Publication: Pastoral Letter, June 2008
Dear Friend in Christ:
Perhaps this should be a book instead of a letter, but I pray that I can deliver the message in this brief form. My desire is to encourage you to get to the place of victorious joy; what’s more, I believe that this is the Lord’s desire for you.
There is a biblical and life principle that can be simply stated as, “Cross before Crown.”This principle is played out everywhere from education, athletics, business and most especially in our accomplishing God’s will. We must endure hardship to get there. And usually, the greater the goal, the tougher the test. But keeping the goal in mind enables us to get through the test.
There are two recent events in our family which have reinforced this principle in my mind: Recently our granddaughter completed her high school education with honors and received a large college scholarship. Also recently, our youngest son baptized a “Hell’s Angel” who accepted Christ. Both were the crowning results of endurance. What a joy to see!
The book of Hebrews focuses on endurance. It says of Abraham, “And so, after he had patiently endured, he obtained the promise” (see Hebrews 6:15). It says of Jesus, “Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the Cross, despising the shame, and has set down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls” (see Hebrews 12:2-3).
This letter is not primarily about Jesus’ Cross, though we are told to consider it as we face our own. Looking at His Cross helps us to endure ours. He endured His for the joy of pleasing the Father and providing salvation for us. He kept that goal before Him, and we must continually consider the possibility that is set before us.
LAYING IT DOWN
The apostle Paul is a classic example of cross before crown. He was a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” studied under Gamaliel, a “Pharisee of the Pharisees”, authorized by the Sanhedrin, citizen of both Israel and Rome, and successful craftsman. But when He met the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, he laid everything down to win a different prize.
I will not list all that the apostle endured in order to win the prize or the crown that he now wears. But the cross that he bore included imprisonment, beatings, shipwrecks and, he wrote, “the loss of all things.” Indeed, he lost his very life to gain Christ.
In 1977, I went to the place where Paul was beheaded. There is a church building there now, but in Paul’s day, it was just a field of execution. He lost his head but gained a crown.
There are two basic approaches to the Gospel that are now being preached: One is what I will call “the gospel of human potential.” The other is what Christ can do through you if you die to yourself. Paul exemplified the latter as did his Lord Jesus. Crowns without crosses perish, while crosses borne for Christ remain eternal. The apostle Paul defines the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. It is that Jesus died for our sins, was buried and rose again on the third day, and witnessed by many. Paul not only defined the Gospel, but took the Gospel of Jesus as a personal model for himself. Indeed, Jesus stated the same to Peter in Matthew 16:25, when He said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whosoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” The cross is a personal model.
Peter had been thinking, “Crown without cross.” Jesus corrected that and His words were prophetic. Jesus, Peter, and Paul neither found nor advocated any shortcuts to the prize. Should we? To the degree that we rediscover the true Gospel, we will reach the joyful place of freedom to obey God and a powerful Church will be loosed on the world.
LOSS BECOMES GAIN
I faced this issue specifically in 1955, again in 1964, in 1987, and in 1999. To be honest, it is a daily issue. Each occasion is a matter of dealing with loss. February of this year was an occasion of great loss in the death of my wife. Whether trial should always be seen as a “cross”, I’ll leave to others to define. But the issue is to give it to God and find the freedom to move further into His will. To hold on to what we have, or want to have, is a preventing prison that prohibits what God wants us to do.
My pastor, Ken Sumrall, has written an excellent book entitled, Forgive and Move On. What hinders many of us is the holding on to memories of pain inflicted in our trials. People are always part of the trial, whether Romans, Christians, or family members. Jesus was immediate in His forgiveness of those who participated in His Cross. Forgiveness releases us to the joys of the prize, the crown. We also should do so immediately; then the loss becomes gain.
FREEDOM IN SERVICE
I urge you to read 1 Corinthians 9:19-27, where Paul describes how he became “free from all men.” In so doing, he became the servant of all. We cannot serve ourselves, the Lord, and others all at the same time. Because Paul was free from his own history and culture, he was able to transmigrate into any culture and identify with anyone. The cross is a universal principle_it is “cross” cultural!
While Paul was imprisoned in Rome, he met Onesimus, a runaway slave. He was able to identify with Onesimus because he was also in prison and understood himself to also be a “bond-servant of Jesus Christ.” He led Onesimus to faith in Christ. Onesimus began to serve Paul out of gratitude. Paul desired to have Onesimus stay with him as a comforter in his confinement, but chose rather to write Philemon, the master of Onesimus, and urge Philemon to receive Onesimus back again as a brother.(I would encourage you to read the entire Book of Philemon.)
