Keeping an eye on what’s important

During the nineteen eighties, when what was known as the Eastern bloc countries were relaxing the restrictions they had lived under since the end of world war two, a display of Faberge eggs was held in Munich. One person who attended the display was Paul Kutchinsky.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the Kutchinskys moved from their native Poland to the East End of London. They were a family who had a long history in the jewellery business. At one stage they had been court jewellers to Ludwig of Bavaria.

They soon established themselves in their new environment and they soon established a thriving jewellery business.

Paul Kutchinsky had always been fascinated by Faberge eggs, and the exhibition in Munich convinced him that he should attempt to construct the biggest diamond egg in the world. He set about his task with a focus that bordered on the pathological. Accounts of the period from family members indicate that just about everything was put on hold until after the egg was completed.

Both family and the family business were neglected in the quest to build the expensive egg. His family fell apart under the pressure of the project. And the century old jewellery business could not survive the financial burden the egg had imposed on the company.

Most of us never have the kind of wealth to pursue the kind of expensive dream that would send a well established jewellery business into bankruptcy. However, there is always the possibility that we take our eyes of what’s important to pursue something we think is impressive or even just plain urgent.

Timothy might well have found himself in that kind of situation. A quick read of first and second Timothy reveals that he had his fare share of difficult people, demanding situations and dodgy doctrines to contend with as he set about bringing order to the church at Ephesus.

2 Timothy 4 records some of Paul’s final words to Timothy, his son in the faith. They are a call to keep before him what is important.

How do you do that?

Firstly, recognise your most important audience.

In verses 2-5, he gives instructions to Timothy about his call and ministry. These words don’t apply specifically to all of us, because we don’t all have the same calling as Timothy. However, what Paul says in verse one does apply to all of us:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom (2 Timothy 4.1).

The “audience of one” – God – is the most important audience. The true worth of anything is measured by how God sees it.

Secondly, stay connected to your roots.

Right at the beginning of second Timothy, Paul reminds Timothy of the faith of his mother and grandmother. Why? Perhaps because they had clearly demonstrated what “lived out” faith looked like (2 Timothy 1.5).

Fellowship is so important if you want to keep your eye on what is important. Whether the more mature Christians in your life are family members or not is not that crucial, so long as you have people around you who have proved God’s faithfulness. If you don’t have healthy, faithful role models, ask God to give you some.

Finally, keep the fire burning.

Most of us are familiar with 2 Timothy 1.6. If you want to keep your focus, you need to keep the fire. With the Spirit’s help we can keep our eyes fixed and focused on what really matters. With the Spirit’s help we can successfully fend off the devil’s distractions whether they come in the shape of a curve ball – or even a Faberge egg.

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What you have to do to win people

You might have heard the story of two young Moravian missionaries who sold themselves into slavery in order to reach the slave population of the island of St. Thomas (Virgin Islands) in the Caribbean.

The story goes that a native of the island, named Anton, who served at the court of the King of Denmark, was invited to Herrnhut where the Moravians were based by the Moravian leader, Count Zinzendorf. His purpose was to plead for volunteers to go to St.Thomas.

Two men responded. Their names were Johann Leonhard Dober and David Nitschmann. There is no hard evidence to verify the claim that they sold themselves into slavery. But they did go to St. Thomas. They eventually branched out from St. Thomas, establishing churches throughout the West Indies. The response in Antigua alone was such that by the end of the eighteenth century there were eleven thousand Moravian church members.

A major factor in Dober and Nitschmann’s success was the extent to which they embraced the culture they were trying to reach. They empowered the slaves they reached to lead and preach. Some European missionaries who later joined them even went so far as to marry wives who had grown up in slavery.

The gospel pushes us beyond all sorts of psychological, cultural and even geographical boundaries. However it does not do so without our cooperation.

