The Key to the Keys of the Kingdom
A pastor confided in me that he loved to spend a short while reading the newspaper in the morning, but felt it would be irresponsible. This was only one of many things he either denied himself or felt guilty about doing because of his perceived work load. He was burdened by the task of making a small church succeed in circumstances that were very hard. No matter how hard he tried, it would never be enough, so long as his attendance was not large and growing and he did not have an appropriate building and cash flow.
In fact, however, the inner burden he carried is not much different in quantity from that of many ministers prospering in larger, more “successful” churches. The need to achieve is too great. Invariably, it is the personal and spiritual life of the minister that suffers. And--like doctors, lawyers and other professionals today--he often comes to feel strongly that the circumstances in which he works are in conflict with the very goals for which he entered the ministry in the first place. Heightened frustration and disappointment go hand in hand with decreasing strength, peace and joy. The conditions and habits of our work in ministry often seems incompatible with the life that Jesus lived and surely offers to us.
But it does not have to be so. There is a way of getting hold of our concrete ministerial situation and finding the joy, strength and vision in service which obviously characterized Jesus himself, as well as many of his fellow-workers and friends through the ages.
The One we work for and with has placed in our hands the keys to the Kingdom of the Heavens. (Matt 16:19) Setting aside centuries of ecclesiastical controversy over the meaning of this passage, we need to simply understand that our confidence in Jesus as the one who “has say over all things in heaven and in earth” (Matt. 28:18) can develop into practical access to the riches of the Kingdom. These in turn make it possible for us to do the work we have to do and to live our lives in the strength, joy and peace of Christ.
Having the keys is not a matter of controlling access to the kingdom, as is often thought. Keys do not first mean the right to control access, but the enjoyment of access. Imagine a man who carefully kept his doors locked and his keys in hand, but never went into his house! Having access to the kingdom, living in it, is what matters.
The meaning of Matt 16:19 is, therefore, not fundamentally different from Matt. 6:33: “Seek more than anything else to act with the kingdom of God and to have His kind of goodness, and all else you need will be added.” (paraphrase) Or Romans 8:32: “He who did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things.” (NAS) Or the well-known Philipians 4:19: “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (NAS)
But if the abundance is here, enough even to defeat the “Gates of Hell,” why are we not thriving in it? The answer is that we have a key to the keys. The abundance of God to our lives, our families and our ministries is not passively received or imposed and does not happen to us by chance, but is claimed and put into action by our active, intelligent pursuit of it. We must seek out ways to live and act in union with the flow of God’s kingdom life that should come through our relationship with Jesus.
There is, of course, no question of doing this purely on our own. But we must act. Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort. And it is well-directed, decisive and sustained effort that is the key to the keys of the kingdom and to the life of restful power in ministry that those keys can open to us.
What are some practices that will make “the keys” given in response to our faith in Jesus as Messiah effective in our lives as ministers? We strongly need to see the manifest hand of God in what we are and what we do. We need to be sure He is pulling the load, bearing the burden--which we are all too ready to assume is up to us alone. We must understand that He is in charge of the outcome of our efforts, and that the outcome will be good, right. And all of this is encompassed in one biblical term, “Sabbath.”
The Sabbath, Jesus said, was made for man. (Mark 2:27) That is, it serves human life in essential ways. Without it, life cannot be what it should be. That is why it is given in the Ten Commandments, at the heart of the moral law. It is not something we have to do because God has arbitrarily required it of us, a pointless hoop He would have us jump through. It is His gift to us. At the same time it makes clear that our life and our ministry is also His gift to us.
Sabbath is a way of life. (Heb. 4:3 & 9-11) It sets us free from bondage to our own efforts. Only in this way can we come to the power and joy of a radiant life in ministry, a blessing to all we touch. And yet Sabbath is almost totally absent from the existence of contemporary Christians and their ministers.
What is Sabbath? Biblically, it is a day, once a week, when we do no work. “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work.” (Ex 20:9-10) It was also a year, once every seven years, when God’s covenant people not sow seed, prune vines or store up harvest. (Lev. 25:4-7) And to the question, “How are we going to eat in the seventh year?” God replied: “I will so order My blessing for you in the sixth year that it will bring forth the crop for three years.” (vs. 21)
The moral principle certainly applies as well to our non-agrarian, contemporary life, though our faith will be greatly challenged in working out the details. Very practically, Sabbath is simply “casting your cares upon Him,” to find that in actual fact “He cares for you.” (I Peter 5:7) It is using of the keys to the kingdom to receive the resources for abundant living and ministering.
Three practices or spiritual disciplines are especially helpful in making Sabbath real in the midst of our life: Solitude, Silence, and Fasting. These are three of the central disciplines of abstinence long practiced by the followers of Jesus to help them find and keep solid footing in the kingdom that cannot be moved--in the midst of a busy and productive life, or even a life of trial, conflict and frustration.
