True Honor Through Faith Alone
A sermon on Habakkuk 2:15-17 by Coty Pinckney, Community Bible Church, Williamstown, MA 6/3/01
Do you want others to look up to you? Do you hope that other people will praise you? What do you do to try to get others to look up to you? If, after your efforts, others do not admire and respect you – what does that do to your self-image?
Last week we looked at our desire to accomplish something significant in our lives. All of us have this desire to leave a mark, to make a difference, to be able to say, “I had an impact on the world around me!” Last week we suggested that this desire is God-given – that God’s commands to Adam and Eve in the garden to fill the earth, subdue it, and rule over it are, in effect, commands to make a difference.
Yet as we saw, the command to accomplish much does not mean that we are the ones who do the work! Jesus says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Whatever good we do – and we are to do good – is the result of God working in us. So our task is to be faithful to God’s commands – like Samuel Mills and William Carey, we should attempt great things for God, we should expect great things from God, we should like Paul strive with all His energy – but in the end, we leave the results with God. For the final result is assured: The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. God invites us to be a part of that great plan – and no other accomplishment compares to that.
So last week our focus was on the accomplishment itself, our desire to make a difference. But we seek accomplishment not only for the satisfaction of seeing that we can make a difference – but also so that others will see and acknowledge that we have made a difference. We like to receive praise – we like to be acknowledged, to get pats on the back. So this week, we turn from the accomplishment itself to the desire for praise.
Recall that we are making our way slowly through Habakkuk chapter 2. Verse 4 of this chapter is the best known – “the righteous shall live by faith.” God contrasts the righteous one, living by faith, with the proud one – specifically in this context the Babylonians, but in general all those who do not live by faith. And after verse 4, the rest of the chapter pronounces five woes on the proud one, providing us with five negative examples of living by faith. Each of these negative examples provides us with a valuable lesson concerning how to live by faith. So far, we have seen that:
Today we see that True Honor comes only from God. Living in this world, we are tempted to seek praise from other men; we are tempted to seek praise even from ourselves. But the clear message of Habakkuk and, indeed, the entire Bible is that we are to seek our praise only from God – His judgment is the only one that counts. And this way of living by faith frees us from the slavery of working to live up to the expectations of others, frees us to serve God in radical ways.
Once again, we will look at the objective of the proud one, the wrong methods he uses to achieve the objective, and the appropriate punishment God designs for this sin. We will conclude with lessons for living by faith.
So please turn with me in your Bibles to Habakkuk 2:15:
2:15 "Woe to you who make your neighbors drink, Who mix in your venom even to make them drunk So as to look on their nakedness! 16 "You will be filled with disgrace rather than honor. Now you yourself drink and expose your own nakedness. The cup in the LORD'S right hand will come around to you, And utter disgrace will come upon your glory. 17 "For the violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you, And the devastation of its beasts by which you terrified them, Because of human bloodshed and violence done to the land, To the town and all its inhabitants.
I’m claiming that the objective here is praise and honor – and that this objective is God-given, a good objective. Yet upon reading these, you may be thinking, “That doesn’t look like the objective at all – the proud one’s objective seems to be sexual titillation, looking on the nakedness of his victims. So in this case the objective is wrong in and of itself.”
But verse 16, when stating the punishment, gives the objective clearly: “you will be filled with disgrace rather than honor.” Somehow the actions of the proud one described in verse 15 are attempts to achieve honor. But what does achieving honor have to do with making your neighbors drunk so as to look on their nakedness?
The key to understanding this passage is to consider the other places in the Old Testament where similar expressions are used: look, see, or uncover the nakedness of another. And, interestingly, in most cases this expression refers not to sexual desire, but to bringing shame on someone else. Indeed, in many cases this expression is used of the bringing of shame upon a city, or all the people of Israel, not an individual.
Perhaps the clearest example is found in Ezekiel 16. Israel is pictured as a young, naked virgin whom the Lord finds, covers, and protects; He eventually marries her and loves her, but she seeks after other lovers and commits adultery with them. The Lord then prophesies that He will gather her former lovers and “expose your nakedness to them that they may see all your nakedness.” Clearly the Lord’s objective is not sexual titillation – indeed, these former lovers had already seen whatever there was to see! Instead, the objective is to shame Israel, to bring her to public humiliation for her (spiritual) adultery – and through this shame to bring about repentance and restoration.
