are living inconsistent with their ‘above reproach” position?  I get this fear. We hear on the news frequently about moral failures made by church leaders, and it concerns us that we may experience similar outcomes.

But this should not deter anyone from being obedient and serving in the local church, or from following the command to submit to one’s leaders. However, God in his wisdom has instructed us that if an elder fails to lead like he ought then the church is required to confront that elder. Look at 1 Timothy 5:19-21:

  • Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality (1 Timothy 5:19-21)

Therefore, while members in the congregation are called to submit to the elders in the church, it does not excuse elders from living inconsistently with the qualifications set out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. In such cases the congregation has an obligation to lovingly confront the elder and encourage him to repent of his habitual sin.

Elders Lead

The elders of the church are to lead the congregation. As a shepherd leads the sheep to fresh water so the elder leads the congregation to the truths of scripture and holy living. How does he lead? Peter tells us:

  • So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory (1 Peter 5:1-4)

According to this passage Elders lead by:

  • Oversight without compulsion
  • Eagerly without selfish motives
  • Exemplary without domineering

Members follow

If a church has healthy spiritual leaders it follows that the members of the congregation will joyfully follow their leadership.

  • Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you (Hebrews 13:17)

Closing

If we desire to become a spiritually healthy congregation we have to understand the distinct roles of the elder and the member. If at any time the elders and congregation become disunited we will inevitably fall into deep sickness as a church. 

The loneliest I have ever felt in ministry was when I was barely 20 and the church I was serving split over congregation and leadership differences. The church that had once been fairly stable had been ripped apart, because the elders and the congregation fought tooth and nail for their different desired preferences to be met. The church is still in existence but is close to closing its doors. May we unite rather than divide and learn to love our elders, and love each other! 

A Call for Commitment to the Local Church.

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:24-25) 

Commitment-phobia

One of the concerns I have, as I am sure many others have as well, in regards to the church today involves the lack of commitment to the local church, particularly to the gathering together on the Lord’s day. This concern is verified by some troublesome statistical data regarding church attendance in America. Barna research for example, did a recent study in which, among other things, stated the following: 

While regular church attendance is a reliable indicator of faithful Christian practice, many Americans choose to experience and express their faith in a variety of other ways, the most common of which is prayer. For instance, three-quarters of Americans (75%) claim to have prayed to God in the last week. This maps fairly well onto the 73 percent who self-identify as Christian. Following prayer, the next most common activity related to faith practice is attending a church service, with more than one-third of adults (35%) having sat in a pew in the last seven days, not including a special event such as a wedding or funeral.

While the study encouragingly suggests that 75% of evangelicals seek prayer each week to connect with God, it is disturbing that only 35% of those see attending the local church as equally important. 

Thom Rainer agreeswith this statistic. He writes: “About 20 years ago, a church member was considered active in the church if he or she attended three times a week.Today, a church member is considered active in the church if he or she attends three times a month.”

But seemingly this is not just an issue with the church alone. I was recently at a local recreational baseball field watching my nieces play softball when I happened to notice the following words on their concession stand: “Do not complain unless you have volunteered.” Yes, all of us today seem to be struggling with getting individuals to see the importance of commitment. 

Contrastingly, the local church described in the pages of the New Testament realized the importance of being together and committing to the advancement of God’s kingdom. Luke describes the early christians for example as “being together and having all things in common. . .day by day attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes. . .having favor with all the people (Acts 2:44, 46-47).”

The antidote, I argue,  for this apparent sickness called commitment-phobia is a return to local church membership. Christians need to devote their lives to one another by acknowledging and applying their commitment to their local congregation.  

Misunderstanding Commitment

Unfortunately, the importance of local church membership has been downplayed by a misunderstanding of it. Pastor and author Alistair Beggoffers three typesof groups that resist biblical church membership. 

The Debaters

These are those who question the biblical credibility of local church membership. “Where is local church membership in the Bible?”, they ask. 

But Local church membership is taught by the fact that elders/leaders of the church are held accountable for the spiritual health of the congregation. 

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.(Hebrews 13:17)

In other words, in order for Christians to submit to their leaders they have to know who they are. Similarly, leaders, if they are held accountable for the souls in their care, they have to know who those “souls” are. But how can they unless their is some account for each individual? 