For most of us, Sabbath will not become possible without extensive, regular practice of solitude. That is, we must practice time alone, out of contact with others, in a comfortable setting outdoors or indoors, doing no work. We must not take our work with us, even in the form of bible study, prayer or sermon preparation, for then we will not be alone. An afternoon walking by a stream or on the beach, in the mountains, or sitting in a comfortable room or yard, is a good way to start. This should become a weekly practice. Then perhaps a day, or a day and a night, in a retreat center where we can be alone. Then perhaps a weekend or a week, as wisdom dictates.
This will be pretty scary for most of us. But we must not try to get God to “do something” to fill up our time. That will only throw us back into work. The command is: “Do no work.” Just make space. Attend to what is around you. Learn that you don’t have to do to be. Accept the grace of doing nothing. Stay with it until you stop jerking and squirming.
Solitude well practiced will break the power of busyness, haste, isolation and loneliness. You will see that the world is not on you shoulders after all. You will find yourself and God will find you in new ways. Joy and peace will begin to bubble up within you and arrive from things and events around you. Praise and prayer will come to you and from within you. The soul anchor established in solitude will remain solid when you return to your ordinary life with others.
Silence also brings Sabbath to you. Silence means quietness, freedom from sounds except natural ones like breathing, bird songs and wind and water moving. It also means not talking. Silence completes solitude, for without it you cannot be alone. You remain subject to the pulls and pushes of a world that exaust you and keep you in bondage, distracting you from God and your own soul. Far from being a mere absence, silence allows the reality of God to stand in the midst of your life. It is like the wind of eternity blowing in your face. Not for nothing does the Psalmist say: “Be still and know that I am God.” God does not ordinarily compete for our attention. In silence we come to attend.
When we stop talking we abandon ourselves to reality and to God. We position ourselves to attend rather than to adjust things with our words. We stop our shaping and negotiating, or “spinning.” How much of our energy goes into that! We let things stand. We trust God with what others shall think.
Of course there is a time to talk, as there is a time to be with others. But we are not safe and rich in talk and companionship unless our souls are strong in solitude and silence. If we have heard the good news and have come to trust our Savior, He will meet with us through extensive solitude and silence to stablize his love, joy and peace in us. His character will increasingly become ours--easily, thorougly. You rarely find any person who has made great progress in the spiritual life that did not have much time in solitude and silence.
A pastor who has been discovering all this writes: “As I have slowed my life down through silence and solitude, I have discovered both the wickedness hidden by a hurried life as well as the wonder and delight my Father has in me. Oddly, through intentional times of practicing spiritual disciplines my walk with Jesus has become more spontaneous. He is present in more of my day. I have loved others better, and seen progress made in overcoming anger and the desire to have things my way. In a nutshell, Jesus has greater access to and control over my life. I’m more in tune to the still small voice of the Spirit.”
Fasting is another long proven way of finding our way into Sabbath, where we live and do our work from the hand of God. In fasting we abstain from our ordinary food to some significant degree and for some significant length of time. Like solitude and silence, it is not done to impress God or merit favor, nor because there is anything wrong with food. Rather, it is done that we may consciously experience the direct sustenance of God to our body and our whole person. We are using the keys to access the kingdom.
This understanding of fasting is clearly indicated by Jesus in Matt. 4:4 (with its back reference to Deut. 8:2-6) and in John 4:32-34. Fasting is, indeed, feasting. When we have learned well to fast, we will not suffer from it. It will bring strength and joy. We will not be miserable, and so Jesus tells us not to look miserable. (Matt 6:16) Was he suggesting that we fake a condition of joy and sufficiency when we fast? Surely not. He knew that we would “have meat to eat” that others “know not of.” I and many others can report that we have repeatedly verified this in experience.
Fasting is one way of seeking and finding the actual kingdom of God present and active in our lives. And because we are then more immersed in the reality of the kingdom, practically utilizing the “keys,” our lives take on the character and power of Jesus. This will assure us that our work is his work and that he is working. Though we act, and work hard, it is after all not our battle and the outcome is in his hands.
Another pastor had this to say about his experience with fasting: “Surprisingly, after the fast is when I began to realize something from the fast. I came back from the fast with a clearer sense of purpose and a renewed sense of power in my ministry. The anger which I unleashed at my wife and children was less frequent and the materialism that was squeezing the life out of my spirituality had loosened its grip.”
Yet another pastor said: “It is now my regular practice to fast before and during times I preach. I have a deeper sense of dependency and of the immense power of the spoken word. This has been demonstrated by the dear individual in my congregation who runs our tape ministry. She said that since January of this year , her order for sermon tapes has doubled. ‘I can’t explain it,’ she said, ‘but whatever it is, keep it up!’ ”
Experimental, prayerful implementation of solitude, silence, fasting--and other appropriate practices, such as fellowship, worship and study (there is no complete list of spiritual disciplines)--will certainly liberate us into the riches of kingdom living. We do not have to live under the thumb of our circumstances. For many, it is a considerable test of faith to take control of how they spend their time. But that is up to us. And putting time-tested, biblical disciplines for the spiritual life into sensible practice will soon lead us into an abundance of life that is eternal in quality and power.