Finishing with Joy

Finishers Conference | Chicago, Illinois

The following is a lightly edited transcript

I want to pick up where I left off this morning, and pose to you these two pictures again. This is a partial effort to answer Landa Cope’s indictment of the evangelical church, and to pose a possible remedy. The two pictures were one from Paul and one from Reader’s Digest. The one from Paul was this:

I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God (Acts 20:22–24).

So, in the face of affliction and imprisonment, Paul wanted to finish well more than he wanted to live. And then, over against that was the Reader’s Digest version, where a couple retired at ages 59 and 51, and through remarkably shrewd investment strategies and brilliant planning wound up cruising on their trawler, playing softball, and collecting shells. I posed the question as to whether or not finishing like Paul or finishing like these folks might have something to do with whether the evangelical church makes an impact in Malawi or America. I think it does. I think when we become and are sustained in being the kind of person speaking in Acts 20:24, our churches will feel the difference, our vocational associates will feel the difference, our schools will feel the difference, and the world will feel the difference as well. I argued that in order to become that kind of person, there would be no finishing without a fight.

I went to Hebrews and argued that the whole book was written to help us fight. When I described the fight, I opened up something that I did not finish and would like to try to make another step in tonight. I said that the fight is a fight to glorify God, and the fight is a fight to satisfy your own soul, and that these two are not two, but one fight. I used the sentence that God glorifies himself as God by satisfying our souls in God. I’ll say that again. The reason they are not two fights, but one fight is that God glorifies himself as God by satisfying our souls in God. And that’s the fight, because almost nobody is satisfied in God, but rather in their cars and their new computer programs, their marriages, their children, their health, their houses (both of them), their retirement plans, and their vacations. And therefore, the great battle is to be satisfied in God.

Fighting the Fight of Faith

Now, if you have a Bible with you, I hope you will now open it with me to Hebrews 13. We will pick up in this verse where we left off this morning. Let’s read this benediction in Hebrews 13:20-21 again. I argued this morning that this was the writer’s answer as to why, when we have fought with all of our might to finish well, we won’t get the glory but God will. The answer to that is given in these two verses:

Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will …

If you do his will, it’s because he has equipped you with everything good needed to do that will. And then the writer gets very specific with a theologically explosive statement to bring it to a point. God not only in general equips you with everything good to do his will, but it continues:

…working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.

I argued that this writer, God inspiring him, thinks that God is the one who works the ability to do his will in you, and that he equips you with everything good to do his will. Doing is the same in both the two Greek words there. When it says “do his will” and “working in you” it is the same word — poiéo. The RSV that I’m reading here misses it by using different verbs in English, but let’s just get the point very clear. It literally says this:

[May God] equip you with everything good that you may do his will, doing it in you.

This kind of thing is said over and over again in the New Testament. For example:

  • Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12-13).

  • I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me (1 Corinthians 15:10).

  • I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience (Romans 15:18).

  • I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

This is all over the place in the Bible — the idea of not I, but Christ. You work, and when you come to the end of the day, give him the glory because he enabled the working. That’s exactly the reason why he says, “through Jesus Christ to whom be glory forever and ever.”

The reason God is working in you, enabling you to do his will in missions, finish well, and fight the fight of faith that I talked about through Jesus is so that Jesus gets the glory. If it depended on you, you’d get the glory. If it depends on Jesus, he gets the glory. The giver gets the glory. The finisher gets the glory. The fighter gets the glory. I believe most of you in this room want him to get the glory, so I am praying earnestly that this mystery of the Christian life will be experienced, if not understood.

You do know that’s possible, I hope? It is possible to experience things we cannot account for rationally, thank God. Otherwise, everybody would have to be a flawless theologian to be an obedient Christian, and they don’t often — I’m tempted to say don’t usually — go hand in hand.

Pleasing in His Sight

Here’s the new thing for tonight in this verse: What God is working in you is that which is pleasing in his sight. Now, in the book of Hebrews, that word pleasing should cause you to think of another verse, which becomes very important in my unfolding this statement that God glorifies himself as God by satisfying our souls in himself. It’s Hebrews 11:6 that says this, which many of you know by heart. It goes like this:

And without faith it is impossible to please him …

Let’s just stop right there before I read the rest of the verse. This means that in Hebrews 13:21, where it says that he works in you that which is pleasing in his sight, he cannot be working in you something other than faith, because that would be displeasing to the Lord since without faith it is impossible to please him. Every ounce of attempted obedience, outside faith, is displeasing to the Lord. Romans 14:23 says:

Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

The only thing that pleases the Lord is faith and its fruits. That’s all, nothing else — faith and that which is the obedience of faith, as Paul calls it in Romans 1:5. Therefore, what must be worked in us by God in Hebrews 13:21 to the glory of Christ is faith and its fruits. And so, what I want to know is if that’s the special thing that brings glory to God, what’s the nature of faith being wrought here? That’s what the rest Hebrews 11:6 tells us. It goes like this:

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.

It could also be translated “he is the rewarder of those who seek him.” Now, that’s an amazing statement about what faith is. To come to God in a way that pleases him — and nobody would want to come any other way — you must believe two things as you come: First, God exists, and second, you get reward when you come. And therein is birthed Christian Hedonism. You cannot please God without coming to him to get. If you try to come to him as a benefactor and not a beneficiary, you blaspheme, and turn him into a needy beneficiary. He will not be the beneficiary. He’s the giver, he’s the doer, he’s the finisher, and he’s the fighter because he will get the glory.

Therefore, what I see in Hebrews 11:6, amazingly, is that in this writer’s mind, the heart and essence of saving faith is a coming to God as one who will satisfy the soul. That’s the way I interpret rewarder. Now, you might say, “How do you know that’s what the reward is? How do you know it’s not golf, or restoration with your mother in heaven, or healing from a disease, or the resurrection of the body?”

True Reward

I have read this book of Hebrews over and over and over, and if you’re wondering why I’m speaking from Hebrews, everybody speaks out of their situation. I’ve lived in this book for about three years. I preached on it for 18 months in my church, and I’m living in it again in preparation for this conference. I reread the whole book asking, “What’s the reward? It says we must come to you for a reward in order to please God. We must be the getters; you must be the rewarder, if we’re going to please him. So I want to know because I don’t want to come for the wrong reward. I don’t want to be a mercenary in coming to God; I want to come for the right reward. What is the reward?” And the answer coming back from Hebrews is that the reward is God, not his gifts.

For example, in Hebrews 8:10, when he’s talking about the new covenant, he brings it to a climax, saying:

I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

That’s the reward: “I’m going to be their God. I’ll be there in the new covenant for them.”

Or you could go to Hebrews 3:12, when he exhorts that we should be vigilant and take care and beware lest we fall away, it is not a warning about falling away from gifts, but from the living God. That’s the great danger — that we might lose God, not that we might lose some gift of God.

Or you could look at Hebrews 10:19, where the gospel is presented as a priestly deliverance from sin and an opening of the Holy of Holies into the heavenly sanctuary where God dwells — nobody else.

And finally, Hebrews 12:14 says:

Strive for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

There’s no doubt then that the Lord is the reward. Therefore, based on Hebrews 11:6, my definition of faith, and I believe the writer’s definition of faith, is that faith is a coming to God to be satisfied with all that he is for us in Jesus. That’s the definition of faith. Look back up to Hebrews 11:1, if you have your Bibles open there. It says:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

As your heart explodes with longing, faith is the assurance that that longing is going to be satisfied. It says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for,” and those longings are given in God. He is the sum of all that is good to hope for, and faith is that hope.

The Obedience of Faith

Now, the point of making such a big deal about faith here is that you will notice the whole of Hebrews 11 is built on obedience flowing from faith. Hebrews 11:8 starts with “By faith Abraham obeyed…” Then, right on through the chapter, each section starts with “by faith so and so obeyed,” or, “by faith so and so went out,”, or, “by faith so and so did this.” In other words, this reality that I’ve just described as faith is the root of all the fruit of obedience and mission in the Christian life.

Now, we’re really close to an explanation of how it is that God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him. If all radical, missionary, risk-taking obedience in the second half of a life flows from faith defined as a coming to God to be satisfied in all that he is for us in Jesus, and that obedience magnifies God, then the pursuit of joy in God magnifies God.

This is really not hard to understand; it is very simple. If you delight in something, or are satisfied with something so much that you are willing to let goods and kindred go and this mortal life also in order to get it, everybody watching you will see that that thing has unbelievable value. But if you try to pursue obedience to God out of some higher, nobler, philosophical conception of duty, rather than the superior satisfaction of God, they will not see your good works and give glory to God, but they will give glory to you as a heroic figure.

It is hedonists who get glory for God — people who are so ravished by God that they let anything go in order to have God, walk with God, know God, and have fellowship with God. They call attention to the value of God in the way they live their lives. I’m very eager to call attention to God in the way I live my life, because I’m on planet earth to call attention to God.

So, we are to fight for two things in order to be the finishers like Paul, rather than Reader’s Digest: The glorifying of God and the satisfying of our souls, which are one, because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Therefore, I say things like, “It is your supreme duty, every day of the rest of your life, to pursue maximum and most enduring pleasure.” That’s your duty. It’s not optional. It’s not a caboose at the end of the train. It is essential that you become the kind of person who is radically bent on maximizing your pleasure in God. Anybody who says, “Well, I don’t think that’s a very high motive,” and goes about trying to obey him another way, will dishonor him greatly.

Pursuing Joy for the Sake of Love

Now, what I want to do in the remaining time that we have, is give you illustrations of this from the book of Hebrews, and how it works to get you to the mission field or to get you into risk-taking for the sake of love. I want to show you something that is, for many people and maybe most of you, absolutely paradoxical — namely, that your radical, relentless, unremitting focus on the pursuit of your pleasure will make you the most radically loving person possible. The forsaking of that pursuit will destroy love in your life and ruin all worship.

Here are some illustrations from the book of Hebrews. Let’s go first to Hebrews 10. We don’t have time to look at all of them. From chapter 10 through 13, all he’s doing is giving illustrations of this point and fleshing it out. I’ll read Hebrews 10:32-33:

But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated.

Let’s just stop and get the situation clear. Evidently, in the early days of their conversion, which is not an unusual thing at all in a hard country, there arose a persecution of some kind — a hard struggle with sufferings. The lines were divided, not only between Christian and non-Christian, but between two groups of Christians.

One group became publicly exposed to abuse. In fact, we’re going to see that they went to prison in Hebrews 10:34. The other group was not yet in prison, and they had to make a choice whether to love them or not at the risk to their lives and property. Do you get the situation? Some Christians had been thrown into prison, and prison was not pretty in those days. There was no TV, no heat, and probably no food unless your friends brought it. It was dangerous. This situation was life threatening. Families were divided. There were a lot of tears, a lot of pain, and a lot of shuttering at night with kids saying, “Will mommy get out?”

The rest had to decide, “Do we go visit them, and thus identify with them? Or do we lay low, and let them fend for themselves?” Do you see what’s at stake here? Love is at stake, the kind of love that takes you from an easy place to a hard place. How did this happen? Let’s read it. It’s very plain. Any of you could finish this message by just reading texts and saying what they mean here. Hebrews 10:34 says:

For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property …

Just stop there. What is the source of love here? Answer: Joy! The capacity to rejoice at the plundering of your property is an atom bomb of power. That’s what you should pursue. Will you become the kind of people in this posh hotel who would rejoice to lose your homes for Christ? That’s the kind of people Landa was looking for. That’s what’s missing in the evangelical church. We want more houses. We don’t have any capacity to rejoice at the plundering of our property; we love our property. Joy in God, freeing you from the love of things, is power for mission and love. That’s what it says. But we’re not done. Where does the joy come from? If we keep reading, verse 34 says:

You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.

That’s faith. That’s coming to God and finding him and all that he promises to be for us in Christ Jesus to be satisfying. It was enough for them because they had the assurance that they had a better possession and an abiding one.

Full and Forever

Take those two words — better possession and abiding one — and let them sink in. Let’s let Psalm 16:11 fill those words up. It says:

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Now, take the words forevermore and fullness and lay it on Hebrews 10:34. Does it not coincide with the words better and abiding? The answer is, folks, that God is that possession. The better and abiding possession than the house that just got burned is God. Again, it says:

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Don’t water down this word into saying, “It’s joy, it’s not pleasure.” Don’t do that sort of thing. Don’t say to me, “Oh, I think you’re talking about joy, not happiness,” or, “I think you’re talking about joy, not pleasures. I think you have to be careful with your terminology.” The Bible is not careful with its terminology. It is lavish with what it means to know God. It is lavish with what it means to belong to God and have him as our God. The church is full of people who love their houses and are happy, happy, happy, with their houses, and have nothing corresponding to that emotion in relationship to God — nothing!

They are using the twisting and spinning of vocabulary to justify their carnal, even dead, souls. Because they say, “You don’t need to be happy in God, just joyful.” They may think its something, but it has very little bearing on how you respond when your house is burned down. We’re talking radical Christianity — that is, normal Christianity here. This is not second level discipleship. There is no such thing as second level discipleship:

Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:33).

And he means joyfully renounce all that you have. Do you remember the parable of the treasure hidden in the field? It says:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field (Matthew 13:44).

That’s step one Christianity. That’s entering the kingdom. Landa, and everybody else, the reason Christians are not making a great impact is because there aren’t many Christians.

The gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

And that’s even in the church, I fear. This is not picking and choosing texts; this is pervasive. If you gave me 10 more days with you we could talk on and on and on about this kind of life.

Greater Gain

Let’s go to the next story. We’ll pass over the various other ones in the first part of Hebrews 11, and go to Moses in Hebrews 11:24. It starts off with saying, “By faith,” which I said is coming to God to be satisfied with all that God is for us. It says:

By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God …

There’s a choice exactly like the choice in Hebrews 10:33. This author is bent on getting this point across. Earlier, he said, “You were partners with those so treated. You had compassion and went to the prison. You risked your life, and they plundered your house.” And that’s what happened to Moses. He chose it. He embraced it.

I remember one time when Richard Wurmbrand came to our church,he took his shoes off, sat on the platform, and taught us to embrace suffering. When a person like that teaches you, you listen. Hebrews 11:24 continues:

By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.

Oh, mark that word fleeting because he chose the word fleeting to say, “I’m after another kind of pleasure.” He didn’t put it there to say, “Pleasure is evil.” What is evil is the pursuit of fleeting pleasures; that’s evil. God designed your heart to pursue maximum, blue chip, 20 percent yield, high security pleasures; and we sell our souls for 1 percent, boondoggle pleasures that peter out before the weekend is over, not to mention eternity. Hebrews 11:26 continues:

He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt …

This guy is crazy. Amen! I’m trying to create crazy people — just crazy, Biblically normal, radical, every-day, run-of-the-mill, risk-taking, lay-down-your-lives Christians, which are the only kind the Bible knows. Again, it says:

He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt …

Here’s the phrase that corresponds to Hebrews 10:34. How did he get to be this way? How did he become a crazy person like that? What is the answer to Landa’s question? It says:

…for he was looking to the reward.

That is, he had faith in God as a superior rewarder than everything the castles of Egypt could offer.

Now, for you facing a choice in your life, hearing the still small voice of God to leave something precious, in earthly terms, the issue boils down to, not can you hedge yourself about with enough protections, but when you look to the reward, namely God, is he and his way and his sweet fellowship through it all, whether by life or by death, more to be desired than anything? More to be enjoyed than anything? Do you see that there is more pleasure to be found in him than anything?

For the Joy Set Before Him

Let me give you one more story from Hebrews, then my time is up here. I’ll do it quickly. Hebrews 12:1–2 says:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who …

And then here he drops his atom bomb, because surely if anybody in the universe should have higher motives than hedonism, it should be Jesus. But he doesn’t. Mark that. He doesn’t because he’s out to glorify his Father. The passage continues:

…who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

Do you sense a motif, or what? Hebrews 10:34, Hebrews 11:24–26, Hebrews 12:1–2, and there’s more. I’ll pick it up tomorrow morning in Hebrews 13:13. There’s an easy verse to remember — two unlucky verses, or an unlucky chapter and an unlucky verse. Get yourself ready because tomorrow comes with an issue and a call that Jesus gives in that chapter that is simply built on the pursuit of pleasure.

Maybe I should say in closing that the highest, most loving, most mission-mobilizing, soul-saving, God-glorifying, self-sacrificing act that was ever performed in the history of the world, namely the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, was performed in the power of the pursuit of a superior pleasure — the restoration of himself with the Father, surrounded by a redeemed people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, all of them, in one great crescendo, praising God as the benefactor of the world. Oh, beware my brothers and sisters of trying to serve God any other way than for the joy that there is in him, because God is in the business of glorifying himself as God by satisfying your soul in himself.