“And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.” Acts 13:48
Sometimes I really wonder if I truly understand the portent of Your words, Lord. Because this is awesome stuff! I mean, every day I am reading awesome, truly awesome truths in Your Word. I’m reading life changing, life giving, life sustaining, miraculous truth that is just as truthful and active and powerful today as it was before it was in the written form. Because it’s not just about words. It’s all about You and Your character and Your power and just Your beyond awesome Youness. But it’s so easy to focus on me and my cares and desires and loose sight of what You are doing. It’s so easy to loose sight that it’s all about You.
Here were Barnabas and Paul speaking in a synagogue in Antioch. After Paul shared the Gospel, Scripture tells us that many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed them. Now, imagine the impact that Paul’s words about Christ had on this community. “The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord.” I wonder how they all fit in the synagogue? So, what’s the problem? Didn’t the Jews want to see their synagogues full? Don’t we love to see our churches bursting at the seams?
The problem comes when our focus is wrong. “When the Jews [I wonder if this was even some who had been on the verge of believing?] saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him.” What were they jealous of? Were they jealous that Paul had a stronger draw then they did? Or, could they be jealous because of who was being allowed to hear the Gospel? Could they be jealous because relationship with God wasn’t just about them or for them?
The Greek word here is “zelos” which can mean jealous. Psalm 73:3 uses the Hebrew equivalent “qanah.” “For I was envious of the arrogant as I saw the prosperity of the wicked.” But the better translation used here is the word “envious.” There’s a difference. Jealousy is when I want my property that you have. Envy is when I want what is rightfully yours. To understand this concept and put it into perspective with Psalm 73 and our present account, let’s look at the parable of the workers.
Read Matthew 20:1-16. There is this master, who we know is God. He goes out in the morning and hires laborers and promises them a denarius a day. They go off to work. Later he goes out and hires more laborers. He promises them that he will pay them what is right. They agree. They don’t know what they are going to get paid, but they are trusting the master to pay fairly. Two other times later in the day he goes out and gathers more laborers. He asks them why they are just idle. They say, “No one has hired us.” In other words, “We’d work if someone gave us the opportunity.” So he tells them to go work in his vineyard. But he doesn’t mention anything about wages. But I’m thinking that it was customary for a worker to receive wages. He said work, they trusted they would receive whatever was due for such a short time of labor. At least it was something.
Well the time comes for the day’s work to be finished. It’s time to receive the wages. The master had the foreman start with the lastly hired, first. Those last guys who were only given the opportunity to work received a denarius. I’m assuming everyone else in the middle received a denarius also. And the first hired workers who were promised a denarius are watching and fuming. “You promised us a denarius and we worked all day! Why do they get what is our right? They don’t deserve it. We do.” Well, that’s not their Biblical words but isn’t that what they are saying? They weren’t basing their satisfaction on the promise of the master, they were basing their satisfaction of their worth in comparison to others. In their eyes, they were worthy of greater recognition. They lacked thankfulness and joy because they had adopted envy instead.
But doesn’t the master have the right to decide what to do with his own possessions? Hadn’t he held true to his promises? And when he had not spoken a direct promise, wasn’t he free to give as he chose with that which was his? What right does the worker have to decide how the master will use his resources? After all, nothing belongs to the worker except for the attitude with which he chooses to labor. What he is laboring over and the fruits of the labor all belong to the master because the laborer wouldn’t be privy to any of it except the master invites him. And then the master rewards the laborer according to the worth the master sees.
These first laborers were promised a denarius. That is what would belong to them. But they wanted more than they were promised. They wanted what the others earned plus their promised amount. They felt as though these others were usurping the master. But it was all the master’s decision and under his control. Now this matters because it can happen to Christians. Have you ever seen someone who has a wonderful gift from the Lord and you admire that gift and so want to have it? Well, it’s not your gift. If you are sitting back griping to God about why He doesn’t give it to you, it’s because He knows who needs what and who deserves what. That’s envy. And it’s not commendable. That’s believing that God’s purposes can be circumvented, that people get what they don’t deserve. But then that is saying that God doesn’t know what He is doing and that He is not absolutely in control of His distribution. That’s a lie.
