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5. Commitment in Practice

– Chapter 5 –

Commitment in Practice

In the Bible, commitment has to do with practical living rather than theory. We saw this when we went through Luke’s gospel to see what the Lord Jesus has to say about riches. We now look at some passages in Paul’s teaching, start­ing with 1 Timothy 6:9-10:

But those who want to be rich fall into tempt­ation, a trap, and ma­ny fool­ish and harmful desires, which plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. (1Timothy 6:9-10, HCSB)

Those who love riches fall into temptation and a trap, and plunge into ruin and destruction. The love of money is a root of all sorts of evil. Money may be nothing more than paper or gold, yet the desire for it has caused many to stray from the faith, piercing them­selves with many pains. Immediately before this passage, Paul says in 1Tim.6:6-8:

But godliness with contentment is a great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. (HCSB)

If we have food and clothing, we ought to be content. Yet our pro­blem is that we’re never satisfied with what we’ve got. There is a vast differ­ence between need and greed. What we need is far less than what our greed demands. Greed is not satisfied with any amount of money, yet what we actually need is very little. How much food do you eat daily? You only need a small amount of food to sustain your life; greed is the part that makes life expensive and complicated.

The world feeds on greed

One day I was walking in the Tsimshatsui district of Hong Kong and walked past some stores. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the prices of the clothes on display. One jacket looked like it was made of ordinary cotton similar to what you can get for HK$60 (US$8) in other districts of Hong Kong, but here in Tsimshatsui, it cost over $1,000. I thought to myself, “Is this jacket sewn with gold thread?”

Another time my wife was looking for a small canvas bag. She walked into a shop, also in Tsimshatsui, thinking that the one on dis­play might be inexpensive. When she asked about the price, the sales­woman said $1,200.

“You must be joking!”

“No, it’s a designer bag made in Italy.”

It was made of ordinary canvas, yet you have to pay a fortune for the lux­ury name. Greed is what businesses feed on.

The lottery is a lucrative business that feeds on greed. You put in a few dollars to win one million, five million, ten million. Yet it’s the lot­tery company that makes the most money, easily hundreds of millions.

Horse racing day is a busy day in Hong Kong with traffic clog­ging the streets and tunnels. People bet a few dollars on a horse, hop­ing to win a few thousand or tens of thousands.

Greed makes us vulnerable. In reality we need very little money to sur­vive, yet there is no limit to how much we want. Going back to the quest­ion of storing up money, exactly how much is enough? The millionaire will answer, “A little bit more, just a little bit more.”

How much is enough?

It is fair to ask who is going to pay our medical bills when we get sick, or pay for our children’s education or even our own edu­cation. We need money to support the family. We want to travel the world to broaden our horizons and expand our world view. On and on it goes.

Where do we draw the line? How much should we save up? That is a fair question. Does it mean that Christians cannot save up for their retire­ment? When they get old, who’s going to feed them? Are they going to live on charity? Some countries offer social welfare, but what if you live in a country that does not?

Let’s say I have $100,000 in some currency in my bank account. How do I apply Paul’s teaching about being content with food and clothing? Does Script­ure provide any guidance on the $100,000? The problem for us is that the New Testament views money and possess­ions negatively. So far we haven’t seen any­thing in the New Testament that speaks positively of riches and money.

So what I do with the $100,000 in my account? With that amount, I would be slightly rich but not very rich. Since it is hard, even imposs­ible, for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, what should I do with the money? That is a very practical quest­ion. In the same chapter of First Timothy, Paul goes on to say:

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrog­ant or put their hope in wealth, which is so uncer­tain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with every­thing for our enjoy­ment. Com­mand them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1Tim.6:17-19, HCSB)

How do I apply this passage to my $100,000? I will indeed try my best not to be “arrogant” about my riches, to use Paul’s word. I will be humble about the money. I will fix my hope not on the money but on God who, after all, richly supplies us with all things for our enjoyment. He is ultim­ately the one who gave me the $100,000 in the first place, and for that I am grateful. I am willing to do a few good works and put a few more dollars into the offering box.

Is this how we apply Paul’s teaching? All this talk about generosity and good deeds sounds vague to us because we don’t know how gener­ous is gener­ous. If we normally give $20, do we now give $100? A five­fold increase sounds generous enough, but have we ful­filled Script­ure?

A sum of $100,000 may seem large but in some countries it can be wiped out by a major surgery. If I give my money to others, who will pay my medical bills? My gener­osity may have helped others but who will look after my medical needs? Then I will be in trouble. When I get old and sick, or need to pay for my children’s education, do I trust in God to supply my need? That takes a lot of commitment!

