When dross is removed from silver, the vessel can emerge for the refiner; when an evildoer is removed from the king, his throne is established in righteousness. Do not glorify yourself in the presence of the king, and do not stand in the place of the great, for it is better that it should be said to you, “Come up here,” than that you be demoted before the prince, as your eyes have seen [happen to others].
–Proverbs 25:4-7 (Stone Edition Tanakh)
If a man invites you to his wedding celebration, do not recline at the head or else someone else more honored than you may also be invited there. The host will come to you and him and tell you, “Clear a place for him.” Then you will get up ashamedly to sit at the place at the end. But if you are invited, sit in the place at the end so that the host will come and say to you, “My friend, move up higher than this!” It will bring you honor before those reclining with you. Everyone who lifts himself up will be brought low, but everyone who lowers himself will be lifted up.
–Luke 14:7-11 (DHE Gospels)
No, this isn’t another rant about people in the religious world putting on airs and telling the rest of us what is or isn’t right about Christianity and the Bible and such. It’s about something far more serious than that. It’s about ultimate consequences.
“And to the angel of the church in Thyatira write: ‘The words of the Son of God, who has eyes like a flame of fire, and whose feet are like burnished bronze.
“‘I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first. But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality. Behold, I will throw her onto a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her works, and I will strike her children dead. And all the churches will know that I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works. But to the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay on you any other burden. Only hold fast what you have until I come. The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. And I will give him the morning star. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’”
–Revelation 2:18-29 (ESV)
Please don’t take that quote as if I’m aiming it at you personally. I’m not. I’m just trying to communicate something that I don’t think we always understand. No matter how much we think we’re doing to build up the Kingdom of God, to help other human beings, to study the Bible and learn God’s ways for our lives; no matter how much we believe our acts of righteousness and the faith and zealousness that burns in our hearts means to God, perhaps all that we believe we’ve accomplished doesn’t matter as much as we think. Maybe the Christ, the Jewish Messiah King, who came once and who will return again in glory and in awesome, majestic power, has something against us, just had he had against the church at Thyatira (or the churches of Ephesus, Pergamum, Sardis, Laodicea, and so on).
In my conversation with Pastor Randy last week, we were talking about righteousness (no small subject, that), particularly what we human believers think righteousness is compared to the standards of the Master. Human beings, even the best of us, have a tendency to be a little self-deluding. We like to think things around us and things about ourselves are a little better than they really are. I think that helps us not dwell on futility so much, and keeps us from being depressed, not that we have reason to be if we are disciples of Christ. Nevertheless, most of us go around most of the time thinking we’re a lot “cooler” and more in tune with God than we probably really are.
Pastor Randy and I were discussing what an actual encounter with Jesus would be like. A lot of Christians imagine meeting Jesus to be a very peaceful and comfortable event, like visiting your favorite uncle when you were a child, and you could just hop up on his lap so he could read to you from your favorite story book. Most of us don’t envision such a meeting going like the one John writes of here:
I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”
Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.
When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.
–Revelation 1:10-17 (ESV)
No one wants to visit a “favorite uncle” if he’s so awesome and terrifying that a mere glimpse of him makes us fall down and think we’re going to be incinerated in the next half-second. On the other hand, that seems to be exactly how John experienced his encounter with the risen and living Christ, even though decades before, John had walked in the presence of Jesus and knew no fear. It is no small thing to face the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords and to realize what it is to stare into the eyes of true righteousness. Maybe we have something to be afraid of after all.
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment…
–Matthew 25:41-46 (ESV)
I’m not saying that a life of faith is futile and that we have to second guess God and wonder at our relationship with Him…not if we’re willing to be really honest with ourselves. I’m saying that no matter what we’ve done and how well we think we’ve served God, we probably aren’t the really big deal we think we are (if that’s what we’re thinking). Imagine meeting the Master is like precious metal being refined. Imagine he can see through all the dross with a gaze that emits a raging fire and burns it all away, revealing the tiny bits and minute portions of what is truly of value hidden deep inside of us.
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
–Isaiah 64:6 (ESV)
…as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
–Romans 3:10-12 (ESV)
And with all that we think is worthy but is actually worthless is burned away under the Master’s flaming gaze, what will be left of us? We can only hope and pray that he will find some small gem of faith within us that will save us from wrath and destruction.
I’m not trying to depress you, but I am introducing a particularly serious and frightening note to our conversation. Especially in the religious blogosphere and in the Christian discussion boards, we have a tendency to argue points of this and that as if such debates were the most important thing we could be doing for Christ with our entire lives. We appear to believe that Jesus will read our blogs and say something like, “Well written, good and faithful servant,” and then sprinkle a couple of dozen gold crowns upon our noble heads.
Are we really that delusional?
Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done.
–Hebrews 12:14-17 (ESV)
A life of holiness is no small thing. On the one hand, the requirements of a holy life couldn’t be more simple, but on the other hand, living them out is the most difficult thing we can ever attempt. To do so, we must “deny ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow our Master.” (Matthew 16:24)
No one lives a life of holiness alone. Yes, God sent the Holy Spirit to strengthen, to enable, and to encourage us, but he also sent other believers and a community of fellowship within which we are to learn and to be supported.
You shall know this day and consider it within your heart.
Business people who are involved in many transactions employ accountants to analyze their operations and to determine whether or not they are profitable. They may also seek the help of experts to determine which products are making money and which are losing. Such studies allow them to maximize their profits and minimize their losses. Without such data, they might be doing a great deal of business, but discover at the end of the year that their expenditures exceeded their earnings.
Sensible people give at least as much thought to the quality and achievement of their lives as they do to their businesses. Each asks himself, “Where am I going with my life? What am I doing that is of value? In what ways am I gaining and improving? And which practices should I increase, and which should I eliminate?”
Few people make such reckonings. Many of those that do, do so on their own, without consulting an expert’s opinion. These same people would not think of being their own business analysts and accountants, and they readily pay large sums of money to engage highly qualified experts in these fields.
Jewish ethical works urge us to regularly undergo cheshbon hanefesh, a personal accounting. We would be foolish to approach this accounting of our very lives with any less seriousness than we do our business affairs. We should seek out the “spiritual C.P.A.s,” those who have expertise in spiritual guidance, to help us in our analyses.
Today I shall…
…look for competent guidance in doing a personal moral inventory and in planning my future.
-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Adar 3”
Some people have criticized my return to church as a kind of “falling away” from what they consider a “better truth” back into what they believe is a corrupt and apostate Christianity. Others applaud my attending church, not for the virtues possessed by a Christian walk, but because they believe I can’t “handle the truth” about God, the Torah, and the particular vision they hold dear to themselves.
I guess you can’t please everyone, but then again, I’m not trying to.
On the other hand, I see in my conversations with Pastor Randy and in what he teaches from the pulpit as what you have just read in Rabbi Twerski’s commentary. While our discussions aren’t specifically about me and my personal future, any interaction involving God, the Bible, and faith can’t fail to have an impact are every individual participating. Whenever two or three of us gather together, Jesus is there with us (Matthew 18:20).
There’s a corresponding message in the Mishnah:
But three who ate at one table and said upon it words of Torah are considered to have eaten from the table of the Omnipresent, as it is written: “And he said to me ‘This is the table which is in the presence of G-d’.”
-quoted from Torah.org
If we are to be consumed, let it be by the Word of God and by the company of people who speak of righteousness, not for their own sakes but for God’s…lest we be consumed by another fire, endure the searing pain of having our “dross” burned away like a bundle of straw in a blast furnace, and be humbled or even humiliated before God and before all other people.
If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other. Not all of us can do great things but we can do small things with great love. Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.