Furthermore, Local Church membership is assumed in church discipline. Take Paul’s counsel in 1 Corinthians as an example. 

For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13)

If church discipline as outlined here is to take place isn’t there a clear line of who is “in” the church and who is not? Otherwise how in the world is anyone to know who to correct when they are living in habitual sin? Local church membership is necessary for these things to take place. 

The Drifters

According to Begg these are the people who drift in and out of congregations; who leave when they are bored or displeased with the church. There is no public commitment to the congregation. These folks like to receive the benefits of the church but not be held accountable to any forms of leadership or other Christians. Furthermore, if they get bored with the church they serve they can simply leave just as easily as they came. 

The Deniers

This group denies the gathering of God’s people in the traditional sense. As long as you have an iPad and a Starbucks that’s all you need. You can listen to any sermon you want in the comfort of your own living room or coffee shop. But this takes away the incarnation side of church as well as the structure and order of the church given to us by divine scripture. 

Myths regarding Commitment

When it comes to committing to the local church there are many I have encountered who thought they were committed but really were not. Let me outline a few myths regarding local church membership:

Myth #1–I am a regular attender therefore this is “my church.”

False: There needs to be a clear public profession of your faith and a clear identification of your loyalty to the congregation and to the elders. When one decides to just attend the Sunday morning service without a clear commitment to the church they relieve themselves of any accountability to the elders and the church body. They also relieve themselves of any sense of loyalty to the congregation. They may or may not attend because it really doesn’t effect the rest of the church if they are not present. But this destroys the metaphor Paul gives of the one body many, members in 1 Corinthians 12. 

Myth #2–I can have several local churches that I serve and attend. 

False: You need to have primarily one local congregation to devote to; to use your gifts and resources. Furthermore, you need focused devotion to a local church in order for those individuals to hold you spiritually accountable.

Myth #3–The church primarily exists to meet my needs. 

False: You exist to serve the church with your gifts. A Byproduct is that you will be edified by others doing the same. 

Myth #4—I need to wait until others in my family are ready to join before I do.

False: You need to join as quickly as possible in order to be obedient and set the example

Why should one join the local church?

So why should one join a local church? Let me offer several reasons: 

It’s an Obedience issue

As I have hopefully made clear thus far local church membership is a biblical idea. You can’t obey the “pone another” commandments in scripture without commitment to a group of believers. 

It’s a Fellowship Issue

This is the point of Hebrews 10:24-25 and Acts 2:44-46.

It’s an Authority Issue

The elders are given to the church by God to teach and protect. 

      • Hebrews 13:17
      • Acts 20:28-30

It’s an Identity Issue

The Visible church is the way in which we make the invisible church visible! 

It’s a Loyalty Issue

All believers are called to be loyal to Christ and loyal to each other. John Macarthur writes: 

“But that isn’t how people think today.  People don’t say, “I probably ought to go to church tonight because there might be somebody there who would need me.  There might be somebody there I could pray for.  There might be somebody there I could sit with and sing hymns, praise to God.  I better go tonight because it might encourage the pastor that I’m there.  I better go because the Spirit of God might have something to say to me that’s going to make my life more effective as a witness to the people around me.  I really need to be there because they are going to be people there who probably have burdens and maybe I’ll run into one of them and they will share it with me and I’ll need to know it so I can pray about it.”  We don’t think like that.

We say, “Well, let’s see, shall we go to dinner over here or should we go to church?”  Or “Well, we could go visit Aunt Martha over there.  She’ll leave us in the will if we show up enough times, or whatever.”  We just grieve in our hearts, who are pastors, at the disloyalty of so many people.  They’re loyal to their own interests but they’re certainly not loyal to the interests of others, the needs of others, and the gathered church.”

It’s a Serving Issue

The church is called to serve one another. I love how Mark Dever illustrates this:

“I once had a friend who worked for a campus Christian ministry while attending a church where I was a member. He would always slip in right after the hymns sit there for the sermon and then leave. I asked him one day why he didn’t come for the whole service. “Well”, he said,  “I don’t get anything out of the rest of it.”  “Have you ever thought about joining the church?” I responded. He thought that was an absurd comment. He said “why would I join the church? If I join them I think they would just slow me down spiritually.” I asked “have you ever considered that maybe God wants you to link arms with those other people and that perhaps even though they might slow you down a little you might help to speed them up—and that that’s part of God’s plan for how we’re supposed to live as Christians together (Dever, Mark. Nine Marks of a Healthy Church)?”