So the objective in Habakkuk 2:15 is indeed to bring honor to oneself by shaming others, to glorify oneself by bringing disgrace on others. “But, Coty,” you might say, “that’s a strange way to get honor for yourself! No one ever does that today, do they?”
On the contrary, they – that is, we – do it all the time! Think, now: How often do we tear someone else down? How often do we say negative things about other people? And what is the purpose of doing that? Usually to exalt ourselves in comparison.
Imagine two brothers discussing their recent softball game. Does any of this sound familiar?
“So, you were chosen last again in softball today. Hey, did you see? I was chosen second! Isn’t it great that I got all the talent in this family!”
“Yeah, so much talent you struck out three times today. At least I got on base and scored a run.”
“Just cause Joey couldn’t field a simple grounder. That kid’s almost as bad a fielder as you! If I’d been playing shortstop, you’d a been out by a mile.”
“I wish you had been playing shortstop. Then you would have overthrown first base just like you did on Lonny’s hit, and I would have made it to second.”
“Hey, pipsqueak, I don’t want to hear no more from that mouth of yours!”
Well, it’s clear where this is going. And clearly, I could have made that dialogue much worse.
Why do these boys talk this way? What are they trying to achieve? They are belittling each other to try to make themselves look good! They cut each other down to exalt themselves! This is exactly the same as our passage in Habakkuk. Do you see how this objective drives so much of our lives, and the lives of others around us? Do you see how much of our lives are occupied with tearing each other down, in order to make ourselves look taller, and stronger, and better?
And so often the statements we make are so much more cruel than belittling baseball skills! The language that we use between husbands and wives, between parents and children, between workers and employers, hurt each other so deeply, and cause so much pain. And the objective is simply this: to bring honor to ourselves by tearing apart someone else.
What appropriate punishment does God mete out to the proud one for exalting himself through demeaning others? Look at verse 16 again: “You will be filled with disgrace rather than honor. Now you yourself drink and expose your own nakedness. The cup in the LORD'S right hand will come around to you, And utter disgrace will come upon your glory.”
The proud one made others drunk and demeaned them through exposing their nakedness; now he himself will be forced to drink, and will be exposed himself. God’s punishment will come upon him; he thought his methods would bring him honor, but in the end he himself is the cause of his dishonor and disgrace.
Do you see how serious this is? Jesus says the second greatest commandment is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Whenever we use our words or actions to cut down another, we are explicitly violating this commandment. And God will not be mocked. We will reap what we sow.
Surely one obvious lesson for living by faith is, “Don’t use cutting words against one another.” That is true. And it is important. But there are more lessons here. Satan tempts us in much more subtle ways, trying to get us to seek honor and glory from wrong sources.
So perhaps the lesson should be: Don’t seek honor at all. Just obey God. Don’t aim for any glory for yourself.
While some have understood the Bible that way, we would have to throw out a large number of Scriptures to come to that conclusion. Again and again and again God promises us honor and glory. If we’re not to seek it, if we’re not to desire it, why does He promise to give it to us?
· John 12:26: If anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.
· Luke 14:11: Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.
· 1 Peter 5:6 Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God that He may exalt you at the proper time.
· Prov 22:4 The reward of humility and the fear of the LORD are riches, honor, and life.
So God promises those who humbly serve Him honor, exaltation, riches, and life. “But Coty,” you may say, “maybe God promises all this as the result of our humble service, but we are not supposed to aim for it.”
Romans 2:6-7 clearly says the contrary: On the day of judgment God “will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life.” “Seek for glory”! We are to seek for glory and honor! So the goal is good; the goal is God-given. The key is how we seek for glory and honor.
With this understanding in hand, we are ready to state the lesson for living by faith:
Seek honor and praise from God alone. Never seek or be influenced by the honor, praise, or recognition of men.
As we noted last week, our one desire should be to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” There is no greater honor than that. Nothing else matters.
This lesson is easy to say – but incredibly hard to put into practice. Think of how much of our lives is spent trying to impress others – all we do with our hair, our clothes, our cars, our houses – many of our lives are dominated by trying to exalt ourselves in the eyes of other people. We could profitably consider how to apply this in our many different situations: as parents, as children, as spouses, as neighbors, as part of the church. With time only to consider one situation, let’s focus on the workplace: what does this lesson for living by faith imply for us as employees, as workers? Paul brings out some of these truths when addressing slaves in Ephesians 6:
5 Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. 6 Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. 7 Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men, 8 because you know that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good he does, whether he is slave or free. (NIV)
So what lessons can we draw for our behavior and attitude in the workplace?
