Spiritual progress

The underlying message of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was spiritual progress. Paul started by depicting his work of preaching the gospel as laying a foundation that others could build on (1 Corinthians 3:10), then he identified the type of building that was being constructed by asking the rhetorical question, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16, ESV). The analogy of building a house for God was Paul’s way of explaining the slow, but steady spiritual progress believers were expected to make in their growth as a Christian. When Paul talked about celebrating the Lord’s supper and receiving spiritual gifts, he was explaining to the Corinthians a spiritual process that sometimes takes place outside of our awareness. Afterward, Paul stated, “But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31, NKJV).

The excellent way of love that Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13 was about an intentional effort to grow in one’s faith. Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand that there would come a time in their spiritual growth when they would have to work harder if they wanted to continue to make progress. Paul instructed the Corinthians to “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1, ESV), then he went on to explain that speaking in tongues compared to prophesy was useless in building up the body of Christ. He stated, “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church” (1 Corinthians 14:4). The point I believe Paul was trying to make was that increased spiritual progress has more to do with helping others to grow than helping ourselves.

The Greek word Paul used to describe spiritual progress was oikodomeo (oy-kod-om-eh’-o). Oikodomeo, as a verb, means literally “to build a house” (G3618). Paul may have wanted the Corinthians to understand that when Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2), he was talking about an actual house or place for them to live in. Paul clarified this point in a letter he later wrote to Timothy. He said, “but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15, NKJV). Paul was writing to Timothy about leaders in the church setting a good example for others. Paul’s reference to “how you ought to conduct yourself” meant that he was looking for a certain type of behavior in mature Christians and told Timothy that godliness was a great mystery (1 Timothy 3:16).

The Greek word translated mystery in 1 Timothy 3:16 is musterion (moos-tay’-ree-on). In the New Testament musterion “denotes, not the mysterious (as with the English word), but that which, being outside the range of unassisted natural apprehension, can be made known only by divine revelation, and is made known in a manner and at a time appointed by God, and to those only who are illumined by His Spirit…its Scriptural significance is truth revealed” (G3466). Paul eluded to this in 1 Corinthians 14:19 when he said, “Yet in church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.” Regarding spiritual progress, Paul was saying that being able to teach others the truth of God’s word through the anointing of the Holy Spirit was the ultimate expression of godliness or Christlike character.

Imposters

In what is now referred to as the Olivet discourse, Jesus revealed signs of the end of the age in which non-Jewish believers would be integrated into the kingdom of God. As he began to focus on the Great Tribulation, Jesus warned his disciples that imposters would try to deceive the Jews into thinking their Messiah had arrived. He said, “And then if any man shall say to you, Lo, here is Christ; or lo, he is there; believe him not: for false Christs and false prophets shall rise, and shall shew signs and wonders to seduce, if it were possible even the elect. But take ye heed: behold, I have foretold you all things” (Mark 13:221-23). The Greek word translated seduce, apoplanao, which means “to lead astray” (G635), seems to suggest an evangelistic effort that is not based on the New Testament of the Bible. It could be that the Jews will one day realize they missed their opportunity to receive God’s salvation and will try to obtain salvation through some other means. Jesus’ comment “I have foretold you all things” was probably meant to be a type of line in the sand that marked the end of divine revelation. At the conclusion of his Olivet discourse, Jesus didn’t intend to say anything more about his return to Earth and didn’t want there to be any confusion about whether or not he had left anything out.

The primary reason Jesus warned his followers about imposters that would try to lead them astray was because of the Antichrist’s role in deterring the Jews from inheriting the kingdom of heaven. The term antichrist was introduced around the end of the first century by the Apostle John in his first general epistle to believers. John’s objective was to expose false teachers and give believers assurance of salvation. John said, “Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time” (1 John 2:18). John went on to say, “Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son” (1 John 1:22). John’s reference to the last time was probably not meant to suggest that Jesus’ return was imminent, but that the ministry that Jesus launched was coming to a conclusion. John was the last survivor of the original twelve apostles and was probably nearing the end of his life when he wrote his general epistles. One thing that is certain from John’s message was that before the end of his ministry, it had already become common knowledge that someone known as “antichrist” was going to try and take the place of Jesus as the savior of the world. The imposter will likely have a similar appearance to Jesus as being a compassionate leader, but will deny the authority of God and will try to usurp his power.

The hour

Jesus described his appointment with death as an opportunity for his divine character to be manifested to the world. He told his disciples, “The hour is come, that the Son of man should be glorified” (John 12:23). Even though he knew he would be brutally murdered, Jesus thought of his death as a necessary part of God’s plan of salvation. He said, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24). The picture Jesus created of a seed being planted in the ground portrayed his death as a source of new life. The reason Jesus said the seed would abide alone unless it died was to convey the point that his sinless life entitled him to entrance into heaven, but there would be no one there with him unless he paid the penalty for the sins of everyone else.

Jesus told his disciples, “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal” (John 12:25). Jesus’ message was probably intended to motivate his followers to make a sacrifice similar to his own. The idea that they would lose their life by trying to hang on to it, was Jesus’ way of saying that the temporal pleasures of this world were incomparable to what they had to look forward to in heaven. Jesus knew it wouldn’t be easy for his disciples to continue believing in him after he was crucified, but wanted them to understand that his only purpose in coming to this world was to make a way for them to be with him later. He said, “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father save me from this hour: but for this cause I came to this hour” (John 12:27).

