Given for the Saints at Medicalodge, Neosho, MO, on 9/22/02
"Now when a man works, his wages are not credited to him as a gift, but as an obligation" (Rom. 4:4, NIV).
The scriptures have a lot to say about gifts. Our question today is "When is a gift free and when is it a hidden obligation for payment?" When Jacob was returning home from Paddan Aram where he had been sent to find a wife (Gen 25:20), he encountered his twin brother, Esau, from whom he had stolen the birthright by tricking their father Isaac into giving the blessing to him, though he was the second born (Gen. 25:31-32; 27:6-46). Incensed, Esau had threatened to kill him, which was another reason he fled from home in the first place. Many years passed as Jacob labored for Laban, his father-in-law, to pay for the privilege of marrying both Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29:15-30). Finally, the Lord spoke to him, saying, "Go back to the land of your fathers and to your relatives, and I will be with you" (Gen. 31:3). Even though he had heard God's assurances for his safety, nevertheless, he was terrified of his twin brother and feared for his life and the lives of his wives and children. "To appease Esau, Jacob sent ahead of him, two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, "Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds." He instructed the one in the lead: "When my brother Esau meets you and asks, 'To whom do you belong, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?' then you are to say, 'They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us'" (Gen. 32:14-18, NIV)
This account is a perfect picture of man's need to add his own efforts to what God has promised. Jacob's prayer sounds like the "Word of Faith" preachers today, who say we must remind God of His promises, just in case He may have forgotten. He prayed, "Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. But you have said, 'I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted'" (Gen. 32:11-12, NIV). It was after he had sent all his wives and possessions on ahead, and was alone, that "a man wrestled with him till daybreak" (Gen. 32:24). Jacob hung on and refused to let go until he had secured a blessing from this extraordinary being. Jacob's name was changed by God: "Your name will no longer be Jacob (supplanter), but Israel (God prevails), because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome" (Vs. 28). He named the place Peniel because, he said, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared" (Vs. 30).
As I was studying this passage, I saw two things. One is that man seems always to feel the need to bargain with God to get what he wants, and two, man's determination to "duke it out with God," is one way the Spirit shows him his own weakness. Though Jacob lived, he limped for the rest of his days as a result of this encounter (Vs. 31-32). I can relate to that. God allows us our human fantasies, one of which is that we can get what we want from Him if we try hard enough. If you think you are not guilty of this, let me ask you how many times you have tried to help Him do His job in your life? When your grown kids come crying to you for this or that, do you hand it over in a panic to save them from their fears and yours, or do you stand back and let God have His way with them? When things are going badly for you, do you feel the need to increase your prayers, your tithes, your bible reading, or your church attendance to show your worthiness? Does it help? Sometimes God allows us our childish games, as all the "name it and claim it" testimonies prove. However, when it is time to leave childish things behind and grow into the maturity of Christ, no matter what we do, how much we plead, contribute, or negotiate, we cannot change God's mind or His purpose in our lives.
As one who has been there and done that several times, let me encourage you to pray only for grace to endure to the end and for wisdom to understand the lesson.
Human beings are innately suspicious of gifts. Even as we admire the beautiful wrapping and the thoughtful gift inside, we're looking around to see where the strings are. One of our popular expressions is, "There's no free lunch." If someone buys you lunch one day, then you are obligated to buy his the next time. Another saying is, "If it looks too good to be true, then it probably is." To me, this is sinking into the negative dregs of our cultural experience, by expressing doubt that any good thing could happen in our lives. In other words, we have a need to find out what the catch is before accepting the present. Our dear friend Harry Fox recounts his experiences in Japan to illustrate this. (Link to his home page at end.) He says in that country, if someone brings you a gift, you are obligated to give him one back of equal or greater value. When a Japanese receives a gift, the literal translation for what he says to the giver is, "You are scaring me to death," meaning, "I fear I cannot give you anything as wonderful as what you have just given me, and if I cannot, then I will be shamed." The Japanese have raised this gift exchange to a formal ritual. Here in America, it is not as formal, but just as binding. If I bring you a casserole when you are sick, you must do something for me in return, maybe not right then, but you must reciprocate in some way lest you be thought of as rude and unappreciative. This is what some cultures call the "grease" that makes the wheels of society run smoothly.
These societal rules are stronger and more binding on us than we realize, and without bringing it to consciousness, we tend to view God the same way. I don't know any Christian who thinks that he can really save himself, but most churches and religious organizations are set up so that you must repay God's gifts with your service, your money, and your time. Under the Law, which WAS a reciprocal system between man and God, gifts were required for a lot of offenses. The Law was very specific about "burnt offerings and your sacrifices, your tithes and the offering that you present, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstlings of your herd and of your flock" (Deut. 12:6, 11). Israelites viewed the Law as being about behavior, not feelings, though it did speak about feelings: "You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him" (Lev. 19:17, RSV). Still, I view that as an almost impossible commandment to keep, which is why Jesus came to give us a heart transplant. The Apostle John comments, "he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen" (I John 4:20). Christ living in and through me has no problem with the things I cannot do in my own flesh (Gal. 2:20).
Jesus cared about feelings, ulterior motives, and hidden agendas. About gifts, He said, "Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift" (Matt. 5:23-24, NIV). In other words, before you try to impress God with your goodness, first make it right with your brother. In my youth, I attended church with two men whose farms were adjacent to each other. One man sat up front on the left side and the other one sat up front on the right side. They despised each other, and I often wondered how they could take communion each Sunday without eating and drinking damnation to their souls (I Cor. 11:29). Both have gone on to glory and I like to think God put them in mansions next door to each other until the dross gets rubbed off or burned off. That's my earthy metaphor for the need to work it out among ourselves and forgive each other on this side of Jordan. Sometimes there is nothing we can do but release our brother to God, because the act of releasing someone who troubles us pays heavenly dividends. "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 16:19, RSV).
