Idols of the Soul (and Other Lessons From Jesus)
As human beings, we are products of our environment, of our culture. These greatly shape our values, beliefs, and attitudes. Whether you were raised in a big metropolitan area or in a village with no clean water, it makes no difference: the culture, the environment that you grew up in, has greatly made you what you are. And even if you are able to go to a new environment, the one you have been raised in will leave its mark on you until the grave.
Unfortunately, to some degree, most of our environments and cultures work against the principles of God’s kingdom. The world, after all, is a fallen world, and its values, morals, and customs often reflect that fallen state. What else would they reflect? It’s just so hard for us to see because we are so immersed in our culture and environment.
The work of God in our hearts is, among other things, to point us to the values, morals, and standards of God’s kingdom. As we will see this week, those values, morals, and standards often differ greatly from what we have been born into and reared in. The disciples had to learn these lessons; we do too.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, May 28.
Who doesn’t aspire to greatness? That is, who doesn’t want to be great or do great things? This desire doesn’t always have to arise from selfishness or from ego or arrogance. It could simply be doing the very best that you can at whatever you do, hoping perhaps that what you do could even bring blessings upon others. (See also Eccles. 9:10.)
The problem, however, comes in defining “greatness.” How easy for our fallen human minds to understand the concept in a way that vastly differs from God’s view.
To define true greatness, Jesus called a child to stand before Him and said, “ ‘Whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’ ” (Matt. 18:4, NKJV). Jesus didn’t talk about being a great preacher, or a great businessman, or even a great philanthropist. Greatness, in the sight of God, is what we are inside, not what we do externally, though no doubt what’s inside will impact what we do externally.
Notice, Jesus defines greatness in a way that most people in the world don’t. After all, who wakes up one day and decides that the greatness he or she wants in life is to be as humble as a little child? It seems strange to us to aspire to something like that, but this is only because we are so tainted by the world’s principles, ideas, and concepts.
What does it mean to be humble like a little child? One of the indicators of humility is obedience, putting God’s Word ahead of our own will. If you are on the wrong path in your life, then that’s because you’re on your own path. The solution is simple: humble yourself and get back on God’s path through obedience to His Word. If Adam and Eve had stayed humble, they would not have sinned. It’s interesting to consider that the tree of life and the tree of knowledge were both located in the middle of the Garden. Often life and destruction aren’t far apart. The difference is humility.
One of the worst consequences of the Fall is seen in interpersonal relationships. From Adam trying to blame Eve for his sin (Gen. 3:12) to this moment on earth today, our race has been ravaged and degraded by conflict between individuals. Unfortunately, conflicts are not just in the world but in the church, as well.
Let’s face it: it’s easier to go behind someone’s back to complain about him or her than to go directly to the person and deal with the issue. And that is precisely why we don’t want to do it, despite being told to do it by the Lord. Yet, Jesus teaches us to go directly to someone who has hurt us and to attempt to restore the relationship. If the person is not receptive, then there are additional instructions.
“ ‘For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them’ ” (Matt. 18:20, NKJV). Look at the context here; it is about the discipline and restoration of another person. (We tend to apply this verse more broadly.)
Jesus says that the Holy Spirit is present when a small group is attempting to restore a believer. This is the beautiful work of Redemption. And it begins with humbly doing the right thing and talking directly with someone who has hurt you. This, too, would be another example of greatness in those who do it.
When Jesus says to forgive “seventy times seven,” what He’s really saying is that we must never stop forgiving someone. Jesus is serious about the necessity of forgiveness, not only for others’ benefit but for our own. Look at how strong the parable is that He told to make His point. We can be forgiven a lot of things; that’s what the gospel is all about, forgiveness (see Exod. 32:32, Acts 5:31, Col. 1:14), but if we don’t forgive others the way we have been forgiven by God, we can face dire consequences.
Though not much is told us specifically about this man, we can pick up a few salient points. He was rich, a ruler (see Luke 18:18), and apparently a very scrupulous follower of God’s law. We can see, too, that he sensed something was missing from his life. It reminds one a bit of the story of Martin Luther; though outwardly a pious monk, inside he was dissatisfied with his spiritual life, and he struggled with assurance of salvation. In both cases, the men sensed that the great gap between themselves and God was not going to be filled by their outward works.
“This ruler had a high estimate of his own righteousness. He did not really suppose that he was defective in anything, yet he was not altogether satisfied. He felt the want of something that he did not possess. Could not Jesus bless him as He blessed the little children, and satisfy his soul want?”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 518.