Why can’t I simply accept the $100,000 as a gift from God? After all, Paul does say that God has richly supplied us with all things for our enjoyment (1Tim.6:17), so why can’t we keep it for a rainy day? If God was the one who gave me the $100,000 in the first place, why should I give it away only to seek His help again?

What about a rich church?

The people of the Jerusalem church shared all possessions in common (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32). What does that mean for me? If I join a church with a com­mon fund that pays for everyone’s needs, perhaps I won’t need to save my $100,000. Then the church will take care of my needs. That seems ideal. By giving all my money to the church, it won’t be stuck in a bank account but will be in circulation to meet the needs of the church people.

But the problem is that the church itself will get rich! Instead of the indiv­idual who stores up riches, now it is the church that stores up riches. Do we solve our problem by making the church rich? In fact a rich church will find itself in a dangerous spiritual situation. The Lord Jesus says to the church in Laodicea: “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev.3:17, ESV).

The danger of riches is as real to a church as to an indiv­idual, which is not surprising given that a church is composed of people. The symp­t­oms described in this verse are true of the church and the indivi­dual alike. On the individual level, the rich Christian is wretched, misera­ble, poor, blind, and naked. Money can’t buy happiness or the inner peace that comes from the fruit of the Spirit. These same ailments are found in the church in Laodicea. Making the church rich is not the ans­wer to the problem of what to do with our money.[1]

The other danger of a common fund is that we will no longer put our trust in God to provide for our needs but will rely on the fund. I’m told that some become Catholic monks for this reason. After they join a monastery, the church will take care of their material needs for the rest of their lives. When they die, the church will even take care of their burial. Our faith then becomes horizontal rather than vertical.

Led by the Spirit of God

How then do we deal with the matter of money for the individual and the church? The answer comes back to Romans 8:14: “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God.”

The answer is found in the leading of the Spirit. If we are willing to be led by the Spirit as a church or as indiv­iduals, God will show us what we ought to do with our money. No one can give you a specific answer to the question of what to do with your $100,000. At the most we can say that if you are a child of God, or want to be a child of God, you will have to be led by the Spirit. You will have to ask God what to do with the $100,000. No one can ans­wer the question for you. Anyone who tells you what to do with the money is assuming an authority that he is not entitled to.

Committing to God means to be willing to be led by the Spirit in all situations. But here is a warning: If you are being led by the Spirit, you will experience an inner opposition to that leading. Galatians 5:22 talks about the fruit of the Spirit, but the context also says that flesh and spirit are in conflict with each other. The unbeliever is usually un­aware of this conflict be­cause he lives as he pleases. But when you become a Christian, life suddenly gets compli­cated because every time you want to sin, some­thing comes along and fights your impulses. Every time you have a sinful thought, another thought comes in and starts fight­ing it. You feel that you are being pulled apart.

The Christian life will be extremely difficult if you allow the flesh — that is, your old way of thinking, your old habits, your old nature — to exert its control in your life, because the Holy Spirit will not tolerate that. This will lead to an inner con­flict in which the flesh pulls you in one direction and the Spirit in the other. To be led by the Spirit with­out conflict, you must put off the old nature.

But when you are being led by the Spirit, every experience from God will bear His mark so that you will know it is from God. Your exper­ience of God will be as real as your experience of sin. After you sin, you immed­iately become aware that you have sinned. Similarly, when you are being led by the Spirit, you are aware of the leading, for there is a self-confirm­ing aspect to it.

A new heart, a new spirit

Yahweh God says in Ezekiel 36:26-27:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will place My Spirit within you and cause you to follow My statutes and care­fully observe My ordinances. (HCSB)

In Scripture, the word “flesh” usually has a negative meaning but here it is given a positive meaning as a contrast to the coldness of stone. It is important, however, to keep in mind that the word “flesh” outside this passage usually has a negative meaning.

What is the difference between a heart of stone and a heart of flesh? We are not talking about a physical heart but about sensit­ivity to God. Whereas stone is cold and insensitive, flesh is sensitive to touch, to pain, to temper­ature. To be led by the Spirit means to be sen­sitive to God. Many Christians are not being led because they are not spirit­ually sensi­tive, having a heart of stone rather than a heart of flesh. God cannot speak to them because their hearts don’t respond to Him. But when we receive His Spirit, He will give us a new heart and a new life. When you are sensitive to the Spirit’s leading, you will be surprised at how much God is willing to lead you.

How am I going to be led by the Spirit? What must I do on my part? At the very least, I must be willing to be led. But is willingness enough? Your willingness will be tested when the Spirit brings about changes in your life, and you struggle over whether to follow the lead­ing. You may be able to endure this kind of struggle for a short time, but can you carry on like this in the long stretch? When difficulties or pres­sures arise, will your willing­ness rise to the challenge? What will you do when you face the ulti­mate test and your life is at stake? Martyrdom sounds grand, and some hope to experience it one day, but most Christians don’t welcome martyr­dom.