It’s a Witness Issue

When we commit to live lives together the world will take notice. As the apostle Peter admonishes:

  • 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.( 1 Peter 2:12)

Can a Bible verse or passage have different meanings?

I am sure you have experienced it before. You are in a small group Bible study and you are discussing a particular verse or passage. The leader offers their interpretation and subsequently opens the floor to others to offer their input. “Well I think the verse means this…” one participant shares. “I like that, “ another chimes in. “But for me it means this…” Before long a multitude of different meanings have been seeped out of a few words of scripture. The obvious question however is can there be different levels and even differing meanings to the same verse or set of verses? In answering this question I want to tackle three simple things. First, what does it mean when we ask “what does a passage mean?” Second, what is the difference between meaning and application? Finally, I want to offer a biblical example that hopefully elucidates the point.

What Does this Passage Mean?

What does it mean to ask “what does this passage mean?” The basic goal of any biblical interpreter is the discovery of authorial intent. Authorial intent is “the meaning [the words of scripture] would have conveyed to the readers at the time they were written by the author (Blomberg, Craig L., et al. Introduction to Biblical Hermeneutics. 185). ” In other words, when we seek to understand the words of scripture we are asking what did the author mean to convey when he wrote what he wrote? This task (commonly known as exegesis, or broadly referred to as hermeneutics) involves what is called the grammatical-historical method. That is, when we study the Bible we must use all of the tools to properly interpret an ancient document. We must take into consideration the text’s literary genre, historical background, and grammar.

But what does all of this tell us about discovering the meaning of scripture? Simply this: the original authors of scripture meant to convey only one meaning to their readers and the task of the interpreter is to discover that meaning. This is not to say that any given passage cannot have several points or more than one lesson. “We seek only the intended meaning, though it could have several components (Blomberg. Introduction.187).” As one author points out:

“no text of Scripture can have many different, mutually contradictory meanings. A text might have a complex meaning that can be summarized in different noncontradictory ways. The text’s meaning might have different practical applications to different people depending on their particular situation. But if two people read a text and find contradictory meanings, one or both of the readers must be wrong. They cannot both be right.”

Thus, when we ask what does this verse or passage mean? we are asking what was the author’s original intent. This is what Gordon Fee calls the the “plain meaning of the text (Gordon D. Fee and Douglas K. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 18).” This also implies that when we come to any given passage of scripture the interpreter is not seeking to discover some “secret” or “deeper” meaning of the text. Some advocate that “biblical authors intended only one sense, though later readers may imply creative exegetical techniques to discover additional valid senses not intended by the original authors (Blomberg. Introduction, 185. emphasis theirs).” The problem with this endeavor is that the practice of seeking a deeper meaning is completely subjective. Who is to say one’s deeper rendering not observed in the plain reading of a text is better than someone else’s different deeper rendering? “Scripture becomes, as Martin Luther put it, a wax nose that can be shaped into whatever form the interpreter likes. When this happens, the interpreter cannot be corrected by the text; rather, the interpreter becomes lord over the text.” Therefore, when we seek to discover the meaning of scripture we are seeking the plain meaning as the original author intended.

The Difference Between Meaning and Application

If we go back to our illustration in the beginning what we may discover in that small group bible study is that the various individuals offering their take on a given passage are not necessarily offering different meanings of a text, but offering a variety of applications derived from the one meaning. When someone says something like, “I can read the same passage several times in my life and gather different meanings for it,” I argue they are not deriving a different meaning but are gleaning a different application from the one meaning the author intended. Application is how a particular verse’s meaning can be applied to a variety of circumstances or situations in one’s life. Another way to put it is that the meaning of a text answers what the scripture meant to the original author then; application answers the question of how that meaning understood then applies to my life now. The danger comes when we try to apply a text before understanding the meaning of a text. Failing to discover the meaning first will inevitably lead to misapplication.