The Old Covenant was about struggling to keep the Law, trying to please God, living by dedication, commitment and the strength of our own right arm. I can find no reference indicating that God offered to help them with their personal responsibilities. Again, this is why Jesus had to come. He poked holes in the facade of the "Religious Right" of His day by showing the great gulf fixed between what they professed with their lips, "whited sepulchers," and what they were actually like inside, "dead men's bones" (Matt. 23:27). The reason it is important to face what we're really like, is because if we don't, we cannot get forgiven, either by God or by ourselves. When the Spirit lays open our hearts, dividing asunder the soul and spirit (Heb. 4:12), then we understand why we need God and the gift He gave to us.
Have you ever known someone who blames all their troubles on someone else? If the daughter is having a marital problem, that rotten husband of hers is to blame. If something goes wrong anywhere, it is fault of someone else, always. This is symptomatic of the human condition. It began with Adam, who when confronted by God about His sin of eating the fruit of the forbidden tree, said immediately, "That woman you gave me, she caused me to eat of it" (Gen. 3:12). When God asked Eve about it, she blamed the serpent. No doubt the snake said, "The devil made me do it." Here's why this behavior is deadly. If I never own up to being the one with the problem, then I never get forgiveness, and if I never get forgiveness, then I carry around this stinking burden of guilt and shame forever. On the other hand, if I stand up and admit that the whole thing (whatever it is) is my fault, even if it is NOT, I can ask for and obtain forgiveness, and then leave that dirty bundle of problems and sin at the foot of the cross and walk away happy and GUILT FREE.
Before we go on, let's look at the dictionary definition of "gift": 1. "Something given voluntarily without payment in return, as to honor a person or an occasion or to provide assistance;" 2. "something bestowed or acquired without being sought or earned by the receiver." In terms of what we receive from God, the Apostle Paul made the clearest statements to be found about the FREE gift of God. Speaking of Abraham, he said, "If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about, but not before God" (Rom. 4:2). Since being here in the Bible belt, surrounded by Fundamentalists, I've come to suspect that the reason they hang on to what they did for God, chief of which is, "I made a decision for Christ," is because they wish to retain bragging rights. I really do get the impression at times that some feel God owes them salvation because they repented and were baptized (or whatever their church believes is the price of "the ticket to ride" into the kingdom). It also gives them an excuse to believe that God will send those who did not make this decision for Christ to hell for an eternity. This point of view cannot be supported by scripture. If EVERY knee will bow and EVERY tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father, then who is left to burn in hell? (Phil. 2:10-11).
As long as we're considering what God owes us, we must consider this passage, which is the high-water mark of Paul's delineation of the Gospel: "For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all" (Rom. 11:32, RSV). "For God has locked up all in the prison of unbelief, that upon all alike He may have mercy" (Rom. 11:32, Wey). "God has all men penned together in the prison of disobedience, that he may have mercy upon them all" (Rom. 11:32, Phil). I would guess that not many bible believing, hell fearing Christians have pondered this verse, or if they have, they must have missed the implications here. What exactly did God do to consign men to disobedience? I am not qualified to speak for Him, but long ago, it came to me that if He were really intent on having men be obedient, pure and unspotted by sin, He would never have put the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden. After putting it there and making it beautiful and desirable, He pointed it out to them, and told them not to touch it. Then, He put the snake, a created being fully under His control, in there to tempt them. If God has all power, then He could have left both the tree and the serpent outside the garden. Not only that, but Rev. 13:8, says that the Lamb was slain before the foundation of the world. If God does NOT have all power, then we have a problem far worse than hell.
This is NOT a two power universe, with God vying with Satan for control. God has had a plan from before time began, a plan which neither the world, the flesh, nor the devil can change in any way. Paul affirms, "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:23). The Emphatic Diaglott translates the verse this way; "For the wages of sin is Death; that the gracious gift of God is aionian life, by the Anointed Jesus, our Lord." Many versions read, "the free gift" which clearly answers the question, "How free is free?" Remember the dictionary definition of "gift?": "something bestowed or acquired without being sought or earned by the receiver." That echoes Isaiah's statement, quoted by Paul: "I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me" (Rom. 10:20, RSV; See Isa. 65:1). Paul concludes, "since ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, THEY (referring to the ALL who sinned) are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus" (Rom. 3:23,24, RSV).
Finally, if our salvation is not a gift, but merely a request for payment to meet our obligation to God, then we are all doomed, for the law demonstrated that no can be made perfect by keeping regulations (Heb. 7:19; 10:1). God had no obligation to create us, nor to restore us again after we fell, but His unconditional love sought us and drew us out of every pigpen into which we had descended. He will never sleep nor slumber until every last one of His creation is restored to its primal beauty and pristine splendor. "Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!" (II Cor. 9:15, RSV). Eternity will not be long enough to give Him glory for what He has done: "But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (I Cor. 15:57, RSV). Amen. Jan Antonsson
Jan and Lenny Antonsson
17178 Highway 59, Neosho, MO 64850 (Snail Mail)
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This page was uploaded to the web on 9/19/02
by Jan Antonsson, Webmeister,
and last edited on 10/29/08.