Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sell everything!

Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near nor moth destroys" (Lk 12:32-33).

"So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions" (Lk 14:33).

What are we to make of these verses?  Should we interpret them literally?  I think we should, keeping in mind that although all Scripture is for us, not all is written directly to us or is directly about us.

To me, it seems clear from the context of these verses that Christ's teaching about "discipleship" in general and about "selling your possessions" in particular all have to do with "the kingdom of God". Many times the prophets of the Old Testament told of a future day when a descendant of David would set up a great kingdom of righteousness and peace on earth in which God's chosen people, Israel, would be specially blessed in their land and be a channel of blessing to all other nations (Isa 11:1-10; Jer 23:1-6; Ezek 37:1-28; Joel 2:12-27; Micah 4:1-8; Zech 8:1-23).* Centuries later John the Baptist, Christ, and the twelve apostles in their respective ministries to the Jews, all proclaimed the good news that this kingdom promised by the prophets was finally "at hand" or very close to being established (Matt 3:2; 4:17; 10:7) because Jesus, the promised King, was present on the earth to get everything prepared for it. (In fact, this is the answer to a previous post I wrote here.)  Even after His resurrection Christ taught the apostles for 40 days about this kingdom, and the apostles were eagerly anticipating its "restoration" (Acts 1:1-8).

In order to be one of Christ's disciples and enter the kingdom, the Jews at that time had to turn back to God in repentance (Matt 3:2; 4:17; Mk 6:7-12) and make some challenging commitments. Jesus Christ called on them to obey the Mosaic Law, even "the least" of the commandments, so that their righteousness would "exceed" that of the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees (Matt 5:17-20; 19:16-19; Mk 12:28-34; Lk 10:25-28; 18:18-22).  See especially Matthew 23:2-3 and 23-27:

"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you— but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice" ... "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others."

They were also to give up all their possessions (Lk 12:32-33; 14:33; see also Matt 19:21; Mk 10:21; Lk 18:22).

But isn't all this faith plus works?  Well yes.  And most Christians would probably agree that these teachings of Christ apply to us today and need to be obeyed. Yet they also see the obvious difficulty of obeying them literally.  So they say that Jesus must have meant that we need to be only willing to sell our possessions and, especially, to not value them more than Him. The only problem is that this is not what Jesus said. There is no hint in these verses that mere willingness was all that was necessary.

Some find it easier to avoid and skip over such difficult words (passages, books...) altogether.  I remember listening to a sermon from Acts 2 several years ago — the whole chapter, save the last few verses, that is. The preacher was stirring us up, telling us we needed to return to these early days of the church in order to bring about a revival. I thought it rather odd that he stopped short of the end of the chapter, until I read what he left out:

And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:43-47).

Either way, it seems clear to me that Christ expected His listeners to do exactly what He said. This is why the first disciples in Jerusalem really did leave everything to follow Christ (Matt 6:31-33;19:27-29; Lk 12:29-31; 19:1-10). They couldn't let anything hinder them from entering the kingdom, which, at that time, was so near. We see this in the gospels, but even more so when the Holy Spirit is given after Christ's death and resurrection:

And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need (Acts 2:44-45).

And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need.  Now Joseph, a Levite of Cyprian birth, who was also called Barnabas by the apostles (which translated means Son of Encouragement), and who owned a tract of land, sold it and brought the money and laid it at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:32-37).

Jesus' death and resurrection had to take place before the kingdom could come (Lk 24:25-26; 1 Pet 1:11).  It was after this that the twelve apostles were given the authority to offer the kingdom to Israel. They promised that, if the Jews would repent, Jesus would return to earth from heaven and bring in "the times of refreshing" and the "period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time" (Acts 3:17-21). In other words, if Israel as a nation would turn back to God and choose to follow their resurrected Messiah and King, they would finally receive their promised kingdom with its glorious blessings.

We know from the Book of Acts that the Jews as a whole continually rejected this message.  Consequently, Christ did not return to earth, and the promised kingdom did not come.  Instead of blessing His chosen nation, God chose to once again turn away from them in judgment and sent the apostle Paul to inform them that He was "turning to the Gentiles" (Acts 13:44-49; 18:5-6; 28:23-28).**

Now God is doing a new work with a new group of people—the Church, the body of Christ — in which "there is neither Jew nor Greek" (Gal 3:28). Because of this change from Israel to the "Church which is His body", some of the things Christ taught while He was on earth do not directly apply to us today. One of these has to do with the Mosaic Law.  Though faith demonstrated by works used to be necessary for salvation (it was meant to show man that it is impossible to earn salvation - Rom 7:13), Paul explains that God is now offering salvation "apart from the Law" (Rom 3:19-4:5; 7:4-6; Gal 2:21; Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:3-7).  On the basis of Christ's death for our sins and resurrection alone (Gal 3:1-3), God is now willing to accept as righteous all those who do nothing more than believe in Jesus Christ.

God's instructions regarding our possessions have also changed.  Far from telling us to "sell our [your] possessions and give to charity," He exhorts us to provide for our families and widowed parents and grandparents so that the church is not "burdened" (1Tim 3:4-5; 5:3-4, 8,16).  This clearly requires us not to give all we have to charity.

Does this mean that today we have it easy compared to the faithful Jewish disciples in the first century? Are we now free to live however we please? No way! Of course God wants us to be wholly devoted to Him just as He wanted the Jews 2000 years ago to be wholly devoted to Him (Phil 3:17-21; 4:10-13; Col 3:1-4; 1 Tim 6:6-10). But our situation is entirely different now. God is not working to fulfill His promises regarding the earthly kingdom like He was then. It is not surprising, therefore, that God wants us to show our devotion to Him in a different way.

So I was just kidding with the title of this post.  Don't really sell everything.  Instead, provide for your family. For not doing so would be to "deny the faith" and be "worse than an unbeliever" (1 Tim 5:8).

*Some say that this is only what the disciples thought would happen, that these prophesies were actually fulfilled symbolically, not literally.  But what does one do with the fact that every prophesy in the OT regarding Christ's first coming was fulfilled literally?  I think Sir Robert Anderson said it well: "There is not a single prophecy, of which the fulfillment is recorded in Scripture, that was not realized with absolute accuracy, and in every detail; and it is wholly unjustifiable to assume that a new system of fulfilment was inaugurated after the sacred canon closed. . . . Literalness of fulfilment may therefore be accepted as an axiom to guide us in the study of prophecy."

**It is interesting to note that after the stoning of Stephen "a great persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria" (Acts 8:1-3; 11:19). Later we see Paul bringing relief to this church (Rom 15:25-26).  No longer could it be said that "there was not a needy person among them" (Acts 4:34). It seems the stoning of Stephen was the last straw, so to speak, for Jews in Jerusalem, the seat of Israel’s government, to accept Jesus Christ as their Messiah. It was not long after that that the Spirit came upon the Gentiles (Acts 10).