So, here are these Jews that are really upset because now their synagogue is full of not only Jews and proselytes but these Gentiles! And it wasn’t that the Gentiles were taking what belonged rightfully to the Jews. How could they deserve this? After the long hours of their faithfulness to the Master, how could they distribute equally to these nonbelievers? This was appalling. This was envy. Funny thing is, the Jews were always supposed to be a light unto the Gentiles. So the knowledge of God wasn’t only the property of the Jews. It had always been available for the Gentiles too. But envy was trying to prevent them from obtaining what was truly theirs.
So on one hand we have the actions and effect of envy. And envy is extremely powerful. They heard the truth but because of the envy they chose, they “thrust it aside and judge[d themselves] unworthy of eternal life.” But listen to the reaction of the Gentiles. “And when the Gentiles heard this…” Wait, what did they hear? Did they hear the arguments of the Jews who were envious? I think they heard this truth that Paul just shared of his calling which was supported by Old Testament Scripture. “For so the Lord has commanded us, saying ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.'” “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed.”
Did you get that? Their response at hearing that the Gospel of salvation, this truth of the reason for the death and resurrection of Christ, this relationship with God through Christ, was available to them! This was such wondrous news that they rejoiced and glorified the truth of the word. They weren’t looking at the Jews at all. They were focussed on the reward of Christ. They realized it wasn’t anything that they had done that made them worthy. Jesus and the Word made them worthy. There was no comparison. There was only mercy and grace and reward beyond expectation!
The word for rejoice here is the Greek word “chairo.” And this is the attitude that Jesus is looking for. As a matter of fact, He commands it. “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!” See, the joy isn’t just in the deliverance. The joy is in deliverance, in His word, in His promises yet to be fulfilled, and in the realization of His presence. We witness God and we experience Him. That’s where the joy comes from. My joy is not limited to my own hopes and dreams and imaginations. My joy is unlimited because my joy is as full as the hopes and dreams and imaginations and eternal plans of my God! Whether someone has more or someone has less, God’s plan is perfect. Whether I am in prison or free, God’s plan is perfect.
That idea of freedom is back today. Envy traps us in small thoughts. Because envy has us or other people controlling life. But joy has God in control. I am as free as the God who controls the entire universe according to His will. Prison walls don’t control me. If I am in prison it’s where God wants me for now. He is always in control. And I can sing because I am right where I am supposed to be, not by the power of man but by the divine plan of God. When tragedy strikes, it is not by accident. Everything is according to His purposes even though I don’t understand. Yet I can rejoice and I must rejoice because it will keep my focus on the God, my God, who remains in control. It will keep my focus on my God who eternally cares for me and each person around me and if His word says that, I will believe it. And the fact of the matter is that His word does say that! “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.'” Jeremiah 29:11 I must choose to rejoice because this is always true, no matter what appears to say otherwise.
Why does tough stuff happen? Well, it’s not by accident. In Jeremiah, God says the tough stuff is sent by God so we’ll call upon Him and come and pray to Him in such a way that we’re praying rightly and now He’ll turn to us and hear. And when God hears, He responds. This tough stuff draws us to seek Him, to really seek Him and find Him because it drives us to seek Him with all our heart. And when we seek like that, He promises that we will find Him. And when we find You, we’ll realize how immeasurably special that denarius is coming from You, Lord, and the endless treasures that it bestows upon us.
I think of that hymn and the phrase that talks about joy unspeakable and full of glory. And I just want to think a little bit more about this rejoicing. The Greek word “chairo” is also connected to the word “karar” in Hebrew. It’s the idea of “skipping and frisking of a lamb.” Skip Moen says “it is the frolic and play of a young sheep completely confident in the protection of a shepherd.” And don’t we remember that Jesus said of Himself, “I am the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep”? Did you know that on resurrection morning when He greeted the disciples and said, “Chairete! (Greetings!)” , that it was more than greetings He was saying? “Chairete! Rejoice! I am your Good Shepherd. I’m not just here to bless your life. I am here to redeem your life! ‘It is accomplished.'” So what will I choose today and every moment thereafter? Lord, guide me to continually rejoice in and over the One Who rules forever. Praise You Lord! I am so grateful for every denarius!