In 1 Corinthians 9.19, Paul said that though he was free, he became a slave to everyone in order to win them. Of course that does not mean that he literally sold himself into slavery. But it does mean that he was prepared to sacrifice the comfort of his own cultural environment and step into the discomfort and unfamiliarity of the world of those he was trying to win for Christ.

Not everyone is called to exhibit the same kind of cultural flexibility that Paul felt called to embrace. Having said that, the underlying principle of dying to your own rights and preferences is still, surely, required if we are to win people for Christ.

How does this work? And how do we work it out?

Firstly, if we are going to win people for Christ we have to be intentional about it. Paul considered himself free He belonged to no-one. Yet he made himself a slave to everyone. It wasn’t an external obligation that caused Paul to make this choice. He made himself a slave. That is strong, intentional language. It wasn’t Paul’s default to be a slave to everyone. Neither, I would suggest, is it ours. It took a decision. He had to make a decision. We have to make a decision. It doesn’t just happen.

Secondly, this “making himself a slave” has an incarnational feel about it. Christ took upon Himself the form of a servant (Philippians 2.7). The Son of God chose to enter into our world as a servant (the Greek is literally slave). That was His choice. Paul, in choosing to become a slave to all was imitating His Lord and Saviour. The incarnation of Christ is not just a theological proposition, it is also the greatest ever demonstration of leadership by example.

Finally, when we are prepared to venture outside the familiarity of our own worlds, we carry the invasive power of the Spirit with us. When Jesus entered the world of first century Judaism, nothing was ever the same again. When He served the needs of the crowds and the needs of individuals in the power of the Spirit, those lives were never the same again. Paul’s strategy of self imposed restriction and actively entering into the worlds of others in order to win them was not just some sort of religious principle, it was a vehicle for the power of the Spirit.

When we step into the worlds of others, we can expect the power of the Spirit to be released, because the Spirit is the Spirit of mission.

You don’t need to sail to the Caribbean – though such a proposal is probably a little more appealing today than it was nearly three hundred years ago! You can start to serve people around you. And you start by deciding to dethrone your own preferences and freedoms. If every Christian in the country made a decision like that, we would turn the nation upside down.

The Door-Opener

Apparently the most expensive key in the world costs $34000. If you are prone to losing keys, it might be best to give this one a miss!

The key is in the form of a watch made by the luxury watch manufacturer, Jaegar LeCoultre. The way it works is that you press on the watch face to alternate between the watch function and the key function. Of course, the car isn’t just a family saloon, the key is designed to open an Aston Martin. I suppose if you can afford an Aston Martin, you can afford such an expensive key.

Keys, whether they are of the Aston Martin type or the more down to earth Yale variety, play a very powerful role in our lives. They give us access to our different worlds and spheres of activity. They can be used to admit people to those spheres or keep them out.

In his letter to the church at Philadelphia, John records Jesus as describing Himself as the one who has the key of David. The allusion is to Isaiah 22 where the official in Hezekiah’s court, Eliakim, is given the key of David. This key is not a literal key, it is simply a figurative way of expressing the authority that God conferred on an individual. That Jesus is said to have this key, indicates that He has the ultimate governmental authority not only in Israel but in the whole of the universe.

It was helpful for the church at Philadelphia to know this as Jesus declared that He had set before them an open door. The use of the term open door in the New Testament usually refers to opportunities to spread the gospel (see Acts 14.27; 2 Corinthians 2.12; Colossians 4.2). Jesus was giving this kind of opportunity to a church that was beleaguered, perhaps even broken, a church that felt its own weakness and the strength of the opposition ranged against it.

It’s a reminder to all of us that God gives see us differently to the people around us. And a reminder that it is what is going on in the heavenly realm that is really of importance.

What can we learn from the letter to Philadelphia about open doors?

Firstly, Jesus is the great door-opener (Revelation 3.7). What He opens, no-one can shut and what He shuts no-one can open. Any progress we make in any area of our lives is not based on our gifts and abilities alone, it is because Jesus has unlocked the door.

