Growing In Godliness Blog
Author: Paul Earnhart
By Paul Earnhart
Job, out of his wretchedness and deep anguish, once declared, ”Man that is born of women is of few days and full of trouble" (14:1). It may not be the whole story, but it is a significant part of it. Early and late, all of us will face some heartbreaking adversities. The presence of so much pain in life has caused some to question even the existence of God. The trap in that is that we are arguing against God by a standard which cannot exist without Him.
The adversity in human life is real, not imagined. The Bible deals forthrightly with it. Solomon speaks plainly in Ecclesiastes not only of the presence of pain but the absence of justice in life "under the sun." Most all of us have felt that knowing the why of all this suffering and who or what is behind it might help. It is altogether human to probe into such things, but we need to recognize the limitations of our own knowledge (Deuteronomy 29:29).
In the fall of the year before He died, Jesus and His disciples came upon a beggar in Jerusalem which moved the disciples to ask, "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should be born blind?" (John 9:1). They presumed that physical tragedy was always a result of divine judgment on sin. Jesus' answer, "Neither . . . but that the works of God should be revealed in him" opened up a much broader perspective on suffering. This man's suffering had a purpose. The disciples had seen it only as a consequence.
Where does suffering come from? From several sources. It can come from God, in the general suffering and death unleashed in the world after man sinned (Genesis 3:16-19; Romans 8:20), or in specific cases to humble or strengthen (Job, Miriam, Numbers 12:1-10, Manasseh, 2 Chronicles 33:10-20, and even Paul, 2 Corinthians 12:7).
It can come from Satan, through God's allowance, as illustrated in the case of the horrific suffering of the righteous Job. Even Paul's "thorn in the flesh" was "a messenger of Satan" which God used for very different purposes than the Tempter intended.
It can come as the inevitable fruit of our own sins. "The way of the transgressor is hard" (Proverbs 13:15). Sin has its temporal consequences--physical, emotional and social.
Yet, at last, unless there is some direct link to our sin, it is very difficult to know the exact origins of our adversity. And that is just as well, for far more important than knowing why we are suffering is our response to it. Adversity, regardless of its source, is one of God's most effective tools to deepen our faith in Him and transform our lives. So said the Psalmist: "Before I was afflicted I went astray. But now I keep Your word . . . It is good that I have been afflicted, that I may learn Your statutes" (Psalm 119:67,72). As C. S. Lewis once observed, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our conscience, and shouts at us in our pain". And as Scripture observes, "Whom the Lord loves He chastens" (Hebrews 12:6).
The anguish of Christ on the cross reflects the influence of God (Isaiah 53:6), and Satan (Luke 22:3,4) and our own sins (1 Peter 2:24). Yet it was our Savior's trusting response to this awful suffering that enabled God to work by it something transcendently wonderful. So it will be with us, if we choose our response to suffering wisely--especially when we don't understand why. "For our light affliction, which is for a moment, is working for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory" (2 Corinthians 4:17). At last, like that ancient blind man, what we suffer here is in order that "the works of God may be revealed in us."
Beatitudes: The Character of Kingdom Citizens
by Paul Earnhart
Jesus opens his momentous sermon with a series of eight pungent and largely paradoxical statements known traditionally as the “beatitudes” (Matthew 5:2-12). They must have fallen like thunderbolts upon those first century Jewish ears. A more likely formula for success could hardly have been imagined. They assaulted every maxim of conventional wisdom and left the hearer startled and perplexed. In this way Jesus gains the attention of his audience and drives home the essential character of the kingdom of God and its citizens, The whole world, then as now, was in earnest pursuit of happiness and had just as little conception as men today of how to obtain it. There was no surprise in the announcement that there was true blessedness in the kingdom. The shock came in the kind of people who were destined to obtain it. The beatitudes speak exclusively of spiritual qualities. The historic concerns of men—material wealth, social status and worldly wisdom—do not simply receive little attention, they receive none at all. Jesus is clearly out-lining a kingdom not of this world (John 18:36), a kingdom whose borders pass not through lands and cities but through human hearts (Luke 17:20-24). This altogether unlikely kingdom arrived as announced in the first century (Mark 9:1; Colossians 1:13; Revelation 1:9) but most were unprepared to recognize and receive it~even as they are now. It must be further noted that not only were the qualities of the kingdom citizen spiritual but they are qualities which would not come to men naturally. They are not the product of heredity or environment but of choice. No one will ever “fall into” these categories. They not only do not occur in men naturally, but are in fact distinctly contrary to the “second nature” which pride and lust have caused to prevail in the hearts of all humanity. Perhaps there is no more important truth to be recognized about the beatitudes than the fact that