I, along with all the other 5,000 public school teachers in Lee County, recently received an email from the District telling us of The “New” Best and Brightest Incentive Program. The details of the email, which took five pages to express, are essentially as follows. Each teacher gets an annual rating based upon a combination of a review written by your administrator (principal) and the results that your students achieved on the end of the year standardized test. (As I’ve alluded to in previous newsletters, there’s nothing quite like the warm and fuzzy feeling—aka sinking feeling—knowing that part of your vocational fate hinges upon the shoulders of teenagers taking a 75 question exam on a given day!) If the instructor gets a rating of “effective” or “highly effective” then they get a bonus of up to $1,200. This amount can go up contingent upon their scores on the SAT or ACT (college entrance exams). While I may not agree with all (actually much) of the formula used to derive these ratings (it’s very complicated and I have yet to have any administrator or teacher tell me that they fully understand it), it’s a blessing to receive a monetary bonus to help your family and to be recognized as having done at least somewhat of a good job. Perhaps the best and most succinct Scriptural statement describing what “a good job” for a Christian looks like is the well-known phrase of our Lord declaring, “well done, thou good and faithful servant! (Matt. 25:21, 23).” In this month’s newsletter we will examine these words, though in reverse order.
SERVANT (Who do you think you are?)…One of the most fearful jobs in the United States, indeed in the world, indeed that has ever been known to man through the annals of history is that of substitute teacher. (At least if you’re the one who’s there every day you know what name to write on the discipline referral!) The title of “substitute teacher” is often paired down by students to the simple term “sub.” A couple of years ago a colleague of mine took the day off and had a “sub” fill in for them. However, this particular individual gained notoriety, among teachers as well as students, by insisting that he be referred to as “itinerant educator.” Now, a rose by any other name is still a rose, and a “sub” by any other name still turned out to be a “sub.” His elevated title made no difference as to how the students treated him and in fact ended up causing an even more tumultuous relationship than normal.
While in seminary I had the privilege of being teaching assistant for the Old Testament Introduction class. The lead professor had been at our university for his undergrad, but went on to do his doctoral studies in Illinois. When he returned to his alma mater in Oklahoma to teach, he found a little different culture than he remembered from a few years back. One thing that struck him most was that everyone in his religious circles started calling themselves “bishop” (and I do mean CALLING THEMSELVES!). He was kind of a humorous guy so he named his dog “Bishop Fido!” He would joke that since everybody and his dog were calling themselves “bishops”, then he would jump on the bandwagon!
As seen in the examples above, we humans tend to put a lot of stock in titles. We don’t want our position or job description to come across as menial in any way. I have known of people that insist on being called “Apostle” (there are no Capital “A” Apostles anymore by the way), Bishops, Prophets, Doctors, and the list could go on and on of grandiose ways that “ministers” insist on being addressed. Now, while we give honor to whom honor is due, whether in natural or spiritual realms of authority, when someone demands a respectful title it is usually a sign that they are insecure and are trying to lord (in an unbiblical way) their supposed authority over others. However, in our signature verse for this newsletter, it’s not “well done thou good and faithful apostle” or “well done thou good and faithful bishop” or “well done thou good and faithful prophet” or even “well done thou good and faithful pastor”, but rather “well done thou good and faithful servant!” In the Greek the word used for servant (doulos) actually means slave! If we want to do a good job as Christians, it comes by recognizing ourselves as His servants, His slaves. Those who want to be great must be servant of all, those who want to find their life must lose it for His sake, those who desire to successfully follow Him must deny themselves and take up their cross (Mark 10:43-45; Matt. 16:24-25). There is no higher joy in life, no greater honor to bestow, no more esteemed title of which to aspire, than to be called a genuine servant of God!
FAITHFUL (Are you a regular?)…We hear a great deal about faith from the popular radio and tv ministries of our day (although most of them speak about it wrongly, making faith a force by which you make God do your will rather than the power by which we submit to His) but we hear very little about being faithful. I remember being a part of an outreach program back in my seminary days that went to a retirement home once a week to sing hymns, bring a short sermon, and visit with the residents. There were about 5 or 6 of us that got into our school van and traveled the 15-minute ride every Sunday. However, once a semester our numbers would swell to 20 or so. This was due to a push the university would make at chapel services encouraging students to get involved in some kind of school outreach ministry. People would feel convicted, or at least guilted, into signing up for something and our retirement home outreach was one of the more popular opportunities amongst students. For the next Sunday or two we would have more people than we could fit into one van. Instead of having a small quartet or so to sing, we had a full-fledged choir! Some of the students who came had to stand in the meeting room when the sermon was delivered because there weren’t enough seats for all of them and the residents as well. The “newbies” who came to the outreach because of the bi-annual university push would often come to us regulars afterwards and say how much they enjoyed the day and how their hearts were overflowing as they ministered to the residents. They made all sorts of promises, which we never asked for, about coming back every week in the future to be a part of this wonderful program that they had not even known existed. That being said, the next week would come and our numbers were down some, everyone could fit back inside of one crowded van. By the time a month had passed, we were back to the same five or six individuals we had to begin with. Some of those who came for a week or two could sing better than the regulars, some could play instruments better than the regulars, some could preach better than the regulars, but for the overwhelming majority they weren’t better at being regular than the regulars.