The hour Jesus referred to was the appointed time for him to leave Earth and return to his Father in heaven (John 13:1). So that his disciples would know that there was no mistake in what was happening, Jesus said:

“Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel spoke to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be case out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.(John 12:28-33)

Jesus’ intention in dying for the sins of the world was not to bring glory to himself. His identification with God was specifically linked to the glorification of his Father. “As the glory of God is the revelation and manifestation of all that He has and is,” so Jesus’ life was a “Self-revelation” in which God manifested all the goodness that he wanted to give to the world (G1392). It was because Jesus willingly gave up his life on Earth that he was able to picture the hour of his death as a seed being planted in the ground. The fruit that he expected to come from it was human immortality.

Spiritual treasure

Jesus used a series of parables to teach his disciples the exorbitant value of the kingdom of heaven. He said:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. Again the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. So it will be at the close of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Have you understood all these things?”  They said to him, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” (Matthew 13:44-52, ESV)

A scribe was a person that had the ability to read and write and was responsible for maintaining the documents associated with the Jewish religion. Jesus likened a scribe that had received spiritual instruction about the meaning of the documents he was managing to someone that manages a household because the ability to teach God’s word comes from an understanding of how everything fits together. Jesus implied that the treasure of God’s word is found when you connect the dots or put together the timeless truths of both the Old and New Testaments.

Jesus’ parable of the unrighteous steward (Luke 16:1-13) showed that the Bible teachers of his day were unwilling to make sense of what he was teaching them in light of the many prophecies that were given hundreds of years earlier about the coming of the Jews Messiah. It wasn’t that these men were unable to connect the dots, it was that they saw no value in the old Hebrew manuscripts and therefore, had missed the references to Jesus’ coming (Luke 16:1-2). The Jewish religious system had become outdated and needed to be refurbished, but there were no one willing to take on the challenge of searching through the Old Testament scriptures to discover the truth.

At the heart of the problem Jesus’ was addressing was a desire to obtain material wealth, rather than the riches of the kingdom of heaven. In Jesus’ parable, when the unjust steward was told he was going to be fired (Luke 16:2), he went to all his master’s debtors and reduced the amount they owed him (Luke 16:5-7), so that when the steward became unemployed, they would welcome him into their homes (Luke 16:4). Jesus commended the unjust steward, “because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” (Luke 16:8).

Jesus’ reference to “children of this world” and “children of light” (Luke 16:8) was not a distinction between believers and unbelievers. He was referring to believers that are using their worldly intelligence and experience to make decisions rather than spiritual discernment. The reason Jesus commended the man who used his practical skill to get himself out of trouble was because he had actually practiced a spiritual principle without knowing it, the forgiveness of debt. Jesus argued, “If ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches?” (Luke 16:11). In other words, the real treasure of heaven or truth of God’s word is given to those who know what to do with it.

First priority

Jesus taught that God’s kingdom must be given first priority. In his parable of the great supper, Jesus described the result of putting a lower priority on spiritual activities. The men that were originally invited to a great supper or banquet excused themselves from attending because they had other things to do. As a result, the host had his servant bring in others who were willing to accept his invitation (Luke 14:21). At the conclusion of his parable, Jesus stated, “For I say unto you, That none of those men which were bidden shall taste of my supper” (Luke 14:24). In other words, the men that were originally invited, but didn’t come, wouldn’t be invited back to the man’s (Jesus’) house.

Jesus went on to explain that there was a cost to discipleship. He told the large crowd listening to him, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brothers, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. Jesus wasn’t talking about the free gift of salvation that God offers to the world. His invitation to “come to me” had to do with his work of transforming the Earth. Jesus said, “And whosoever doth not bear his cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27). Before Jesus’ death, the cross was not associated with sacrifice. It was an emblem of severe punishment for crimes that were committed against the Roman government. What Jesus likely meant by “bear his cross,” was a willingness to go against the dictated behavior of human authorities. Today we might think of this as doing what is politically correct or following the prescribed rules of our culture.

Jesus used two examples to drive home the point that God would finish the work he started because he had already set aside the spiritual resources he needed to complete it. Just as the host of the banquet was able to fill his dining hall with alternate guests (Luke 14:22-23), God’s kingdom is open to anyone that is willing to serve him. Jesus concluded his lesson with an admonition to his listeners to keep a continual focus on being useful to God. He said, “Salt is good: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned?” (Luke 14:34).

The Greek word translated savour, moraino (mo-rah´-ee-no) was being used figuratively by Jesus to describe someone that is stupid or foolish (3471/3474). Moraino is related to the word musterion (moos-tay´-ree-on) which stands for a secret or mystery “(through the idea of silence imposed by initiation into religious rites)” (3466). Musterion is a unique word in the New Testament. “It denotes, not the mysterious (as with the Eng. word), but that which, being outside the range of unassisted natural apprehension, can be made known only by divine revelation, and is made known in a manner and at a time appointed by God, and to those only who are illumined by His Spirit.” Jesus probably used the word moraino in connection with salt losing its flavor so that we would understand that our usefulness to him has to do with our supernatural understanding of God’s kingdom.