they are not independent proverbs which apply to eight different groups of men, but are a composite description of every citizen in the kingdom of God. These qualities are so interwoven in one spiritual fabric that they are inseparable. To possess one is to possess them all, and to lack one is to lack them all. And as all Christians must possess all these qualities of kingdom life, they are also destined to receive all its blessings — blessings which, like its qualities, are but components of one reward- one body called to one hope (Ephesians 4:4). In sum, then, the beatitudes do not contain a promise of blessing upon men in their natural state (all men mourn but all will certainly not be comforted, 5:4) nor do they offer hope to those who seem to fall into one category or another. They are a composite picture of what every kingdom citizen, not just a few super disciples, must be. They mark off the radical difference between the kingdom of heaven and the world of other men. The son of the kingdom is different in what he admires and values, different in what he thinks and feels different in what he seeks and does. Clearly, there has never been a kingdom like this before. A Kingdom for the Sinful and Lowly There have been many approaches to the specific content of the beatitudes. Many feel that there is a progression of thought moving through them which begins with a new attitude toward self and God, leads to a new attitude toward others, and culminates with the world”s reaction to this radical change. There is some merit to this analysis, and whether or not such a neat format always coincides with the actual order of the beatitudes, the ideas are certainly there. To a society governed by some serious misconceptions of the kingdom of God, the beatitudes make two basic statements. First, that the kingdom is not open to the the self righteous and self·assured, but to the supplicant sinner who comes seeking out of his emptiness. And, secondly, that the kingdom is not to be had by the “mighty” who obtain their desires by wealth or violence, but by a company of patient men who yield not only their wants but even their “rights” to the needs of others. Though not explicitly stated (Jesus was not to speak clearly of His death until a year later, Matthew 16:21) there is nothing quite so obvious in this sermon as the central gospel truth that salvation is by the grace of God. Here the dispensational premillennialist is palpably wrong. How could men and women so hungry for righteousness (5:6) and so much in need of mercy (5:7) find a place in a kingdom governed by a system of law alone? And who could imagine that citizens in the earthly kingdom envisioned by the dispensationalists would ever suffer persecution (5:10- 12)? The righteousness of the kingdom does not rest on a system of law but upon a system of grace. Its holy standards are attainable by sinful men (5:48). Otherwise, the Sermon on the Mount would be the source of greater despair than the law of Moses (Romans 7:25).
“How to Avoid a Spiritual Failure
by Paul Earnhart”
In his final hours in Rome, awaiting an inevitable execution, a very lonely apostle Paul suffered some additional heartbreak. "Demas," he wrote, "hath forsaken me, having loved this present world" (2 Timothy 4:10). We are left to speculate as to the particulars — what dread fears or powerful allurements led this faithful friend and co-worker to abandon the kingdom of God and to forsake his burdened brother. It was not as though he had fled the field at the first approach of trouble. During Paul's first imprisonment in Rome Demas had evidently been a steadfast companion (Philemon 24; Colossians 4:14). Now, unexpectedly, this heart-mauling betrayal and desertion.
Paul said that Demas "loved this present world." The "world" is many things. John describes it as a way of thinking where lust, materialism and pride abound (1 John 2:15-16). What was it that got to the faithful Demas? Was it fear of death or imprisonment? Or was it something more subtle like a nostalgic longing for the old easy ways free of constant warfare? We are not told which one of these undid Demas but one of them found its mark.
Breaking points can come to us too if we are not very careful. A deep hurt we cannot find it in ourselves to forgive. A disappointing marriage. Failures with our children. Lost health or prosperity. Anything we had never imagined happening to us. And often it's just plain prideful stubbornness. At any rate, don't ever say you'd never do what others have done. You've never been all the places you could be. Peter learned a valuable lesson about that (Matthew 26:31-35). It is far better that we know our own weaknesses and watch and pray that we enter not into temptation (Matthew 26:41). Satan loves an arrogant and self-confident man.
Another lesson to be learned from the failure of others is that those who at last go back, at first look back. Departures of apparent suddenness are really the end of a process. Our Lord warned that those who put their hand to the kingdom plow and look back longingly at the world are not fit for the kingdom of God (Luke 9:62). The disciples who go back are those who first begin to cultivate again the values of the world and like the Israelites in the wilderness grow nostalgic amidst their trials for the fleshpots of Egypt. They forget, of course, the galling bondage that accompanies the life of sin. These are the ones who gradually cease to meditate upon God's word (Psalm 1:1-2), then become prayerless (James 4:1-2) as God and Christ seem far away. First men cease to study, then to pray, and, finally, to care.