Paul’s ability to identify with both Onesimus and Philemon enabled him to be a cultural bridge for the transmigration of the Gospel. Paul could enter cultures and people’s lives freely, without being “captured”, because he had died to himself in order to serve Christ. He was focused on the crown, not the cross – even as he endured the cross.
The weakness of religion is that it is often rigid and inflexible. It is bound to certain customs and forms that imprison the Gospel. In that case, people cling to the form while failing to connect with outsiders. The apostle Paul, indeed mostly early Christians, escaped those cultural prisons, and taught the Gospel of dying to self and following Jesus “outside the gates” (see Hebrews 13:12-13).
The “gospel of human potential”, proclaimed without the cross, leaves its constituents unprepared to face the cross and interpret it, thus resulting in disillusionment and failure to win the crown beyond the cross. Through the true Gospel, Paul was able to go through his trials and receive the crown.
I am blessed to work with a number of diverse men who labor in very diverse fields. Some work in churches, others with youth, some with the homeless, addicts, prostitutes, education, members of Parliament, other nations, Muslims, businesses, and professional people. One friend works in bars. In each case, these brothers have broken through their cultures and personal preferences. They have experienced a death in order to find life. I have a profound respect for each of them.
Successful followers of Jesus are able to get beyond their own fears, die to self, and identify with others, without changing the message of the Gospel. To Jews – Paul was a Jew; to Greeks – he was a philosopher; to slaves – he was a slave. He had multiple passports – but one message. His citizenship was in Heaven.
Lord Chesterfield said, “Be wiser than others, but don’t tell them so.” (See also 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16.) One of the wisest and most successful servants of God in our time is Billy Graham. He has been inclusive in his approach, but stayed on the simple message of the Cross. His crown is the multitude of people that have come to Christ through his ministry. He has been able to preach that message in many nations and cultures because he was free from his own culture.
“For the joy set before Him.” These words sum up the ability of Jesus to endure the Cross (see Hebrews 12:2). Had He focused on the injustice, the pain, or the darkness of it all, He would have failed to redeem us. Should we focus on those issues, we will fail. Paul urged Corinth to focus on the crown, not the tests.
Corinth was the location of the Isthmus games, the great races that were the glory of that city. Paul urged Corinthian believers to take a lesson from the athletes: “run to win.” Focus is everything when endurance is tested. Every athlete knows how difficult, but necessary this is. We’ve often heard it said of athletes, “He can be a great player if he can just learn to focus.” The same can be said of most of us.
We can be great disciples if we can just learn to focus. Our focus needs to be on the accomplishment of God’s purpose, not the things that happened to us on the way to the prize. Love for the Father’s approval enables us to endure all things (see 1 Corinthians 13:7).
Those that ran in the games ran to receive a perishable crown. We run to receive a crown that will never fade. Winning the World Series or the Super Bowl are crowning achievements, but do you remember who won those in 1980? Probably not. But you do remember who led you to Christ? That was eternal. We must not mistake temporal issues for eternal issues. We cannot afford to become more energized over temporal matters than we are over eternal ones.
Temporal success fades but eternal success remains forever. Jesus understood the difference and left us an unfading example. The apostles came to understand the differences as have many others in succeeding years.
So what is the real, imperishable crown? The Bible speaks of several crowns: Crown of life, crown of honor, crown of gold, crown of gray hair, and more. In Philippians 4:1, Paul says to those people, “You are my crown.” He says the same in 1 Thessalonians 2:19. Paul’s crown was the people that he reached. He reached them because he was able to get free from himself.
I pray that I can both live and convey this message: we must die to live. Though we may not endure the physical and spiritual torture which our Lord endured, we will nevertheless face opportunities to die to self-interest in favor of God’s purpose. Should saving ourselves be the focus, and we “come down from the cross”, the prize will be lost and so will those that we could otherwise reach.
Isolation from the world does not mean sanctification (see John 17:18). If we try to preserve yesterday, we will lose tomorrow. There are crowns to be won, if we can deal with the obstacles in love, faith, and hope. Rest assured that many will not understand your actions and may even strongly resist you. Do not be discouraged. However, seek the Lord and wise counsel from successful “coaches” and go for the prize. Die to self and identify with others. The blessing of God and the joy of the results will be more than worth it! Here’s to the crown!
P.S. For the first time ever, we are making the “Time Out with Coach: Season One” sessions available on CD (they are also available via internet download). Please see the enclosed card for more details, and visit us at www.csmpublishing.org for regularly updated information and ministry resources. Also, please remember us in your prayers and in your giving in a special way during this month and throughout the Summer. We face many needs and challenges.
Scripture Reference: Hebrews, 1 Corinthians, Matthew, John