People question my wife and me about where we live and how we choose to spend our money. They basically say, "You know, it's OK with God if you spend money on yourselves—if you set you and your kids up financially. There's freedom in Christ."
You know, Jesus didn't have to leave heaven. Angels were probably saying, "Hey, you don't have to leave your home here. You deserve this; you're God." But Philippians 2 says that Jesus didn't hold onto equality with God. Did he have the right to stay in heaven? Of course. But what did he choose to do? He humbled himself. He made himself nothing. He took the form of a man. He took the form of a servant and died on the cross for us. And the Bible says that our attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. We shouldn't be thinking about what we deserve or what we have rights to.
This is something I struggled with when I first got into ministry. I could be a missionary and go overseas where I'd have to pretty much surrender everything. I'd have to suffer as Christ suffered. Or I could be a pastor in America, where, if your church grows to be a certain size, you can take more and more for yourself. It was so weird to me, and I wondered how I might be a pastor in America without climbing the ladder like everyone else. Just because a church is bigger, does that mean we're supposed to take more and have a higher standard of living? Should I try to live like an overseas missionary here in America?
My wife and I decided early on that no matter how big our church got, we didn't want to increase our standard of living. Nor do we want to maintain a standard of living. Instead, we want to live with less than what we have worked for. We want to display Jesus Christ through how we live.
What we worry about more than provision for our own lives is leaving this body of believers, this church that we love so much. Of course we've thought and prayed so much about this, as we know we've been called in a new ministry direction. In Acts 20:29-30, Paul says, "I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock, and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them." Paul had said all he needed to say, but he had to end with that warning. Scripture says that false teachers come in sheep's clothing.
People are very good at twisting things. You can support any view you want by manipulating Scripture. At the end of the day, you have to ask yourself what the Bible clearly teaches. At the end of the day you have to stand before God.
But Paul worried for his flock, and so do I. I've been praying more and more, not for myself or my future, but for this church. And yet it would be so like God if during this time he makes the church really flourish to show that it's always been about him and his power. Satan would love to see things fall apart here, but God does great things when his people get serious about praying to him. So I've been praying more and more.
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
who brings princes to nothing,
and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.
Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them, and they wither,
and the tempest carries them off like stubble.
To whom then will you compare me,
that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
Understanding God's sovereignty
What would your life look like if you really believed these words—that it is he who sits above the circle of the earth? That the earth's inhabitants are like grasshoppers? If I really believe these words, why do I do anything other than pray? What determines whether or not this church flourishes in the next ten years or not? God. God determines it. The rulers of the earth don't determine what flourishes; they themselves wither and are carried off like stubble. What if I believed these words with all my heart?
So often when we pray out of need, we implore the Holy Spirit to show up: Please help me, God. Come. Show up. But God says to us: This has always been my party. You should just be glad you're invited into it. God is going to do what he's going to do. God has done what he's wanted to do in this church, and he'll continue to.
I want to talk about this sovereignty of God for a moment. Who is someone in Scripture who really understood God's sovereignty—God's control? Well, Daniel understood and believed in God's control, but he's not who I'm thinking of. Joseph trusted in God's control, and Job believed in God's sovereignty, but again, these are not who I have in mind. Paul clearly understood God's control once God made himself known to Paul on the road to Damascus. Elijah's a good example, too. All these people knew God was sovereign, but they're not who I'm thinking of.
The person I want to talk about, who understood God's sovereignty in a profound way, is Nebuchadnezzar. He's probably not who you would have guessed next. But I believe Nebuchadnezzar understood God's control more than anyone. Listen to what he says in Daniel 4:35: "All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, 'What have you done?'" Nebuchadnezzar knew in his heart that compared to God, everyone on Earth is accounted as nothing. God acts entirely according to his own will. If everyone on the planet—and in the heavens—all gathered together and made a proclamation against God in rebellion, it wouldn't matter. God is sovereign.
Do you understand how much power that is? Do you understand that the God who we came here to worship is a God who's in control of everything? No one's going to stop him. Questioning him is useless. He has complete freedom, complete authority, and complete sovereignty to do as he wishes. Nebuchadnezzar understands this, and when we look at the context of this verse, we'll understand why.
Nebuchadnezzar is the king of Babylon. Babylon is a world power and the center of just about every form of self-centeredness. Earlier in this story, Nebuchadnezzar is strolling out on his roof, observing his kingdom, and he says, "Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?" There is no place for God in his perspective. He sees himself as the all-powerful one. But right after that scene, the Bible records:
While the words were still in the king's mouth, there fell a voice from heaven, "O King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: The kingdom has departed from you, and you shall be driven from among men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. And you shall be made to eat grass like an ox, and seven periods of time shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will." Immediately the word was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar. He was driven from among men and ate grass like an ox, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair grew as long as eagles' feathers, and his nails were like birds' claws.
Some of you hear that passage and don't believe it. You believe that God can speak a world into existence, but can he change our minds? Can he really turn someone into a grass-eating beast? Yes, he can. He chose to make Nebuchadnezzar into the beast he was acting like in his arrogance. Nebuchadnezzar is humbled by the sovereign God.