In real life, the things that hinder Christians from following the Spirit’s leading are usually the tiny problems that chip away at their will­ingness. It is the sniper fire rather than the artillery fire that wears down many a sol­dier and makes him a nervous wreck. It is the slow chiseling that gradual­ly causes the whole structure to collapse. When Christians collapse, in most cases it is not because of a great calamity but the slow chipping away at their commit­ment.

Sonship and slavery

But the one who is willing to be led unconditionally by the Spirit is com­mitted to God. The word “unconditionally” is important be­cause slaves don’t lay down condit­ions. But you may ask: Isn’t all this teach­ing about slavery negated by the fact that we are sons of God?

I will preface my answer to this question with a statement I will prove shortly from Scripture: In scriptural teaching, the question is not whether you choose to be a slave or a son. The fact is that you are a son only if you are a slave. If you are not a slave, you are not a son. In other words, being a son and being a slave are not two sep­arate things in Scripture but two pictures of the same thing. If you are a slave, you are a son, and vice versa.

The first evidence for this comes from Romans 6 which says we have been set free from slavery to sin and have become slaves of God. You are the one or the other, either a slave of sin or a slave of God, with no middle ground between them. No one in the world is truly free in the absolute sense because you are a slave to something, either to sin or to God. Yet on the other hand, we can say that it is the slaves of God who are free in a real and experiential sense because they are also the sons of God. Where­as Romans 6 speaks of our being slaves of God, Romans 8 speaks of our being sons of God (notably 8:14 regarding the leading of the Spirit). The slaves of God in Romans 6 are the sons of God in Romans 8.

Secondly, in the Bible, son and slave are two aspects of the same thing. You cannot be the one without being the other. The New Testa­ment’s definit­ion of sonship is different from the human con­cept of it. The Bible defines a son as one who is obedient to God and His will. We see this in Mt.12:50 (and its parallels in Mk.3:35 and Lk.8:21): “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

Jesus is the Son of God, so anyone who is a brother of Jesus is also a son of God (a common title of Christians, Mt.5:9; Rom.8:14; Gal.3:26). And who is Jesus’ brother and therefore God’s son? The one who does the will of the Father in heaven. In a parallel, Luke 8:21, Jesus says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it”. Hence a son of God is one who obeys God’s will and God’s word uncon­dition­ally. This unique definition of son­ship is equally applicable to a slave of God, for a slave like­wise obeys his mas­ter’s will uncondit­ion­ally. From all this, we see that being a son and being a slave amount to the same thing for the Christian. Jesus says to his disciples:

15 If you love me, you will keep my command­ments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:15-17, ESV)

Whether you call yourself a son or a slave is not the issue; ultim­ately it is whether you keep God’s commandments (v.15). This applies to son and slave in the same way. The distinction between son and slave is one of term­inology. In practice they are the same since both are committed to keeping God’s commandments and doing His will.

The third line of evidence for the functional equivalence of son and slave is the work of the Spirit. The one who keeps God’s com­mand­ments is given the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:32) who is the Helper and the Spirit of truth (John 14:16-17, just quoted). On the other hand, John 1:12 says, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” What is this right? Why does John bring in the idea of right? It refers to the Holy Spirit. To receive this right is to re­ceive the Spirit. It is also the right to become sons of God, for the sons of God are those who are being led by the Spirit (Rom.8:14), having “received the Spirit of adoption as sons” (v.15).

If you have not received the Spirit or are not being led by the Spirit, you are not a son of God, not even if you have been bap­tized. The Spirit is the key to the Christian life. There is no Christian life without the Spirit. In receiving the Spirit, you are given the right to be a son of God. With that right comes the responsibility of being led by the Spirit every moment. If you are a Christian, are you will­ing to let the Spirit lead you in practical ways such as: What shall I do with the money in my bank account? What should I do about my past sins? How do I resolve my relation­ship problems with the church brothers and sisters? The Spirit’s leading has to do with everyday practical living.