A Case Study

Let me close by offering a simple example from the New Testament. In Matthew 18:20 we read this popular verse: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Growing up I always heard people interpret this text to mean that Jesus’ presence is with those who come together to worship the lord; usually when there was low church attendance! Now this idea is not wrong in and of itself. It is true that when the church gathers Jesus is with us; no matter how few are there. However, it is also true that Jesus is with us even when we are alone! This idea is true but is it what Matthew meant when he wrote it? This is where good exegesis is needed.

When you read the verse in its broader context you discover that this verse is in the context of church discipline. Backing up to verse 15 we see that Jesus is offering steps for those who persist in sin. If one sins they are to be confronted privately. If they do not repent 2-3 witnesses are to be brought into the situation. If repentance is still refused then the individual is to be brought before the entire assembly (church). Then Jesus closes his teaching by saying that when this procedure is done Jesus gives his approval of it (verses 18-20). Thus, the meaning of where two or three are gathered is not about church worship but about the agreement the church has in expelling an immoral brother from the community! Oh what a difference in meaning this is! Thus, Matthew 18:20 cannot mean both—Jesus is with us when we gather to worship AND Jesus offers his approval of expelling an immoral brother. It must be one or the other. Matthew meant one thing, and discovering it is the job of the interpreter.

If the Righteous will scarcely be saved where does that leave me?

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And

“If the righteous is scarcely saved,

    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.(1 Peter 4:12-19)

I received this thoughtful question concerning the text quoted above this week, particularly verse 18. The following is the question followed by my response. 

Question

Could you please help me understand why the bible says the righteous shall scaresely make it in to heaven in  1 Pet. 4:18?

If people like my grandfather whom dedicated his whole life walking with the Lord, spreading his word, faithfully praying on his knees every night ….if he will scarcely make it in…where does that leave me? I’m no where near being righteous.

Answer

This is a really great question, here’s my understanding of the passage:

First, as always, note the context of the verse. In 1 Peter 4:12 and following Peter is addressing the issue of suffering for the Christian, “do not be surprised at the fiery trial …” This entire section is dealing with Christians being persecuted for the sake of Christ. They are being insulted verbally (verse 14) and possibly physically (verse 15). Thus, verses 12-16 have everything to do with a Christian’s endurance through suffering. The question is what good comes through suffering? Peter says in verse 16 that those who suffer should “not be ashamed” but “glorify God!” So, whatever Peter is trying to communicate in this passage it CANNOT BE SOMETHING THAT WOULD DISCOURAGE THEM OR MAKE THEM QUESTION THEIR SALVATION. EVERYTHING HE IS SAYING IS TO ENCOURAGE THE CHRISTIAN. 

Now to verse 17. Notice verse 17 begins with the word “for.” This connects us to verse 16. Why are we to glorify God under suffering Peter (verse 16)? Peter answers it in verse 17. “For it is time for judgement to begin in the household of God.” Judgement cannot mean punishment for disobedience, because everything he has said up to this point has been about enduring suffering FOR CHRIST! Judgement here should be taken to mean PURIFICATION THROUGH SUFFERING. That is, God purifies us (judges us positively) through suffering. Hebrews 12:3-17 serves as a helpful cross reference. There it says God “disciplines the ones he loves.” Suffering for Christ’ sake is a means by which God purifies us and draws us closer to Himself.

Now, if suffering comes upon those who obey God and serve him and believe in him HOW MUCH WORSE WILL IT BE FOR THOSE WHO DO NOT OBEY GOD? This is how I understand verse 17b. The answer to Peter’s rhetorical question is obvious—much worse! If Christians endure suffering for obeying God what is in store for those who do not obey God? A horrid thought. 

Verse 18 repeats basically the same idea in verse 17, but he does so by quoting Proverbs 11:31. “Righteous” does not refer to a “more spiritual person.” It refers to ALL CHRISTIANS (see 1 Peter 2:9-10). “Scarcley saved”in verse 18 should not be understood as “barely getting into heaven” but as those who  “will be saved through tremendous persecution and suffering (recall Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 3:12).” The word “scarcley” in the original Greek means “with difficulty.” Thus, Peter means Christians will be saved with “much difficulty,” which makes sense in the context. So, he does not mean that only really good Christians will barely get to Heaven; he means ALL CHRISTIANS WILL GET TO HEAVEN, BUT IT WILL NOT COME WITHOUT DIFFICULTY. As Jesus told us “In this world you will have trouble.”