The apostles experienced this when they wanted to preach the gospel in Asia. Acts 16.6-7 records that the Spirit prevented them from preaching the gospel in Asia and kept them from going to Bithynia. Jesus locked the door. Why? Because He wanted them to go to Macedonia instead.

Secondly, Jesus opens doors for us as a response to our faithfulness (Revelation 3.8). Sometimes you hear people talk about God’s grace and sovereignty as though they were something random. There is an element of mystery about God’s grace that cannot be reduced to a kind of cause and effect style explanation; that would take us into a works based religion. However, God does respond to faithfulness. The church at Philadelphia was given an open door because it had shown itself faithful. God doesn’t give us open doors on the basis of how strong we might appear, but on the basis of how good we have been as stewards of what He has previously entrusted to us.

Thirdly, open doors attract opposition (Revelation 3.9-10). If you had walked into the Philadelphian church the day after it had received this prophecy, you might have found that not much had changed. Same opposition. Same difficulties. Same challenges. However, they have the promise of Jesus that He will deal with those challenges.

Opposition does not mean that the door is not open. It simply means that someone is trying to oppose you walking through it. Paul lived with the tension of having an open door and much opposition(1 Corinthians 16.9). The experience of the church at Philadelphia indicates that opposition to our open door is a spiritual issue that can only be dealt with in the spiritual realm. And to deal with that, we have to rely on the authority of Jesus, the One who opened the door in the first place.

If you want open doors and if you are to have any hope of overcoming the opposition to your open doors, take a leaf out of Philadelphia’s book and faithfully follow the Door-Opener.

 

What you permit, you promote

Apparently if you are an aeroplane pilot and you fly off course by one degree, you will miss your landing spot by ninety-two feet for every mile you fly. If you fly around the world, starting at the equator, a one degree error would land you five hundred miles from your intended destination.

I haven’t done the sums on this – just relying on the calculations of others! However, even if the five hundred miles is inaccurate by one hundred miles either side, you are still an incredibly long way off your intended destination. If you want to process this emotionally, just imagine your favourite airline landing you a couple of hundred miles from your holiday destination.

There’s a saying, I don’t know where it originated, that what we permit, we promote. The idea behind it is that if we don’t uphold standards, whether in a corporate setting or personally, we promote standards with which we might not agree. This is true of businesses, churches, families and even in our own personal lives. A one degree deviation does not seem to make much difference today or even tomorrow. Or even next week. A month down the line, however, you might just have a sense that things are not as they should be. A year ahead, then a decade…you get the idea.

The church at Thyatira had a permission / promotion issue. A prophet called Jezebel was influencing people in the direction of idolatry and sexual immorality. We are not told exactly how she did this and how she arrived at a belief that was far from the teaching of Jesus and the apostles. It might well have been a mixture of half truths and error disguised as practical wisdom that led to her teaching this and in turn led to people embracing her teaching.

What was problematic was not just the behaviour of Jezebel and her followers. Jesus says that what He has against the church at Thyatira is that they allowed this prophet to teach her destructive doctrine (Revelation 2.20). They permitted it. And by permitting it they were unintentionally promoting it.

It is hard to believe that a church like Thyatira knew from the beginning what Jezebel was about, because this was a good church that was loyal to Jesus. And perhaps even Jezebel did not start out with brazen promotion of idolatry – perhaps she didn’t even think that what she was promoting was idolatrous! It was more likely a result of the destructive creep of “one degree off” syndrome.

Thyatira reminds us that we can be doing well in so many areas – the Lord commended them for their love, faith, service and perseverance (Revelation 2.19) – and yet allow a culture to develop under our noses that can threaten the future of our church, business, career, family or our own walk with God.

What are you permitting? That’s what you’re promoting. This is a huge challenge. It needs prayer and wisdom. Sometimes it takes courage to acknowledge that our one degree deviance is going to land us in the spiritual equivalent of the middle of the Atlantic ocean rather than the destination that God intended for us. And it takes even more courage to do something about it.