The context of the passage from which our signature verse this month comes is Jesus’ telling of the Parable of the Talents. Christ tells of a man going on a journey who gives one servant (literally slave) five talents, another two talents, and a third just one talent (a “talent” was a considerable amount of money). When the man returns home, he calls the three servants together to give an accounting for how they used his money. The first had invested (traded with) the five talents and gained five more, over the course of time. The second servant likewise had invested the two talents given him and they had gained two more, over the course of time. The third servant, however, did not do likewise. He went and hid the talent (the sum of money) in the ground, in a moment, with no repeated behavior over the course of time, and had nothing to show when the master returned. Now, both the one who gained five talents, and the one who gained two talents, heard the words “well done thou good and faithful servant”; whereas the remaining servant was called wicked and lazy and was cast into outer darkness (Matt. 25:14-30). Being faithful doesn’t mean having the most talents (and I’m not just speaking of a sum of money here, I’m speaking of giftings in any and every area of life), and it doesn’t mean getting grandiose results (at least as defined by worldly metrics), it’s about being regular to do what you can with what you’ve been given in obedience to and for the glory of the Lord who gave His life for you!
GOOD (Are you saved?)…One of the most famous personal encounters recorded in the gospels is that between the Lord and the man known as the Rich Young Ruler. The young man approaches Christ and calls Him a “good” teacher. Jesus responds by asking the religious leader why he called Him “good” because the only One who is truly “good” is God (Mark 10:17-22). Now Christ was not denying His own divinity here, but rather was trying to lead the Rich Young Ruler to the conclusion that if he recognized Jesus as good, then he must recognize Jesus as God.
Scripture is very plain that: there is none righteous, no not one (Rom. 3:10); all of our righteousness is as filthy rags before the Almighty (Isa. 64:6); and we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). The only way that any human can be considered “good” is to be a person who has attributed to their spiritual account the righteousness of God that is found in Christ alone (2 Cor. 5:51)! In short, if you want to be a “good” person, you must be a saved person, and the only way to be saved is to truly repent of sin and genuinely come to God by grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone.
THOU (Do you know you’ll be judged personally and individually?)…In my middle school math classes, I try not to get on to any group as a whole for the actions of one or two. It just doesn’t seem fair to me to gripe at those not responsible and to waste the time of the majority of the students with a lecture that many of them don’t need to hear, and that those who do need to hear likely will be oblivious to anyway. So I’ll discipline the guilty in private as much as possible and/or ask them to stay after class and/or follow up with a call home and/or give them 10 whacks with a paddle (okay, maybe not that last one!). I try to keep the judgment on an individualized and personalized basis.
Each person will be judged before God individually and personally (Rev. 20:11-15). We can’t be saved on the coattails on any of our friends or ancestors and we won’t be admitted to Heaven as a group. And even the saved won’t receive their rewards as a whole, but rather individually as we stand before the judgment seat of Christ and have our works, that have been wrought as a child of God, tried by fire as either being good gold, silver and precious stones; or as wasteful wood, hay, and stubble (1 Cor. 3:12-15; 2 Cor. 5:9-11).
WELL DONE (Do you realize getting something “done” comes before getting something “well done”?)…My cooking skills are next to nil, but I’ve watched many a gourmet meal prepared on tv! (Have I ever mentioned that our son is a rather precocious fan of Iron Chef?!) One night while watching one of these cooking shows, a commercial came on where a celebrity culinary expert gave a quick 30 second tutorial on how to discern the temperature of a steak. Now, I’ve never cooked a steak in my life other than a chopped one (aka hamburger) and a tube one (aka hotdog). However, the commercial grabbed my attention by the illustration that was used. So, in case I ever do cook a steak (don’t hold your breath), I know how you’re supposed to tell its doneness. The chef said that if you take your forefinger and touch the large region under your thumb, that’s how a rare steak would feel. Use your middle finger and touch the same area and that feeling could be likened to a medium rare piece of meat. Go on to your third finger and that would represent medium well. Finally, take your pinky and touch the area under your thumb and that would be the firmness of well done (the way God ordained for a steak to be cooked!). You see, before something can be well done, it has to go through stages of getting done!
So many people fail to come to Christ because they think they’ll wait until they get good enough. They miss the message of the gospel entirely which tells us in no uncertain terms that we will never be good enough. We come to Christ as we are through repentance and faith, He forgives us our sins, and then fills us with the Holy Spirit Who empowers us to be good on the inside and do good on the outside. So many believers, at least professing believers, in similar fashion, think they’ll wait to serve the Lord until they get good enough for it, or get better at it, or time allows, or circumstances are right. Nothing in life, spiritual or natural, is ever well done until it’s done. That is, the best way to get to well done service for God is to start doing it…NOW!