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May 2016

The Test of Time

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Remember the time crunch you faced in school when you took a quiz or exam? Whether you had ten minutes or three hours, on cue you had to put down your pencil. Or stop typing. Whether you knew the answers or not, time was up. Turn in your paper!

Tests and timing go together in school.

In the spiritual life, too.

Two weeks ago, my blog post quoted Ecclesiastes 3:1: “There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under the heavens.” After writing about how God gives us enough time for everything we need to do, I found my schedule being stressed and strained.

Proverbs 30:5 informs us that “every word of God is tested.” So I’m not surprised that my adherence to the truth of Ecclesiastes 3:1 would be contested.

Here’s how I dealt with it. I distilled the verse to its essence by temporarily removing words and phrases. (I emphasize “temporarily” because the Revelation 22:19 warns against subtracting from God’s Word.) I wanted to discover the root meaning of the verse.

Hebrew and Greek, the original languages of the Bible, have no indefinite articles, so Bible translators insert the words “a” or “an” to smooth out English versions.

That’s what they did with Ecclesiastes 3:1. It refers to “a time” and “a season” even though there is no “a” in the Hebrew text. Therefore, we could remove the English indefinite articles and, at least in theory, not corrupt the text. Here’s what the verse would look like: “There is time for everything and season for every activity under the heavens.” The first half of the sentence still reads pretty well, but the second half is stilted.

Here’s another fun fact. Biblical writers were fond of a style of poetry called “parallelism” in which the second line of a verse either repeats, opposes, or completes the thought of the first line. The second line of our verse repeats the sentiment expressed by the first: time is available.

Scholars call this technique “synonymous parallelism” because the same idea occurs in each of the two lines.

Consequently, we could delete the second line from this verse and not diminish the main point. Here’s what would remain: “There is time for everything.”

I could simplify this core idea even further. Since “for everything” covers all situations, the promise is universal: there is time.

There is time?

As I was working through this exercise, the truth of what I was reading began to amaze and frighten me. Amaze, because I appreciated that God cared about the time pressures I struggled with. Frighten, because I knew the Lord would insist that I trust His Word. He didn’t want to entertain me with some biblical insight; I had rely on what He said!

And that’s when the challenges hit me. I’ve seldom felt so busy without relief. And confused. Most of the demands on my calendar are legitimate, so that makes it hard for me to decline them. I’ve been striving for efficiency, but I can only go so far before I’ve maxed out my capabilities. At some point my schedule is full.

At least that’s what I thought. But maybe I’ve been wrong. Perhaps I actually do have sufficient time to accomplish – what?

His Word said “everything.” I have enough time for the whole ball of wax? It sure doesn’t strike me that way! In fact, I feel late, lazy, and rushed; like I have too many tasks and too few hours.

I’ve quoted Ecclesiastes 3:1 over and over, sometimes aloud, in an attempt to settle my heart. But also to prepare my faith for a miracle. Because at the end of this season, I want to look back and realize that I can depend on God’s Word. Even if I don’t understand how He can fulfill it.

What would our life with Christ look like if we banked on His promises? What freedom would we enjoy, what liberation from mental or circumstantial chains?

Jesus can use a single verse to open up to us a new and vital way to live. Circumstances don’t get the last word; He does!

Let’s believe His Word; let’s handle our responsibilities with confidence. In Christ, we have enough time. Even when it’s tested.

Multiply or Die

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“Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know more.” – Confucius

Sometimes, you can learn the opposite of what someone intended. A while back at a ministry conference, I heard a preacher discuss Christ’s parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). (In the New Testament, a “talent” refers to a day’s wage, not to a skill.) Before leaving for a trip, a king dispensed various sums of money to three servants and asked them to conduct business. When he returned, the king met with them to asses their investment returns. The first two doubled what they had and in his gratitude, the king rewarded these good and faithful servants with greater resources.

Our speaker claimed that, in the context of this parable, multiplication defined faithfulness. No doubt he intended to motivate the attendees to grow their ministries (in terms of souls saved, books published, etc.), but it came across as threatening. Referring to the third servant, he stressed that the failure to multiply constituted faithlessness. Furthermore, such faithlessness deserved punishment–forever (vs. 30)!

I appreciate that the meaning of words depends on context, not just the dictionary. The preacher properly connected the notions of faithfulness and multiplied efforts. (I would go further and tie in goodness, too, since the word repeats in vss. 21 and 23.)

But I wondered about missionaries who died in their fields of service having won few (if any) to the Lord. Are they wicked, lazy, faithless, and fearful?

Something’s wrong with this picture!

Through the three parables that make up Matthew 25, Jesus taught about the kingdom of God and the end of the age. He encouraged His followers to show their loyalty to Him by their vigilance (vss. 1-13), diligence (vss. 14-30), and compassion (vss. 31-46).

Rather than prescribing rules or demanding specific outcomes, these parables are best interpreted in light of the above themes. To do otherwise invites confusion.

Again, the middle parable (about the talents) promotes trustworthy and productive efforts. But the first parable affirms five ladies who did nothing but sit and wait for the groom to show up and call them to his wedding feast. Does Jesus want us to be active or not?

In the third parable, by identifying with His suffering disciples, Christ surprised both the rewarded and the rejected upon His return. The “sheep” didn’t know that by tending to these victims, they were serving Jesus. Likewise, the “goats” were unaware that by disregarding the oppressed, they were neglecting Him. Both groups seemed to be ignorant of their accountability to Him, but that runs counter to the main idea of the second parable.

Treat the parables as illustrations; they communicate spiritual realities with earthly allusions and figures. Use them to shed light, not to instill anxiety.

To wrap up, let me stress that God honors those whom the preacher would chastise. Jesus refers without disparagement to diligent but unproductive workers who even so set the stage for the success of the apostles (John 4:38). And Hebrews 11:39-40 applauds believers who maintained their trust in God even though they didn’t receive the answers God had promised them.

The parable of the talents lays out a simple double contrast of the servants. The first two are “good and faithful” while the third one is “wicked and lazy.” How they’re labeled depends on their efforts.

Even a little initiative would have helped. The interest alone from a bank deposit would have been enough to have pleased the king (vs. 27).

The point? “Put the money to work” (vs. 16). Do what you can. Don’t hold back and don’t be afraid. Dare to serve Jesus with whatever He’s entrusted to you. To hear His voice extol your efforts–make that your goal.

 

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