Monday, July 18, 2011

The Marks of Faithfulness

This is the message I preached yesterday at Light on the Corner Church in Montrose, CA.

The Marks of Faithfulness

Galatians 6:17

What does it mean to be faithful? God is faithful—that is, you can rely on Him to be there, to be consistent and to be true to His own character. And He calls us to be faithful to Him in return. He calls us to be reliable in our deeds and in our hearts to Him—to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.”[1]

“Faithful” is kind of a religious word. Here’s a word that means the same thing that we can all get: reliable. God wants us to be reliable.

Faithfulness in His people is a characteristic which God highly prizes and rewards. Jesus tells us that this is what He will say to His people—“Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21) Faithfulness—that’s the standard, that’s our goal, that’s what cheers the heart of God. And I want us to think about an unusual passage about faithfulness today.

But first, I want to tell you a story, and it has to do with this passage of Scripture.

In the early 1900s, there was a wealthy financier named Sir Alfred Chester Beatty. He was an unusual man—born in the US, he made a fortune in Colorado mining before immigrating to Great Britain. He became a British citizen, and he kept making money and began to indulge in a new found interest in archaeology. He and his team made many great discoveries.

Among those discoveries are some of oldest copies we have of New Testament writings.
One of those writings, a manuscript which is labeled “P46” for “papyrus number 46”; it’s the oldest existing copy of any of the letters written by the Apostle Paul. That manuscript contains Galatians 6:12 on into Ephesians chapter 1.

This ancient copy of this portion of Paul’s letters demonstrates the reliability of the text of the New Testament. No, it hasn’t been messed with—your Bible is reliable—it’s faithful to what was penned by Paul and all the others, as moved by the Holy Spirit.

It is both fascinating and appropriate that the earliest writing that we have in existence of Paul contains the end of Galatians with chapter 6 verse 17.

In this verse, Paul tells us that he bears on his body the marks of the Lord Jesus Christ. Here it is:

Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

Paul says, “My life—my very body—bears proof of the fact that I am a bona-fide servant of the Lord Jesus! Don’t you dare challenge my calling of service for the Lord!”

You see, a big issue in letter to the Galatians was that the Jesus-followers in the region called Galatian—in what’s now central Turkey—were being told by some that if you really want to serve God, you needed to follow all those Old Testament laws. This included Jewish ceremonial circumcision, which was held up as the “mark in the body” of faithfulness. This reliance on rules and rituals to make you right with God, to prove that you’re doing God’s will and pleasing God—well, this just made Paul angry.

In Galatians, he defends his credentials as a called apostle of Christ. And he can say, unlike the people trying to re-impose the Law of Moses on the people of God, he has the real marks of authenticity on his very body—the scars of his persecutions, the whippings and beatings he’s endured as he’s preached Christ.

The proof of your genuine commitment to Jesus Christ is the marks that you bear as a witness to your faithfulness.

What are the marks? How do the marks on your life give witness to your faithfulness for Christ? I want to suggest three aspects of these marks. First,

The marks hurt—the is a price to be paid for faithfulness

The word “mark” here in Galatians 6:17 is the word “stigmata” from which we get the words “stigma” and “astigmatism.”

Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks [stigmata] of Jesus.

Some goofy ideas have gotten out there in the culture about “stigmata.” What I mean is, there’s this whole thing—half from Hollywood and half from medieval mysticism—about “stigmata” being Christ-like wounds that appear on the bodies of really weird devout people.

What’s the truth? The idea behind the mark that Paul describes here is that it is a burden to carry. Paul says that he “bears” the marks of Jesus on his body. It’s weighty. It’s heavy. There is a price to be paid for bearing the marks of faithfulness.

Here’s one way that the word stigmata was used. In ancient times, slaves were often branded leaving a permanent mark proving who owned them.

Needless to say, receiving the mark must have been a painful experience. In that sense, the mark was a “burden.” Paul used the same word for “bearing” is the same word that was used for a woman who carries a baby in her womb.

Carrying the marks of faithfulness cost Paul in terms of real pain. There’s always a price to be paid for faithfulness. If you follow Jesus, then you’ve turned your back on some short-term payouts. The price may be in loss of reputation, loss of income, emotional pain or real physical pain. (Paul probably suffered all of these.) Know this: faithfulness will always cost you something.

But know this too: the Lord will more than make up for that loss. In Luke 19:29, Jesus says,

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.

But for now, be sure that there is a price you must pay to be a faithful follower of Jesus.


The marks last—faithfulness is demonstrated over time

So, the marks of faithfulness are costly. Here’s something else—the marks last a long time. The marks on Paul’s body would be marks for life.