Sometimes this all begins as a casual flirtation, a few little compromises dismissed as harmless. Too much time with worldly companions (1 Corinthians 15:33), too much interest in a job (1 Timothy 6:9-10), too much concern with being accepted and making our mark in the world (1 Peter 5:5). Finally, it becomes a passionate love affair that makes us heedless of the injury we do to our Savior, ourselves and others.
Satan is the master of the "short step" method. Slow change is more effective in producing spiritual collapse than sudden departure. The danger of alerting the victim to what is happening is eliminated. We can be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:12-13). Warning flags need to start flying the moment we feel the slightest ebb in commitment. Beware the spiritual slow leak.
The unfailing answer to this kind of spiritual failure is the daily discipline of an uncompromising dedication which admits of no exceptions and makes quick and humble redress for every transgression. Burn all your bridges and press on to the heavenly mark (Philippians 3:7-14). And if, in spite of everything, you happen to stumble badly, don't let despair destroy you. Remember that everyone who has faltered has not ultimately fallen. We can all thank God for that. John Mark's disgraceful desertion in Pamphylia (Acts 13:13) was not the end of him because he didn't allow it to be. Paul sent for him during his last hours (2 Timothy 4:11) and the Holy Spirit chose him to record the gospel story. We don't have to be like Demas. In the mercy of God we have the privilege of being like John Mark or Peter, and, yes, even Paul.
“I said in my heart, ‘Come I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure’; but surely, this also was vanity. I said of laughter—‘Madness!’; and of mirth, ‘What does it accomplish?’ ” (Ecclesiastes 2:1, 2).
Solomon, his failed experiment with wisdom having been recounted, now tells of a similarly empty attempt to find contentment in pleasure. From the discipline of careful thought he turns first to a passionate pursuit of the sensual. He pours himself into every activity pleasing to the senses, bombarding himself with delights of the flesh. If he could not think his way to life’s purpose perhaps he could experience his way to it. But even before he relates the details of his new research he declares its results—complete and utter madness. It accomplished absolutely nothing.
“I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives” (v. 3). It strikes us as strange that the Preacher should begin intentionally to experiment with “folly” but this is likely a word used in retrospect. The Hebrew verb from which its original is formed usually indicates moral and spiritual stupidity rather than just intellectual foolishness (1 Samuel 13:13; 2 Samuel 24:10), thus, “the wickedness of folly” (7:25).
Solomon speaks specifically here of gratifying himself with wine. Does he mean to refer to drunkenness (Proverbs 20:1; 23:29, 30; 31:4, 5) or simply to the delights of good and nourishing but non-intoxicating food (Ecclesiastes 9:7, 8)? And is the folly here in immoral excesses or in trying to turn otherwise innocent pleasures (delectable food, pleasing clothing, lovely music, 2:8b) into the whole purpose of life? The Preacher seems very intent on telling us that his experiment with pleasure never led him to mindless excess (“while guiding my heart with wisdom”). Perhaps, practically, it does not matter. Whether one dives headfirst into pleasure or tastes its delights with respectable prudence, neither will bring any ultimate satisfaction. The former may cause more momentary havoc but both will end in emptiness of heart.
This is an important warning for a generation intent on living in a continuous party, entertaining itself into stupefaction. All too soon the endless banqueting grows stale and the laughter dies or becomes hollow (7:6). The pursuit of pleasure is necessarily flawed by its essential selfishness and devaluation of others. It becomes increasingly addictive increasingly unsatisfying. This is not to disparage innocent fun but building our lives on it is to mindlessly and endlessly relive some sophomoric stage of life.
Solomon refers later in this section (v. 8b) to another sensual delight to which he gave himself, “the delights of the sons of men”(NKJ) or as it may be better translated “the pleasures of men—many concubines” (NAS). This may be a case of understatement for the king actually had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3). One wonders how in his relatively short lifetime he ever managed to hold even a brief conversation with each of them! His proverbs suggest that they must have given him as much pain as pleasure (Proverbs 21:9, 19; 27:15) and they became the primary reason for his apostasy from God (1 Kings 11:4). Marriage is truly a blessing from God (9:9) but not even a wonderful marriage can bear the load of being life’s ultimate purpose! It is evident in this age of serial polygamy that some are still seeking to find transcendent happiness in marriage, running from one partner to the next. None of them will ever approach the level of Solomon’s experiment and like him they too will fail. We ought to be wise enough to learn from the other fellow’s experience.
But not all pleasure is sensual. “I made my works great, I built myself houses, and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them” (2:4, 5). Failing to find life’s meaning in physical gratifications Solomon turns to more substantial and useful pleasures, the creating of great palaces and delightful gardens, the multiplication of great herds and flocks and the accumulation of great wealth. The purpose of all this frenetic building was to somehow bring a sense of fulfillment and peace and compared to his plunge into sensuality it was certainly a step up. Solomon did find pleasure in the midst of his work (2:10) but when it was done and he reflected on its ultimate significance he concluded that it, too, was meaningless (2:11).