First link: To believe is to follow

We have seen in John 1:12 that to receive God is to believe in Him, and the same could be said of His Son Jesus Christ, the one sent by the Father (John 6:38,39,44; 7:16,28,33). If to receive is to believe, then to believe is to follow, as seen by comparing the following two statements:

I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness. (John 12:46, NIV)

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in dark­ness, but will have the light of life. (John 8:12, NIV)

Both verses speak of turning away from darkness. The first verse links this to believing in Jesus, the second to following Jesus. To­get­her they show the functional equivalence of “believe” and “follow,” a connect­ion seen also in John 10:26-27: “you do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

Second link: To follow is to serve

We come to the next functional link: To follow Jesus is to serve him. “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.” (Jn.12:26, NIV)

Here the Greek word for “serve” (diakoneō) is related to the one from which we get the English word “deacon”. It is different from the word for serving as a slave. However, in the New Testa­ment, there is little practical difference between the two. On the one hand, Jesus says, “I am among you as the one who serves” (Lk. 22:27), using the word from which deacon is derived. On the ot­her hand, Jesus took on “the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7). Hence serve and slave are applied to him with almost no funct­ional differ­ence in meaning.

Third link: To serve is to die

Now comes the hard part about commitment: to serve is to die. If you are at all serious about commit­ting to God and following the Spirit’s lead­ing, you will have to know where the Lord will lead you: to the cross. “If any­one would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mt.16:24)

We have seen that the Spirit is the key to the Christian life; without the Spirit there is no Christian life. A related principle is that spiritual life comes through death. This prin­ciple, that there is no life without death, is seen in several New Testa­ment passages, for example:

23 And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Truly, truly, I say to you, un­less a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:23-25, ESV)

Hating one’s life in the world may seem radical but it is the path to spiritual fruitfulness (v.24). A grain of wheat remains a lone grain that accomplishes nothing until it falls into the earth and dies. How does one grain become many? How does it pass on life? By being buried into the earth. Then emerges a stalk that will later have many grains on it. One grain of wheat becomes many grains, for life and fruitfulness come from death.

And who attains to eternal life? Read this verse carefully and don’t let any false teacher sidetrack you with a teaching of cheap grace. Jesus says, “Whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life”. To keep your life for eternity, you must hate your life in this world.

What does it mean to hate your life? Some willingly die in service for their country; they consider their country as being more important than their own lives. They “hate” their lives in the sense that they value some­thing above their own lives.

Conversely, you won’t surrender your physical life unless you see eternal life as being of greater value than your physical life. It takes to­tal commitment to hate your life, to deny your life. There is no higher commitment than that.

The word “hate” conveys intensity. Hating one’s life is not the same as a passive surrender to death. If you are dying from a termi­nal illness, it won’t make any difference whether you hate your life or not. It is mean­ingless to talk about hating your life when it’s a­bout to end. But while you’re still in reason­ably good health, you have the opport­unity to make a meaningful decision to hate your own life.

In terms of conceptual flow, it is significant that verse 24 is a bridge between verse 23 and verse 25. Verse 23 says that the Son of Man is about to be “glorified,” which in John’s gospel means that Jesus is about to be cru­cified. That is why Jesus speaks of himself as being “lifted up” (v.32), a play on words that has dual meaning: glorification and crucifixion. The up­ward action in “lifted up” expresses glorificat­ion but also cruci­fix­ion, for the cross is literally lifted up at crucifixion. Jesus’ death is his glor­ification whereas the world sees crucifixion as the ultimate humil­iat­ion; in fact he was crucified between two robbers. But in spiritual thinking, what is humil­iation in the eyes of the world is glorification in Christ.

Whereas verse 23 refers to Jesus, verse 25 refers to us. The pic­ture of the grain of wheat (v.24) is sandwiched in between the two verses. Hence it applies to Jesus and to us, bringing out a beauti­ful picture of the spirit­ual life. Here we see Christ’s absolute com­mitment to us. By his death as a grain of wheat, he passed on his life to you and me. His death gives us life. One life has multiplied into many. But the Lord doesn’t let the process stop there. The farmer keeps a small portion of the harvest for the next sowing, to obtain yet another harvest. Year after year there will be new harvests. The way to benefit from the life Jesus passes to us is not to keep it to ourselves, but to let it fall into the ground and die, in order to pass on life to others.

A vital attribute of life is the capacity to pass on life. Rom.4:19 notes the “deadness” of Sarah’s womb while Abraham’s body was “as good as dead” in their ability to have children. Dead means to be un­able to pro­duce life. But those who have life can pass on life. Com­mit­ment means to live the kind of life Jesus lived. As he passed on his life to us, so we pass on life to others. This is the kind of person who will have eternal life.

[1] Background note: The Jerusalem church was not a rich church despite its having a common fund. In fact the church was so poor that Paul had to organize a relief coll­ection for it with contributions from the Gentile churches. The Jerus­alem church had a com­mon fund, but its limited reserves were used up when a famine struck that part of the world. It had always been poor, so much so that the Macedonian church, which was itself poor, tried its best to support the Jerusalem church. Here is a case of a poor church helping an even poorer church.


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