Verse 19 makes sense then—“Therefore (i.e. in light of verses 12-18) let those who suffer (Christians, the righteous mentioned in verse 18) suffer according to God’s will (that is, suffer with the understanding that God is purifying us through the suffering—making us and drawing us closer to him)….

So, rather than this text offering doubt and anxiety of our salvation it actually assures us of it! When we as Christians go through suffering and persecution for Christ God purifies us in it. Christians are unique because we embrace our trials and rejoice in them! Why? Because God is doing a great work through them. He is saving us through them! So Christian, lift up your drooping head and rejoice for the benefit of suffering in Christ. God is doing a good work in you ! 

Who is your master?

In the last two posts found here and here I have looked at what Jesus says in Matthew 6:19-23. There Jesus gave two illustrations concerning how one in the Kingdom should view money–where ones treasure lies and what ones eyes see. The  last illustration is found in verse 24:

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

At first glance it seems that this phrase “no one can serve two masters” is just untrue. I mean, some could respond and say “I serve two masters, I’ve got two jobs—I have two bosses.” But this response fails to understand the meaning behind the word “serve (an unfortunate translation).” The word in the original literally means “to be a slave.” It has to do with the relationship between a slave and a slave-owner. And with that understanding, Jesus’ words make perfect sense. As well know Scholar R.T. France put it:

No one can serve two master is patently untrue; we do it all the time…but a slave was not employed under contract, but was normally wholly owned by the person who had bought him or her.

Just like a slave is unable to devote his life to two slave-owners so Christians cannot be a slave to God and a slave to money. We have to choose one or the other. That’s really the meaning behind the words love/hate in this context—either we will choose God or we’ll choose money, period; you can’t have both! Unfortunately, some become a slave to money. Paul warned Timothy about it:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:9-10)

He even had friends who deserted him for it:

For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica (2 Timothy 4:6)

But Jesus calls us to be a slave of His. This is really the whole point isn’t it? That we are single-minded in devotion to the Lordship of Christ. What he says goes; what he wills we will do; what he desires we desire. Money is nothing, only a means to make His name glorified! We are slaves of Christ! 

Being a slave is not the most relevant nor accepted picture I admit, but it is exactly how the New Testament describes us. We are slaves, and we are going to be slaves in one way or another. But when we’re slaves to Christ that makes us slaves to an enormously benevolent master! I heard well-known Pastor, John Macarthur, speak on this idea of slave/master recently. I loved what he had to say:

“I was doing a pastors’ conference with African-American pastors in North Carolina, and the subject came up. We were having a great time. We were in the football stadium at Wake Forest; it’s really kind of a neat place. We were up in this beautiful football complex with a glass window overlooking the football field; all these pastors where there. One of them said, “How in the world am I going to tell my congregation? How am I going to tell my congregation this message about slaves when it has such a stigma? What am I going to tell them?”

And I said, “Well, I’ve got good news for you. You have a loving Master who is all-wise, compassionate, generous, powerful, resourceful, protective, kind, merciful, forgiving, who takes you from being just a slave to making you a slave that is also a friend…Are you ready for this one?…and takes you from being a friend to a son, and not just a son but a joint-heir. And if you follow the rest of the count in the New Testament, you become a citizen of His Kingdom. Do you understand that no slave in the Roman Empire could be a citizen? Couldn’t own anything? Didn’t have any rights? Couldn’t give testimony to a court of law? Couldn’t be defended in court? This is a different kind of slavery. He provides everything you need; makes you an intimate friend and gives you full disclosure of everything that’s on His heart. First Corinthians 2:16, “We have a mind of Christ.” He’s revealed it to us on the pages of Scripture, and He makes us sons, and He makes us heirs and joint-heirs with His own Son and He–we could go on–He makes us reign with Him, citizens of His glorious kingdom.”

And so it is with us. We are slaves of Christ, not our money. For, how we view our money determines how we view God. May we see our money as only a means by which we store our treasures in heaven, view our lives through generous eyes, and never let it control our sole allegiance to Christ!

An Evil Eye

Two Visions

In my last post I discussed Jesus words in Matthew 6:19-21. There he focused on two treasures–treasures stored on earth and treasures stored in heaven. In verses 22-23 Jesus offers a second, more ambiguous illustration. But once you dig past the surface and discover what Jesus had in mind, it’s a sobering truth. Notice verses 22-23:

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

An evil eye or a healthy eye?