Can any of us with any experience in the workplace claim to have put those seven points into practice consistently? And note that the temptation is particularly strong for preachers! As Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes,
Good people can be a man's greatest enemy. Many a preacher has been ruined by his congregation. Their praise, their encouragement of him as a man, has almost ruined him as a messenger of God, and he has become guilty of laying up treasures on earth. He tends almost unconsciously to be controlled by the desire to have his people's good opinion and praise, and the moment that happens a man is laying up treasures on earth.
The key phrase is ‘controlled by the desire to have his people’s good opinion and praise.” That is what we must never allow to happen. Isn’t Satan subtle? He takes the good, honest statements of good people concerning the proclamation of the word of God – but then, in the preacher’s study, Satan makes him think, “Oh, I’d better not say that! I might hurt those loving people! That’s not what they want to hear! I’d better skip over those verses!” And the minute I do that, I am worthless as a preacher. I am seeking praise from men, not God.
Just so, all of us are to seek honor and praise from God alone. As Paul says:
But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined [judged] by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine [judge] myself. . . . The one who examines [judges] me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts; and then each man's praise will come to him from God. (1 Corinthians 4:3-5 NAS)
God is our judge, the one who examines us. If, by His power working in us, we live lives that glorify Him, He will give us the greatest honor and glory imaginable. He is the one we aim to please. No one else’s opinion matters.
In conclusion, let me relate a true story that happened during the days of communist domination of eastern Europe. Josef Tson had returned to Romania from theological studies in England, knowing that he was likely returning to his death. For years he suffered harassment and persecution; in light of this, Josef developed a theology of martyrdom, arguing that while we should not seek to die for the Lord, we must be willing to do so – and that God uses the death of martyrs mightily for His purposes. So Josef was ready to die.
But during one long imprisonment, after a terrible, torturous day of questioning, the Romanian inquisitor shocked Josef. He said, “Josef, do you remember the days 20 years ago when you turned your back on your faith? We’ve done some investigating; and we now know that during that time you committed terrible acts. (And he had). Well, we’ve now written up a little paper highlighting all those acts, and have distributed it to all the Christians in this country. So they all know. All those who have been flocking to your house to listen to you preach, all those who said they loved you – now they hate you. They despise you for what you have done.”
This completely blew Josef away. A man who was ready to die; a man who had endured terrible suffering with great fortitude; this same man literally fell to the ground, stunned by this blow. The inquisitor became convinced that Josef was going to die, and didn’t want the rumor to spread that he had killed him – so he sent Josef home to die.
As he regained consciousness, Josef prayed to God, “Why, Lord? I’ve endured so much! Why are you also taking away all my friends, all those who loved me?”
And Josef felt that God replied, “Josef, is this how you pictured your martyrdom? You are being led to the scaffold – and all your supporters are lining the streets cheering you on! “Josef, we love you! Hurrah for Josef! Be strong – we are with you!” But what if the martyrdom I choose for you is different? What if I ask you to die – with everyone lining the streets, including the Christians, spitting at you, hating you, despising you – are you willing to die that death? Am I worth that much to you? Oh, and Josef – how did I die?”
What about you? Is God worth that much to you? Are you willing to lose the approval of friends, family, country, employer – and only have the praise of Jesus?
Let’s turn that question, stating it from a different point of view:
God created you to be His child, His heir – a joint-heir with Christ of all creation. God created you so that you might become perfect – perfectly good, perfectly loving, perfectly kind – like Christ. God created you so that He might exalt you and sit you on Christ’s throne, and enable you to rule together with Christ.
Is this enough for you? Are all these honors and glories enough for you? Do you really want more than this? Do you also want the temporary, fleeting praise of men? Do you want their approval – over and above God’s?
True honor comes only from God! May we aim for this goal, and seek His praise alone – and then rejoice as He exalts us.
This sermon was preached at Community Bible Church in Williamstown, MA on 6/3/01. The quotation from Martyn Lloyd-Jones comes from Studies in the Sermon on the Mount Volume 2 (Eerdmans, 1959-60), p. 82. The account of Josef Tson is based on his talk at the 2000 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors. Tapes of this excellent talk are available through Desiring God Ministries; local readers can borrow the tape from me. You can listen via RealAudio to a briefer but similar talk by Dr Tson, given at Southern Seminary in Louisville. I told another part of Josef’s story in the sermon “Suffering and Joy.”
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