The Indescribable Gift!

December 26, 2020

It is an outburst of praise as if Paul could no longer contain himself, and a prayer pours out of his heart. The prayer is simple; the prayer is profound. “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15, NIV)!

The context of this praise is Paul’s discussion of the special collection for Jerusalem that is the subject of chapters 8 and 9. In fact, commentators have divided on what Paul means by this phrase. A few have suggested that the indescribable gift is the special collection itself. That’s the impression left by the New Living Translation’s rendering, “Thank God for this gift too wonderful for words!” But even they footnote that the Greek says “his gift.”

It seems more likely that the indescribable gift is what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. It’s as if Paul’s thoughts about Christians giving naturally leads to what God has given us. No matter what we give, we cannot out give God.

God’s gift is indescribable. The word that Paul uses for indescribable has its first occurrence in Greek literature in this passage. Some think that Paul may have even coined the word. It is one of those words that simply has a negative prefix attached as we do with un- (unhappy instead of happy) or a- (atheist instead of theist). The word without the negation means “to tell in detail” or “narrate in full or completely.”

Paul does not mean that the gift cannot be described. Indescribable in English has two senses. If I go to the doctor and say that I have an indescribable sensation, it means that I have a feeling that I can’t put into words at all – frustrating to both doctor and patient. But if I were to say that I have indescribable joy, I would mean that it is surpassing description. I would have words, plenty of words, and quite possibly a rushing torrent of words. I would mean that all of the words put together could never completely describe it.

That’s the way it is with God’s gift. Can I get my head around the concept “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”? What was it like for the one who knew the glory of heaven to experience a peasant’s birth, a carpenter’s life? How do I depict the meaning of the death of Christ? I can imagine myself standing before the judgment seat of God deserving “guilty as charged.” Yet Christ brings me acceptance. I can imagine myself in chains – a slave to sin. Christ’s death redeems me out of my bondage. He has paid the price to set me free. I can imagine myself in front of an altar. The wrath of God is coming upon me because of sin. What sacrifice can I offer to appease God? My hands are empty. In the midst of my predicament, God provides the sacrifice of His own son.

And so it goes. Many words can describe what God has done, but we are approaching something wondrous. Whether we approach the task with great analytical skill and precision or whether we burst out with the evocative words of a poet, words fail. “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”


The Gift

December 18, 2020

It is one of our funny, family Christmas stories. By funny, I mean awkward, painful, and only slightly humorous at the time. It has become funnier with time and retelling.

My wife and I purchased a Christmas gift for one of our nephews. The gift was a hardback copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, one of the books in The Narnia Chronicles. This C.S. Lewis children’s story is a favorite in our family. I had read it in college and had wished it had been read to me as a child (and yes, the books are old enough that it could have happened). Before our son was born, we had purchased a set of The Narnia Chronicles, so they were his first, earthly possession. I say this to indicate from our point of view, this was a precious gift.

Our nephew opened our gift and immediately his face fell with disappointment. He threw the book on the floor and stormed off nearly in tears. The adults experienced the laughter of awkward moments. As I said, it’s become funnier with the retelling.

To be fair, he later read the book and enjoyed it, and maybe he wasn’t old enough at the time we gave it. But I suspect that many of us have that awkward, painful, and only slightly humorous gift story to tell.

Gift giving involves the transaction between two parties: the giver and the recipient. What is precious to the giver may not be precious to the recipient. If in doubt on this point, please check the gift exchange line the day after Christmas at your nearest, busiest store.

This brings me to the most important gift. God gave his only son. God had no more precious gift to give. The gift was costly beyond measure. The price included the suffering of crucifixion and death. It was costly to be a sin offering for others, and our need for the gift couldn’t be greater.

So how have your responded to this precious gift? Have you headed to the exchange line for what the world can offer in its place? Or have you received with joy and learned how precious is the gift!