At first glance it seems quite obscure. But the more we ponder at the text, its meaning becomes clear.  First, Jesus says that the “eye is the lamp of the body.” What does that mean? Simply, that through our eyes we see things. That’s it. Jesus isn’t trying to be scientific; he is just trying to build a metaphor to teach a spiritual truth. Our eye is the way we see things before us. 

Then, he gives us two comparisons. First, we have “a healthy eye.” The word “healthy” here is important for us in understanding what Jesus means. The word carries two primary meanings: (1) undivided/single, and (2) generous. Usually and most often the word takes on the first idea, but I believe the context lends itself to the latter. The reason is because of how it fits with Jesus comparison of the good and bad eye as we will see. 

The clarity of what Jesus means here comes to light when we understand what he meant by the phrase “bad eye.” The phrase literally means “evil eye.” What is interesting here is that the phrase “evil eye” was a Jewish idiom that meant “stingy/greedy.” Take for example Proverbs 28:22 which says:

A stingy man hastens after wealth and does not know that poverty will come upon him (Proverbs 28:22)

The word “stingy” in the above passage means literally “a man whose eye is evil.” An evil eye therefore was used to describe someone who was greedy, and stingy. 

Therefore, when we read “bad eye” and “healthy eye” what Jesus is comparing is a “stingy person” verses a “generous person.” The one with a bad eye is full of darkness. They are unable to view the world through the lens of the Kingdom because of their greed and stinginess. On the other hand, those with healthy eyes are full of light. They are generous and understand that money is simply a means of investing in God’s Kingdom. 

Now follow me here, what Jesus is saying is this: the way we view Money—whether we are greedy or generous—carries over into the whole of a person! That means the way we deal with our money directly affects how we will live in every other area of our Christian life! In essence Jesus is saying “if you are greedy your whole life will be full of darkness, but if you are generous your whole life will be full of light.” That’s why Paul says so clearly in Colossians 3:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Colossians 3:1-4)

So the question as Jesus puts it in the end of verse 23 is “how great is the darkness? This is a call to reflect on our own lives! Do we have evil eyes or good eyes? Are we greedy or are we generous? Do we view our money as wholly devoted to God’s Kingdom or do we view our money as ours, and long for more? What’s are view? We have only two choices.  The main point is the same:  How we view our money determines how we view our love for God

What do you treasure?

When we love someone there is nothing we wouldn’t do to make our significant other happy. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, when it comes to our relationship with our father in Heaven, we are ready to offer our lives to him, except for our wallets and purses. 

I have heard somewhere about a technique Africans use to capture monkeys. They put a banana in a small-mouthed jar chained to a tree. The monkey will reach in to get the banana, and get his hand stuck the jar. Because he refuses to let go of the banana, he is captured. He could have easily set himself free if he had just been willing to let go of his prized possession.

That is a picture of many who are trying to hold to their possessions and at the same time be devoted to Christ. But  there really is only two choices when it comes to our money and our relationship to God. A good place to begin the conversation about God and possessions is found in Matthew 6:19-24.

Jesus offers three illustrations that each point to two choices concerning how we view our money. I’ll discuss the first in this article and the next two in the following. Here’s what Jesus says in Matthew 6:19-21:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Two Treasures

Treasure on earth

You may not be able to observe it in the original but Jesus is doing a little play on words here (You can see in the original Greek how the two bolded words share the same verb stem:  Μὴ θησαυρίζετε ὑμῖν θησαυρος). He says literally do not treasure for yourselves treasures.

Treasures here simply refers to those things in your life in which are extremely valuable—your car, your house, your boat, your clothes, your food, your dog…etc. One person defines it as “that which is of exceptional value and kept safe—‘treasure, wealth, riches (Louw-Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains New York: United Bible Societies, 1996, 620).’

 But is Jesus then saying that it’s wrong to have things? To have a home. . .to have a car. . .to plan for the future and have a savings account?

Simply answered, no. But there is a parable Jesus told in Luke that helps us get a grasp on exactly what “storing up treasures on earth” looks like. It’s in Luke 12:

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God (Luke 12:13-21).”

