Priorities and Motivations

Read 1 Corinthians 1:17-31 to start.

I’d like to start this morning by talking about a movie. You might be familiar with it, it was a highly successful film, although it’s certainly not recent. The movie is The Bridge on the River Kwai. It’s a war movie, set during WWII, quite a good movie, it won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, in 1958. I remember watching it years ago. While the movie is fictional, it does depict real some historical events, as it takes place during the building of the Burma Railway, which the Japanese built to assist the war effort in Southeast Asia in 1942-43. There was indeed a major railroad bridge built in the same area as the movie indicates.

If you haven’t seen the movie, or if it’s been a long time, as it has for me, here’s a brief summary. A group of British POWs are brought in to build a bridge as part of the railway. The highest ranking British officer, played by Alec Guinness, in an effort to demonstrate superiority to his captors, orders his men to build the best bridge they can. They protest, not wanting to help the enemy finish the railroad, but the officer insists. He points out this will demonstrate British ingenuity and skill, and he points out that the bridge will be used by locals for many years after the war is over. Why not built a bridge that will last? He sees this as a triumph of civilization over barbarism.

At the same time, there is a small team of commandos coming in with the mission of destroying this very bridge, knowing that it will be critical to the war effort. They arrive in time to set explosives to blow up the bridge the day before it is set to open, and hearing that the first train will be carrying Japanese soldiers and VIPs, they decide to wait a day and detonate the bomb so as to take out that train. But the next morning, the water level in the river has dropped, and the wires to the explosives are visible. The British officer spots this, and points it out to the Japanese commandant. They venture down to the riverbank to investigate, there is a firefight with the commandos, and only at the last moment does the British officer, badly wounded, realize that destroying the bridge is actually his true duty, and he throws himself on the detonator, blowing up the bridge as the train passes over it.

You might be wondering what on earth the plot of a movie from 60 years ago has to do with the passage we read from 1 Corinthians. There is one thing key thing in common between the movie and those verses, and that is priorities. The officer portrayed by Alec Guinness had his priorities completely turned around backwards. He put his efforts into constructing a bridge that would assist his enemies, the very people who were holding him and his men prisoner, making them do forced labour in the jungle, when he should have been working to undermine it. He took pride in a job well done, he imagined people saying “My, what a fine bridge those British made, it’s the best thing on this shoddy railroad the Japanese built.”

It’s fine to take pride in a job well done. It’s fine to do the best work you can, in fact, you should be doing your best work. If you aren’t, if you are basically phoning it in at your 9 to 5, that’s not okay. God calls those who would follow Him to serve both God and man honourably and effectively, but that’s perhaps another topic for another day. A job well done is important, but it has to be the right job. If my boss asked me to prepare a report, but instead I went and mopped the floor, well, it doesn’t matter how good a job I did on the floor, that’s not what I was supposed to do. Maybe the floor was really dirty, and maybe it needed to be mopped, you could argue. Well, maybe it did. And maybe I did the best job mopping it that anyone has ever done. But that’s not what I was asked to do.

It’s important to have priorities. But it’s even more important to have the right priorities. Anyone can have all sorts of priorities, in fact most people do. Some folks I know seem to have too many priorities, and that’s a problem, because when everything is a priority, then really, nothing is. We hear so much about multi-tasking these days, and while that’s a skill that some people have, divided focus is an issue that derails many others.

In the verses that we read to start, Paul states clearly what his priority is. The very first words we read, from verse 17, say For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel.

I have nothing against baptism. My eldest son was baptised last month, and I’m thankful that he decided to take that step of faith. That’s a great thing. Many of you were there, and I’m sure you agree with me on that. Baptism is a great thing. But it’s not the most important thing. It’s not the priority. It wasn’t for Paul when he wrote this epistle, and it should not be for us today. The main thing, the key item of business for those of us who serve Christ, is to preach the gospel.

Is it the only thing that we do? No, there are any number of ministries that we have as a church, any number of things that we do, that we will move forward on as part of doing the work of the Lord. Baptism is indeed one of those, we’ve seen two young people baptised in this meeting over the last couple of months, and we hope to see more in the not too distant future. We meet for Bible study and for prayer, we do that every week, and there is certainly value in that, I trust that we will continue to do so until the Lord’s return. We frequently hear sermons that are intended not so much as a gospel message as they are for the equipping and strengthening of the saints, and that is another important ministry, to be sure. Believers who do not pray, do not know their Bible, have not been baptized, and are generally ill-prepared to follow God, well, that does not sound like it will lead to much success, or really, to anything other than disappointment and failure. It is important that as a church we continue to do all those ministries.

But all of those need to take a backseat to the preaching of the gospel, to reaching the lost with the good news. As Paul says in verse 23, we preach Christ crucified. That is what we have been commissioned to do.

Commissioned is indeed the right word. To commission something is to put it into service, generally for a specific purpose. We may more often hear the contrary terms, for example, something old might be decommissioned, or something broken might be considered “out of commission.” The great commission, which is the common term we have for the instruction Christ gave to His disciples, as written in the closing verses of the four gospels, as well as the opening verses of the book of Acts, is a command to bring the gospel far and wide to all nations. It was the final word we had from Christ before He left earth, and the fact that it is repeated in five different books of the Bible should make it clear that it is important for us to notice this and to obey it. Anyone who claims to follow Christ but does not say that preaching the gospel to the nations is not necessary is either delusional or a liar.

I’m not going to get into a discussion of whether or not preaching Christ is the most important command He gave His followers. Let me provide an answer that should suffice with this one statement. When He was asked what the greatest commandment was, He replied that it was to love the Lord with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and all your mind, and to love your neighbour as yourself. If you are going to do those, if you are going to love God then you are going to do as He said, and the last thing He said was to preach the gospel. If you are going to love your neighbour, if you are going to care for the people around you, then pointing them in the direction of the saviour seems an excellent place to start.

If someone is drowning and you don’t throw them a rope, then you must not care about that person very much. And likewise, if someone is lost in sin and on the road to perdition, then surely they need to hear the gospel.

Last Sunday, if you were here Sunday morning, the speaker shared from 1 Timothy, chapter 1. One of the verses he read was verse 15 This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. That was His chief objective, His reason for coming to live and to die on this planet. He said so Himself, we could read it in Luke chapter 5 or Mark chapter 2, He said I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. That’s why when sick and damaged people came to Him for help, often we read that He forgave their sins prior to any physical healing. They came with one priority in mind, but Christ had a higher mission that He was looking toward, one with longer term consequences. Illness comes and goes, and that which is cured today will surely come again at some point in the future, but a changed life remains changed, a saved person remains saved, eternal life is special because it is indeed eternal.

Christ came to save sinners. That was His purpose for coming here to live among us, to die among us. He didn’t come into the world to just get to know humanity, or to have a good time, or to compile some sort of divine report, or to encourage us to behave a little better. All those might be things that we could rationalize might be reasons for Christ to have come, but none of them are correct. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, to call them, to call us, in fact, to repentance. If we are going to serve Him, to follow Him, we should be working to further that purpose. Otherwise we have lost the plot.

It is interesting to note that Paul, upon stating Christ’s purpose in 1 Timothy 1:15, refers to himself as the chief of sinners. Paul was not a stereotypical sinner. We may have a mental image of what we think a sinner looks like, someone who is a drunk or a drug addict, perhaps, or promiscuous, or violent, or foul mouthed, or given to any number of other anti-social behaviours. Paul did not fit the profile. He was religious, deeply so, a Pharisee in fact, and a law-abiding individual if ever there was one. He have nothing to suggest that he was at any point in his life given to any of the immoral behaviours we associate with the word sinner. But Paul called himself the chief of sinners. Was he simply being especially critical of himself? Was this an overstatement for emphasis?

I don’t believe that it was. Paul considered himself to be such a great sinner because what he did, rather than commit the conventional variety of sins we would assume, was to actively oppose the gospel of Christ. Paul worked diligently to suppress the gospel, he persecuted those who followed Christ, he made it his personal goal to put himself in opposition to the preaching of Christ crucified.

Sin is sin, and sin is of course wrong, it goes against God’s plan and purpose. Any sin is a statement of opposition to Christ, of resistance to God. It may be wilful, or it may be incidental, or even unwitting, but still sin. However, when our sin has the objective of directly discouraging others from following Christ, that’s something more. When we specifically fight against the good news of salvation, that is such a serious infraction that it was no exaggeration for Paul to call himself the chief of sinners. From the perspective that sharing the gospel and seeing sinners come to Christ is the primary mission of the church, Paul could not have done anything more contrary or more offensive.

This is not a sermon on the nature of sin, though. This is a sermon about priorities. From the passage we read to start you might realize that it’s also about motivations. You can have the correct priorities for the wrong reasons, although that’s not particularly common, I would think. And when your motivation is coming from the wrong place, how reliable will it be to keep your priorities where they should be?

In the movie I referenced to start, The Bridge on the River Kwai, the character portrayed by Alec Guinness had his priorities backwards. He wasn’t focused on the war effort, but rather on proving a point, that the civilization of the British Empire was superior to that of Imperial Japan. He was not motivated to be an effective soldier, which was his job. While his intention and his motivations were not terrible, they were not correct.

I don’t do this all the time, but a reasonably common thing that I do when I preach is to explain the inspiration behind the topic. Generally this would be done in the introduction, or at least close to the start, not somewhere in the middle. But here we are.

Not long ago I got thinking about why I preach, and from that it’s a short step to asking why do any of us preach, and for that matter, to asking why do we do anything that we do in the church? What is the reason behind it all? It’s no small effort to prepare a sermon, much less preach it. It’s no small effort to teach Sunday School, or run an Awana program, or lead Bible study, or for that matter, to come to Bible study after a long and busy day at work. It’s no small effort to clean this building, or to watch children in the nursery, or to prepare for fellowship time. Some Sunday mornings it’s no small effort, in fact it might be a downright herculean effort to even get out of bed and come to church. So why do we do it?

There many reasons that someone might give, or that someone on the outside looking in might suggest. People may come to church to be social, to feel that they are part of a faith community. They might participate to feel better about themselves, whether from self-improvement or from looking at others  and feeling some sense of superiority. They might do this because that’s what they’ve always done, what they were taught to do as children, so why stop now? There are some who have an overwhelming sense of guilt, and they know no other way to find relief.  Indeed, there are many people who profess the name of Christ who have no real idea of what faith actually means, or of what salvation truly entails.

There are any number of reasons why someone might go to church, or might participate in Christian ministry on some level. But there should only be one.

Christ came into the world to save sinners. We preach Christ crucified, because that is how sinners are saved. The world may not understand, it may see this as foolishness, as the passage we read to start says, but that does nothing to change the truth. Worldly wisdom comes and goes. Truth remains.

We see that all the time, that which the world considers to be the newest, best, most important thing is one day on everyone’s lips, the next day relegated to the trash heap. Think of all manner of trendy diets, from Atkins to South Beach to Keto to Paleo, the list goes on. Think of medical treatments for various illnesses, how you treat a particular cancer today may look very different from how you would have treated the same type of cancer a decade ago. Will it be different again in the future? Most likely. Think of financial markets and stock market trends, the ways that rich people get richer today seem to shift and change every few years, with the only constant being that the rich do indeed become richer. The wisdom of this world is transient and temporal, and in many cases is not even wisdom at all, but simply someone’s best guess. Hardly something to rely on, especially when your eternal soul is at stake.

That’s why it is vital to preach the simple truth of the gospel, of Christ crucified, of salvation through Him and Him alone. It is that truth, that Christ died for sinners, that whosoever believes on Him will not perish but have eternal life, that is what our salvation is based on. We are saved by God’s grace, and by that alone, not by any works of righteousness that we may have done. If we preach something other than that, then we have added to the gospel and in doing so, we do not improve it, instead we diminish, weaken, and tarnish it.

I recall a joke about a person who won an Olympic gold medal, I’ve heard this joke told about residents of a particular province in Canada, but you could apply it to anyone you wished, assuming that the idea is that your target is not terribly swift. In any case, the clueless person who won a gold medal decided to do something special to keep their medal. They went and had it bronzed.

When we feel the need to dress up the gospel with something else, or when we relegate it to a secondary place because it’s not a good “selling point,” that’s essentially what we are doing. The gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation. If someone does not believe that, or will not believe that, then trying to persuade them to join the church has little point.

All my clever words and carefully chosen arguments will not persuade anyone of the truth. And even if they could, and I will point out that many skilled speakers have certainly convinced people to go to church, and to make a profession of faith, whether through intellectual argument or more commonly through emotional manipulation, then that is not really belief.

After all, if I managed to argue someone into belief, well, then all it would likely take was someone more skilled at persuasion to argue someone out of belief. And there will always be someone more persuasive, sooner or later. Likewise if I spoke in the most pleasing and convincing manner, if I spoke with the tongues of men and angels, all it would take is someone more charismatic and dynamic. Or if I triggered an emotional response, well, emotions do tend to change, and often to fade over time. That which was ever so evocative yesterday might be humdrum tomorrow.

