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First Quarter 2014 (January–March)
COMMENTARY ON DISCIPLESHIP
Week 8: February 15–21
COMMENTARY ON WITH THE RICH AND FAMOUS
Following is a combined commentary on the material included in the Bible Study Guide with references as necessary to the supplemental passages included in the E. G. White Notes for the Sabbath School Lessons.
Commentary on this week's lesson
This week’s commentary is entitled, “With the Rich and Famous”. The purpose of the lesson is to discuss the difficulties of being wealthy and not making one’s wealth one’s primary focus. It uses the examples of the rich young ruler, Nicodemus, and various quotes about the problems of wealth including the famous warning that one cannot serve both God and money. Questions appearing throughout the lesson include:
“What are your own attitudes toward the rich? How can you learn to move beyond those feelings and to see wealthy individual as we all are, as souls in need of a saving knowledge of Jesus?”
“After all, how can we warn the wealthy about the potential spiritual dangers contained by their wealth when we ourselves are caught up in the same thing?”
“Understanding that we should never compromise theology and principle what practical changes can your church make so that wealthy people will find it easier to find fellowship there? How is your church’s evangelistic strategy addressing the need to make disciples among the well-to-do? what specific things can your church realistically do to reach the rich?”
Missed the point
This lesson has missed the point of the gospel in relationship to wealth. To be sure, Scripture is full of warnings against the love of money. Nevertheless, the solution to the “problem” of wealth isn’t figuring out how to prioritize one’s “loyalties” and loves. Deciding that one will place money second to the gospel is simply a mental decision much like a New Year’s resolution. Moreover, within the context of this Sabbath School lesson, there is no understanding of the gospel. Money cannot be even addressed if one doesn’t know the gospel and the life-changing consequence of being born again.
Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus was not primarily an example of how He dealt with the rich and famous. The focus of the story in John 3 was the clearest, most compelling teaching Jesus did to describe the new birth that the prophets had foretold. When Jesus told Nicodemus in verses 3-8 that he must be born again, He was describing the essential event of every person who is brought from death to life and saved eternally. In the next few verses, when Nicodemus asked Jesus how this new birth could be, Jesus’ answer was,
“Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life (John 3:10-15).
For years I wondered what Jesus meant. I had no idea how Nicodemus, a good Jewish scholar, could have understood what Jesus meant. But Jesus was exactly right. Ezekiel prophesied the new birth; Nicodemus, had he correctly understood Scripture and had faith as Abraham had in God’s promises, would have understood that Jesus was explaining that the fulfillment of the prophecies was at hand. Here’s what Ezekiel said:
Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.’ And when they come there, they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations. (Ezekiel 11:17-18; Ezekiel 11:19-20 ESV)
And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God (Ezekiel 11:17-120).
And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules (Ezekiel 36:23-27).
Jesus knew Nicodemus knew the prophecies, but Nicodemus had no idea exactly what they meant. When Jesus told him he needed to be born again, He was describing the one single requirement for being saved: He had to believe God’s promises, submit his heart and mind to God’s word, and believe the revelation of the Messiah that God had brought to him. He had to submit in order to be born again.
This teaching is the central passage of Scripture describing what happens when a person believes in the sacrifice, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus and trusts God’s provision for his or her sin through Jesus’ blood. When we trust Jesus, we are born of the Spirit; He places a new heart and a new spirit within us. We pass from death to life (Jn. 5:24). We are transferred out of the domain of darkness into the kingdom of the beloved Son (Col 1:13). We are forever changed.
The passage in John 3 doesn’t say that Nicodemus did not believe. We learn in John 7:50 that Nicodemus chided his fellow Pharisees for judging Jesus’ wrongly, and they turned on him with ridicule because he cautioned them against their judgment. Moreover, we learn in John 19:39 that Nicodemus came to the tomb of Jesus on the night of His burial and brought 75 pounds of spices to help embalm His body. We know Nicodemus knew who Jesus was, and we know He risked his reputation for His sake.
The Bible says absolutely nothing, by the way, about Nicodemus coming to the aid of the early church and providing funds for them. That quote from The Desire of Ages on page 91 of the quarterly is entirely extra-biblical, and whether its original source is an actual historical, documented fact, I do not know. We do know that Ellen did not find that information in Scripture, and God did not give her revelations that added to Scripture.
The Rich Young Ruler
I cannot leave this lesson without commenting on the Rich Young Ruler. The lesson gives the Adventist standard explanation that Jesus established the Ten Commandments as the minimum requirement for salvation. In fact, the exact opposite conclusion is the truth. In this story, which is found in Matthew 19:16-2, Jesus leads with the expected question: Are you keeping the commandments? The man assured Him that He was. Jesus’ response revealed that the man’s commandment-keeping was entirely unable to save him.
Keeping the Ten is not a minimum requirement for salvation. Rather, it is impossible for commandment-keeping to qualify a person for salvation. What that man—what we all need—is to surrender to the Lord Jesus whatever it is that we love the most. It is NOT commandment-keeping Jesus is looking for. His question to that young man revealed that the Jews’ belief that the commandments qualified them as God’s people was a false belief. Keeping the Ten Commandments could not save him.
In the case of this young man, his wealth was his first love. He was drawn to Jesus; he wanted to be saved, but his heart loved his wealth. Jesus asked him to be willing to give up what he loved in favor of following Him. The young man could not bring himself to trust God and to desire His life and provision enough to let go of everything he knew and loved.
This lesson was on the surface a lesson about the grip that wealth has on those who love it. It is not, however, primarily a lesson about money. It is a revelation that all of us must entrust to the Lord Jesus the life that we have and love and receive His provision for us, however that looks. We have to trust Him enough to open our tight grip on what we love the most, whether that is money, our children, our job, our family, our social circle—whatever defines us here, we must be willing to entrust to Jesus. We must trust God’s promises that He is faithful to give us all we need, and we can trust Jesus’ words:
“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first” (Mark 10:29-31).
We do not give up all we know blindly. Our Father will more than make up to us what we may lose. It may not look like what we gave up, but He brings us provision and relationships and support and identity. He is faithful.
Jesus’ call is the same for all
In short, this lesson does not properly address the issue of wealth because the underlying theology of Adventism is a different gospel. The true gospel of the Lord Jesus is not the foundation of the Adventist worldview, and the solution to the seduction of wealth is completely inaccessible from an Adventist worldview. The answer is not to decide to give more money to needy causes. The answer is to meet the real Jesus who has taken our sin into Himself and died a human death to pay for our sin. The answer is to trust and believe in the Lord Jesus and His sacrifice and to be born again.
Only when we are born again and filled with the Holy Spirit of promise can we deal with our wealth. Only when we decide that trusting Jesus is the only way to live can we surrender our love of our identities and our desires and dreams and allow Him to give us new work, new meaning, and new identities.
Wealth is deceptive and seductive. Everyone can be drawn away by success and acquisition. But wealth is not sin. It is simply a part of the worldly life that we must entrust and surrender to Jesus.
The premise of this lesson, that the wealthy must be especially evangelized and courted, is a false premise. Jesus did not treat the wealthy any differently from anyone else. He pointed out their sin and preached the kingdom of God. He called people to follow Him. His approach and His call were not different for the wealthy. All of us are the same, and the call of Jesus is the same to every one of us: