Of course, it’s irritating to be told to forgive some people I don’t want to forgive or, even worse, to ask them to forgive me. The Bible is irritating, too, because it won’t leave me alone about my sin and that doesn’t give me any wiggle room.
The Bible is also irritating because there are so many questions and, very often, for some reason, God doesn’t deem it necessary to answer them for me. I often say to God that, if he really loved me, he would either limit the great number of people who write and ask questions or at least give me some detailed answers. I get the feeling God would like to answer my questions, but it’s hard for an infinite God to speak to a finite human being in a way that the human (that would be me) can understand. After all, God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Fred Smith used to say that the essence of mature Christianity is to have a high tolerance for ambiguity. He was right. John Calvin was also right when he said that the Bible was God’s “baby talk.”
There is another place where the Bible is irritating. It’s when God includes things that, if I had had a vote, I would have left out. The Bible is filled with stories of sinners, and God insists on detailing their sins. It seems to me that it would be better not to air our dirty laundry in public. After all, we need heroes. On second thought, though, maybe we don’t need heroes. We have enough of those. Maybe it’s that God wants to show us what he can do with needy sinners who know they are needy and sinful.
At any rate, I was working on a sermon when I stopped to write to you. (Frankly, I would rather write to you than write a sermon.) I plan to preach it at our church and, by the time you get this, it will be done. That sermon may have been a bomb; but, then, it could have been one of the greatest sermons ever . . . but, either way, you missed it.
The sermon is How to Get Along and What to Do When You Can’t on Acts 15:36-41. It’s the story of how two major leaders in the church—Paul and Barnabas—got into a fight. Luke, the author of Acts, says that it was a “sharp disagreement.” (In the Greek that means it was a fight, and a bad one at that.) Their fight was over taking John Mark on the next missionary journey. Paul said that Mark had deserted them, and ran home because he liked his mother’s cherry pie and a soft bed more than he liked serving Jesus. Barnabas (whose name, incidentally, means “son of encouragement”) believed that God was a God of second chances (and third, fourth, fifth, etc.) and wanted to give Mark another shot at it. So, after their fight, these two leaders decided that they just couldn’t work together and went their separate ways. (The story has a happy ending, but I probably won’t have the space to tell you, so you can look it up.)
Luke closes the story with, “But Paul chose Silas and departed, having been commended by the brothers to the grace of the Lord.” I guess so! They certainly needed it. And they needed it not just with their fight. If you trace Paul and Barnabas through Acts up to chapter 15, you’ll discover a subtle change. When they began their missionary work, it is clearly Barnabas’s ministry with Paul as the assistant. Paul later becomes a kind of “associate.” Luke then starts referring to them not as “Barnabas and Paul,” but “Paul and Barnabas,” and eventually Barnabas is hardly mentioned at all. Both of those men are friends of mine. While I’m not entirely sure, I suspect that Barnabas’s jealousy played a part in the story and Paul wasn’t above rubbing it in Barnabas’s face. And Paul’s “cancel culture” action with John Mark was not unrelated to his self-righteousness.
Does that bother you? It does me. We expect a certain degree of godliness and love in our leaders, and, at least in this case, that’s in short supply. Why in the world would God include that incident in the Bible? Actually, the answer is there, too. Paul writes, “We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
When I taught at the seminary, I was often asked to address the new students. On more than one occasion, I said, “Your parents, church, pastor, and friends are all praying for your success. Just so you know, I’m not joining them. I’m praying for your failure. I’m praying that you get so overwhelmed by the academic work, and by your neediness and sin, that you seriously think about leaving and going into vinyl repair. Then God might use you and you’ll learn to laugh, dance, and sing in the presence of God, and in his grace and mercy.”
I don’t think those students appreciated what I said to them, but they needed to hear it. We do, too. That’s why God included the “clay feet” of Paul, Barnabas, and Mark in the Bible. The Bible isn’t a story of how God found amazing, pure, and gifted people to do amazing things. He looked for and found pedestrian, needy, sinful, and unqualified people, and amazed the world with the amazing things he did through them. Christians are sort of the “Forrest Gumps” of the world. When we think we’re more than that, Jesus leaves the building.
A number of years ago I spoke to a large group of teenagers for a missions conference. When I got there, the leader told me that they had discovered a number of those teenagers weren’t saved, so he asked me if I would present the Gospel instead of what I thought would be my already prepared, incredible sermon on world missions. I did it, but I wasn’t happy about it. I’m not big on teenagers (unless they’re my granddaughters) and I didn’t even want to be there. Add my anger to the sin of pride about the sermon they wouldn’t let me preach. And I was sort of like Jonah going to Nineveh . . . I didn’t want to be there and, frankly, I didn’t care about the people to whom I was sent. So, when I got up to speak, you could smell the sin.
Do you know what happened? Nothing happened. Jesus left the building and nobody responded to the invitation to receive Christ (not even one single kid among the 1,000-2,000 teenagers who were there). When it was over, I was so embarrassed that I went out by the backdoor to take a cab to the airport. And I might say that over the years, whenever I remembered that incident (as little as possible), I winced and repented of what had been a horrible experience.
Many years later, I was approached by a young pastor who told me that he had heard me speak at a missions conference years before. Yeah, it was that one, and I’m sure I blushed. Then he said something that almost had me speaking in tongues and dancing, neither of which Presbyterians do often or well. “Dr. Brown, I have always wanted to thank you. Because of what you said, I decided to become a pastor and two of my friends became Christians. I also got a tape of that sermon and I’ve shared it with everybody I know.”
How about that?
I said that I didn’t have the space to tell you the “rest of the story” of Paul, Barnabas, and Mark, but I do have a little space left, so listen up. In 1 Corinthians 9:6, Paul references Barnabas in a positive way, and it’s apparent that some reconciliation had taken place. In Philemon, Paul calls Mark a “fellow laborer.” And then, in 2 Timothy 4:11, when Paul was in prison and facing execution, he wrote to Timothy and specifically asked him to come and bring Mark because “he is very useful to me for ministry.” When facing death, there are some people you want around you, and Paul wanted Mark. One could say that God grew flowers out of some pretty bad soil.
He does that a lot, and it’s always a surprise both to the flowers and the people who smell them.
He asked me to remind you.