It’s not my priority to convince more people to come to this church. Certainly that would be a good thing, I would like to see more people here on a regular basis, we have the space, it’s not like we are bursting at the seams, but it’s not why I’m up here this morning. It’s not why we meet this morning, or this evening, or on Tuesday for that matter. Everything we do here should be with the ultimate goal of seeing sinners saved. That is the priority.

Now, much of what we do may act in support of that. When we meet for Bible study on Tuesday, that is with the intention of further building up and equipping those who believe already. When I or one of the other men who might speak on a Sunday morning or a Sunday evening preaches a sermon that is not specifically a gospel message, but instead addresses to aspects of Christian living or doctrine, likewise that is to inform or encourage or otherwise enable the church. While that may not directly spread the gospel of Christ, it is preparing the way for future evangelism.

It should be obvious that a believer who is strong in the faith and in the knowledge of the scriptures is likely to be far more effective than one who is wishy-washy and knows little, much as an athlete who has trained for a long distance running will likely do far better in a marathon than someone who has done little or no preparation. That is only common sense.

When I got up to speak this morning, I knew that the majority of those listening, quite possibly everyone who would hear this sermon today, is already a believer, and has long since come to a saving knowledge of the gospel of Christ. I think it’s a safe bet to assume that you already know that Christ died for your sins according to the scriptures, and that He was buried and that He rose again the third day, according to the scriptures.

If I don’t need to communicate that with you because you already know it, as much as reminders are certainly good from time to time, then what is my motivation for preaching today? If my primary objective is to preach Christ crucified, to see sinners saved, how am I doing that this morning?

I will point out that is it easy to find lots of wrong motivations. I could get up here and preach a sermon in order to impress people. I could do this for prestige, and while I’m no Billy Graham or George Whitfield, I think anyone who preaches would understand that there is a certain satisfaction in knowing that people heard you preaching and were moved by your words.

If that was my motivation for preaching, I would be seeking my own glory. And that is wrong. As we read in 1 Corinthians chapter 1, God often uses the weak, the low, the unlearned, rather than the strong, the prominent, or the wise, so that no flesh should glory in his presence. God is not about to encourage us to be prideful, we come by that naturally with no outside help, and need no encouragement. Pride is among the most dangerous and defiant of all sins, it’s a topic I’ve spoken on before and no doubt will again. We should always been on the lookout for pride, it arises quickly and easily, and sometimes where you would least expect it, and the damage is causes is extensive.

That’s hardly the only wrong motivation for public Christian ministry. Certainly there are those who go up on a pulpit and preach in order to make money, and I don’t mean those who are hired by a local church to be a pastor, and so preaching is part of their livelihood, but those who run large churches, megachurches in some cases as they are called. There are those who preach, it seems, in order to better sell books that perhaps instead of focusing on a relationship with God tend to be about self-improvement, and always seem to feature on the cover a  picture of the author and his million-watt smile.

We could list other incorrect motives and misplaced priorities, but time fails me to deal with them all. There are those who minister out of a sense of duty or obligation, not caring for the lost. There are those who feel they must earn their keep, so to speak, that if they aren’t working hard enough they must not truly be on the way to heaven. And there are those who wish to maintain appearances, because someone who talks a good talk looks holier than someone who remains silent in the corner. You can probably think of more examples, but our focus should not be on what is wrong, but rather on what is right, what is important.

Christ came into the world to save sinners. Everything else we do, everything we preach, every ministry of the church, whether it be local or universal, should be in support of this goal. Christ came into the world to save sinners. If we are sinners saved by grace, which I am, and which I trust that you are as well, then we are a testament to this mission, proof that it has moved forward by at least a few steps. If we are not working to further that goal, then where are our priorities? If we fail to preach Christ crucified, and that goes far beyond the pulpit, it goes into our daily lives, our manner of life, our every word and deed, if we fail at this, then our priorities are wrong, and our motivations are misguided.

I speak to myself this morning, as much as to anyone here, because I know I have fallen far short on many occasions. And while I may not be like Paul who actively opposed the gospel, how many times have I failed to promote it? If we claim to follow Christ, but are not working toward His key objective, then we need to examine ourselves and see where our priorities truly lie.