Some people might argue that, in this story, Jesus is teaching that we receive eternal life based on our good works. After all, in Matthew 19:17 Jesus says, “If you want to enter life, keep the commandments” (NIV). If this were the only text on that subject, one could make an argument here. But too many other texts, especially in Paul’s writings, teach that the law does not save but rather points to our need of salvation (see Rom. 3:28; Gal. 3:21, 22; Rom. 7:7). Instead, Jesus must have been guiding this man to see his own great need of more than what he was doing. After all, if keeping the law alone could do it, then the man would already have salvation, since he was scrupulous in keeping it. The gospel needs to penetrate the heart, to go right to the idols of the soul, and whatever we are holding on to that’s an impediment to our relationship to God needs to be gone. In this case, it was his money. Jesus notes how hard it is for a rich man to be saved; and yet, shortly after this dialog, Luke records a beautiful story of exactly that happening (see Luke 19:1–10).
Right after the incident with the rich ruler, what happens?
“Then Peter answered and said to Him, ‘See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have?’ ” (Matt. 19:27, NKJV). Nothing in the text says what prompted this question, but it could easily be in direct response to the rich man’s departure from Jesus. Peter seemed to be implying that, unlike this man and others who either rejected Jesus or stayed with Him a while and then left, he and the other disciples had left all for Him. They were remaining faithful to Him, even at great personal cost. Thus, the question is, What’s in it for us?
From our perspective today, we might see this question as another indication of how hard-hearted and spiritually dense the disciples were (and to some degree that’s true). On the other hand, why not ask a question like Peter’s? Why shouldn’t he wonder what he would get by following Jesus?
After all, life here is hard, even for those who have it the best. We are all subject to the traumas, the disappointments, the pain of our fallen existence. In the 1800s, an Italian intellectual named Giacomo Leopardi wrote about the overriding unhappiness of human beings, saying that “as long as man feels life, he also feels displeasure and pain.”
Life is often a struggle, and the good in this world doesn’t always even out with the bad. So, Peter’s question makes perfect sense. Because life is hard, what advantage comes to us from following Jesus? What should we expect from making the kind of commitment that Jesus asked of us?
Notice, Jesus didn’t rebuke Peter for selfishness or the like. He gave him first a very straightforward answer and then the parable regarding the workers and their wages. Though over the centuries a great deal of discussion has ensued over the meaning of the parable, the basic point is clear: we will get from Jesus what He has promised us.
To truly appreciate today’s story about James and John (and their mother) in Matthew 20:20–27, first read Luke 9:51–56. This event occurred when Jesus and His disciples at first set out for Jerusalem, just days before James and John asked if they could sit on Jesus’ left and right in the kingdom.
James and John, the Sons of Thunder, were still clearly more worried about their own future than about the salvation of those around them, even after they had been sent out to evangelize the surrounding areas. In its own way, this story is somewhat like what we looked at yesterday, with Peter’s question regarding what they could get by following Jesus.
Look carefully at Jesus’ answer here. “ ‘You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?’ ” (Matthew 20:22, NKJV). In other words, to be identified with Jesus’ future glory means, first, to be identified with His suffering and death, something that they had not anticipated and were not ready for. The fact that they immediately answered, “ ‘We are able’ ” (Matt. 20:22) shows that they didn’t know what He was warning them about. They would learn, eventually.
An interesting contrast is presented here, one that we need to think about for ourselves. As we saw in yesterday’s study, we have been promised wonderful things, even “eternal life” (Matt. 19:29, NKJV), if we follow Jesus. At the same time, too, the Bible makes it clear that in this world, following Jesus comes with a cost, sometimes a very big one. Jesus Himself later told Peter that he would die a martyr’s death (see John 21:18, 19). Many believers throughout history, and even today, have paid a great price for following Jesus. In fact, it might be wise to ask ourselves if there is something wrong with our walk if indeed we have not paid a steep price for following the Lord. Whatever the price, though, it’s cheap enough.
Further Thought: Through the centuries some people have argued for what is sometimes called “natural law.” Though it comes in many shapes and forms, the idea is that we can derive from the natural world moral principles that can help guide our actions. In one sense, as Christians who believe that nature is God’s “Second Book,” we could accept that there’s some truth to this. For instance, see Paul’s discourse in Romans 1:18–32 about what people should have learned about God from the natural world. At the same time, too, we can’t forget that this is a fallen world, and we view it with fallen, corrupted minds. So, it should be no surprise that we could come away with wrong moral lessons from nature. For example, one of the greatest mortal minds in antiquity, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, argued for slavery based on his understanding of nature. For him, nature revealed two classes of people, one of which was as “inferior to others . . . as . . . a beast to a man.” So for them, a “life of slavish subjection is advantageous.” This is just one of many examples we can find of how worldly principles, values, and ideas conflict with those of God’s kingdom, which is why—regardless of where we were born and brought up—we need to study God’s Word and from it derive the morals, values, and principles that should govern our lives. Nothing else, of itself, is reliable.