So what is storing up treasure on earth look like? We store up treasure on earth when we move beyond our needs and begin storing up our wants. This is admittedly a hard truth to swallow, but Jesus is telling us that our material possessions—our money—is not for the purposes of “stocking up.” But why?

Foolishness of earthly gain

Storing up earthly gain is stocking up for ourselves more and more stuff—for the sole purpose of stocking up stuff! That’s the goal! To make sure we have a lot of things in our possession! But Jesus says this is foolish! Why? Because our possessions are temporary. Observe the last part of verse 19:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal

In the time of Jesus one’s wealth was not indicated by paper currency. It was in metals (like gold and silver) and clothing. And one’s money was not stored away in a bank somewhere but was hidden in a safe place inside the house. 

Jesus says, don’t store your treasures on earth because the moths will eat away your clothing, and the metals and materials will “rust (literally “eating”) away, and thieves will (lit. “dig through” because thieves would literally dig through the walls of a house) steal your belongings. In other words, it is foolish to store up material possessions on earth because they only last a short while.

  • Our Iphones—become obsolete in weeks!
  • Our cars (we bought our first “new Car” in 2014, and after our kids got a hold of it, it was done!
  • Our bodies decay
  • Our things will eventually rot!

And yet, that’s what we tend to do. We get fixated on making sure we have enough stuff. We want the nicest things. We desire lots of money in the bank. And for what? What is it accomplishing? One day it will all be gone! Jesus says elsewhere: 

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul (Mark 8:36)?

As Christians we need to realize that the things in this life are temporary. This world is not our home. Listen to how Peter describes us in 1 Peter 2:11:

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul (1 Peter 2:11).

That’s what we are: sojourners, exiles, and aliens to this world. This world is not our home! I like how the Christian Contemporary Band, Mercy Me puts it:

I close my eyes and I see your face
If home’s where my heart is then I’m out of place
Lord, won’t you give me strength to make it through somehow
I’ve never been more homesick than now

Treasure in Heaven 

So that brings us to the other choice: treasure in Heaven. Look at verse 22:

but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.

Jesus calls us to a better choice—treasure in Heaven. But what does that entail?

What is treasure in heaven?

I think Craig Blomberg in his commentary on Matthew put it as good as any: 

Treasure in Heaven is the compassionate use of material resources to meet other’s physical and spiritual needs, in keeping with the priorities of God’s Kingdom (Blomberg, Craig. Matthew, 123).

The Apostle Paul helps us understand what storing our treasures in Heaven looks like:

 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life (1 Timothy 6:17-19).

Storing our treasures in Heaven is simply thinking about investing our possessions/money with a Kingdom mindset. It means asking the question:  “How can I use my money—what I have over and beyond the physical needs of my family–to invest in the work of the Kingdom? 

The wisdom of storing treasure in heaven

Now, notice the wisdom of storing treasure in Heaven opposed to the foolishness of storing our money on earth in the next part of verse 20:

but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.

When we store up for ourselves treasure on earth—for the here and now—we are investing in temporary and fading things. But when we invest our money in God’s Kingdom, it carries over eternal dividends! When we invest in the Kingdom God will bless us eternally in the future. I like how Mark Moore puts it:

It’s true you can’t take it with you but Jesus said you can send it ahead.

Furthermore, investing in the Kingdom means that we invest in the lives of others. We invest in seeing lives changed, people come to know Christ, people freed from the separation of God for eternity. That’s a true and lasting investment! 

The Main  Point

What’s the point to all of this? Here it is: how we view our money determines how we view our love for God. It’s right there in verse 21:

For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

We have two choices: invest our money in ourselves or invest our money in God’s Kingdom. However, when  we spend our money one thing is inescapable—how we spend our money determines how we view our love for God. Moore is right when he goes on to say:

Our wallets are one of the best barometers of our spirits

See, when we truly understand what life in the kingdom is, we begin to view our money differently. Money is only a means by which we can help bring people into the kingdom! Therefore:

  • The car we drive
  • The boat we own
  • The house we live in
  • The savings account
  • The toys and things we have cluttering up our basement

All of these things and more are only seen as vehicles by which we can bring the Gospel to a lost and dying world—period. The way we view our stuff inevitably points to how we view God. If we store up treasures on earth we say that our wealth is more important than our worship!