It's in that context that Nebuchadnezzar says what comes next in verse 34 and beyond:
At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored him who lives forever, for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, "What have you done?"
At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble.
Nebuchadnezzar was made irrational. He was made to act like a beast in the field. Nebuchadnezzar now has no doubt that there's only one King, and that King does whatever he wants. It's his dominion that lasts forever and ever—not Nebuchadnezzar's. Nothing can stop this God. Everything is in his hands.
Bowing to Christ's sovereignty
We all wrestle with pride to some degree. But some of you still believe that you've done something to deserve what you've been given—that it's your party and you've been kind enough to invite God into it—when in reality, this has all been about God. He is able to humble anyone in this room. One prayer I often pray is this: "God, please help me humble myself, so you don't have to do it." Being humbled by God is not fun.
Some of you have a hard time thinking about bowing to anyone. But let me tell you this: one day you will bow to Jesus. I don't care who you are. I don't care how rebellious or angry or intelligent or powerful you think you are; you will bow. The Bible says that one day every single knee is going to bow. He'll force you to your knees. Nebuchadnezzar understood that. The hope is that the humbling will take place while you're still on this earth, before your life is over.
I want you to hear one other statement that relates to this: Matthew 28:18. It's a passage many of you have memorized: "Jesus came and said to them, 'All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.'" It is the risen Christ who says this. He has conquered death, and he stands before the people and says these words. All authority has been given him. Understand his power, but also understand his authority. God has the right to do anything he wants. You don't have to give him permission for anything, which is what Nebuchadnezzar learned. Now here's the Son of God saying he has every ounce of authority that exists. Nothing has power over him.
It's a pretty strong preface he gives. Then in verse 19 he says this: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." After he says this, he ascends into heaven.
It's a powerful statement. Many of us memorize this as children, but I don't think we understood the weight of it then. Think about the force of someone commanding you to make disciples. Most of you have never done it! It's not what your lives are about right now. You think, God doesn't mind if I don't do this, and you defend all of the ways you spend your time—all of the things that keep you from doing what God commanded you to do.
Surrendering to God's sovereignty as a church
The Bible says that when the leader leaves, there's going to be all kinds of different teaching going on. It's usually not the overtly anti-biblical teaching that scares me. It's the subtle teaching that we're most susceptible to. We read the Scripture that says, "make disciples," and we think we don't really have to. You might say, "I'm discipling my kids," which of course you're called to do, but that doesn't mean you are not called to build into the lives of other people. This is our calling. This is what the risen Christ had all the authority to command us to do. But somehow we create a system that tells us it's OK to get busy with other things. We'll study a passage of Scripture to death and never actually follow through with what it says, because the truth is we hate doing it. We hate rejection. We hate telling people to obey the things that God has commanded, because those things aren't popular. We should all be making disciples. We want to lead people here to that end.
The thing that makes me nervous about leaving this church is that I trust less and less people. I become more skeptical each year as people who seemed so real and grounded to me falter. When a trial or temptation comes along, they're unable to stand in the face of it. They know what Jesus taught, but they aren't strong enough to live it out. That's why Paul tells Timothy to watch his life and his doctrine closely.
So many people will easily be led astray, and so many people want to be led astray. They want a teacher who will tell them what they want to hear. But I believe that when you're alone with the Word of God and the Holy Spirit, there are certain things in Scripture that you won't be able to avoid. You will see the inconsistencies in your life between what you claim to believe and how you live.
The American church is a very difficult place to live out biblical Christianity, because everyone pushes you toward comfort and ease. It's not the biblical way. I love this country, but you have to admit there are plenty of ways of living here that aren't biblical. As believers, we're supposed to live counter to our culture, to not conform to the patterns of this world, to have our minds transformed, and to live a different way.
I feel ready to leave this church now, because there are leaders in place who I've seen live out the life Christ has called us to. I've seen how their lives match what they say they believe—they're the real deal. The question is: Will you follow them? Hebrews 13:7 says, "Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith."
Church is not about coming to a place to evaluate the music, the programs, or the message. Church is supposed to be a group of people spending their days making disciples. The church should be where people come in from the world, get bandaged up, and are sent back out to do the work of God. Sometimes the church doesn't work because we're more like a bunch of soldiers who never went to war. There's no bandaging needed. It doesn't make sense to gather together to encourage each other, because we're not even after the mission anymore. But I know that the leaders we have in place here are going to make sure we're headed in the right direction. I thank God for these men, and I hope that you follow them well.
Maybe this is the first time you've heard this message. Maybe this is the first time God has humbled you and you recognize that it's not your party. It's God's party, and he wants us to join him in it. Maybe this is the first time you understand that Jesus actually left heaven, and he didn't have to. He came down and died for you. He paid for all your sins on that cross and rose from the grave, and he says he can put his Spirit in you now. He will do this for you. Let's pray together.
Francis Chan is an American Protestant author, teacher, and preacher.