—Russ Holden


The One Talent Servant

December 11, 2020

Hearing the parable of the talents is difficult (see Matthew 25:14-30). We are distanced from the cultural setting of the story. It was a world of masters and slaves. A wealthy master departing on a journey entrusts his possessions to his three slaves. He gives to each according to their ability. The relationship itself says that the possessions are not their own, and they will have to give an account.

The word, talent, is also easily misunderstood. Today, the word, talent, normally means a special ability, and I have heard quite a few sermons about using our talents (i.e., abilities). In the ancient world, the talent had originally been a measurement of weight varying between 57 to 80 pounds and then a unit of coinage. Verse 27 specifically mentions silver, although most English translations just say “money” in this verse, and the NCV inexplicably talks of gold. It’s difficult to translate into dollar amounts, but comparisons help. One talent is about twenty years of wages for a common laborer, so 5 talents, 3 talents, and 1 talent would be 100 years of wages, 60 years of wages, and 20 years of wages. The “poor” one talent man received nearly a million dollars in our currency.

Imagine burying 20 years worth of wages in silver in your field. What were the original hearers thinking as the story was told? Maybe some thought, “If I had that much money, I’d know what to do with it. I wouldn’t just bury it.”

The servants didn’t receive just a few dollars. Even the Message’s $5,000, $3,000, and $1,000 is paltry in comparison with the text. The servants received major investment capital, and economic terms describe their master’s return. He wants to “settle accounts.” The one talent man describes his master as being a “hard man.” The word refers to “being unyielding in behavior or attitude” and in this context, “demanding”. It makes hiding his talent even more difficult to understand, although I suspect we are tempted to do the same. The master calls the one talent man “wicked and slothful” or “worthless and lazy.”

What are we to learn? We have a master – God Himself, the creator of the universe. Everything we have is a matter of stewardship – our money, possessions, time, abilities, and opportunities. We take nothing out of this world except for what we “treasure in heaven.” There are no U-hauls attached to hearses. The greatest treasure we have been given is the gospel (2 Corinthians 4:7). Is not the gospel worth a million dollars to us? Will we bury it or use it to achieve gain for our master?

The question is never how much has been entrusted to us. That will in fact vary. The question is whether we are faithful. From our master’s point of view, are we “worthless and lazy” or are we “good and trustworthy”? The bottom line is stewardship.

—Russ Holden


Repent or Perish!

December 4, 2020

As Paul is explaining justification by faith in Romans, he still expects people to repent. He asks, “Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4, ESV)? So what is repentance?

One of the best ways to define repentance is to see its New Testament usage. John the Baptist commanded, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance” (Luke 3:8a, ESV). The fruits of repentance are evidenced in his answers to various groups. They are sharing food and clothing, not collecting more tax than authorized, not abusing authority, and not giving false testimony (Luke 3:10-14). In 2 Corinthians Paul teaches, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Corinthians 7:10, ESV). Grief alone is not enough as seen in the life of Judas (see Matthew 27:3-5). One author has well defined repentance as “an act of the soul which takes place between ‘godly sorrow,’ on one side, and the ‘fruits meet for repentance,’ on the other.”* Repentance is a change of mind that leads to changed behavior.

Further, repentance is linked with salvation.

No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Luke 13:3, ESV

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Acts 2:38, ESV

Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out… Acts 3:19, ESV

See also passages like Acts 11:18, Acts 17:30, and Acts 26:18-20.

For some saying repentance is necessary for salvation is troubling. For example Zane Hodges states, “Faith alone (not repentance and faith) is the sole condition for justification and eternal life.”** Yet his statement doesn’t square with the evidence of the above passages.

Faith/trust is the means to salvation as opposed to merit/works. As a means it is also a condition, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility of other conditions being revealed that are consistent with trust. Repentance obviously is consistent with trust. In fact, how can I say that I trust Jesus and God and follow their way, if I haven’t changed my mind yet about the sin in my life? We need to take Jesus’ words seriously—repent or perish!

—Russ Holden

* H.W. Everest, “Repentance—Its Nature, Conditions and Necessity,” The Old Faith Restated, I:170

** Absolutely Free!, p. 144