Back in 1980, Gene Peterson wrote a book on discipleship. The book’s title is A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. It’s a reminder to us that real discipleship isn’t about taking a class and being done with it; it’s about a lifelong pilgrimage toward God and His ways.

Discipleship is a lot like working out or losing weight: it involves the constant application of right choices to our lives to take us from where we are now to where we want to go. It is being reliable in the training of our souls, and being reliable when God directs us to obey Him in some particular way.

Paul’s scars were lifelong marks. Scars tend to fade; the marks of faithfulness actually become more vivid over time.

Let me tell you another story about long-term faithfulness. I read this in my devotional reading a few weeks ago, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days. Here’s the story:

There was an Egyptian monk named John. He went to live with another monk, an old Greek living out in the desert. The old man’s job was to train the younger, so one day he took a dry piece of wood, stuck it in the soil and said to John, “Water this every day with a full bottle of water until it bears fruit.”

I think I would have told the old guy he was crazy, but John obeyed. The well was so far away that John would leave after dark each night to draw water and returned at dawn with a full bottle for the stick of wood and another bottle for the two men. He did this every night for three years. No sign of life for three years! But then it began to bud! It turns out that that stick was from a fruit tree. And another year passed and it bore fruit. The story doesn’t say what kind, but let’s say that there were pomegranates. (It’s funny how this Biblical fruit is really ‘in’ right now.) John and the old Greek monk took the fruit from the tree to the nearest town where there was a church. They gathered the people there and the old monk said, “Come brothers—eat the fruit of obedience.”

Faithfulness is demonstrated over time. It is obeying God when you don’t feel like it and when it’s hard. But the beautiful thing is that the fruit of blessing comes over time—a blessing not just for you, but for the people around you.

OK, so we’ve seen that faithfulness equals reliability; that the marks of faithfulness are seen in the price we pay and in staying obedient—that faithfulness is demonstrated over time. There’s one more thing--

The marks show—there is a witness to Christ shown by the marks

Paul does not actually define what the physical marks of Jesus on his body are. It’s only by context and inference that we are able to figure out that he’s referring to the scars of his persecution. I think he wanted to leave something to the imagination of the people in the churches of Galatia.

The record of his persecution is rather amazing, though. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul makes a major list of many of the sufferings he endured in service for the Lord.

Paul said he had received the 39 lashes 5 times, 3 times he had been beaten with rods, and once he had been stoned. Acts 14 tells that story—how he was stoned and left for dead when he was in Lystra.

There is no question that Paul would have had many scars on his body for the suffering he had done for Christ.

When I was a brand new believer, the church where I was first discipled, the First Baptist Church of Ironton, Ohio, had as a guest speaker Rev. Richard Wurmbrand. He was a Lutheran pastor from Romania, and from 1948 until his final release in 1964, he was repeatedly imprisoned and beaten by the communist authorities.

He appeared before a committee of the US Congress in 1966, and even took off his shirt to show his many scars. He did the same thing in the fellowship hall at the church—then a sixty-two year old man who’d spent the best part of twenty years imprisoned by for Christ. Seeing the scars of his persecution left an indelible memory on my 14 year old mind.

What about Paul’s scars? In the society of the time, the baths were an important institution. The workday was from dawn until about three in the afternoon, and then as many men as could went to the baths. You would soak, exercise and take a break. Paul no doubt participated in this afternoon ritual.

The baths were done naked. Any man would see the extensive scars on his body. No doubt many of the Galatians had seen these same scars. When he said the words, “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus” they knew exactly what he meant.

Can you imagine the looks Paul would get when he scar-filled back was exposed? Even better, can you imagine the questions he was asked. Can you imagine the grin on Paul’s face as he answered: “I bear these marks for the Lord Jesus Christ, my master, who bore even worse marks for me.”

The marks of your faithfulness give you the opening to bear witness to Jesus as well. And if there is no faithfulness, there are no marks, and no witness to speak of, either.

How did you endure that illness? That loss of someone you loved? Losing your job? You husband walking out on you? What do these scars I see mean?

It was so hard, but Jesus was with me; the marks I bear and nothing compared to His. He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.[2] He was that Man so I could know His endless joy.

Faithfulness—your reliability to God—is revealed in these things: the pain of mark—the price paid; the endurance of the marks—the time involved, and in the visibility of the marks—the witness they offer.

Do not give up, and do not give in.

Near the end of Paul’s life journey, he wrote this to his friend Timothy (2 Timothy 4:6-8):

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

“I have kept the faith”—that doesn’t just mean that Paul kept on believing; it means that God found him reliable. May we be found faithful as well, paying the price, enduring so that Jesus might receive the glory until that day we enter into the fullness of joy in His presence.

[1] Mark 12:30.

[2] Isaiah 53:3 KJV.

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