Solomon with his virtually limitless resources had restricted himself from no desired pleasure or pursuit (2:10) and it worked to make him surpassingly great among men (2:9). Yet for all his achievements he concluded with an emptiness perhaps even greater than that with which he began. It was destined to fail from the beginning because he was searching in the wrong places and always for the wrong reason—for himself(2:4–6, 8). Life is not made of pleasures and palaces.
 Earnhart, P. (1999). Mining the Scriptures: Of Pleasures and Palaces. Christianity Magazine, 16(3/4), 35.
Making a Name For Yourself
By Paul Earnhart
“I charge thee in the sight of God, who giveth life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed the good confession…”
The Roman Empire had thousands of provincial officials in the course of the 500 years it ruled the Mediterranean world. Few enough are even known by name, and only one is remembered – Pontius Pilate. Though there is information about this provincial governor in both Josephus (Antiquities, XVIII, iii, 1-3; Wars, II, ix, 2-4) and Philo (Legatio ad Gaium), the largest portion of our knowledge of him comes out of the New Testament gospels.
The interesting thing about Pilate is that, hung up in an obscure district of the Empire, he seems to have been an ordinary man out to make his mark in the world. He was a middle class Roman with ambition for better things.
Pilate had nothing but contempt for the troublesome people of his district and when they presented him with a virtual ultimatum for the execution of a prisoner they brought to him, he balked. In addition to his stubborn resistance to being manipulated, there remained in him some residual sense of justice. The governor’s examination of the prisoner persuaded him that the charges were empty, based on religious differences, even jealousy (Matthew 27:18), rather than criminal activity. Pilate may have been in many ways a brutal, insensitive man. When his seizure of the sacred (corban) treasury in Jerusalem caused a public clamor, he sent his soldiers to mingle with the crowd in civilian clothes and beat to death the instigators (Luke 13:3). But the case of Jesus was outrageous.
The problem was that the Jews were stubbornly insistent. Their threat to report him to Caesar as guilty of harboring anti-government agents was disquieting (John 19:12). Though a bit laughable from the one who murdered the apostle James, Philo quotes Heord Agrippa I as saying that the Jews “exasperated Pilate to the greatest possible degree, as he feared lest they might go on an embassy to the Emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government – his corruptions, his acts of insolence, his rapine…his cruelty and his continual murders…” (Legatio ad Gaium, 38).
Prudence would have directed Pilate to protect his office and give the Jews their pound of flesh. But there was the prisoner’s disquieting claim to be the Son of God which the Jews, in exasperation, had finally blurted out to him (John 19:7); and his own wife’s urgent warning to leave this “righteous man” alone (Matthew 27:19). Pilate was a man caught between justice and ambition, between his conscience and his career.
If Jesus was a criminal, He should have been summarily executed. If He was innocent, as Pilate confessed, He should have been immediately freed. But the governor did neither. Instead, he tried to escape his dilemma by compromise – a proffered deal, the brutal beating of an admittedly innocent prisoner – yet, nothing worked. He had to choose. He could send Jesus to the cross and save his career plans, but how could he take responsibility for condemning to death a man whom he, himself, had pronounced innocent?
Pilate sought refuge in confusion. The issue was complex. How could any mere man be expected to settle such troublesome questions? “What is truth?” (John 13:38). And then, at last, when he could not save his job and justice too, he protected his job and shifted blame for his knowing perversion of justice to the Jews. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said, as he symbolically washed his hands, “It is your responsibility” (Matthew 27:24, NIV).
The real irony of Pilate’s story is that he was a man seeking a name for himself. For him, Jesus was a minor, if troublesome, inconvenience on his road to fame and fortune. And yet Pontius Pilate is remembered in history, not because of his own great achievements, but because of his brief encounter with Jesus of Nazareth.
It is easy to see and to jump on the moral cowardice and grave miscalculations of a Pontius Pilate. But how do we differ from him? How often do we sell out moral principle, and the Son of God, just to work out our own carnal ambitions? Every man and woman who turns aside his duty to God, to family, and to others, just to hold on to some worldly dream in no way differs from the governor of Judea. We can plead that we tried almost everything to escape being untrue to what was right, but so did Pilate. We can plead confusion, that the issue is not clear, that it is disputed by good people, but so did Pilate. We can blame our moral and spiritual lapse on the wickedness of others, but so did Pilate.
What is the lesson in all this? That in trying to make a name for ourselves we can easily wind up like Nabal, with the name of a fool. Worldly ambition can easily blind men to real value. Otherwise, Pilate would have known that Jesus was not his problem, but his salvation.